Splitsider

Monday, March 19th, 2012

A Manic Remembrance of The Ren & Stimpy Show

Today was certainly peculiar.

We all have weird, wacky lives these days. But, this morning I was talking to the set designer of Double Dare — yes, the man responsible for the physical challenges and obstacle courses — while scanning through a series of possible photographs to employ as centerpiece for my forthcoming erotica novel. So there I was with this extremely graphic and at times disturbing machination that aspires to be Salò that I have to pay attention to (contractually)… while hearing about “huge wedges of cheese we had to keep making” from the set designer on speaker phone (more on him and the rest of the gang in a few weeks).

Like I said, it’s been weird. No: Peculiar. Peculiar is the way I’ve been feeling as of late (that and completely enervated and elated constantly). Peculiar must also have been the way that Billy West felt when he was (concurrently!) voicing Ren and Stimpy, Doug Funnie, plus a treasure trove of other completely disparate characters. All the while fervently engaged in what he himself referred to as “the devil’s work,” known to us mortals as The Howard Stern Show.

West, in case you didn’t know, is kind of like our day’s Mel Blanc. He would hate me for saying that — maybe — considering his outright fealty for Blanc, the man of a thousand voices who peopled humanity’s collective consciousness with pretty much every cartoon character of the first few generations.

After the previously mentioned work, performing the voices for a slew of characters from the Looney Tunes-infused Space Jam, and regular roles (Fry, Prof. Farnsworth, Dr. Zoidberg, et al) on Futurama, West was most recently enlisted to take part in a project in which an old Mel Blanc record involving his Daffy Duck singing an opera was animated for the first time ever by Warner Brothers. West was given the task to voice Elmer Fudd in what only last month was released as “Daffy’s Rhapsody.”

I mean, the guy’s one of the all-time greats and possibly the best living voice actor. He’s what we’ve got. (Why he’s never been on The Simpsons is anybody’s guess, including West’s.)

West was probably one of the most affable interviewees I’ve spoken to thus far. Which, considering the fact that I’ve been speaking with tens of kids’ TV show magic makers, is saying a lot.

He also completely opened up to me, very quickly on, and without reservation about everything from difficulties of overcoming child abuse when he was younger and successfully getting over his substance dependency at age 35, to why even though he has absolutely nothing nice to say about The Ren & Stimpy Show creator John Kricfalusi personally, West can at the same time revere the artist on the same level as Leonardo da Vinci.

West had been friends with Andy Paley, a producer and musician who did the first Brian Wilson solo record in 1988, and was also friends with a budding young artist who we know today as John K. John was about to do a remake of Beany and Cecil at the same time of the Wilson record. Paley suggested West as a voice actor on the show, John took him in, and that was the end of that chapter.

The show ended because of some “infighting at ABC Children’s Television,” according to West. That, and he also claims that John K. has a tendency to leave any project after six episodes. When I asked him why that specific number, West replied quickly, “I dunno. 666, maybe? Maybe because he’s the Devil?”

But, hold that thought. What happened next was John K. was involved in a presentation delivered to some executives at Nickelodeon (late eighties, maybe 1990/91) on a show that would perhaps become part of the new animation block they were establishing called Nicktoons (along with Rugrats and Doug).

Vanessa Coffey, who was something of the Big Kahuna (think Spacey) regarding Nicktoons, saw the presentation and noticed two side characters she enjoyed who would become the “real retro-ey but really futuristic asthmatic Chihuahua and brain-dead cat” that at first West himself couldn’t tell apart from “microbes or mosquitoes.”

Coffey, however, saw gold in them thar hills (or Stimpy’s nose, perhaps?) and as with a similar story anent Calvin & Hobbes, two peripheral characters took the main stage.

Before continuing with the show history from the view inside the recording booth, West amplified the description of how he devised the singular voice of Stimpson J. Cat. You’ve probably already heard (and can tell instantly) that West was riffing on Larry Fine from The Three Stooges. But, according to West, there was a twist he put on it: “I sped it up to make it childlike. He couldn’t sound like a depressed old Jewish guy.”

“And the Nick people loved it.”

I’ll let West tell the rest of his story:

When I auditioned for the show, I was going to audition for the voice of Stimpy, but I was also going to audition for the voice of Ren. John had even given me a bunch of actors’ voices to listen to — Peter Lorre, Burl Ives, Kirk Douglas — and he told me that this was what he wanted for that character.

