Life Imitates Art: How Rocko’s Modern Life Became a Reflection of our Adulthoods

In a previous episode of The Nostalgia Roadtrip, we talked about a cartoon that premiered when we were both teenagers, and, when we look at it retrospectively, is proving to have been pretty prophetic in a lot of ways. Its jaded world view, warnings of hardships, and advice about the company you keep, is still strong and focused, even some 20 plus years after it premiered on Nickelodeon.

That show is Rocko’s Modern Life, the fourth of Nickelodeon’s “Nicktoons” lineup, and perhaps also one of its more controversial series, which will be covered as we go along.

Created by cartoonist Joe Murray and premiering on September 18, 1993, Rocko’s Modern Life centers on the life of a timid wallaby named Rocko, who immigrated to the city of O-Town from Australia, and his trials and tribulations throughout his adulthood. His constant companion is his little dog, Spunky, whose heart is in the right place but whose brain is on perpetual vacation. His other friends include Heffer, a steer adopted by a wolf family, who packs a voracious appetite and fills the role of the “slacker best friend” to Rocko, and Filburt, a neurotic, nervous, nerdy turtle with thick glasses and a whiny, nasally voice who gets wound up far too easily. Rounding out the main cast of characters are Rocko’s neighbors: the Bigheads, a married toad couple. Ed, the husband, is not fond of Rocko and always looks to antagonize him for the silliest of reasons, while Bev, his wife, is more relaxed and gets along well with Rocko and his friends.

Most episodes of the show consist of Rocko having to face a difficult situation in life, or simply wanting to enjoy life, only to have it backfire or get ruined in spectacular fashion. In one early episode, Rocko’s faced with a dilemma that many of us as adults have likely faced: he has almost no money left to himself, and his payday is not for another week. His stomach, desperate for food which he has none of, grows a pair of legs and drags him straight into the kitchen. As Rocko searches the cabinets, the camera pans to a tiny crumb sitting in one of the cabinets as a severely emaciated fly crawls up to it, and with tears in his eyes, announces “It’s… it’s THANKSGIVING!” before he promptly dies before enjoying a final meal. Likewise, a roach in Rocko’s fridge is wearing a winter cap and rubbing his limbs together in a futile effort to stay warm as he holds out a cardboard sign with “WILL WORK FOR FOOD” written on it.

It’s harder for all of us when rent and bills get in the way and we’re stuck with nothing until our jobs deem it ready to pay us again.

Despondent that there’s nothing to eat, Rocko manages to spy a newspaper ad for a new grocery store that’s having a 99% off sale, but it’s about to end in a few mere minutes. Desperate, Rocko races to the grocery store, enduring a practical demolition derby of a parking lot, an angry customer who declares the last good shopping cart his, having his mouth burst into flame from a spicy cracker, having Spunky wrapped like a piece of meat, and a very slow checkout clerk stall for time while waiting on a price check. Just when Rocko thinks he managed to get a week’s worth of groceries within his budget, the clock hits the end of the sale and the total cost shoots up to a price Rocko can’t cover, causing him to explode with rage (one of very few times the normally good natured Rocko actually gets this pissed off) and threaten the clerk to the point that the clerk meekly returns the bill back to its sale cost.


Even with all the bizarre, surreal humor, the episode reflects upon those times that we’re broke, at the mercy of a salary pay that doesn’t come when we really need it the most, and in need to food to eat, plus having to actually deal with obtaining said food (especially at affordable costs in this day and age!), as well as lousy customer service giving us the runaround.

Other episodes also deal with issues in life, such as in another episode where Rocko must go job hunting after being inexplicably laid off from another job he held. This is one issue that we’ve all had to face: you need money, and of course you’ve got to work at something to make said money. Most of the time, we work somewhere that we hate working at, and that may ring especially true for those of us working office jobs. In Rocko’s case, he applies for several positions, including a tattoo artist (wherein he gets swallowed by his client, who wanted a tattoo on the inside of his mouth), a plumber’s assistant (wherein he’s tasked with lifting the plumber’s underwear every two seconds (“Hey, could you get that? Thanks a lot.”)), a position as a “specialty phone operator” (which turns out to be a phone sex line, complete with a reminder sheet stating “Be Hot, Be NAUGHTY, Be Courteous”, and his first customer turns out to be his neighbor, Mrs. Bighead, causing them to awkwardly slam their phones back down), and finally, a position for the megacorporation in town, Conglom-O, whose motto is a good jab at most other megacorporations and their practices: “WE OWN YOU“.

