'Rocko's Modern Life' comic book page drawn by Joe Murray.

Joe Murray is an American animator, best known as the creator of the children's TV series 'Rocko's Modern Life' (1993-1996), 'Camp Lazlo' (2005-2008) and 'Let's Go Luna!' (2018-ongoing). Earlier in his career, Murray tried to launch his own newspaper comic 'Zak & Travis', but didn't find a publisher. He did contribute a few pages to comic books based on 'Rocko's Modern Life', though. He should not be confused with Belgian cartoonist Joë Muray.

Early life and career
Joe Murray was born in 1961 in San José, California. His father worked for IBM. Murray always dreamed of becoming a comic artist, but his dad didn't approve. Murray's grandfather, on the other hand, was a more free-spirited eccentric. He had his own newspaper and let his 11-year old grandson publish his cartoons in one of the issues. Murray ranks among his graphic influences Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Walt Kelly, Mark O'Hare, The Fleischer Brothers, Looney Tunes and Jay Ward's 'Rocky & Bullwinkle'.

In the summer 1977, at age 16, he found a job as a caricaturist in the San Jose amusement park Frontier Village, despite having never drawn caricatures before. One day he was noticed by Frank Darien, a representative of the advertising agency of Darien, Russell & Hill. He asked Murray whether he could make a cartoon for a car advertisement. As a result, the 17-year old became a designer and resident cartoonist in a local San José paper.

Still from 'The Chore' (1989).

Early animation career
In 1981, 20-year old Murray used all his earnings to establish his own professional graphic studio, the Joe Murray Studios. He drew ads for companies like Activision, Apple, Hewlett Packard, Hyatt Hotels, IBM, the San Francisco Giants and the San Francisco Chronicle, and additionally designed greeting cards. By 1988-1989, some of his animated cartoons were shown on MTV, as bumpers in between broadcasts. One of these shorts feature a prototypical version of Heffer Wolfe, a side character in his later series 'Rocko's Modern Life'. Murray directed an animated short titled 'The Chore' (1989), in which a husband has to put the family cat outside, and finds a quite original way to do so. In the early 1990s, Murray was a director and producer on Hanna-Barbera's 'A Pup Named Scooby-Doo' (1988-1991) and a design consultant on 'Bobby's World' (1990-1998) and 'The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog' (1993).

'Zak & Travis' (1985).

Zak & Travis
At the start of his career, Murray aspired to become a newspaper comic artist. In the mid-1980s, he developed a comic titled 'Zak & Travis'. One of the main characters was an anthropomorphic wallaby named Rocko. In a 29 November 2018 interview with Vanity Fair, conducted by Darryn King, Murray explained that he was inspired by a wallaby in a zoo who was "apparently oblivious to the monkeys and elephants and general craziness around it." He recognized his own personality in the animal: trying to stay calm despite stressful circumstances. However, at the time no newspaper was interested in his comic, because Murray wanted to tell real serialized stories instead of daily gags.

Reflecting back on his comic ambitions on his personal website (on the "My Experience" page), Murray said that even though he loved creating characters, the confines of a comic strip didn't bring him joy: "I had a life that I had a lot to be grateful for. A simple life where my wife and I earned enough money as a freelance illustrator for a nice life. I turned it over, as they say." Looking back on his comic strip, Murray felt that his attempts at creating comics weren't a waste of time, since it taught him character and story development. His main character Rocko and a few others would later turn up in his animated series.

Still from 'My Dog Zero'.

My Dog Zero
In 1992, Murray directed the animated short 'My Dog Zero'. The story deals with a man who takes a dog as a pet because he believes it will get him female attention. As he tries to train it, the mutt turns out to be too stupid to learn anything. The film had a low budget and only 12 animators. Most were university students in need of some pocket money. Nonetheless, 'My Dog Zero' was finished to Murray's satisfaction. Since he didn't find a distributor, he went to the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco and managed to convince the staff to air his film along with the scheduled films.

