The Rocko's Modern Life FAQ

Lisa (Kiczuk) Trainor interviews Joe Murray, creator of Rocko's Modern Life

A huge thank you goes out to Joe Murray for allowing me to interview him!

Now, on with the interview!

September 17, 1997

LK: What was your favorite episode, and why?

JM: I have a few favorite episodes for different reasons, and some don't always appear on the screen. First, "Who's for Dinner" (first season). A breakthrough episode I felt in it's content. I fought hard to get this episode on because it dealt with adoption, and how someone feels when they find out who their real parents are. The friend that I based Heffer on was adopted, and it all played into his total personality. It was also a very well written episode (Vince Callendra, Doug Lawrence, and Dan Povenmire), and the first time we used the Wolfe family, who could support a show of thier own.

Another favorite (I am not putting these in any order) is "Belch of Destiny" (third season) Not only because this supported my theory to let kids be kids, and not get preachy, but also from the memory of Steve Hillenburg, Mark O'hare and myself rolling on the floor in tears of laughter when we heard the "Belch talking" track come back (see details below). It was a fun show to make, and brilliantly directed.

"Jet Scream" is another favorite because I related with it so much (my life was on a plane that first season, from LA to NY to Korea etc.) and the two Ralph Bighead shows "I have no son" and "Wacky Deli". Not because I did the voice of Ralph, but because they both dealt with issues we were all going through. (the directors and the writers). And "I Have No Son" had the brilliant Doug Lawrence characters, "The Fatheads", in them.

Here is the behind-the-scenes story about "Belch of Destiny":

JM: The guy who actually did the belch talking is a producer at Warner brothers. Everyone told us how great he was, so we brought him in on recording day (He claimed he could belch talk on cue). We put him up to mike.. and we all stared at him... nothing (belch fright). We bought him beer, we bought a big plate of spaghetti for him.... nothing. While we were recording Tom and Carlos, occasionally he would yell out "I'm ready!!" We would stick a new tape in...and...nothing. A very dejected, slightly soused belch talker went home that day without producing a single belch. A few days later, we recieved a tape from him that he recorded on his home equipment and that was the tape we were laughing at (and the version that is in the show). Obviously belch talking is a fine art.

LK: There is a story that Jeff "Swampy" Marsh shared with Mike Durso about "Which is funnier? Bananas or Cheese?" We would like to know, which do YOU think is funnier?

JM: Bananas. I think cheese smells funny, but I feel bananas "are" funny. I'm assuming Swamp told the whole story of the executives seriously asking us to replace the banana with cheese because they thought it was funnier. I could write a book...oh yes.

LK: How did Rocko come to be?

JM: Rocko and the other characters were living a flattened life in the pages of my sketchbooks for years while I was creating independant animated films, and illustrating for editorial and advertising. Rocko himself first surfaced as a comic strip character named Travis. I never sold the comic strip, so he went back to the stable. Heffer first appeared on an MTV Id spot I animated that ran in 1989. You can see him and his green hair flying out of a TV with the MTV logo branded on his butt.

So I was looking for funding to finish one of my films called "My Dog Zero", and I sent a copy of the pencil test to Nick to see if they would pre-buy the TV rights so I could finish it. Linda Simensky (in charge of animation development) called one day, and asked if I would be interested in turning it into a series. She told me about this Nicktoons thing they were doing (they had yet to come out). I was sceptical. I had seen TV cartoon shows, and I really wanted nothing to do with them. She told me that these were going to be different. I told her I didn't think "Zero" would work as a series anyway, but I would think about something else. I went to the library and researched Nickelodeon, and found that there attitude was different than regular TV. So I went through my sketchbooks, and developed a show that I would like to see, and most importantly I would like to do. It was very odd, and nothing like the normal stuff, and I didn't give it much of a chance. About 3 or 4 months had gone by, without ever a peep that they had even seen it, and I had forgotten about it because I was in production on my film, and suddenly Linda called and said they wanted to do a pilot. I was shocked. They were going to give me money to make this really odd show? Well, I still had little thought of it going to series, but I thought it was great that my next short film was going to be paid for. I figured the pilot was as far as this little bizarre thing was going to go. Just wait till they show this weirdness to the Executives!! I originally wrote "Sucker for the Suck-O-Matic" as the pilot, which they liked, but thought that green haired cow was a little too wierd for test audiances. I said I would rather write a new episode than do Sucker without Heffer. So I wrote "Trash-O-Madness". It was all animated by my crew in San Francisco, and I was proud to have it on my reel. When they said it was going to series, my eyeballs dropped to the floor. We later expanded the pilot to 11 minutes for the series, and if you look, you can see how Rocko changed from a small studio one film character, to a series character that needed to be drawn by 70 people in the US and over 200 in Korea.

