As a kid in the early ’90s, I ritualistically watched the Nickelodeon cartoon Rocko’s Modern Life every morning before school. Rocko is a wallaby, newly emigrated from Australia, who attempts to learn about American life with the help (and often hindrance) of his friends: a gluttonous steer, a neurotic turtle, and his faithful dog, Spunky. I hadn’t seen the show since it stopped airing over 15 years ago, but when Shout Factory announced that it was releasing Season One on DVD, I immediately felt compelled to revisit the show that had brought me so much childhood pleasure.
The result, aside from nostalgia, was surprise at how much of the show had gone entirely over my head. When I was a kid, Rocko’s misadventures—and all the wonky sound effects and grotesque bodily fluids therein—made me roar with laughter. But watching it again after all these years, I realized that Rocko was really a show about how to navigate the adult world; one that could be appreciated by kids for its slapstick humor and absurdity, but had even more to say to young adults—like me.
On one level, there’s a lot of sexual innuendo that was clearly not meant for the six-year-old crowd. Rocko and his buddies hang out at a restaurant called “The Chokey Chicken”—which, unless I’m a pervert, is a pretty clear reference to masturbation. After being canned from his job, Rocko becomes a “specialty phone operator,” where he is asked, without understanding the implications, to deliver the lines: “Oh baby, oh baby, oh baby.” And in one episode, Mrs. Bighead, the toad-lady next door, flirts with Rocko after admitting that she is “unfulfilled” by her husband.
What really struck me was the way that Rocko is—no, seriously—a really poignant critique of the materialist demands of American life. Rocko, who came to the city of O-Town to learn how to live in the “real world,” is faced with uniquely adult dilemmas: how to pay bills, how to cope with obnoxious co-workers, and—most pressingly—how to balance robust material desires with a very modest salary. (He works at Lot O’ Comics.) He tries to be a good friend and a loyal citizen, but is always screwed by capitalist pigs (generally, by the Conglom-O Corporation, whose slogan is “We Own You”), and by people less altruistic than him.
In one episode, Rocko gets talked into paying $30 to attend a carnival, only to get run over by a rollercoaster, find that the pyramid of cones he’s supposed to knock over is glued to the ground, and come out literally charred after riding the “Elevator to Hell.” In another, Rocko becomes the proud owner of a Suck-O-Matic vacuum cleaner, only to discover, after the machine sucks up his entire household, that the vacuum actually owns him. And each time Rocko sees a convincing infomercial, he mechanically dials in and buys whatever product is being offered, only to be faced with another useless and often non-working good.
The lessons imparted to the Clinton-era American audience are clear: Don’t put your faith in things, despite their obvious allure; put it in your friends, because they’re all you’ll have when everything else fails. But just as cartoons begin every episode as if the last one never happened, Rocko’s ultimate lesson is that if at first you don’t succeed, you should still pick up and try again.