In July 1996, Nickelodeon aired an episode of Rocko’s Modern Life called “Closet Clown,” featuring a story of Mr. Bighead desperately trying to hide his secret identity as a clown from a town that hates these red-nosed jesters. Series creator Joe Murray confirms this was meant as an allegory for a gay person’s coming-out experience at a time when TV shows couldn’t just come out right and say it. “We were still playing by the rules, so to speak, and still trying to interject those situations [into the cartoon],” he tells EW over the phone.
With Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling, a new TV special coming to Netflix this Friday, times have changed. In the 45-minute continuation of his original series, Murray is no longer operating with restrictions and is instead inserting a prominent trans story arc for the Bighead family through the character of Rachel, EW can exclusively reveal.
Rachel, the child of Mr. and Mrs. Bighead, was known as Ralph in the ’90s cartoon and Rocko needs to find her.
The wallaby and his buddies Heffer and Filburt have been floating around in space since the original series finale. Now they’re back on earth in the events of Static Cling, but everything is different. The trio try to adapt to this new world of smartphones, food trucks, and print kiosks. One thing Rocko can’t deal with is the loss of his favorite show, The Fatheads, which Rachel created.
Mr. and Mrs. Bighead lost touch with their child, who went off on a mission of self-discovery. Thus, Rocko goes on a search to save his show and finds Rachel, now working out of a mobile Fatheads-inspired ice cream truck (as shown in EW’s exclusive clip above).
“When I started writing [Static Cling], I really started latching onto the idea of change and how society has changed and what’s gone on in the last 20 years and the development of our characters and how they would react to change,” says Murray, who returns to voice Rachel after voicing the original character for years on the show. “It felt natural, because it was not only about change, about somebody finding who they are and making that courageous choice to go through that change.”
The story line marks a strong push for more trans visibility in G-rated entertainment, which continues to grow its inclusion of LGBTQ characters. In its report card on the 2018-2019 TV season, GLAAD specifically pointed out Steven Universe (creator Rebecca Sugar debuted a same-sex wedding on the Cartoon Network series). For trans representation, Amazon’s Danger & Eggs, co-created by trans showrunner Shadi Petosky, featured trans stories and characters. (The show has since been canceled.)
Nick Adams, GLAAD’s director of transgender representation who consulted on Static Cling, tells EW over email how important it is to show LGBTQ people existing in the world. “Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling tells a beautiful — and hilarious — story about accepting change,” he writes. “The younger characters accept Rachel immediately; recognizing she’s still their friend. And while Rachel’s father is slow to accept change within his own family, even he realizes that loving your child should be unconditional. This story of inclusion and acceptance is so needed in our current climate.”
A return to Rocko “was the farthest thing” from Murray’s mind when Nickelodeon first approached him. He was proud of the work his team did on the original series and felt a lingering fear of messing that up. “I told them I needed to think about it, and I started thinking of some ideas about stories that we could do and a story that I wanted to do,” he says. Murray soon brought in Martin Olsen, another writer from Rocko‘s heyday who really took to his fresh concept. Murray, however, had one caveat for the network.
“It has to be the story that I want to do and not watered down. I was concerned about that,” he says. “I wanted it to be as strong as the show and as much satire and as much social commentary as we could do in the times that we live in now.”
Adams and GLAAD got involved in 2016 at the suggestion of Nickelodeon. “When I read the story outline, I was happy to see that Rachel’s gender was treated as a non-issue by Rocko and his friends, and that Rachel’s father finally realized that he loves and supports his daughter,” Adams writes. “I worked with the show’s creators to ensure that Rachel was drawn in a respectful way, so that her femininity wasn’t a joke. We also talked about how to portray the moment Rachel reveals her transition to the boys so that it wasn’t sensationalistic. From story outline to storyboards to animatics, to the final show, Nickelodeon kept GLAAD updated every step of the way.”
Streaming platforms have become a haven for LGBTQ representation, as opposed to traditional cable channels. Multiple showrunners behind kids programs seem to hit brick walls when it comes to what they can and can’t show on TV, due to strict Standards and Practices departments. Streaming, with subscription-based platforms, appear to be more freeing in this regard. Murray, however, says when he pitched the story for Static Cling “with Rachel in it” to Nickelodeon, the executives were all for it and meant to air the special on their branded cable channel.
“The original idea was that it was gonna be on Nickelodeon,” Murray recalls. “I don’t want to second guess what was going on through the minds of Nickelodeon, but they did the Hey, Arnold! special and then the nostalgia aspect, I don’t think they felt like they were hitting as many viewers as they could have with the Hey, Arnold! special [in 2017] and I think that’s when they started saying, ‘I think there’s more viewers out there who maybe don’t watch Nickelodeon anymore. They’re out of the demographic, maybe we can find a way of reaching them.’ And that’s when they reached out to Netflix, and Netflix was excited about it, from what I hear.” A rep for Netflix declined to offer additional comment.
Now, Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling will introduce Rachel to the world on Netflix beginning Friday.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated the special was 90 minutes long. It’s 45 minutes.