'My Dog Zero' caught the attention of the children's TV channel Nickelodeon. They asked him to develop the cartoon into a full-blown animated series. At first, Murray was reluctant, because he disliked most children's TV cartoons at the time. He also doubted whether 'My Dog Zero' could be expanded into an entire series. He came up with another project, 'Rocko's Modern Life', assuming it was too weird to ever be accepted. As it took a while before he heard something back from Nickelodeon, he assumed they had indeed rejected it and kept working on a series based on 'My Dog Zero'. Four months later, when he had already forgotten about it, Nickelodeon suddenly greenlighted 'Rocko's Modern Life' and asked him for a pilot. Surprised, Murray instantly abandoned his plans on 'My Dog Zero' and started focusing on 'Rocko's Modern Life' instead.

In a tragic series of events, Murray's first wife committed suicide two months before the first episode of 'Rocko's Modern Life' aired. He tried to carry on, but in these circumstances it was difficult to think up comedy situations for a children's series. For a while he blamed himself, wondering whether her death could've been prevented if he hadn't been so preoccupied with working on the TV show. As he explained, interviewed by Darryn King in Vanity Fair printed on 29 November 2018: "I kind of blamed Rocko for it. Even though it was a suicide. In retrospect, I don't think that - but at the time I thought, maybe if I hadn't done Rocko she wouldn’t have done that. And there were times I would think, if this happened because of that then, well, Rocko better kick ass. This has to be good."

'Rocko's Modern Life'. Still from the episode 'Canned', 1993.

Rocko's Modern Life
The first episode of 'Rocko's Modern Life' aired on 18 September 1993. Three of the main cast members originated in earlier projects by Murray. The series' protagonist, Rocko the wallaby, debuted in his unpublished 'Zak & Travis' comic strip. Rocko's stupid dog Spunky was a remodelled version of Zero, the mutt from his animated short 'My Dog Zero'. Rocko's good friend Heffer Wolfe could briefly be seen in a 1989 MTV bumper commercial. Rocko works as an employee in a comic store. His assistant is Filburt, a neurotic turtle who often gets nauseous under stress. Rocko and Filburt regularly hang out with Heffer, an overally stupid and overweight steer who was raised by wolves. Two other notable side characters are the grumpy toad neighbors Ed and Beverly Bighead. Murray himself voiced their son, Ralph Bighead.

While his wife's death clouded the thrill of getting his own animated series on the air, Murray carried on. At least, 'Rocko's Modern Life' was fun to work on. He had an enthusiastic crew and barely any executive meddling. The most extreme and controversial series on Nickelodeon was John Kricfalusi's 'Ren & Stimpy'. Kricfalusi had constant quarrels with executives over disturbing scenes and his sluggish production tempo. Jeff "Swampy" Marsh, one of the writers on 'Rocko's Modern Life', presumed that the Nickelodeon executives probably had their hands full with Kricfalusi. Which could explain why they left the 'Rocko' unit alone. Murray could therefore run his studio the way he wanted it. In this playful atmosphere, the comedy wrote itself. It also allowed the studio to make something that was enjoyable for children and adults, but on different levels. Something comparable to Looney Tunes, Jay Ward's 'Rocky & Bullwinkle' and The Fleischer Brothers' cartoons.

Although 'Rocko's Modern Life' looks like a typical children's show with funny animals, the storylines are quite daft and feature clever social commentary. Rocko's home city, O-Town, is, for instance, almost completely controlled by a giant corporation, Conglom-O. Conglom-O wants to own every company in town and manipulates people into buying useless stuff. Some characters in the series have racist attitudes towards other species. Heffer's grandfather, for instance, hates wallabies, while the mother of Dr. Paula Hutchison is insistant that a turtle and cat should never get married. Murray added a few autobiographical elements too. Just like Heffer, he was overweight as a child. In the episode 'I Have No Son!' (1994), Rocko's neighbor Ed Bighead disowns his son Ralph, because he wants to become an animator.