More about the pilot episode:

JM: The pilot would have never happend without the hard work of a few people who got a bit lost in the shuffle. Nick Jennings and George Maestri were incredible in their passion to help me make the pilot great. George animated and co-produced, and Nick Jennings did ALL of the production BGs, animated and co-produced. Tom Schott was our cameraman, and he did an incredible job. I actually rented a hotel room next to the studio and Tom, Nick, George and I rotated sleeping and shooting the pilot, while another crew at ILM did other filming. Another person who did a great job was Marty Mcnamara, he co-produced, and was responsible for putting together the incredible group of animators, many of whom worked with me on Rocko, and went on to their own shows, or major projects. Thank you, thank you to them all!!

LK: What was it like, behind the scenes, working on RML? Did you all get along well?

JM: Since this was the first and only series I had ever produced, I was unaware of what the "Normal" environment was for a studio. I tried to run it as I did in my SF studio. (Very relaxed) But there were many veterens on our staff, who had been on many shows, and said there was really something special about this group. And said "it was the most fun they had ever had!". This was not my doing. We had an incredible staff, of some of the most talented in the business. Talent with egos that didn't get in the way. We all had the same goals. To put something great on TV, and have a good time doing it. We all talk fondly of that time working on the show, we miss each other (well, I'm assuming, I can say "I miss everyone") and try to get together when we can. Sometimes things just click. The one contribution I tried to do, was shield the staff from the corporate politics that occur on any show. But yes, we all got along very well.

LK: Did you stay with the show until the very last episode? Was it your choice to stop production of new episodes of RML?

JM: I wanted to answer these together, because they affect each other. And there are many elements to it.

I have never talked publicly about this, but I had a horrible tragedy happen to me two months before I started production on Rocko. There were many unresolved issues when I moved to LA to work on the show, both emotionally and physically. I felt like I left to run a marathon with my pants around my ankles. I figured I would work on a season of Rocko (because I really didn't believe it would go on longer) and then move back to the bay area and clean up the loose ends I had left hanging. Well, the show got picked up for another season,, and then another. I was preaching the hand-crafted approach to series television, which takes a lot of work, and I just got to a point where the other part of my life couldn't wait any longer. The producer gets no hiatus (break) and the job is often a 7 day a week commitment. It was a very difficult decision to make, but I didn't think I was serving the show very well. We had an incredible staff that was able to keep the show going, so I told the network that 3rd season would be my last. I encouraged them to keep the show going. They asked if I would executive produce on the 4th season, which would mean overseeing writing, approving storyboards, and still be overall responsible for delivering the show on-time and on budget. I gave the creative directing and producing responsiblities to Steve Hillenburg and Ken Kessell, who did an incredible job, and I was able to work a little less, and the 4th season was great!! Although I was going to step away completely after 4th season, I encouraged the network to keep the show going...It was on a great roll.. but they thought 52 episodes were enough, and put an end to production.

A good thing is I feel all 52 episodes are top notch, and I am proud of all of them. There is always a risk of turning out mediocre product after a while when you are dealing with volume. But our team was intact until the end, and kept up the quality! Another good thing is Steve Hillenburg is working on a pilot for a possible new series with Nick, and if it goes it will be a blessing to us all! He's the best!!

I feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to do the show, feel sad if my personal experience helped put an end to Rocko, but I really had no choice. Anyone who knows me, knows I don't walk away from a commitment, but I had a commitment to myself. Yes, there were times Nickelodeon made it more difficult than it needed to be, but there were also times they made it easier.

LK: Would you continue the show if you had the opportunity?

JM: I reserve that answer for if and when that situation ever arises. I'm onto a lot of great new things, and Nickelodeon is onto their new things. I'm drawing, animating and writing better than I've ever been before, and I love my life with my wife Carol and the excitement of our new baby!! There were times when I thought once I took care of my business, maybe I could re-establish the Rocko thing, but so much has happened, with both parties, I think it would be difficult.

Plus there is always the world's largest still-life that is waiting to be carved.

LK: You said that one of your favorite episodes is "Snowballs", "based on personal experience". Could you tell me more about that?

JM: Well, I would say that every episode of Rocko is either a personal experience of mine or one of the writers or directors. That's the way I designed the show.. and it helps in the writing. As for Snowballs, my earliest ski experience when I was 8 (At Lake Tahoe) began my terror basically because my father found some ski's at a garage sale (circa 1940's) that would be a good cost-saving measure, and probably as good or better than rentals. Wrong.

