Rocko's Modern Life was part of the second wave of groundbreaking Nickelodeon cartoons released under the Nicktoons banner in the '90s. A satirical, smart, and surreal take on modern life at the time, it was filled with anthropomorphic animals, incredible animation, and superstar voice work, plus a lot of udders. The show was a revelation, and quickly gained cult status among animation fans.
With the announcement of a reboot this year at San Diego Comic-Con, we sat down with Nicktoons icons Tom Kenny (the voice of Heffer), Mr. Lawrence (Filburt), and the director of Rocko's Modern Life: Static Cling, Cosmo Segurson, to talk about creating Rocko's Modern Life and making cartoons in the golden age of Nicktoons.
Crafting an iconic cast of characters is always a collaboration, and for Doug Lawrence it was a nuanced and complex balancing act. "It's done in layers," he said. "The first layer you write it, storyboard it, and hope it works. The second layer is getting those voices on there and making sure that makes sense, and if you're doing that right then every layer after that makes it better. So when you finally get into the room to do the cartoons we do, we can always change things. We can make them funnier and more articulate. At least on the shows we're on, we're constantly trying to make them funnier."
Kenny agreed. "You're just trying to take your little bit that you're in charge of and make it as good as it can be," he said. "You're just trying to do good work. The first layer of the stuff we're talking about is always a strong creator. In this case that's Joe Murray, who thought of this show, these characters, and of Rocko, who definitely represents Joe and his recalcitrance about the modern world. That's it, no matter how big this stuff gets. You come to Comic-Con and you see stuff on the sides of buses, but really anything cool starts with a guy who drew it on a napkin."
Another crucial layer of the creation process is a great team, and Rocko's Modern Life had that from the start. "During the show we would do an episode a week," Kenny said. "Obviously with a series, there are idea cards up on the wall, there are storyboards, and they're chasing all the stuff around. I never had the stomach for all that."
"On a show like Rocko's Modern Life, it was premise driven," explained Cosmo Segurson, who also contributed to the original series as well as helming the upcoming reboot. "So guys like me and Doug, we would be writing the dialogue as we'd go."
He continued, "They start with a couple of paragraphs and you flesh that out. But then we're writing the dialogue, then the comedians who're doing the voices are adding so much, so it's always in flux."
Lawrence jumped in to add, "Once you know your character, you start to say, 'Oh, he wouldn't say it like that.'"
"Hopefully what happens is like a hybrid of all these people and a little bit of all of their DNA gets into it," Kenny said. "Like Cosmo says, it's all premise driven and character driven. Who are these characters? How do they react to stuff? What situations can we put them in? That really hasn't changed in like hundred of years,"
He went on: "Let's take these characters and if they're well delineated and definitive, then comedy ensues. But one of the battles is that these things can get watered down by corporate. A great thing about the Rocko resurgence is that Joe and his guys were very clear: if it's going to happen, then it has to happen in a way that's redolent of the original show, or else there's no point."
An outstanding feature of Nicktoons in the '90s was the intelligent adult humor and satire that the teams would insert into all of their work, especially Rocko's Modern Life. "We were really lucky. Joe Murray would fight for stuff and we all would," Lawrence and Kenny explained. "Back then Nickelodeon animation didn't have a big building. We were all just little separate things. So we were able to have a tête-à-tête with every executive. We talked directly to them and we could fight for our stuff. They'd say, 'Oh, this is weird. We don't want to do this.' And we'd say, 'No, it's relevant. There's a reason for this. We're doing satire.'"
"There was much more of a feeling back then of something happened and the barbarians were able to get in the castle," Kenny laughed. "It was like the inmates and the barbarians were hanging out together. You know, like Conan and the Joker."
"It was open because Ren and Stimpy was successful, and it was just starting, so they didn't know," Lawrence said, expanding on the creative freedom the team had at the time. "We'd make jokes, and their standards and practices would go, 'I don't know if this is okay.' And we'd say, 'No, no, it's okay.'"
The pair would later continue together at Nickelodeon, working to this day as SpongeBob SquarePants (Kenny) and Plankton (Lawrence) on one of the network's defining animated series. "There were less eyes on it back then," Kenny recalled. "It felt like the inmates outnumbered the guards, but now it feels like the guards outnumber the inmates."
Lawrence added, "Which is all the more reason why Static Cling is amazing."
Will you be checking out the new Rocko's Modern Life reboot? Did you love Nicktoons as a kid? Did you catch the trailer at SDCC? Jump into our comments and let us know!