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Things Only Adults Notice In Rocko's Modern Life

The 1990s were a golden age of cartoons. Ren & Stimpy, Doug, Rugrats, and a wide variety of other animated classics dominated the childhoods of many. Prior to this era, cartoons were reserved for Saturday mornings — opening up the schedule to weekdays, afternoons, and even evenings created an animated renaissance. Television hasn't been the same since.

 Fast-forward to the present day, and many of those '90s kids are now adults, re-visiting those classic cartoons with their own children. But this isn't just an exercise in nostalgia — for many parents, it becomes an unintentional exploration of one's long-ago childhood innocence. Take Rocko's Modern Life. It's cute, colorful, it's about an anxious wallaby living in a wacky town full of anthropomorphic animals. It's also absolutely crammed full of adult humor. Sure, you didn't get most of these jokes when you were a child. But nowadays, you're a grown-up with taxes, clogged gutters, and a whole new understanding of the Bigheads' troubled marriage. Somehow, Nickelodeon made kids fall in love with a show full of jokes about the DMV, stale careers, and literally going to Hell — and it holds up just as well today as it did back then. Get ready for a Rocko rewatch with this look into everything the cartoon aims straight at adults.

The pains of adulting IRL

A recurrent theme in Rocko's Modern Life is the day-to-day struggle of managing life as an adult. This is, in fact, the very first theme of the show — take a moment to revisit the theme song. Yeah, that's right: The entire thing is about being dumped into adulthood as a totally unprepared pseudo-kid. Still, it's a theme that manages to go over kids' heads. After all, do you remember appreciating the true meaning of the giant, blinking "REAL WORLD" sign?

For adult viewers, Rocko's constant and very relatable struggles hit differently. Whether it's waiting in long lines at inefficient facilities like the DMV, untangling medical insurance, or dealing with the harsh realities of punching a clock to pay the bills, Rocko's Modern Life has an episode tackling whatever grown-up issue you can think of. Of course, Rocko and friends get to live in a dimension that defies physics and mortality, so one could argue they have it easier. Still, it's hard not to look at Rocko standing in line in a government building and nod in solidarity.

Mrs. Bighead is a woman with needs

Rocko lives next door to a pair of middle-aged cane toads, Ed and Bev Bighead. Mr. Bighead has a tendency to be crotchety and private, but Mrs. Bighead is much more lively and outgoing — sometimes a bit too much. She tells viewers as early as the second episode, "Leap Frogs," that she is a "woman with needs," shortly before tempting Rocko with lemonade spiked with spanish fly. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this episode was actually pulled from air.

Mrs. Bighead's amorous nature isn't confined to one banned episode, however. She spends the entire series trying to enjoy some private time with Mr. Bighead, only to fall flat — and turn to others, most frequently Rocko. Her flirtatious nature isn't pointed exclusively at any one wallaby or cane toad, however. Take a gander at "Cabin Fever," an episode in which she plays a game of strip poker with Rocko and Heffer. One hopes she and Mr. Bighead have gotten some marriage counseling and worked on their obvious intimacy issues.

Puns, double entendres, and rhymes

Rocko's Modern Life is absolutely stuffed with wordplay, from product names to episode titles. In fact, most of its episode titles, spanning all four seasons, are delightful puns, double entendres, or clever inversions of slang. Many of these sly jokes are also pretty mature in nature. Kids might be oblivious, but adults definitely aren't.

How far does Rocko's Modern Life go in terms of episode titles? Well, you've got your sounds-like-profanity titles, a la "Who Gives A Buck?" Then there are the wink-wink-nudge-nudge invocations of seemingly innocent phrases, including "Rocko's Happy Sack," "Carnival Knowledge," and "From Here to Maternity." Then there are titles like "Skid Marks," which wear their joke openly. Ew.

But Rocko's Modern Life doesn't confine its naughty wordplay to its episode titles alone. Here are a few products available for purchase in Rocko's world: Udder Delight milk, Nauseo Pork Rinds, and the Cholesterol King burger. Who are the companies putting out these fine products? Why, Conglom-O, whose slogan, "We Own You," says it all, and the unforgettably named Chokey Chicken fast food franchise. Some of these jokes are racy. Some of them are politically scathing. Some of them are simply gross. All of them, however, are going unnoticed by the average eight-year-old.

Let's talk about innuendos, baby

Rocko's life is, as the title states, a modern one. So perhaps it's only natural that this cartoon would contain so many jokes about the facts of life. Still, the sheer volume of racy in-jokes in Rocko's Modern Life is staggering, to the point that the cartoon has become somewhat infamous.