I made an audition tape for Nickelodeon and they liked the Stimpy one; when the show was about to get sold, I was in New York with John Kricfalusi and I had to go into a closet to record — there was a mop and bucket in there, Kurt Loder’s office right up the hall since Nickelodeon was under MTV Networks’ umbrella at time — and had to record back and forth both characters, and John came out and said, ‘Congratulations, you just sold the show.’ I didn’t know he wanted to do Ren; I was just glad to be working.

First impression meeting the notorious John K.:

I thought that he was just like a working class guy. There wasn’t any airs about him, no pretensions. You could tell he was really working hard and trying to get this thing going. He was very demonstrative and really emphatic. In a way, he looked troubled because he’d be brooding a lot, but I guess that was his style, his way of being.

I was doing this psychotic/psychedelic, surreal Dali stuff on Ren & Stimpy — screaming my rear end off, always screaming and yelling — and also doing this sweet little show called Doug, and then I would be doing the Stern show. I loved it, I loved kicking ass; every day was like an avalanche of comedy.

Working with John K.:

He worked you real hard. I was thinking, ‘I’m going into cartoons: Is this what it’s like? Getting the shit beaten out of you?’ Take after take of doing the same stuff over and over, but that’s how he worked.

I was an abused child, so he had no idea that he was dealing with a guy who could take any form of punishment, and I would keep doing it and doing it, screaming, take after take, with different screams.

You’d feel like you had to regroup and pull it together just to get back on mic after break. I thought my throat was going to blow out. And it did. It just made me stronger, as the proverbs go. Michael Pataki was an actor who did George Liquor, and I saw what he did to this guy: He was practically lying on the floor in the recording booth, sweating and feeling like he was going to die; and he’d say after a take, ‘How was that?’ and you’d hear from the talkback booth John Kricfalusi say, ‘You’re 95% there.’ After this Parris Island marine training.

On John K. (who had, in addition to having created the show, directed and voiced Ren for the first six episodes) getting kicked off Ren & Stimpy:

I couldn’t tell if he was pissed at me or pissed at the world. With me, it was like kicking the cat. You had to take it out on somebody. The thing was, he found me for this show, I’d worked with him before, he wouldn’t have hired me if I stunk. He didn’t do any favors for anyone; I earned my stripes.

They asked me to do Ren again because they auditioned everybody in Hollywood — all the voice people auditioned for Ren after John left, and they came back to thinking about me again and it was like, ‘Wait a second wasn’t he supposed to do it originally?’

That was not my war. That was between John and Nickelodeon. The only pressure I had was to be able to scream and yell and perform the hell out of the characters. The yelling and screaming between management and the people in charge of Ren & Stimpy continued after John left.

There are people who hate my guts because they think I stole his creation. Everybody has been so misinformed for years and years and years. There were all these people who believed that crap. That I was some kind of bad guy and left a fallen comrade, a wounded warrior. And it was no such thing as that.

I came to know John, but it wasn’t like I hung out with him all the time. He harangued me once afterwards. I was in Rochester doing a lecture on voices and somehow he got the phone number to where I was staying and called me up and gave me a hard time about it. And I said, ‘Look, if you have something better, I would consider it.’ And that was that.

What’s truly amazing about all of this is the fact that no matter where you go or with whom you speak, everybody has similar things to say about Ren & Stimpy and John K. People either seem a bit intimidated by him, or chuckle when they’re telling you a story about him. And, yet, everyone can’t stop talking about the show or the quirky creator. No matter whom I talk with, in fact, when people are explaining why their show was something special, they always make sure to mention Ren & Stimpy along with the other greats from that era.

Nick may not have been too fond of the content of The Ren & Stimpy Show, but they clearly loved how well it paid off. And no one could deny John K.’s artistry that inspires fellow animation folks today.

Also enjoying (?) a history in which he can take as long as he wants with episodes, allegedly, John K. has been lampooned by the very best. Despite the fact that he recently designed the “couch gag” for The Simpsons, there was a day back when the show did — as West had mentioned — very directly bash John for having trouble coming out with episodes on schedule.

I was stumbling drunk out of the Irish pub by my house in the snow when I received a call from an unknown number. I picked up and it was none other than the extremely friendly Mike Reiss, one of the original producer-writers for The Simpsons. Mike Reiss helped fashion the entire sensibility of the show that, perhaps more than any other, instilled in us our sense of humor and perception of the world in general. What could I do? It was freezing, it was snowing. I had him on the phone for who knows how long before he’d have to go catch his plane, and would I ever get him on the phone again?

