Friday, August 12, 2022

Dan Povenmire Talks About Working on 'Rocko's Modern Life' and 'SpongeBob'

Animator Dan Povenmire has been involved with some of the biggest cartoons of the past 30 years. working on everything from Rocko's Modern Life, SpongeBob SquarePants, The Simpsons, and Phineas and Ferb.

To celebrate the launch of his brand new animated series Hamster & Gretel, /Film caught up with Povenmire. During the conversation, Povenmire talked about his career, working on several hit shows and episodes, including the iconic "Cape Feare" episode of The Simpsons and "Brian Wallows and Peter's Swallows" on Family Guy.

Years before Phineas and Ferb, Povenmire was working on Family Guy. During the show's first cancellation, he briefly worked on SpongeBob when it was already a ratings hit and a cultural juggernaut. SpongeBob had the perfect blend of absurdist, surreal humor, and a relentless sense of heartfelt optimism that instantly set it apart from other cartoons of the time. "You go from an outline and you just put two people who draw and write together in a room, and you just bounce ideas off each other and make a funny cartoon," Povenmire said, recalling the show's creative process.

Though his time as a writer there was rather short, Povenmire ended up being involved in some of the most beloved episodes of SpongeBob. From "The Fry Cook Games" to "Sandy, SpongeBob, and the Worm." Then, there's "Graveyard Shift," an episode Variety named the fifth best episode in the show's history. It is also an episode Povenmire particularly called out as a favorite. "I don't know if I've ever done anything better than 'Graveyard Shift' with the hash-slinging slasher."

The episode, of course, follows SpongeBob and Squidward trapped at the Krusty Krab late at night when the greedy Mr. Krabs decides to open a night shift. To pass the time, Squidward makes up a spooky story of a serial killer called the "hash-slinging slasher." 

"I've done a lot of TV that is as good as that, but at a certain point I watched that and I was like, 'That just works all the way through,'" Povenmire told /Film. "And then it's got one of my favorite types of gags, when something looks one way in a silhouette, and [when] it steps into the light, it looks like diametrically opposed to what you were expecting."

"Graveyard Shift" is also responsible for introducing "Nosferatu" to a whole generation of kids, as the episode ends on a brief gag involving a still image of Count Orlok from the 1922 silent film. 

"I get that lot," Povenmire said. "I had somebody tell me that shot of Nosferatu turning the lights on and off, she said it jumpstarted her OCD."

By the time Povenmire joined the crew of SpongeBob, it was already a hit for Nickelodeon, and when he joined The Simpsons, it was already a cultural mainstay. But in between those, the animator worked on Nickelodeon's first in-house cartoon production, Rocko's Modern Life.

This show was part of the second wave of Nickelodeon cartoons, following the Big Three: Doug, Rugrats, and The Ren & Stimpy Show. This meant that expectations were high, but there was also a lengthy period before the show actually made its way to its first viewers.

"We were on that show for like two years before it was on the air," Povenmire recalled. "And there was something fun about being in on the ground floor of that, and just having a ball [...] It sort of felt a little bit like working in a vacuum to a certain extent, that first season, because you're not getting it out in the air, you're not entertaining the rest of the world yet. You're just entertaining yourselves."

Though its style of visual humor resembled the other shows Povenmire ended up working on, Rocko's Modern Life stands out because of its dark social satire. The show lacked pop-culture reference overload, but instead was full of shots taken at mega-corporations, bureaucrats, and the start of late stage capitalism. Its characters were weirdos, geeks, and anyone that felt out of the ordinary in a world of that pushed the uniform. It was surreal, it was depressingly funny, and it remains surprisingly timely. The series made a comeback as a Netflix movie titled Rocko's Modern Life: Static Cling in 2019. The film brings the beloved characters back to Earth after being lost in outer space since 1996. Rocko has trouble accepting this 21st century modern life, while Heffer and Filburt embrace every aspect of new technology, social media and the endless diversity of food trucks. Rocko wholeheartedly believes that his nostalgia for the past can save him from the tortures of the modern world.

Povenmire's new animated series, Hamster and Gretel premieres on Disney XD on August 12, 2022. You can read Povenmire's interview with /Film in full at!

Stream all your favorite Nickelodeon shows old and new on Paramount+. Try it FREE at!

Originally published: August 12, 2022.

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