But the prime reason why the series is so infamous today is its sneaky sexual innuendo. Much like the The Fleischer Brothers' 'Betty Boop' cartoons, several episodes feature naughty jokes. Some characters have bawdy names like Ned Crow-Philiac ("necrophiliac"), Ben Dova ("bend over") and Horny the rhinoceros. One restaurant is named Chokey Chicken, referring to the slang term for masturbation, "chokin' the chicken". In the episode 'Canned' (1993), Rocko takes a job as a phone operator, though obviously to adult viewers for a phone sex company. The joke gets even naughtier when it turns out Mrs. Bighead was the caller. In the unsubtly risqué titled episode 'Who Gives a Buck?' (1993), Rocko and Heffer want to buy a dog bowl. The pet shop owner invites them to take a train ride through the store, with the advice to "sit in doggy style, on all fours". In the 1996 episode 'Closet Clown', Ed Bighead has a secret desire to be a clown, but is in denial over it. His friends eventually give him a "coming out" party, in a thinly veiled allusion at coming in terms with one's homosexuality. And these are just a few of many other examples. 

Amazingly enough, only a few episodes were victim of censorship. A scene in 'Road Rash' (1994), where Rocko and Heffer check in a motel for "all night", but are mistaken for being a couple, was cut after its first broadcast. In 'Hut Sut Raw' (1994), there was originally a scene in which it is implied that Rocko accidentally mistook a bear's testicles for berries he tried to pick from a bush. In the USA, this scene was also cut after its first broadcast. A scene in 'Wacky Delly' (1996) in which the characters Sal Ami and Betty Bologna beat each other over the head with a telephone receiver was cut too. Three episodes were banned altogether: 'Leap Frogs' (1993), because Mrs. Bighead tries to commit adultery with Rocko, 'Heff in a Handbasket' (1996), in which Heff sells his soul and goes to a grim place called "Heck", and 'Jet Scream' (1993) was pulled after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks because it mocks airport security.

'Rocko's Modern Life' did well enough to last four seasons. For the final season, Murray promoted one of his animators, Stephen Hillenburg, to his new director and creative consultant. Afterwards Nickelodeon cancelled the show altogether. Murray didn't regret this decision, since it allowed 'Rocko's Modern Life' to end on a high note. As the first generation of young viewers grew up, the show found a cult following and more media notability. This was enough for a one-shot TV special to be produced, 'Rocko's Modern Life: Static Cling' (2019). Stephen Hillenburg later went on to become creator and the director of another succesful Nickelodeon cartoon show, 'SpongeBob Squarepants'. Another notable name who animated on 'Rocko's Modern Life' was Mark O'Hare.

Covers for issues #1 and #4 of the 'Rocko's Modern World' comic book series by Marvel. Artwork by Darren Auck and Gary Fields.

Rocko's Modern Life comics
Between June and December 1994, Marvel Comics released seven issues of a 'Rocko's Modern Life' monthly comic book series, featuring artwork by Darren AuckGary Fields and Matt Maley. Some pages were drawn by Murray himself. The stories were written by John "Lewie" Lewandowski and Joey Cavalieri. Between 2017 and 2019, Boom! Studios published a new comic book series based on 'Rocko', created by writer Ryan Ferrier and artist Ian McGinty. Covers were illustrated by Jorge Monlongo, Bachan and Nick Pitarra.

Camp Lazlo
In 2005, Murray found inspiration for a new animated show, despite once again suffering from personal problems during production, as he was in the middle of a divorce. The stress made him long for an animated series set in the tranquillity of nature. He loved summer camp as a child and had fond memories of 'Bugs Bunny' and 'Yogi Bear', which were often set in forests. He developed a series about a summer camp in the mountains, 'Camp Lazlo' (2005-2008), broadcast on Cartoon Network. Stylistically, the series is comparable to 'Rocko's Modern Life'. The main characters are again anthropomorphic animals in a surreal situations. The title character, Lazlo, is an optimistic spider monkey who teams up with the shy elephant Raj and the equally calm rhinoceros Clam. The campers often face off against the authoritarian scoutsmaster Lumpus the moose and his sidekick Slinkman the banana slug. A unique aspect about 'Camp Lazlo' is the coloring, which doesn't always match natural colors. 'Camp Lazlo' received good ratings, reviews and won three Emmy Awards. In 2007 a special was produced, 'Camp Lazlo: Where's Lazlo?'. But in the third season, Cartoon Network wanted Murray to have his characters appear in a McDonald's commercial. He refused, which angered the network since the fastfood multinational was one of their sponsors. Shortly after, the series was cancelled.

