Friday, 3 February 2017

Rocko Action: Modern Life's Not Rubbish

In retrospect, who would launch a new children's channel in September?

Especially September 1993 when the only children's channel available on the Astra satellite had been...well, The Children's Channel. And until recently, that had only been on until 10am thanks to channel sharing in much the same way Cbeebies and BBC Four do now. I'd been sat there all summer waiting for something good to come on and now I'm off back to school, you do this to me? Children be damned, September 1st 1993 saw the launch of Sky Multi Channels, its first real step into charging for its non-sport or film programming with fifteen paid-for stations including relative newcomers UK Living, QVC, UK Gold, Discovery Channel and Ten Free Minutes Of The Adult Channel.

But most exciting of all these was Nickelodeon, an incredibly American-looking station at a time where American things were unspeakably fascinating and exotic.  A channel we now associate with mad cartoons and colourful teen comedies and yet looking back at that first schedule the first three programmes shown by the new Brit Nick were unspeakably twee British animation “James The Cat”, Bob Godfrey's evergreen “Roobarb” and sixties Mr Magoo cartoons. This was followed by “Guts”, a game show of the sort most common on Saturday mornings in the UK and presented by Peter Simon, and the well meaning but spine-splinteringly rotten “Kids Court” in which kids would be jury to extremely petty claims. The rest of the day wouldn't be much better with regular doses of things even my TV-obsessed brain can't (or wont) picture - “Rabbit Ears”, “Janosch's Dreamhour” (running time: 30 minutes) and “The Wild Side Show”.

But that’s not to say animation didn’t feature. Other than Magoo and things that were on UK kids TV a decade earlier, there was “David The Gnome”, a Tom-Bosley voiced Spanish cartoon that may have been the dullest thing ever broadcast outside of a prisoner detention centre.  But mostly it was noisy game shows and slick but not especially funny sitcoms like “Hey Dude” (kids in a dude ranch), “Salute Your Shorts” (kids in a summer camp) and “Welcome Freshmen” (kids in an Most fondly remembered (for various age-appropriate reasons) was “Clarissa Explains It All”, an achingly hip day-glo look into a teen girl's life which was smart, original and actually capable of producing a laugh. Of course it didn't hurt that Melissa Joan Hart was impossibly cute to my five years younger self. I even read the ghostwritten Clarissa column that appeared in the News of The World! (Oh yes, this existed...)

Viewers saw this slide throughout August 1993. Torture it were.

What about these exciting “Nicktoons” the promotional material mentioned? In the US, the first three cartoons to come under this banner were all launched the same day in August 1991 – “Rugrats”, “Doug” and “The Ren and Stimpy Show” – two whole years earlier! So where the bloody hell were they in the UK? Well, “Rugrats” had been bought by the Beeb who immediately put it into heavy rotation on both BBC1 and 2's children's slots from April 1993. And “Doug” appeared on Channel 4 before moving over to ITV.  The slightly more anarchic oddness of “The Ren and Stimpy Show” would find a perfect home on BBC Two's later teen DEF II block, with a same week post-midnight repeat on Fridays to freak out people just getting back from the pub. All would make it onto Nickelodeon UK in the following few months but there were clearly heavy rights issues to tackle first. And its perhaps this reason why “Rocko's Modern Life” just tiptoed in and became the first regular Nicktoon to make it onto its parent channel in this country.

Created by Californian animator Joe Murray, Rocko’s Modern Life was first broadcast in the US on September 18th 1993 – an impressive feat in the wake of all that led up to it including Murray's wife committing suicide two months prior to production – and introduced viewers Rocko, a sweet natured but exceptionally unlucky wallaby leaving the family home and making a new (modern) life for himself. The cast of characters included his idiot friend Heffer Wolfe (who in a nod to The Jerk’s Navin R Johnson fails to realise he's adopted, despite living in a family of wolves) and Filburt, a bespectacled turtle with unusually detailed OCD issues.

The tone of the series was not quite as unruly as Ren and Stimpy but undoubtedly had a more adult edge that crept under the radar. Be it the episode “Dirty Dog” in which the action is given over to the traditional old-school sitcom style adventures of Bloaty and Squirmy, two parasites living in the fur of Rocko’s dog Spunky. Or a local fast food eatery being named “Chokey Chicken”. Or there's the time Rocko gets a job at a (never mentioned but specifically implied) sex line. There's even a 1996 episode which bites the hand of professional animation where the characters create a “random humour” cartoon that becomes a smash hit, particularly an episode than consists of nothing but a stock image of a mayonnaise jar for half an hour.


When asked by network execs to add "a professional woman...with a good hook", Murray and writer / director Doug Lawrence invented the over-enthusiastic dentist Dr. Paula Hutchinson - a professional woman with an actual hook in place of one of her hands. The fact that this character later marries and has children with Filburt also points to something slightly more special than its cartoon counterparts with a level-headed approach at off-kilter topics, such as Heffer's aforementioned adoption storyline or Rocko being seduced by bored housewife neighbour Bev Bighead. A deft handling of issues with episodes often ABOUT SOMETHING whilst remembering to actually be funny.

