"Rocko" creator Joe Murray recently spoke to Motherboard about the future.
Image: Nick Animation Studio
"This is a leaf from some kind of tree," says the tour guide, standing in a parking lot with a couple dressed up for a hike.
"Hold it! I gotta get a shot of that," says the cameraman of the couple, leaning in for a snap.
"I just love nature," his partner sighs, content to have finally touched the great outdoors.
That exchange, one of the many inanities we hear while wandering around the city every day, feels rather Instagrammy and 2016, doesn't it? And yet it's from the opening scene of a December 1994 episode of "Rocko's Modern Life," which has stuck with me for 22 years. When the lifespans of memes get shorter by the month, it still feels familiar now.
I recently emailed "Rocko" creator Joe Murray on a whim to see if he'd be down to chat about the show and his obsession with the mundane complications presented by modern life, which makes the show feel more prescient than any of its programming peers. He had the delightful news to share that he's actually put a team together for an hour-long Rocko TV special, which was officially announced by Nickelodeon today, and which does not yet have a set cast or release date.
During a quick trip to NYC a few weeks ago, he invited me over to his hotel to chat about the show. Murray didn't want to give away much, but here's the gist: The special takes place in real time, with Rocko returning to the O-Town of 2016 after 20 years spent drifting about in space. Rocko has always resonated as a character because he's always struggled with whether or not buying into the latest, shiniest thing—whether modern life, really—is actually worth it.
"My work has always been to poke fun at where we are and hold up a mirror to where we are and see the insanity of it," Murray told me. "Some of the things that we're doing is just insane."
We spoke at length about the show and its view of 2016, which will be featured in an upcoming episode of our Radio Motherboard podcast. But with the announcement of the show at hand—in the spirit of questioning the convenience of technology, I'll admit that I wrote this on an ancient laptop I found under my bed at 1 AM after Joe, who generally avoids email, emailed me late last night to say the announcement was on for today—I figured it'd be fun to recount one of the most obvious challenges facing adding a new chapter to a show like "Rocko": What would it actually be like for someone to greet the current modern world after 20 years removed in space?
One thing that Murray said the special focuses on is how little freedom we have from the tech platforms we've all come to rely on. He told me about someone on the show's staff who doesn't drive and doesn't have a smartphone, both by choice, neither of which makes life in LA any easier. People tell him to take an Uber around, and are shocked when he says he can't. Point being, the need we feel to assimilate into the mass adoption of structural technologies is more fundamental than pure cultural pressure. Using the internet isn't a choice anymore, for example, which isn't something we think much about. But imagine being Rocko coming back into a world on technological rails after 20 years in space.
"Everyone's so used to doing it this way, that if you don't do it that way, you're out. You're on the outskirts. You can't participate," Murray said. "And you fight against it, and you fight against it, but eventually you have to [buy in]."
"I have an outdated iPhone that I can't even get apps for anymore," he said, laughing. "We made a joke in the new Rocko special: 'It's genius, this plan of obsolescence.'"
In the aforementioned nature episode, "Hut Sut Raw," Rocko and his cohorts Filburt and Heffer find themselves doing as they usually do: joining Rocko on a journey for an honest experience—in this case camping—before getting derailed by the virtuality of Nature-O-Rama, a domed set of faux woods replete with vending machines and a moving sidewalk. In 2016, it'd probably be branded as an "outdoors experience."
"A lot of our nature places have really become somewhere that you can't really do nature. [laughs] I don't know how else to put it," Murray said. "It's because they cater to the masses, and the masses like luxury. The masses don't like to hike [laughs] and they like their food."
I'm not entirely sure why the episode, along with the rest of the show, stuck with me, aside from Rocko being a relatable and tragic figure who's impossible not to feel for. (I also know I loved Spunky, his dog, and Rocko's shirt, which fit my sartorial sensibilities as a youngster.) But I do know that, for as amusing as I found the portrayal of the commodification of nature then, it's since influenced how I view our endless march towards a future of gleaming new technologies all promising authentic takes on the things they've replaced, such as the time Rocko couldn't find the heart to abandon an adorable puppy-like, but entirely malfunctioning food processor.
"One time we were hiking, and I turned a corner, and it looked like we were out in the wilderness—this was before cell phones—and there was a phone booth. Like do I really need to make a call right now?" Murray said. "Do I need to order a pizza to the woods?"
The show's first four seasons are not dedicated purely to future-looking topics like conservation or consumerism, but episodes that do have remained strikingly current. There's a moment where Rocko, trying to buy a TV, is stuck at an electronic kiosk at a big box store that simply refuses to listen to his commands; every time he tries to buy a cheap TV known as Mr. Sensible (Murray had quite a laugh remembering that one), the kiosk's machine voice announces an upgrade. Eventually, Rocko ends up at home with a TV setup the size of his living room, which is made all the more familiar by the existential need presented by such a monstrosity (VHS tapes aside) to jack into an endless IV drip of content. Having a fancy screen with all this STUFF in it and not staring at it forever would feel like a waste, a feeling that's all-consuming today.
When I asked about that episode, Murray shared a story from a few years back when he was in talks with Turner about doing something unrelated to Rocko with Cartoon Network.
"This guy was actually saying 'we want every child to have a handheld device in their hand, even if they're out playing baseball, with Cartoon Network on it," he said, laughing. "They thought I was a pain in the ass because I said that was ridiculous. Is that really the future of our kids, to have them glued to a screen for their whole life? But it's really becoming like that."
But OK, getting sucked into a TV, literally or otherwise, is a common enough mom complaint for just about all of us that it'd be hard for a trope like that to ever feel unfamiliar. What about Snapchat? Or Harambe? Or whatever dumb meme it was that Murray and I both joked about a couple weeks ago that I can't even remember without going back to listen to the recording?
The meme isn't making it in the show because, Murray said, they hope the special will be able to stand the test of time as well as the original run did. Naturally, Rocko will have to learn how to use the internet, and apparently Filburt and Heffer both love smartphones and living in the appy ever after. I don't get the sense that Tinder makes an appearance, but Murray said he's got a couple young folks on the production team that can handle sorting all the new stuff that's popped up in the last 20 years.
The only time the show outright said that technology sucks was in an episode about an evil vacuum cleaner—there's plenty of blame to go around for that one, sorry—but it always did question whether adding another gadget or another convenience or another high-tech sensor to a dog bowl was really worth it. We talk a lot about the Internet of Shit these days, because a wi-fi enabled toaster seems downright silly. But considering "Rocko" more or less predicted the whole phenomenon 20 years ago, I wonder if the clutter of technowizardry filling up our shelves isn't what we've wanted all along.
The quickened pace of change of technology has increased the pace of change for the platforms on which we interface with culture; it is doubtless that our touchstones are fading in and out of vogue faster than they once did, just as our attention spans have decreased. Which is fueling the other?
Murray relayed an anecdote about one of his kids asking why, after having finishing seeing all the episodes of a show on Netflix or somesuch, the studio wasn't making more. "That show ended years ago," he said he told her. "Sorry, just because you discovered it now doesn't mean that they're going to make more all of a sudden."
It's an interesting point to make considering Murray is about to bring back, at least for an hour, a well-beloved show that never lost its stride before getting the axe. Consider that, while MySpace, GeoCities, AOL, Yahoo! and god knows what else have all come and faded in the last couple decades, food processors are still around! The web economy is more ephemeral than we often remember. Can we even make lasting commentaries on the state of technology today? We'll find out soon enough.