I dashed — still inebriated, mind you — to an overhang to hide from the elements and started grilling him right then and there. Along with Reiss’ thoughts on the similarly infamous John Swartzwelder (yes, he really did leave the Simpsons office once they instituted the no-smoking rule to write his episodes at a nearby diner), we went into his feelings about Ren & Stimpy and John K.

Reiss was, by the way, not only the guy who wrote the episode with the first Ren & Stimpy/John K. barb in it (you remember: Grandpa wins an award for best screenplay in animation, and they show a clip of the Ren & Stimpy season premiere, but it says, “Episode not yet released”). He’s also immortalized as one of the animators in the crowd after Grandpa makes his acerbic speech chastising everyone for being involved in cartoons in the first place.

Reiss: “The hell with cartoons! I’m going to go write that show about the sassy robot!” I didn’t have a chance to ask Mike if he was riffing on Small Wonder there, but he did go on to tell me about the subject at hand:

I really had no interest in Nickelodeon at the time. I was too old. I was probably 35 or so. Ren & Stimpy came on, though, and it was mind-blowing. I couldn’t wait for the next week to go by to see the next episode. It was on pretty early then, maybe 8:30 [in the morning], and we’d be working on The Simpsons till, I don’t know, two or something, and I’d wake up early the next morning just to watch it. It was an event in my house.

Then I read an article where John was knocking writing in animation and we were all shocked. He said the work should be more ‘animation-driven.’

Ren & Stimpy was really just so funny. So cute. Stimpy was adorable. There was the overwrought, twisted angry man [Ren] and then there was Stimpy. Beyond being funny and being cute, it was just utterly shocking. It was an incredible Nickelodeon cartoon. It was really an amazing experience.

A friend of mine once said that the trouble with working on The Simpsons is that you can’t go home and watch it. You know all the plot turns and where it’s going, all the jokes, the ins and outs of each episode. Ren & Stimpy was so great for that, something we could watch and enjoy the way other people could watch and enjoy The Simpsons.

A show that hadn’t yet come into its groove was South Park. In some ways, perhaps, the Ren & Stimpy of its day, South Park not only also brings together childish playfulness with chaotic subversion, but its wild success helped to bring up its burgeoning network, as well as its establishing an innovative and fresh style that could only be parodied and copied from its series premiere on.

South Park animation director Jack Shih first worked on Bigger Longer & Uncut before being seen as “so spectacular that they brought me over to the show,” remaining there straight up to this current sixteenth season.

I liked the show quite a bit. And I really liked John K.’s work. The animation style — looking at it now — was pretty unique for the time, I think. You would see stuff like that at animation festivals more than you would see it on television. It’s so punchy. The use of a lot of illustrative panels as opposed to it being all one consistent animated look. Stimpy’s nose goblins: Those being a very painterly image.

John K. breaks a lot of rules in animation. I think Ren & Stimpy was one of the first times something was outside of the mold of what people typically thought ‘this is what animation should look like, this is what animation should be about, and this is who animation is for.’

The fact that Ren & Stimpy fit in that programming lineup [early Nick] is interesting to think about it when you look back on it. These days, networks are much more branded in the type of material they present and it’s more uniform. Content-wise, it still appeals to kids — not peeing on an electric fence and booger collections under the table and ice cream bars and things like that. On the surface, it seems right, but the execution of it was kind of bold for that to be on Nickelodeon.

On John K.:

I’ve never met him, but I’ve heard some things about him. That he likes to do things his own way. When you’re a creative person, I think on some level you have to be that way, otherwise everything gets watered-down. It’s kinda nice that most things I’ve seen that he’s done look very much like his work. But, I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting him.

One fellow who has had the “pleasure” of meeting John K. and who also invented his own style is indie animation guru Bill Plympton. Now, if you’ve never heard of the man, you can rest easy in knowing that you’ve definitely seen his work. Somewhere. Anywhere. On TV. In films. Music videos. Liquid Television. Film festivals. Spike & Mike. His work’s omnipresent. Has been for decades, still is.

What does Plympton think about John K. and Ren & Stimpy?

It was wacky and offensive. I loved it.

John K.’s very nice. He has his principles and sticks to his principles.

We have totally different styles.

Bob Clampett [designer of Porky Pig, Tweety, amongst many others] was his God.

He’s got a thing for butts.

Animation traditionally has not been provocative, so it’s one way to make your work stick out – by being provocative, it makes your work attractive.

Someone whose work is seemingly not as provocative as Ren & Stimpy or Plympton’s oeuvre is an old buddy of mine named Mark Osborne. I interned for the guy many moons ago when I was a youngin’ in film school, and he was at the time coming off of an Academy Award-nominated short that you should definitely watch called “More.”

