Rocko’s Modern Life is a classic cartoon in its own regard, but without it, the world may never have seen the likes of Phineas and Ferb, Camp Lazlo and SpongeBob SquarePants. That’s not just because Rocko paved the way for artist-driven animated series that entertained kids while also offering plenty of satire, parody, and mature jokes for adults, but because the creative visionaries who cut their teeth on the Nicktoon would go on to create the aforementioned titles. Creator Joe Murray, a sort of 90s version of today’s Dan Harmon, led a ragtag bunch of writers and animators like the late Stephen Hillenburg and Tim Hill, Jeff “Swampy” Marsh and Dan Povenmire, Mark O’Hare, Robert Scull, and Martin Olson, just to name a few. That brain trust would go on to create some of the most iconic animated properties of the last 20 years.
And then there’s the plucky upstarts and veteran voice actors who gathered together in the recording booth for Rocko. There’s the venerable Charlie Adler, who had already acted in dozens of roles over the better part of a decade before the Nicktoon ever landed on his doorstep. And of course, there’s the first major voice-acting roles for Mr. Lawrence and former stand-up comedians Carlos Alazraqui and Tom Kenny, three gents who have done very well for themselves in the business since Murray took a chance on them back in the early 90s. If that doesn’t convince you of Rocko’s Modern Life‘s powerfully influential place in animation history, maybe the phenomenal DVD set will. It not only contains every episode of the hilarious toon but it also boasts a ton of special features, many of which I’ve highlighted below. This one’s for the fans!
Season 2, Disc 2
“Trash-o-Madness” Original Pilot Version
- “The following version of the Rocko’s Modern Life pilot episode “Trash-O-Madness” was originally animated and produced in 1992 at Joe Murray Studios in Saratoga, California. Half of the pilot was animated by Rocko creator Joe Murray himself, and the rest by his very talented team of animators and assistants.”
- Rocko was slightly yellower in this version and while the opening sequence is pretty much the same, the music is wildly different.
Behind the Characters with Joe Murray (~15 minutes)
- Murray walks viewers through the drawings of each of the characters using a tablet. He draws Rocko, Heffer, Filburt, and the Bigheads, commenting on how they’ve changed over the years.
- He even pokes fun at himself in the sequence titled “Joe Murray Draws Heffer and Mumbles Stuff.” He reveals that Heffer is based on a childhood friend of his who was large, socially awkward, and really loved to eat. Heffer’s body resembles a hamburger and his mouth is kind of like a hot dog; he had a hard time getting that comparison across to the Korean animators at the overseas studio (which he had issues with over the years.) Heffer’s eyes and nostrils all have different shapes from each other.
- Murray thought a turtle would be perfect as a phobia-stricken character since he can go into and out of his shell. Filburt came about because he’s a bit of a nut. Filburt’s got an egg body and a bean head, according to Murray.
- The Bigheads were inspired by an “old, cantankerous” couple in Murray’s neighborhood as a kid; the woman was a smoker who flirted with all the boys in the neighborhood. The toad/frog designs came about because Australia was battling a cane toad infestation at the time. Murray talks about the “Leap Frogs” episode being banned for a time because of the overt sexual tones of the episode.
Season 3 Disc 2
Selected Scene Commentary by Creator Joe Murray (~30 minutes)
- In a bizarrely shot close-up, that drifts between black-and-white and color, Murray talks about the team–the cast and crew—who really worked to bring the show together.
- He drops some big names that animation fans might recognize from more recent productions like SpongeBob SquarePants, Phineas and Ferb,
- There are some very cool, very 90s behind-the-scenes video shots of the cast and crew at work, along with storyboards and more shown in the studio.
- Murray mentions “Wacky Delly” as an oft-cited episode from the third season that fans like to talk about. Murray, who doesn’t particularly like doing voice acting, talks about how much of a personal story it was for him.
- He also mentions that the laughter you hear at the beginning of “The Fatheads” show within the show is that of writer Martin Olson
- Murray addresses the meatloaf sequence in “Wacky Delly” and how it came about. They wanted to use a 50s sequence where meatloaf (with pineapples on top) was the rage, but they couldn’t get the rights. So Murray cooked the meatloaf himself and shot it on his patio. Color key supervisor Carol Wyatt’s hands and her Lee Press On Nails can be seen throughout. It was originally supposed to be a tripod shot but the 16mm film Bolex camera wasn’t cooperating, so Murray grabbed a handheld shot with it before the light faded.
