Any '90s kid who grew up watching Rocko's Modern Life knows that it wasn't just a show for kids. The Nickelodeon series was peppered with PG-13 references—a parent watching this show could chuckle at things flying far over their child's head, while their kid would have to wait about 10 years for the joke to finally click. See: the episode where Rocko's neighbor, Mrs. Bighead, tries to seduce him Mrs. Robinson-style. Or the quick joke about Rocko working for a phone sex hotline.
Or "Closet Clown." In the 1996 episode, Rocko is chased by a mob for admitting he likes rainbows. Rewatching it as an adult, the hidden connotation is actually pretty overt: the entire plot is about coming out as gay. To recap: consistently-cranky neighbor Mr. Bighead sees a clown with a flat tire on his clown truck in front of his house. He berates the clown and scares him off.
The clown leaves behind a red nose, and when Mr. Bighead tries it on, he realizes he LOVES being a clown. This epiphany complicates his life—he fears people at work catching on, and has a moment of panic when his boss walks in on him trying on the clown nose in the bathroom (only to discover that his boss is actually a clown himself).
Mr. Bighead slowly, albeit still secretly, starts to embrace his identity, entertaining kids at birthday parties while lying to his wife about his whereabouts. By the end, everyone finds out Mr. Bighead is a clown and reacts warmly to his coming-out, including Mrs. Bighead, who's relieved that he hasn't been cheating.
Obviously, if this was actually meant to be about being queer, it was a pretty radical storyline to air. I wanted to know: Was this really an allegory for hiding your sexuality, or was I just diving too deep into the Rocko fan forums? I spoke with Joe Murray, the series creator, and Rob Porter, a storyboard artist and writer on the episode, if the fan theory had any legs.
"It was intentional, yeah," says Murray. “It started out in the writers' room. We had a really good time writing for Ed Bighead, who had a lot of hidden neuroses that would come out at different times. One of the writers had this idea that we make this about him wanting to be a clown."
As the idea was brainstormed some more, the writers' room (which had several openly-gay writers on staff) decided to make the episode a metaphor for being in the closet. “Once we had that anchor, it really helped guide us through Mr. Bighead’s motivations," says Porter. "The fear of hiding something deep and personal from his wife. [The] fear of creating more lies and the problems that come from creating lies. And then the sense of euphoria of getting that weight off your chest."
One of the most on-the-(red)-nose moments in the episode: Mr. Bighead yells at the clown to "go back to Scandinavia!", prompting him to hop on a bus to Oslo (in 1993, Norway became the second country in the world, following Denmark, to legalize same-sex partnerships). Another happens when Mr. Bighead's boss, after revealing his own clown identity, asks "So, what are you into? Birthdays? Barbecues? Bat mitzvahs?" maybe alluding to sexual preferences.
Of course, this was far from the first time that Rocko's Modern Life tackled some more mature themes. “With Rocko, we really tried to take social issues on—it was part of the whole structure of the show," says Murray, citing episodes that dealt with everything from adoption to racism. "But it still had to appeal to kids—it had to have a visual, cartoon-y feel and lots of wackiness. I think that because that was all happening, we were maybe able to do things that somebody else might not have been able to do.”
Murray also says that choosing a curmudgeonly character like Mr. Bighead to go through this change may have helped with the greenlighting process. "It was a definite character trait of Ed Bighead to start out being against something and then realizing that he actually likes it." Had an earnest character like Rocko struggled with his identity, the hidden meaning of the episode would be much clearer–and less funny. "I think it’s why it went over the network’s heads," says Murray.
He credits getting away with a lot of the show's jokes to Nickelodeon still being so new at the time, along with cable still coming into its own. On the heels of a hit like Ren and Stimpy, the only-adults-will-get-this parts of Rocko's Modern Life hardly raised any alarms.
“I would hope, with the amount of people who watched this–there must’ve been somebody who found a positive connection to being more comfortable in their skin,” says Porter. "I’m just really glad we could’ve done that.”
Now, over 20 years later, Rocko's Modern Life is getting a reboot, and this time, the handling of LGBTQ themes is quite different.
"There’s a definite turn in the episode that we had an advisor from GLAAD work with us closely on it so that we get it right," says Murray. "It was actually embraced by the network—they knew we were doing it, so we’ve come a long way.”
Murray says that at least two representatives of the LGBT media-monitoring organization were present for each major stage of production—from reading the outline to looking at the storyboards to viewing the final film. "They loved the way that we approached it," he says. "I’m really happy about it.”
LGBTQ rights have come a long way since the '90s, but the community still faces hurdles, and visibility in media matters just as much now as it did back then. "Closet Clown" still holds up today, and could also resonate with someone finding comfort, strength, compassion in coming out as gay or any number of sexual and gender identities.
"If somebody got something from it and it helped them in some way, you can’t ask for more than that,” says Murray. And as far as the reboot goes, the writing process has been a new experience. "It’s completely open," he says. "We’re not even trying to hide it."
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.