Just how far does Rocko go? Let's take a look at what happens in "Carnival Knowledge." Glimpsed while Rocko and Heffer run around a carnival is a ride operator reading an issue of '"Playslug." Later in that same episode, we see a pair of rabbits enter the Tunnel of Love, then exit the other side with dozens of baby bunnies in tow. Then there's "Road Rash," an episode in which Heffer and Rocko check into the "No Tell Motel," which boasts hourly rates. In a scene that was cut from later broadcasts, the hotel's manager says they're full up — until a light blinks and they have a "premature departure." When Rocko and Heffer tell him they'd like the room until tomorrow morning, the manager whistles in disbelief and remarks, "All night?"

Perhaps the most overt joke in the entire series occurs in "Canned." Rocko, having lost his job, briefly works as a "specialty phone operator" in a booth encouraging him to be "hot" and "naughty." "Oh baby, oh baby," he chants monotonously — only to hear Mrs. Bighead's shocked voice on the other line.

Something to get off their chests

Kids love a good body part joke. Seriously, ask a six-year-old what the funniest thing in the world is, and he'll probably say "butts." In this context, Rocko's Modern Life's many jokes about breasts, cleavage, and nipples makes sense — who doesn't laugh at Really Really Big Man's "nipples of the future," regardless of age? Still, to an adult who knows a little bit more about humanity's prurient interests, these jokes land differently.

"Sand in Your Navel," an episode that takes place at the beach, has a field day with this. When asked for help applying suntan lotion by a buxom hippopotamus, Rocko meekly obliges ... only to accidentally slip into her massive bosom in the process. Gladys does not approve: "How daaaaare you," she intones. Naturally, it happens again — only this time, Rocko runs into Gladys on the adjacent nude beach.

Then there's Really Really Big Man. Again, this dude's powers include "nipples of the future," which are frequently visible, somehow, over his costume. How do they work? They suction-cup to your eyeballs, of course! This is to say nothing of his magic chest hair, which shows visions of current events. You know, totally normal superhero stuff!

It's a cruel, cruel world

Rocko's Modern Life is absolutely loaded with dark humor. Remember Heffer? How about his family? If you've forgotten, he was adopted and raised by wolves, who were initially planning to fatten him up for supper. They ended up falling in love with him, of course, but Heffer still bears a "birthmark" of the lines delineating how they were going to carve him up.

Perhaps one of the darkest moments in Rocko happens in "To Heck and Back," an episode that sends the character to actual, literal Hell. It opens on a chicken named Karen being interviewed by an executive for a job at Chokey Chicken. The executive, apparently pleased with her, shakes Karen's hand and enthusiastically welcomes her to the company, showing her through some important-looking doors. Then the scene cuts to a meat processing plant in the back. We see a package of processed chicken go down the conveyor belt, bearing a "Karen" name tag. One can't help but wonder how many children became vegetarians after watching this scene.

Spunky is sweet, but brainless

Rocko's pet dog, Spunky, is not exactly the brightest pooch in the pack. Young viewers may take note of how silly Spunky is, but revisiting the show as an adult makes one realize how truly brainless he is. This doesn't take away from his sweet, snuggly nature, of course, but seriously: Spunky makes Patrick Star look like Albert Einstein.

From the very first episode, Spunky causes Rocko an excessive amount of grief. He's in the wrong place at the wrong time, doesn't pay attention to potential hazards, and lacks basic problem solving skills. Time and again, Spunky eats things that could kill him, including toenail clippings, random green blobs of who-knows-what from the garbage, and raw cacti.

Sound like normal dog stuff to you? We're not done. Spunky drools into his empty water bowl, forgets it's his drool, and drinks it like water — then repeats the process. While simply trying to run around the house, Spunky runs into walls and other inanimate objects. Speaking of inanimate objects, he's fallen in love with a fire hydrant. And a mop.

He might be sweet and faithful, but he's just not bright. Spunky is so dense, Nickelodeon even made a Rocko short called "How to Tell if Your Dog is Brainless."

Pushing the censors

Rocko's Modern Life constantly pushed the boundaries of censorship with briefly glimpsed visual gags. Take the many, many ways the show plays around with the world "hell." In "Carnal Knowledge," an elevator ride to "Heck" can be seen, while in "To Heck and Back," Heffer is sent to the underworld, complete with a sign: "Welcome to Hell, A friendly community." Those last two letters have been hastily painted over with "ck," barely hiding the original word. When Heffer tries to name where they are, a demon named Peaches hastily slaps his hand over Heffer's mouth and hisses, "censors!"

