Monday, June 13th, 2011

20 Years Later, Looking Back at the Twisted Genius of Ren and Stimpy

Ren and Stimpy turns 20 years old this summer, and I kicked off celebrations by watching one of my favorite episodes, Space Madness.

It opens in Ren and Stimpy’s trailer, where the duo is getting ready to watch Stimpy’s “favorite live action drama,” Commander Höek and Stimpy. Stimpy grabs his anti-gravity chewing gum and his “genuine super elastic time shorts,” and we get a unique shot from behind as the pair tunes in to the beginning of the show. From the outset, the episode toys with our sense of the real and the fictional, conflating our world with the cartoon world. It’s a hallmark trick of creator John Kricfalusi, who directed the first two seasons — one that allows him to take viewers not just to a different planet, but to something that seems like an entirely different dimension.

“It is not I who am crazy,” Captain Höek says later in Space Madness. He floats midair in a cube of bathwater, eating a bar of soap that he believes is an ice cream bar, having fallen victim to a strange cabin fever-like mental disease. “It is I who am mad.” In the world of Ren and Stimpy, there’s only one choice. You’re either crazy or mad. This stands as the show’s crucial insight about our own world: its thesis about how we perceive ourselves and interact with each another. And it makes for essential watching, even twenty years after the series premiered.

Though my mom forbade The Simpsons when my sister and I were kids, she let us watch anything we wanted on Nick. Thanks to this loophole, we spent an unsafe number of hours irradiating our brains with Captain Höek and Stimpy, Powdered Toast Man, Mr. Horse, Muddy Mudskipper, and an extended cast of the most deranged, grotesque, violent, scary, and hilarious cartoon characters ever conceived.

We loved it.

Yet even for skeptics and those whose childhood constitutions proved too weak to endure the endless quantity of hairballs, vomit, and rubber nipples, two reasons to re-watch Ren and Stimpy this summer stand out.

The first is historical. The show left a deep indentation on some part of my brain, as I found myself easily recalling from dusty childhood memory banks entire swaths of dialogue and lyrics to parody corporate jingles. Yet from the lofty perch of adulthood, it often seems like Ren and Stimpy could only have emerged from its particular cultural moment. To think of the show as a historical object reveals a world in which the metaphor of an Earth-destroying red-button still had purchase; in which the depiction of a free exchange of blood, saliva, urine, and any number of bodily fluids would give an HIV-wary public reason to loosen its collective collar; and in which those parody jingles and fake ads could constitute an actual criticism of corporatist infiltration of childhood. That is: a moment before the Global War on Terror, before political will (and actual medical advances) to address the AIDS crisis, and before everything having to do with the Internet and its infiltration of childhood.

The second and perhaps more important has to do precisely with the cartoon’s portrayals of madness, which seem equally alive in our equally-but-differently insane time. Though some of the politically subversive rhetoric seems a bit worn, Ren and Stimpy taps into the timelessly unnerving fear that even in our ordinary lives we constantly suppress a frothy brew of cruelty, sadism, jealousy, and bodily smells. In other words, we’re all pretty freaked out just beneath the surface. The show gives us an outlet for accepting that we’re all either crazy or mad, regardless of historical moment (though perhaps it’s no coincidence that Pfizer started selling Zoloft in 1991, the same year Ren and Stimpy premiered).

Not that the show’s timeless insights into the psyche were immediately evident. When Kricfalusi (or John K as he’s better known) first sold Ren and Stimpy, Nick executives were skeptical, and only ordered six episodes. They realized their mistake immediately, as college campus viewing parties and merchandise materialized across the country, while ratings ballooned to 2.2 million weekly viewers. In common parlance, the show struck a nerve. By the time the second season arrived in August 1992, the New York Times was already calling it “perhaps the most innovative, maybe even subversive, animated program in decades.” Ren and Stimpy reached a wider audience than ever expected, touching demographics that advertising executives have wet dreams about. Nickelodeon ordered 20 additional episodes.