There's allegedly a revival film on the way whilst best of DVDs recently appeared in Poundland but its a poor legacy for something that may not have been as headline-grabbing as its stable-mate “The Ren And Stimpy Show”, but is still a sharp, funny show in 2017. All 52 episodes of the cartoon are a joy to watch and watch again and certainly don’t suffer from the joyless grind of post-John K "Ren and Stimpy". (Or for that matter, 2000's “lets say they’re a gay couple and smash people’s brains in for no good reason” "Ren and Stimpy".) Even when Joe Murray steps down as executive producer after three seasons, new show-runner Stephen Hillenburg keeps things fun, no doubt picking up many valuable lessons for when it came for his own creation “Spongebob Squarepants” to appear on the channel in 1999. and watch and watch again...
Sky Multi Channels might have stiffed us on Nick At Nite, delayed VH-1 until a year later and thought Country Music Television was something we'd actually enjoy. But you finally gave us a vibrant, exciting channel full of things we'd come to adore that is still going strong and approaching its 25th birthday next year. And if Nickelodeon is never going to grow up, why should we? Modern life can be a hoot...


  1. I have no memories at all of DEF II, but upon looking it up I remember most of those shows being on... Liquid Television was on BBC2?!?

    As for Rocko, I'll always love that show. First I saw of it was when Channel 4 started showing it on Tuesday evenings (in the same block that had shown The Tick previously), then it was eventually moved to Channel 4's phenomenal Sunday morning line up... Still got a stack of videos from when we used to tape it every week!

    Didn't know much about Nickelodeon besides seeing the same logo at the end of several shows we watched - eventually our nan got cable and she'd leave the tape running on Nickelodeon all day for us (by this stage it was mostly Kenan & Kel, Are You Afraid of the Dark, Hey Arnold and Real Monsters on there). I can imagine it must've been a thrill to have Sky in the nineties though.

  2. You're bang on, Rocko was shown on Channel 4 around Summer 1994, presumably hoping for Ren and Stimpy style interest. They were hopeless with any US animation prior to The Simpsons, always starting high profile and then quickly vanishing (King Of The Hill started at 10:30pm on Fridays which seems very strange now, Mike Judge or not) I remember seeing Family Guy at 12 lunchtime in 2001 or 2.

    1. I remember staying up late for Futurama too, which debuted as the finale of their "Animation Night" (starring Adam & Joe), must've been on about 9:30pm every Friday after that I think.

    2. The mind lies!!! (a bit)

  3. Family Guy was cut to bits by C4 when they put in in a completely inappropriate slot. They even cut the titles where Stewie sings "Laugh and cry!" because they thought he was singing "Effin' cry!", so all he would sing was "Cry!" One of the most ridiculous bits of censorship ever.

    Rocko, The Tick and (John Peel fave) Earthworm Jim were great 90s cartoons with a sense of humour.

  4. Oh, this was a great post. I remember (note that this is according to a 20+ year old memory of a single viewing, which was all that I could stand) that "Kid's Court" was an old BSB programme from a few years prior, according to the endcap. Hosted by Andrew "You Have Six Seconds To Tell Mitchell & Webb Everything You Know About Undertakers" O'Connor. And those early programmes formed part of a strand called "Dawn Patrol" - I have trouble remembering the exact date of my sister's birthday every year but I can still clearly picture the terrible out-of-advert-break slide for it, which read "WE'RE BACK HOORAY" in deliberately wonky and wacky lettering over some moribund CGI.

    "David The Gnome" apparently ends with David The Gnome dying of old age along with his gnome wife, and was based on some sort of Dutch (?) picture book where the titular character was pictured naked on at least one page. Genuinely not making that up.

    "Salute Your Shorts" seems to be very fondly remembered by American viewers. I don't know why as it was so dull I can barely remember it. Maybe you have to have been sent off to one of those weird summer camp places to appreciate it.

    Rocko's Modern Life really was wonderful. The Wacky Deli episode is beautiful. Sometimes me and my sister have been known to quote "I AM THE CHEESE, I AM THE BEST THING ABOUT THIS SHOW" to each other. Actually, I'd like to mention this weird edit in one episode where something was clearly cut out before broadcast - Mr Bighead is shown as being incredibly handsome in a flashback, another character throws a ball or something and it seems it's going to hit Mr Bighead right in the mush, and obviously ruin his face... and then it just awkwardly fades out and we pick up after the flashback has ended.

    It's odd as people always go on about that motel scene (Rocko and Heiffer being mistaken for a prozzie and "john") that's on Youtube being censored but I haven't noticed anyone talk about Mr Bighead's disfigurement. If anything the censors ended up making it much worse because then your mind goes crazy as to what horrific gore it could have contained, when it's probably not any worse (or even far less nasty) than some of the self-hating gross outs of the aforementioned post-John K Ren & Stimpy.

    I remember feeling so disappointed that Nick At Nite UK never happened. Mind you Nick At Nite USA is (was?) just repeats of old American sitcoms and that, so it would have just been The Paramount Channel a couple of years early. Also I think my mum may have been the only viewer of Country Music Television.

    I've practically told you my life story here, I do apologise for waffling on like this. I'll close by saying how delighted I am to learn that Peel liked Earthworm Jim.