In addition to h-e-double-hockey-sticks, there are more than a few censor-pushing moments that get away with it by only lasting for a few frames. For example, when Rocko sees his crush, Melba Toast, in "Love Spanked," his heart throbs in and out of his chest — only it goes so far back, it comes out Rocko's rear end, and strongly resembles a certain part of the male anatomy. 

"Sand in Your Navel" contains the most overt joke about censorship of all, however. Once Rocko steps onto a nude beach, a grim-faced man in a suit literally attaches a black censor bar to his lower half.

LGBTQ themes galore

Rocko's Modern Life accomplished something truly unique among '90s cartoons by including LGBTQ themes. This is highlighted most prominently in the episode "Closet Clown." Over the course of the episode, Mr. Bighead goes from hating clowns to discovering he thoroughly enjoys being a clown himself. He experiences denial, tries to pursue a clown's lifestyle in secret, and eventually comes out to the whole town about being a clown.

They all warmly accept him, including Mrs. Bighead, who says she doesn't care what her husband is, so long as she can continue to enjoy his company. Rocko reminds Mr. Bighead that everyone has unique predilections, stating that he has one for rainbows — which, ironically, is considered disgusting, and causes the whole town to chase him off into the end credits.

To modern eyes, used to cartoons with textually gay characters like Steven Universe and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, this might seem like small potatoes. But the 2019 Netflix special, Rocko's Modern Life: Static Cling took advantage of its different era in a big, bold way: Rachel Bighead, the Bigheads' child, is revealed to be a trans woman. This storyline was created with help from GLAAD, and does a wonderful job of making Rocko's life truly modern.

Random history references

Rocko's Modern Life is full of references to history ... but they're a whole lot more morbid than they are educational. "Skid Marks" sees Rocko's car get impounded by the police, thanks to a missing gas cap, and so he has to go to — dun dun DUN! — the Department of Motor Vehicles. Just like the real DMV, there are a lot of lines to stand in, with signage overhead directing patrons to the appropriate places. Ominously, one of the lines reads "Jimmy Hoffa." Hoffa was a controversial figure of mid-century labor activism, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

"Sucker for the Suck-O-Matic" deploys an even darker reference to infamous American history. Heffer, watching TV, is seen from an angle that obscures what's happening on screen. We can certainly hear the broadcast, however, which describes a presidential motorcade rounding a corner ... and then a sudden, shocking burst of gunfire. This is an overt reference to President John F. Kennedy's assassination, which begs the question: When, exactly, does Rocko's Modern Life take place?

Roots in 1980s MTV

Older viewers, as well as those with sharp eyes and a penchant for '90's pop culture, might have noticed something Rocko-related on an entirely different channel. Interstitials, which are very short sequences aired between two programs or ads of longer duration, are often used by TV channels to establish their brand — and get jingles stuck in people's heads for decades. Many animators of '90s cartoons created animated interstitials for MTV in the '80s, including Danny Antonucci, creator of Ed, Edd, and Eddy, Fred Seibert, founder of Frederator Studios, and Joe Murray, the creator of Rocko's Modern Life.

One of Murray's pre-Rocko interstitials features a man running between buildings towards a skyscraper sized television set, while a large, yellow cow who looks very familiar floats along beside him. They run into doors at the bottom of the TV, then the cow breaks through the TV glass as he flies back towards the camera. Sound familiar? Yep, it's basically the Rocko intro. If you caught this one on your own, give yourself a major round of applause.

The theme song was composed by the B-52s

Once you've heard the sweet serenade that is the Rocko's Modern Life theme song, it's hard to get it out of your head. It underwent some changes over the course of the show, however, starting off in the first season as a decidedly tinny tune. The second season re-calibrated it into the catchy and well-produced song we know and love today. It may have sounded vaguely familiar to '90s kids, but adults were a whole lot more likely to recognize its creators: Legendary American new wave band The B-52s.

Joe Murray originally wanted the composer Paul Sumares to write Rocko's theme music, as Murray loved the theme Sumares wrote for his first show, My Dog Zero. As fate would have it, the network wanted an artist with more experience than Sumares had yet earned. Murray's second choice was Danny Elfman, a former member of Oingo Boingo who has become internationally famous as a composer of movie scores.

Once again, fate intervened, as Elfman was already booked. Eventually, the gig was handed to The B-52s, who were riding high on the wave of their big hit, "Love Shack." The rest, as they say, is history ... funky, funky history.