- Murray cites Stephen Hillenburg and Mr. Lawrence as his favorite crews for the episodes “Bye, Bye Birdy”, which came from a story he read about a pet-sitting event gone wrong, and “Camera Shy”, a balance between silly cartoon show and avant-garde student film with gratuitous wallaby nudity.
- Two shows from Hillenburg and Mark O’Hare, “Belch of Destiny” and “Fortune Cookie”, are other favorites of Murray’s. Heffer’s belching voice was recorded by an unnamed executive, who got a bit of stage fright at the moment of recording, so he recorded it at home. The fortune cookie fortune of “Bad luck and extreme misfortune will infest your pathetic soul for all eternity” is often said to Murray by fans. The return of Really Really Big Man and his “nipples of the future” rubbed some of the network executives the wrong way; Murray used to have to give daily all-call (whole-studio) “nipple updates.” They eventually got approved, met by a roar of approval throughout the studio.
- Murray talks about his fantastic improve/ad-lib gifted cast while referencing the episode “Fish-N-Chumps”; there are some great 90s and early 00s shots of Kenny, Alazraqui, and more in session. Murray tells a fantastic anecdote about Kenny just riffing on the idea of the grizzled old sailor’s rant, which just kept going and going.
- Murray’s independent films used visual humor, little to no dialogue, and music to tell their stories, and he wanted to use that for Rocko. “Fatal Contraption” gave him a chance to do just that.
- For Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh, Murray cites the recycling episode “Zanzibar!” Murray and his first wife were ahead of the curve on recycling and pro-environmental practices. He wanted to do something with that message on Rocko without making it too preachy. By making it a musical, it could be done tongue-in-cheek while also saying something important. Still a bit of a sobering warning from more than 20 years ago that rings true still today.
“Wacky Delly” Live 2012 (~1 hour)
- Rob Paulsen leads a live-event from Los Angeles, introducing creator/actor Joel Murray, Carlos Alazraqui, Tom Kenny, Charlie Adler, Mr. Lawrence, and a young woman from the audience who makes it up on stage to be a spontaneous “stunt burper.”
- The live-read of the Season 3, Episode 10 script is delightfully unpredictable, especially as the actors reunite some 16 years after the episode originally aired.
- The script is funny enough but what’s just as enjoyable is the cast’s camaraderie (and their summoned voices) all these years later. The actors are basically live-action cartoons themselves.
- Kudos to the stunt belcher for performing in a tough spot.
- The special includes a look at the clip of “Wacky Delly” which brings the team’s ideas to life in animated fashion. It’s insane and nonsensical, and the animated executives loved it.
- A Q&A led by Paulsen follows, in which Murray talks about trying to find funding for his independent movie and connecting with Nickelodeon, who passed on his film but invited him to work in television animation. The original auditions for the voice roles were held in George Maestri’s basement. Alazraqui did Spunky first and Nick Jennings loved it; that led to him trying out Rocko’s Australian accent (and doing a Gene Wilder impression).
- It was Alazraqui’s first audition ever, recorded in an apartment kitchen; he didn’t even have an agent at the time.
- Murray was looking for stand-up comedians for the roles and that’s what he found in Alazraqui and Kenny. Alazraqui suggested Kenny for the role of Heffer and the rest is history.
- Kenny’s inspiration for Heffer’s voice was his 12-year-old nephew, who was going through puberty at the time and always laughed in the middle of telling stories.
- Lawrence and Murray talked about how difficult it was to cast Filburt, but Lawrence sent in an audition anyway. He didn’t think they’d let him voice the character since he was already writing and directing for the show. His audition lines? “My eyesight is bad, my feet hurt, and I have fiddler crabs in my stool … and that’s why it hurts when I walk.”
- It’s amazing to think that this series was the first major project for most of the cast.
- Murray says that Adler’s performance of Bev Bighead is what blew him away; his ability to do both of the Bigheads’ voices cemented it.
- Alazraqui talks about being impressed (and a little intimidated) by Adler’s intense performance. But as the veteran of the cast, he had other gigs he had to get to and often wanted to get things done as quickly as possible.
- Alazraqui admits that watching Adler and Kenny, and working with Paulsen, and other voice actors have shaped his abilities and performances over the years.
- The cast picks on Adler quite a bit, in good fun, and he says it feels like hearing the eulogy at his own funeral.
- It’s fascinating to hear Alazraqui, Lawrence, and Kenny talk about how nervous they were for their first real gigs on Rocko, especially in light of how well their careers have gone since then.
- Despite the cast trying to riff and make each other laugh during recordings, they praise Murray’s direction as an actor’s director, allowing them to explore.
- Kenny also stresses how important Rocko was as a first step for actors, writers, directors, and animators.