More than 25 years ago, a highly stylized Nicktoon kickstarted the voice-acting careers of some of today’s biggest names, like Carlos Alazraqui (The Fairly OddParents), Tom Kenny (SpongeBob SquarePants), and Mr. Lawrence (SpongeBob SquarePants). It was also one of the earliest projects for behind-the-scenes creatives like the late Stephen Hillenburg (SpongeBob SquarePants), Jeff “Swampy” Marsh (Phineas and Ferb), and Dan Povenmire (Phineas and Ferb). Also featuring the already legendary actor Charlie Adler, Rocko’s Modern Life was a bit of a gamble by Nickelodeon and creator Joe Murray, who opted to bring in relatively unknown stand-up comedians to voice an everyman wallaby and his daft dog, a childlike steer, and a neurotic turtle as they attempted to navigate the modern world of the 1990s.
Now, in the 21st century, Rocko & Co. are back in the Nickelodeon-backed Netflix special, Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling. (Try explaining that to 10-year-old me.) I had a chance to chat with Murray about the new special to find out what it was like to get the original voice cast back together, assembling an animation team who could field traditional hand-drawn aesthetics (a rarity these days), and whether or not Static Cling is the last Rocko story we’ll ever see. Plus, Murray talked about his new PBS project Let’s Go Luna!, a first for the cartoon creator and a younger-skewing demographic. But perhaps most importantly, we had a lengthy conversation about the special’s character Rachel and the decision to feature her as a transgendered character who comes into conflict with her father, serving as the emotional heart of the story.
You can read what Murray had to say below, or you can listen to my review and our chat on the latest episode of the Saturday Mourning Cartoons podcast:
What is your mindset waiting to see how the world reacts to Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling? What’s that been like?
Joe Murray: It’s a little strange, because it’s been so long since we finished it. So yeah, it’s a little nerve-racking. I don’t know. I mean, from the people who have seen it already, I’ve gotten some good feedback. And I’m hoping that we stayed trued to what it was and also introduced some new things to say.
Since you mentioned it hadn’t been done for a while, what was the process like in getting this project together as far as when the idea first came up, how difficult it was to get the original cast back together, and then seeing it finally get a release date?
Murray: Yeah, I mean, it felt so long ago that they came to me. I was actually completing the pilot for a PBS show that they have on the air right now. So it was a while ago they called me, and they just floated the idea, would I be interested in doing something as a special for Rocko? And I didn’t really know if I wanted to do it. I didn’t know whether it was something that should be even approached. I felt like we said a lot with the original series, but then the more I thought about it, and I started to some of the other guys who worked on the original show. And we started thinking about the new things that Rocko could go through. So I wrote a story that I really liked. Ad I told it to Nickelodeon, and they really liked it, so they decided to move forward with it.
So it was hard to get a new crew together. We had a couple people who worked on the original show. I reached out to a lot of people who had worked on the original one, but they were onto bigger and better things. So we had to find people that were able to … Our backgrounds were all hand painted. We had to find people who were willing to paint in that style, and find an animation studio that still did hand drawn animation with a pencil and paper. And then we just immersed everybody into the Rocko culture.
We screened episodes every morning with cereal and tried to get everybody on board with what we were trying to do, so it was good. Yeah, we finished it, and it was originally supposed to have an air date, but then we thought, “Well … ” The Nickelodeon people thought maybe we could reach a wider audience, taking it somewhere else. There was already talk about what we were going to do with Netflix possibly. And so, yeah. And then we finally announced the air date, and here we are.
How was it getting the original voice cast back together though?
Murray: Yeah. Well, I had worked with a lot of them on my other shows, so I was still in touch. Tom Kenny is a close friend and Carlos Alazraqui and I go to baseball games together all the time, so they were on board. They knew about it way in advance. Charlie Adler, I always run into him, because he’s now this big time voice director in a lot of studios. And so, I always run into him, so he was great. And Doug Lawrence, I’m still close with, so it wasn’t hard to track them down. The only one that was hard to track down was Linda Wallem, who does the voice of Dr. Hutchinson. She fell off the radar, and none of us knew where she was.
And so, we finally did track her down and saw her for the first time in 20 years at the voice record, but it felt like it was just yesterday that we were all together, so it was fun. The only thing that was difficult was there was a heavy press presence at the record. So to try, and get a little bit more intimate, we tried to get as much done as we could that first day. But then I said, “Let’s go back in without press, and try and do it right.” Because it felt like everybody was putting on a show.
It probably felt like being fish behind aquarium glass, or something like that, with everybody staring at you.
Murray: Yeah, yeah. I mean, we were so used to … I mean, when we did the Rocko records, I was in the room with them. I didn’t sit behind the glass thing and talk to them through a microphone. I was there with them, and we were just all one big group. I always wanted to record ensemble, so we’d all be there together, and that’s the way that it felt like it needed to be first to do it again. And everybody just … yeah, it was fun.
That’s great to hear, too. For Alazraqui and Kenny, those were the first … the big stepping stone for what would go onto be a huge career. And you brought everybody in on this and animators that would go onto make other iconic series as well. So I think it needs to be mentioned how influential and important Rocko was to the last 20 years of animation. I think that needs to be mentioned. What are your opinions on that?
Murray: Yeah, I mean, it was a really a ripe time to be pulling people together who had the chops to be in this kind of art. So, Tom Kenny was a stand-up. Carlos Alazraqui was a stand-up, because I wanted people to do a lot of improv work. And so, I brought them in based on how funny they were and the voices they could do. And the other people, like Steve Hillenburg on the crew, I found him as an Independent animator. I met him at a film festival, where we both had Independent films. And I really wanted … I wanted something that was going to be away from the normal television that was being done, so I steered away from anybody who really worked in television at the time. So that was the same thing …
It was kind of funny that as soon as the word got out that I was starting to cast a show, I got contacted by a lot of people who were already in the industry. Like, Lucille Bliss called me, and she said, “This is Lucille Bliss, a voice legend.” And Don Adams called me and said, “This is the voice of Maxwell Smart.” And it’s really strange. So I’m like, “All right, I’m a huge fan of yours, but really, I’m looking for something different.”
So everybody that I tried to bring in were just fresh voices that had always wanted to do something. I mean, Steve Hillenburg didn’t really know if he wanted to work in television either, and we just said, “Hey, they want us to do some cool stuff on television. Let’s give it try.” And Doug Lawrence came in. He had never directed before. And then there’s a famous story with Doug, that when we were casting for Filburt, he stuck his audition tape into our box of tapes and didn’t have a name on it. And i found it and said, “This is Filburt.” And it turned out to be Doug. So then he went onto … He was Plankton on SpongeBob, and he does a lot of stuff. So yeah, I lucked out in a lot of ways.