“Oh baby, oh baby, oh baby!”

“WE OWN YOU” is damn right… and very topical!

To take further jabs at office work and corporate work, the main workers of Conglom-O are all the same clone of the same lizard-like character, sporting a white button-down shirt, red bow tie, and grey slacks, all seen on screens in the lobby, in a scene that pays service to modern dystopic films like Brazil. It turns out that his boss at Conglom-O would be Ed Bighead, his neighbor, who puts him into various experimental labs to test new products. As the experiments wear on, Rocko finally loses it and escapes, but not before spotting a job opening at a comic shop and immediately applying, finally landing a job that he enjoys. However, Conglom-O, being the megacorporation that they are, and basically being the center of everything in O-Town, still take center stage in many later episodes.

One of those later episodes is in the second season of the series, which begins fleshing out many of the other characters, including the Bigheads. The episode in question, the two-parter “I Have No Son!“, starts with a show-within-a-show, The Fatheads, which Rocko and his friends are fans of. When they see the name of the show’s creator, Ralph Bighead, they immediately wonder if he’s related to Ed and Bev in any way. It turns out that Ralph is their estranged son, who was pressured into joining Ed at Conglom-O, but refused and announced his decision to pursue his true love of animation, much to the shock and horror of the executive board (most of whom committed suicide by leaping out of the windows).

Ed pressures Ralph into breaking a donut as a symbol of joining the corporate world.

While The Fatheads is wildly successful and has made Ralph very wealthy, he has never reconnected with his parents since leaving home. Rocko and Filburt manage to convince him to come to his parents’ 30th anniversary party, where Ralph finally confronts his father and tells him that he will continue to pursue what he loves, but not before leaving the broken half of the donut he took many years ago at Conglom-O. When Ed sees this, he immediately believes that Ralph will join him, but Ralph tells him it’s not Conglom-O he cares about, but his parents, and he only wished his father would see that.

This episode was quite a powerful one for many reasons, but one of the biggest reasons is that it shows something we can all relate to: parents or family that put pressure on us that we don’t want or ask for, or want us to pursue a career that is practical and probably would be financially secure, rather than taking a chance in life and going after something we love to do. Ralph’s steadfast refusal to become a corporate drone and take a job that he would despise is like a call to get out and try to pursue that which you love, not that which will bring misery. It also shows that we are not all like our parents: Ed may enjoy the humdrum corporate life and steadiness of the job he holds at Conglom-O, but his son is a very creative type who needs to flourish in that, and even though Ed tries discouraging such behavior, Ralph dug in his heels and kept at it. His speech before the board is essentially his final “Fuck you” to his father for putting him down so many times.

Plenty of other topics are covered in the show. In another episode, Rocko needs to purchase new home furnishings, but can’t afford to, until he receives a new credit card in the mail. Although initially apprehensive about using a card, knowing that he can’t afford to be in severe debt, he goes to town with the card thanks to Heffer’s bad influence, of course putting himself into severe debt and at the mercy of bill collectors; the entire episode is a stab at needless materialism and excessive purchasing, which went off the rails simply because Rocko wanted to purchase a print of a painting depicting a “sad crying clown in an iron lung”.

We’re all materialistic bastards, aren’t we?

The topic of dating and looking for love is also hit upon, when Rocko lusts for his other next door neighbor, the mysterious and supposedly very beautiful Melba, but is distraught to find out that she has a boyfriend. Heffer sets him up with a personals ad (note that this is 1993; before online dating sites like OKCupid and Tinder, you’d put an ad in the newspaper or a local magazine), and while Rocko lands several dates none of them go his way, and when he finally appears on a TV dating show not unlike the American dating game show Love Connection, he somehow gets paired with Heffer, much to his chagrin.

The mysterious Melba, object of Rocko’s desire.

Other hit upon topics also include dealing with roommates and friends, the perils of bureaucracy, personal health. junk entertainment, travelling, road trips and tourist traps, and of course, plenty of pop culture references (including some for the older audiences!)

Are all the kids caught up with their Hitchcock films?