Let's Go Luna!
In 2018, Joe Murray created a new animated series, 'Let's Go Luna!', broadcast on CBS. In a break with his previous work, the show has a more educational tone. It follows the global travels of three child characters whose parents own a traveling performance troupe. Leo is an Australian wombat, Andy a U.S. frog and Carmen a Mexican butterfly. Episodes typically focus on one particular country, its culture and language. They are usually two part episodes set in the nation's capital.

'The Enormous Mister Schmupsle. An ABC Adventure', 1999. 

Children's books
In the early 2000s, Murray was active as a children's book writer and illustrator. He livened up the pages of Shawn Kennedy's 'Funny Cryptograms' (Union Square Co., 2002) and Court Crandall's 'Hugville' (Random House Books, 2005). Murray also wrote and drew his own children's books: 'Who Asked the Moon to Dinner?' (Tallfellow Press, 1999) and 'The Enormous Mister Schmupsle: An ABC Adventure' (Tallfellow Press, 2003). The books revolve around a boy, Isaac, his cousin Trixie and Uncle Snog and Aunt Fay.

Non-fiction works
Murray has written two instruction guides on animation, 'Crafting a Cartoon' (Watson-Guptill, 2008) and 'Creating Animated Cartoons with Character' (Watson-Guptill, 2010). He wrote the latter book because people often asked him questions about character and story development, which made him realize this was the one topic most other animation guides rarely discussed at length.

Other 2000s and 2010s animation projects
Murray has worked on various animated films and series by other studios. He was a character designer on 'The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat' (1995-1997), based on Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer's iconic cartoon cat. Murray additionally worked as storyboard artist on the 'Fairly OddParents' episode 'The Fairy Flu!/Lollygagin/Tales From The Goose Lady: The Tortoise and the Hairpiece' (1998) and as a story artist on various episodes of 'Pet Alien' (2004-2005). He received special thanks for his contributions to the Dreamworks pictures 'Shrek the Third' (2007), 'Kung Fu Panda' (2008) and 'Shrek Forever After' (2010). He was a story artist on 'The Lorax' (2012), based on Dr. Seuss' famous children's book. He additionally received special thanks for his work on the 'SpongeBob Squarepants' episodes 'SpongeBob's Big Birthday Blowout' (2019) and 'Krusty Koncessionaires/ Dream Hoppers' (2020). He was also assistant storyboard director on the 'SpongeBob' episode 'Lighthouse Louie/Hiccup Plague' (2020).

'Rocko's Modern Life' won a Daytime Emmy Award for "Outstanding Film Sound Editing" (1993), as well as an Environmental Media Award (1996). 'Camp Lazlo' received three Pulcinella Awards, for "Best Animated Series For Children" (2006), 'Best Animated Series For All Ages" (2006) and "Best Character" (Lazlo) (2006). The TV film 'Where's Lazlo?' (2007) was given an Emmy Award for "Outstanding Animated Program (For an Hour or More)", while their animator Sue Mondt won an Emmy Award that same year for "Individual Achievement in Animation". In 2008, 'Camp Lazlo' received another Emmy for "Outstanding Short-Format Animated Programs".

Recent years
On 18 September 2019, Joe Murray moved to Leuven (Louvain) in Belgium, the home country of his wife. He felt the United States were no longer an environment for his children to grow up in. He remains in contact with his animation studio in the USA, though. Murray is also active online, creating a fundraiser to launch his own animation channel, KaboingTV.com, with its first leadoff series, 'Frog in a Suit'.

Comic strip about Belgium, made by Murray after his move to the country in 2019.


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