The scene in snowballs where Rocko Springs off his ski's and flies into the air actually happened to me on those ski's. And when I grew tall, my center of gravity kept shifting, and my head grew farther from the ground. After a ten year sabitical, I recently tried it again and... well... kind of liked it. But most of the episode "Snowballs" comes from the deranged and brilliant minds of Steve Hillenburg and Mark O'Hare!!

LK:There were a few episodes that flashed-back to when Rocko and the gang were younger. They each had a different story about how and where they all met. Was this done on purpose or was it just an accident?

JM: I am constantly getting letters from inconsistancies in the back stories of these characters. There was one episode (I believe it was 'Put to Pasture') where it was deliberate to change the versions of how they met. But I believe all real friends have clouded memories and their own romantic versions of the way things happened. As far as Rocko's back story, offically, he moved to America from Austrailia after he graduated from High School, but I always say that a visit to the US with his family when he was young, sparked his appetite (the trip where he met Filburt). Sometimes a director would get a little, well... loose with consistancies... and if it was working, and funny, I'd allow it. But just sometimes.

LK: Many people have this question... what is it with the "O"s (O-town, Conglom-O, etc)?

JM: Oh,, the "O" question! Well... I always got a big kick out of the businesses that were "House-O-Paint", or "Ton-O-Noodles", because their names seemed to homogenize what they sold, and strip the products of true individuality and stress volume (kind of like...some TV..ouch) and we all know, the American dream is volume!! So what better company to create volume than 'Conglom-O', and since a majority of the town worked at Conglom-O, it should be called 'O' Town. I also wanted the town to be 'anytown' USA, and I used to love sports players with a big ZERO on their back. It was funny to me.

LK: Are there any characters that you created that were not used? If so, could you tell us what they were?

JM: I don't want to say some of them, because I may use them later, but yes, there were a few. One major character was, believe it or not, Rocko's older sister. Her name was Magdalane and she had two kids. She was originally included in the presentation to Nickelodeon, but as I developed the show further, I thought if Rocko was without family in O-Town and more on his own, it would be stronger. But there is an odd story with this. In the second season, I wrote an episode where she visits Rocko, and is suffering from narcolepsy (it was called 'Wake up Maggie') Nickelodeon thought it was a bit odd, I found it touching. Anyway.. I was at a press-conference where all of the networks pitch their new seasons to the press, and I was before a tired group of reporters, and one reporter (looking for some sort of controversy) asked why I didn't have more positive female role models in my show. I said I didn't have any positive MALE role models (maybe Rocko was..kind of) and we didn't write the show to teach lessons, and plus, who uses cartoon characters as role models? Well.. after the press conference a couple of Nickelodeon executives ran up to the reporter and said they were planning on putting some positive female role models in the show and then walked over to me and said "You need to put that Magdalane character in the show and make her strong.". So I dropped her all together, and she never saw the light of day again. Understand, the network was my client, and I often did things they asked, but that whole rationale was not a way to create characters.

LK: How much of your personality is put into your work?

JM: I do not feel any artist can produce great art without putting great personality into it. It is always a piece of you that goes on the screen or the canvass. I know when a concept or character is not working it is usually because I cannot find a relatable point with it, or an aspect of my personality. And that is the reason I needed a break after doing the show to figure out where I was, and what I wanted to say, and how to say it. Sometimes a serendipitous reaction occurs when a network asks you if you have any ideas for a series, at a time when your creative flow is working in that direction. I have of course, like any artist, followed the brief and did the work to put food on the table, but my best work never derived from that. Rocko's Modern Life had me (and the other directors) all through it.

LK: What about the change in Rocko's drawing style from episode to episode? Heffer and Filburt and everyone else were basically drawn the same. But Rocko seems to change a tiny bit from episode to episode. Can you tell me why?

JM: When I was directing my independant films and Rocko pilot, my character's model sheets were mostly in my head. I did all of my own lay-outs, and the other animators would work from that. When we started doing high volume, I couldn't do all of the lay-outs. I had to teach over 200 people in Korea and 50 in the US to draw the characters. And Rocko proved the hardest to draw. So I kept re-designing him to make him more "Volume friendly" or "animator friendly". Another point I would like to share here, that only the people who worked on the pilot and my color dept know, Rocko was originally golden yellow. He was yellow in the pilot. This story reminds us all that it is still a business for the network to produce these shows, and they have a right to do this.. but about a month before the first episode was going to Korea I got a call that said a major toy company was going to refuse to license Rocko, because the color was too close to another major cartoon character that they were making a lot of money off of. The network told me I had to change the color. I fought it hard, but it is their show, and that's how it went.