Critics lauded the combination of rich visuals, bonkers narratives, and an ironic score of classical music, even as parents freaked out about the show’s physical violence. Meanwhile, Nick executives tried to get their heads around the situation. In an interview with Time before season two, the channel’s VP for Animation Vanessa Coffey said, "These episodes are designed to be refreshingly outrageous for at least 15 years.” But inside Nickelodeon, things got complicated. Kricfalusi — whose groundbreaking cartoon had been turned down by the major networks, including animation-friendly Fox — scrambled with his team at Spümcø to produce new shows. He had a particular creative vision and persnickety work habits that drew on traditional approaches to cartooning. More pressingly, his spats with Nickelodeon over more extreme episodes led to delays in production, and an escalation in internal tensions.

The network found a simple solution: they pushed out the creator. Barely four weeks after the Time piece, USA Today reported, “The future of Nickelodeon's cult hit The Ren & Stimpy Show is in doubt after reports that creator John Kricfalusi was ousted for failing to produce new episodes in time.” Nick owned the characters, wooed writer Bob Camp and others away from Spümcø, and started production under the auspices of Games Animation. (You can read about the saga on John K’s blog, which also features storyboards and other Ren and Stimpy materials that I may or may not have spent hours looking through).

John K’s episodes are the most psychologically dense in the Ren and Stimpy canon, and I wonder what the show would have looked and felt like had it run its course with him in charge. What I do know is that in John K’s characters are constantly on the brink of mental collapse and he does not shy away from showing what a breakdown looks like from the inside.

Take "Stimpy’s Fan Club", in which a jealousy-plagued Ren spends a three-minute monologue plotting to murder his popular pal. In several frames, we get a literal inside look at Ren’s skull, lodged behind his eyes, watching a peacefully slumbering Stimpy. A two-by-four holds up Ren’s brain, and bloody veins hang down toward a green muck. “I know it’s just one quick twist,” Ren muses as dotted lines appear over Stimpy’s midsection, “and it’s over.” But as he creeps toward Stimpy to do the deed, something short circuits. “It’s happening again,” Ren shouts, clutching his head, “my brain. My hot, stinging brain.” He screams. We don’t know what’s happening as Ren howls in an agony and the background flashes. But the moment seems at once profoundly disturbing and comic. Disturbing because Ren’s mind has taken control of his body, and comic because of the amount of tension released. We laugh because, just for a second, it seemed like the cartoon was about to turn actually dark (it still makes me weirdly nervous). It’s only when Kricfalusi pulls away that we remember that, well, it’s just a cartoon.

"Stimpy’s Invention", the episode in which the song “Happy Happy, Joy Joy” makes its appearance, depicts an inverse scenario in which Ren’s body retakes control of his mind. Stimpy looks to cheer up the perpetually grumpy Ren using a remote controlled helmet. Ren, debilitated by the device and its imperative to BE! ALWAYS! HAPPY! limps down the stairs smiling maniacally when Stimpy arrives with a record of his favorite song. Stimpy puts on the album and the two dance. But Ren escapes to the kitchen. He gleefully smashes the helmet with a hammer. The song ends in a familiar pose: with Ren’s hands around Stimpy’s neck. Ren has retaken control of his mental and emotional faculties, relieved to be angry again.

Mind and body are constantly at war in Ren and Stimpy. After John K’s departure the cartoon becomes increasingly violent, but loses much of the psychological complexity it has in its best moments. I don’t mean to take sides in an animation war, especially since some great episodes ("Ren’s Retirement" and "Insomniac Ren," among others) happen well after Kricfalusi’s departure. All I do mean to say is that Ren and Stimpy is back on Nicktoons this year, and readily available on iTunes. The show makes a fantastically rich commentary on the psyche, and definitely bears reconsideration. There’s almost too much to say about it. So if you’re not watching already, you insipid little monkey, then you’re really just a bloated sack of protoplasm.

A-J Aronstein teaches writing at the University of Chicago and blogs at The Tasty Spoonful. He lives on Chicago’s Northwest Side.

