Nineties cartoons were pretty rad. I’m sure, though, that baby boomers will say their childhood television was the best and products of the 80’s will talk your ear off about MTV. (Legend has it they once actually played music on that channel.) Everyone has their opinion, but I’m here to tell you that your opinion was wrong. Nineties kids television. That’s where it was at.
Hey, Arnold. Run Rats. Magic School Bus. Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Are You Afraid of the Dark? This is the era that produced It Takes Two and Space Jam for crying outside.
And then there’s Rocko’s Modern Life. Perhaps you remember being a child and overhearing adults discussing adult like things, and you didn’t understand the adult talk but you could definitely identify it was adult talk. This was basically how I felt about all of Rocko’s Modern Life. It was one big adult joke that I was pretty sure was naughty but I couldn’t explain. Years later after discovering what terms like “choke the chicken” or “slap the monkey” meant, I knew my youthful intuition was not unfounded.
For those of you who don’t know, Rocko’s Modern Life follows the adventures of a wallaby (named Rocko) who doesn’t like to cause a scene and often gets stepped on (literally and metaphorically; there’s a whole episode about how short he is). His best friend is a cow who was raised by wolves and a hypochondriac turtle who is married to a cat with a hook for a hand. Kapeesh? Okay.
Because of this dirty feeling one usually got after watching an episode, I tended to shy away from Rocko; remember that I was a good Lutheran kid and shied away from terms such as “shut up” or “crotch” as well. I do, however, have some quotes tucked away in my memory: “Run! Run like the wind! Run for the bowl that screams out your name: Stinky!”
Is it possible, though, to find something a little deeper than poorly hidden adult humor and a child’s ration of fart jokes in the confines of Rocko’s Modern Life? I think so. Maybe.
One of the major themes in the show (like any sitcom really) is that you can’t control your surroundings. The standard storyline would play out where Rocko and his friends discover something, want to use the newfound thing to change their lives, work hard but humorously always end up right back where they started. This was also one of the major thorns in my side about the show because I was (still am) a sensitive little thing and couldn’t help but feel bad for Rocko every time (and it happened every time) something went awry for him. He just could never seem to win. (I’m also the person who feels bad for Tom the cat, but let’s be honest Jerry can be an asshole.)
In one particular episode, Rocko goes to a baseball game in the hope of catching a flyaway ball. Tirelessly and humorous, the group try to enjoy the event, meet their heroes and survive. By the end of the episode, Rocko somehow does come into possession of a ball and is leaving the stadium with pride at having finally achieved something (he’s a wallaby who works in the sex industry. Good times are few and far between.) And then a child appears. And the child gives Rocko big puppy dog eyes and, for whatever reason, Rocko feels compelled to give the child his prized possession. (What? Only kids can have balls? A child enters and we suddenly just have to give him everything. Here’s my kidney. Here’s my watch. Here’s my hologram Charizard. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. I’m an adult. Life has ended for me anyway.)
Later on, Rocko is at home and patting himself on the back for “doing the right thing” (again, I don’t know) and helping to make the kid’s day special. He begins to muse about the stories the child will tell one day…about the nice stranger who gave him the flyaway ball from the big game. The kid will grow up to play baseball and it will all have begun with Rocko’s good deed.
We then cut to a scene of the kid sitting on his bedroom floor, tearing the ball to shreds and eyeing the audience evilly. Credits roll. Another prime example of how modern life just sucks for Rocko. Eight-year-old Deanna begins to get upset. “That’s not fair! The little kid doesn’t even appreciate the ball! He should be more grateful! I’ve had enough of this! This stinks! I’m going to watch Wishbone!”
And, of course, it’s all true. And, of course, it’s a stupid cartoon, and we’re meant to watch it, laugh and then carry on. But moving on after devoting the past fifteen minutes of my life just didn’t sit well with me…even at that age. There had to be a reason. It never occurred to me that sometimes cartoons don’t have morals; sometimes they’re just poorly hidden adult humor and a child’s ration of fart jokes.
Perhaps I’m just really bad at letting things go, but I think, after years of careful consideration, I’ve found a lesson within the confines of this terrible, terrible show.
Rocko gave the ball away as a gift (for whatever reason). But it wasn’t really a gift. It was a paycheck. Rocko gave the ball away with the expectation that the child would grow up to love the ball as much as he had and appreciate Rocko as the hero who started it all. You give me something, and I’ll give you something is payment or quid pro quo at least. When the child refuses to live up to the expectations, who is at fault? The child? Well, no. The kid was a kid. No one had probably explained to him how important the ball was. The kid saw the ball, got a little misty eyed and Rocko caved. The fault is on Rocko for putting expectations on the kid.
Oh my gosh. Isn’t this relevant to everyday life?
How often do we as friends, spouses or neighbors give something away as a paycheck disguised as a gift? How often do we get dressed up in our best suits, smile nicely and wait to be told how good we are? I do it. Way too often. Santa doesn’t give out gifts. Santa gives out paychecks. Mr. Webster defines the term “gift” as “something that is given away to somebody in order to provide pleasure or to show gratitude.” When you give a gift, you give something away only with the hope that the receiver will enjoy it.
You are owed nothing else.
Their happiness is the reason why you give the gift in the first place.
Imagine for a minute how this misconception has led to so much unhappiness around us. Imagine how often we get worked up over our expectations of someone’s response to our good deep…how disappointed we are when they don’t do what we wanted them to do. It’s the whole back rub vs. full on sex issue.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t do any nice things for others obviously. Any good deed we do for a fellow living thing (begrudgingly or otherwise) is noble. And there will certainly be times where paychecks and quid pro quos have their place. We get into trouble when we assume that every good action we do has to be rewarded.
The thing about love is that you find someone or are given someone and you want them in your life so you try to make them happy. Likewise, they will support you and love you and want to see you happy. That’s love. It’s as complicated and as simple as that.
So the moral of the story is…don’t be a Rocko. Be stupid. Give your heart away. Care about people truthfully. Stop expecting paychecks when it’s a gift. Be kind to one another.
I don’t know. Maybe I want to validate all the hours spent watching Rocko. I am a theatre person so I know that I read into stuff too much. (“They specifically chose the lamp to be blue. Why? What was the director trying to say.” Probably that we had a blue lamp in the prop storage.) I suppose pulling good lessons out of art…or “art” is better than pulling bad lessons out. (“Rocko told me to hail Hitler.”) But then where do you draw the line. Alas, that’s a conversation for another day.
(This is the part of the story where everyone who loved the show as a child tells me how wrong I am. Bring it on.)