LK: Could you take us through what a typical day at work was like for you and the Rocko crew?

JM: I felt like the environment on the Rocko staff was incredible. A reporter once described it as walking into a pre-school. My philosophy was, as long as we kept producing quality work and stayed on schedule, things could stay loose. So the walls were covered with whatever we wanted, some tacked, some drawn, (there were fork sculptures etc.) lots of laughter, screaming. Occasionally kids running down the halls. One of my favorite things was the tradition of using "all-page" where you could pick up the phone and you could share whatever you wanted with the rest of the crew. This would be comedy routines, impersonations of me or others, music or recorded comedy bits. The guy who recorded the dialog into the computers for animatics would sometimes put a line on speaker. You would be working and suddenly Heffer (Tom Kenny) would yell, "Electric eels were biting my butt.". When other productions began moving into the building, our production was the rebellious, kind of out of control kid. When an executive walked on our floor, it was at their own risk. As far as what others thought of working for me, I know I was very tough at times, and would storm down the hall after watching some bad animation from Korea. But overall, I feel we had a good time.

LK: Did you choose the people that did the voices for Rocko and pals? If so, are there any stories behind how any of them were chosen?

JM: Yes, I chose all of the voices. I auditioned Carlos in San Francisco, and the rest in a huge casting call in LA. I did have an idea about how I wanted them to sound, except I didn't expect Doug Lawrence's east coast nasel to be so perfect for Filburt. And Doug personally brought so much to that character. He is tremendously talented. We lucked out having him on the show.

LK: Why were there no parallel lines in Rocko's Modern Life? And why were the doors crooked?

JM: The design style of crookedness, has been my illustration style for a while, and fit in well with the Wonky bent feel of the show.

LK: What projects are you working on now?

JM: After I cleaned up some loose ends, and my wife and I did some wanderlust traveling, I sort of went back to school. I had to catch up with where creative technologies had gone since I worked on the show, did some bohemian painting,and continued research into animation, studying the masters, developing new methods, styles, character studies etc. In my opinion, I'm drawing and writing in great new directions, better than I ever have before.

I do have two somewhat major projects going on now that I'm really excited about, (and I get superstitious talking details and the relationships involved until I get closer to the finish line) But my focus right now is research, education, development and of course my new baby!

LK: When did you start drawing? What advice would you give to an aspiring animator/cartoonist?

JM: I have been drawing as long as I can remember (drawing on furniture at 3, spilling ink and paint all through my childhood years). My Kindergarten teacher told my mom I was the only student she knew at that age who drew zippers on pants and breasts on women. I feel that you are born with talents, but the zeal to persue it has to be there. I would draw everyday, and I still do (if I don't I get cranky.. not to mention I need it to keep my skills up). I know a lot of people who have a talent for drawing, but they would rather do something else. When I speak to students and they ask how much money you can make in art, as if that is a reason to persue it, I tell them to do something else. A career in art is a tough road. You have to long to do it, as if there is no other road for you. Whether you make money or not. And I, and every other artist who is fortunate enough to make a living from it, has had the tough times to weather through. Somebody said us artists have trouble with success because art is derived from struggle. I disagree with that, because truely doing your art is success, whether you make money from it or not. And commercial success is not a measure for your own art. It is only saying that your art connects with a certain market that can be exploited. Personally, there are a lot of people waiting for me to follow Rocko with a similair series because that has been a successful road. My new developments and projects may not fit into a mass commercial slot, or they may.. I don't know. I just have to work hard at it and have fun. I have gotten a bit on a soap box here. I hope it answers the question.

I'm going to wrap this interview up with some thanks. Thanks to Lisa and Pat for being wonderful interviewers and hosts. Thanks to Nickelodeon for funding and providing a home for my odd characters as well as a slot for 4 years on the air. And mostly to the viewers and fans of the show for all of their support. We had a good time writing and producing it, we are very glad there are people who relate with our odd sense of humor! I would also like to give a nod and a thanks to my high school art teacher Mark Briggs who taught me so much about my art, and the business. And my newspaper teacher Mrs. Owzarzak, I hope she is feeling okay.

Thank You.

They say all good things must come to an end.. this is it. The end of the Joe Murray interview. Thanks again, Joe, for taking the time to talk with us! Best wishes in all your future projects.

Be sure to drop by Joe's website at!

Copyright © 1997 Lisa (Kiczuk) Trainor and Joe Murray
The contents of this interview may not be reproduced in part or in full without the permission of Lisa (Kiczuk) Trainor and Joe Murray

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