Sponsored Content
  • HerooftheBeach

    Great piece! It was only retrospect that I realized that, despite the network position and time slot, Ren and Stimpy was never really a kids' show at all. Space Madness scared the shit out of me when I was a kid, as did the episode where they buy a coffin and their friendly worm neighbor comes over for dinner. Mr. Horse, Powdered Toast Man, and everything else kept me coming back, but it was always an unusually risky show to watch back then.

    One omission, though, is R&S's short-lived and poorly received MTV revival. I actually don't know much about it except that what I've seen appears to be a sleazy and ultimately joyless show. Was John K involved? What the hell happened? (I guess I could look this up, huh?)

  • http://twitter.com/joshung Joshua Ungerleider

    I've uttered the words "I've had this ice cream bar, since I was a child" more times than a well-adjusted 11 year should. This show was one of the first things on TV that both my father and I loved. He still has a Ren & Stimpy fan club card in his wallet.

    And, to this day, there is no image freakier than a walrus in a rubber nipple hat whispering "call the police."

    A far as the reboot (which I thought was Spike, but it might have been MTV), the few episodes I saw were definitely darker, but lazier (not sure if that's the best word). There's an episode that shows a history of Ren torturing a frog, who eventually begs for death, and commits suicide. There's another where Ren & Stimpy were openly gay ("I'm the peetcher, you're the catcher" followed by Stimpy putting a catcher's mitt on his ass). Personally, I think the show was at its best when it was twisted, but still needed to make it on Nickelodeon. I think the freedom of MTV/Spike hurt it some. According to Wikipedia, Viacom had hired John K to recreated the "Ren and Stimpy Adult Party Cartoon."

    • HerooftheBeach

      @Joshua Ungerleider You're right, it was on Spike, my bad! I thought it was MTV because of the parent-child relationship MTV and Nickelodeon had, especially back in the 90s. Like I said, I guess I could have looked this up.

      Your thought about having too much freedom sounds right to me. I'm fascinated at how some creators benefit from having serious restrictions placed on what they're allowed to do, regardless of how frustrating it is for them at the time.

  • fnumbers

    Yeah, the reboot was on Spike TV, and man was it disappointing. I personally felt let down pretty hard.

  • A-J Aronstein@facebook

    @joshua some trivia about the visit to Mr. Horse in "Rubber Nipple Salesmen." The music that plays when he comes to the door is Ennio Morricone's theme to Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven." Do with that what you will…

    And on the MTV thing: Nick simultaneously aired the cartoon on its sister network during the first two seasons, when it became apparent that kids weren't the only ones watching (and for those of you who remember "Snick," R&S eventually started airing at 9:00 PM on Saturday nights on Nickelodeon's big orange couch–in part to reach an older audience).

    As for Spike–John K was brought back on by Viacom, but from what I've read, the episodes were not nearly as well received.

  • Tyler Jagel@twitter

    In the words of Cher from "Clueless": "They're way existential."

  • Bob Camp

    Thanks for the article. Of course the story is a little one sided. I was with the show from the very beginning and was not only a writer, but was deeply involved with every aspect of production including directing. In fact most of the people that finished the series were with it from the beginning. Indeed the show is John's vision but it is the great show it is because of the combined talents of the artists and writers that worked on it. And credit must be given to Vanessa Coffey who was the champion of the series from the start. Read the show credits and you will see who made Ren and Stimpy. It wasn't one person. Many of the wonderful people who worked on it are the tops in their field now directing major motion pictures and successful TV shows.
    As for the Spike shows I haven't seen them and don't care to.

    • yahboiiLilchickenwing91

      Fuck you Bob Camp. You should have sided with John K.

  • JenW

    I was 17 when Ren and Stimpy premiered, and I fell in love instantly. I haven't seen it in many years, but this article has prompted me to watch them again.

  • Elana Pritchard@facebook

    If anyone wants to buy some original Ren and Stimpy rough drawings, I am helping Jim Smith sell some stuff we recently framed. Mostly from Fake Dad, Space Madness, and a couple Big House Blues. You can email me at elanarpritchard@gmail.com

  • hypnosifl

    I never watched this as a kid but I checked out the DVD set a few years ago, I thought the show had a lot of inspired moments but too many of the episodes ended up relying on body function/gross-out humor…the episodes you mentioned (Space Madness, Stimpy's Fan Club, Stimpy's Invention) were among my favorites, and I noticed that these eps relied more on character humor and absurdity than the typical episodes of the show.