Now, it was mentioned before that Rocko was a rather controversial show, and with plenty of good reason: the show used heavy amounts of visual humor, double entendres, and lots of innuendos, most of which slipped under the radar at Nickelodeon. Examples include Spunky making love to a mop (complete with off-screen squeaky noises followed by a “FWWEEEEEE” noise, indicating he’s climaxed on the mop head), a restaurant called “Chokey Chicken” (which had to finally be changed for the final season to “Chewy Chicken” when Nick execs realized that it was a euphemism for masturbating), Heffer and Filburt playing a game called “Spank the Monkey” in Rocko’s kitchen (also another euphemism for masturbating, but in this case also a sight gag as they’re playing a board game where they have to literally spank a monkey), and, in a later cut scene, Rocko and Heffer staying at a roadside motel called “No Tell Motel” (advertising “Hourly Rates”), where the clerk is surprised to hear that they’ll be staying the whole night, but gives them a room citing “Premature evacuation!”. Take that as you will, folks… plenty of crap got past the radar!

Rocko’s Modern Life definitely hits upon plenty of topics that we as adults now are dealing with, but what makes the show so important and so true to life is that, in spite of wrapping everything in surreal animation and cartoony effects, the sardonic and jaded humor gives us a look at how life can be very fucked up, and the best we can do at times is put our best feet forward and sally forth through it all. Rocko, being such a good natured soul at times, gets trodden upon easily by Heffer, who may be a decent guy at heart, but has a tendency to take advantage of Rocko a lot. Filburt is a neurotic mess, with his nasally voice and frequent quips of “Oh, fishsticks!” and “I’m nauseous! I’m nauseous!”, but he’s more of a faithful friend to Rocko. But Rocko also is trodden upon by practically everyone he meets due to his nature. Perhaps the show is, in a way, also saying that you can’t allow people in life to walk all over you, because they’ll pretty much take you for everything that you have? With the way that Rocko gets treated, maybe the show does, in a way, tell viewers to not allow people to take such easy advantage of them. Much like it also tells viewers that the world is a pretty harsh place, and that things can and will be difficult, but you’re not the only one looking to make it in the world; the examples it shows illustrate that someone can immigrate to another nation to seek their life (Rocko is an immigrant from Australia living in the USA), or someone will defy their upbringing to make their life better (Ralph Bighead refusing to work with his father), or someone is just content with handouts and slacking off in life (Heffer, by far, has been mostly unemployed throughout the series).

As a side note, something that may have been prophesized by the series is a trend that is constantly running in the 21st century: turning every single piece of entertainment into a musicial. In one episode, Rocko and Heffer go to a movie theatre, and during the previews, we see a trailer for an upcoming film called “Garbage Strike: The Musical“, in which a group of identical looking garbage men (all fat rats) dance among piles of putrid, rotting trash, happily singing that they won’t be collecting any of it. Besides taking jabs at countless sanitation strikes in the news (a Google search will bring up dozens upon dozens of occurrences of strikes), lately we’ve been getting musicals made of nearly every single movie, book, TV series, video game… you name it, it probably has a musical. The trend has been spiraling out of control for several years now, and it’s hilarious to see that Rocko’s Modern Life made fun of the trend some 15 years before it really began taking off.

Every. Single. Thing. Is a musical.

Out of Nickelodeon’s early series, Rocko’s Modern Life is one of the most popular series. Its messages and view on life still resonate to this very day, as the once original audience of kids are now in their 20s and 30s, dealing with many of the same trials and tribulations in life that Rocko has, perhaps in a more extreme way in the 21st century versus the 1990s timeframe that the series ran in. In this day and age, we’re dealing with super high rents, inflation, even more materialism than ever before, even more junk entertainment, and salaries that just don’t cover everything we need, forcing many of us into situations that we didn’t want to be in. Granted, it’s weird to watch Rocko be able to seemingly cover nearly everything on his salary (although like us, he certainly struggled), but between then and now, Rocko has it easy. We’re now the ones dealing with modern life… and it sucks.

Posted by Robert Menes

One of the hosts. Talks super fast. Drinks too much coffee. Loves DOS games, movies, vinyls, photography, beer, Amigas, and doing shit on computers. Sometimes hacker. Makes money doing shit with computers.