  • Chuck Thompson@twitter

    Great article. Ren & Stimpy's probably the second most important TV cartoon of the 90's after The Simpsons. People take them for granted now but those shows pushed the bar way up for TV animation, which was mostly 30-minute action figure commercials at the time.

    The early Ren & Stimpy's, especially Stimpy's Invention, hit like a bolt of lightning and must have been a hard standard to live up to. I'm not sure if they should have continued the show without the creator, but many of the best artists remained after he got fired and made great episodes like Ren's Bitter Half and Stimpy's Cartoon Show.

    As for the 2003 "adult" Ren & Stimpy there's only one really great one and it's Ren Seeks Help, about Ren's psychopathic childhood. It's violent, dark (almost unsettling) and different from the original show. The "Lost Episodes" DVD set is worth renting just for that one. The rest of the episodes are more uneven. I was really excited for new Ren & Stimpy with the return of the show's creator, but the show was not managed in a way that could have possibly let it succeed.

  • NK

    A few factual corrections:

    – Nick was enthusiastic about the trailer and ordered 13 episodes, but Kricfalusi only delivered 6 by the time the 7th needed to air. They then ordered another batch of 13, but fired Kricfalusi before he could finish the entire batch of 7+13, ending with the first season of six episodes and the second season of 12/13 episodes.

    • NK

      @NK replace "trailer" with "pilot"

  • Thad Komorowski@facebook

    Actually, NK is wrong. The original order for the first season was always only for six. In season two, Nickelodeon ordered twenty, but scaled back to thirteen due to 'overcommitment'.

  • ArtisDead

    With my son and daughter, now in their 20s, respectively struggling towards adulthood (one as a Latin American History major and one as a strip-club cocktail waitress) I must give credit where it's due to Ren, Stimpy and The Angry Beavers impact on their young minds.

    These characters provided them an enjoyable and apparently acceptable framework for openly expressing their dissatisfaction with their mother and I, and allowed our family a shameless ease in discussing anything scatological, gaseous or irreverent. Heifer from 'Rocko's Modern Life' was a big influence as well – so sweetly comfortable, forthright and blunt in his "heiferness"!

    I must admit though, I sometimes wonder whether Nickleodeon's early 90s line-up of shows, featuring parents and "authority figures" as exclusively pathetic mental-midgets – often with evil and ulterior motives – might have had some influence on their childhood predilections for addressing us (as well as their teachers and psychiatrists) as assholes and shitheads with such ease, and at such early ages.

    Of course there were several non-Nickleodeon programs – 'South Park' and 'The Simpsons' stand out especially – which are due their respective credit in their contributions to my kids early childhood social development – as did HBOs late-night 'Tales From The Crypt'Cryptkeeper character (MY KIDS NEVER SLEPT).

    But Ren & Stimpy were THE family favorites, and driving by Spümcø Studios/headquarters regularly on the way to drop the kids off at Burbank Airport for their every-other-weekend schlepp back and forth to Phoenix after their mom and I divorced, will always remain a cherished family ritual and memory (along with getting stuck in the middle of the OJ Simpson runaway chase on the 405.)

  • Terry Wilson

    Does anyone know the name of the Nickleodeon producer who was put in place beside Vanessa Coffey. He or she wanted John K. out and the tone of the show changed? I'd love to see if this idiot is still in television.

  • http://www.facebook.com/samy.thomas.71 Samy Thomas

    screw u nick ive been tryin to say this but the damn website wont letme!!! even thou im 14 i havent been able to watch some sick twisted television series known as ren and stimpy man i wish i was there those times i actually READ THIS WHOLE THING ive been tyin to look up everything about the show beacause it happens to be my most favorite nictoons show………….(basicly 90's rule future sucks…kinda:D