Soon after, a college friend of Osborne’s from CalArts was creating a show called SpongeBob SquarePants and invited Osborne to come aboard the pilot to direct the live action “pirates and stuff.”

Osborne did so, and stayed with the show for a while, and helping with the live action sequences in the feature film, as well. His brother Kent — having written a film brother Mark directed called Dropping Out — was tapped by the SpongeBob creator (Stephen Hillenburg) to come aboard and write for the show and today works on Adventure Time.

You know Mark Osborne as the director of (Academy Award-nominated!) Kung Fu Panda, and he’s currently working on the $60m 3D extravaganza that will be the new The Little Prince. He was nice enough to not only remember me from my fledgling days, but also took the time to interrupt a family outing to a museum (where he’s producing Prince in Paris — France, not Texas) to speak with me about Ren & Stimpy.

When I was at CalArts, it was like an event whenever there was a new episode of Ren & Stimpy. At one point, someone got a hold of a banned episode, and we did like a fuzzy dub of a dub of a dub of a VHS copy that was circulating. The George Liquor episode [“Man’s Best Friend,” which was deemed too violent to run on Nickelodeon, but debuted the Ren & Stimpy spin-off show Ren & Stimpy “Adult Party Cartoon” on Spike]. The lore of what happened with that show was sort of exciting.

Seeing the goldfish jump in the car and drive away in that episode, we just felt like we were watching something ‘top secret’ and that would never be seen by anybody. I just thought that was one of the best, craziest moments of animation I had seen up to that point. It was cutting-edge stuff, and it was getting banned by the network. The Ren & Stimpy stuff went so far beyond what inspired me as a kid.

Really, it seemed to me at the time that we — college kids — were the target audience. At the time, I never really thought about it. Nickelodeon was just the place where you could find animation. I’ve never seen animation as being just for kids, especially at that time.

A lot of the Ren & Stimpy design aesthetics were inspired by the fifties UPA style that was super-popular, especially at CalArts at that time, so I think a lot of people were taking inspiration – and still are – from that heavy fifties design aesthetic.

That was a great communal experience, a bunch of young animators being thrilled to see that stuff. Really, to us, it was incredible that he was getting paid to do it. It did feel like he was pushing the boundaries.

Another college kid in film school at the time (University of Colorado, Boulder aka CU) was Chris Graves, who still lives in Denver today and gave up animation altogether (“it was too much work”) after making an award-winning short film called “American History.”

The keynote in history with the short — aside from its being frickin’ hilarious — is the fact that it was co-produced by Graves’ roommate at the time, South Park and The Book of Mormon creator Trey Parker.

Graves explained to me that he had messed around with animation and did the construction paper design when he was a kid. When Trey and he had a paper they had to write for a class about the history of animation, they asked their professor if they could turn in a film instead. The professor agreed, and a whole new way to animate was about to become popularized (sans Graves who moved on to a website company and his own independent, non-animated films).

He continues to be a huge Ren & Stimpy fan to this day.

Oh, God yes, I was a fan of Ren & Stimpy! That was one of the things I did like about animation. I didn’t like the work, but I liked the idea that you could just kind of do anything. I loved the fact that it was an American vernacular that looked like 1950s and 60s animation, and yet the subject matter was quite insane. The show is kind of gross. Sometimes he’d cut to these beautifully drawn close-ups of really disgusting things, a close-up done in excruciating detail. I don’t think it would matter today as much.

On John K.:

I’ve dealt with a lot of extreme creative types. Quite frequently, a massive amount of creativity and genius goes along with some really obtuse characteristics, I think. There’s something about having the ability to be massively creative. Either the extreme personality opens up the doorway for more creativity, or they go hand in hand. If you have one, you have the other. Most people who are not creative or are not geniuses like that are actually kind of boring people.

Seems like the more brilliant you are, the more out on the edge and creative you are, the more you see things very differently. Your personality, by its very nature if you’re seeing things so differently, will be different too. You may see the way that other people do things to be different, and so you’re bound to react differently. A likely possibility is that you’ll be difficult to deal with.

And then I got really fucked-up with a buddy of mine in town (who actually introduced me to Graves and to Plympton) who runs Mighty Fudge Studios. He’s the man responsible for such cult classics as “My First Boner” and holds the auspicious honor of having been the first person to animate Spike & Mike for their Sick & Twisted Festival of Animation.

What do you have to say about Ren & Stimpy, Pat? Bring it home:

Ren & Stimpy was the epicenter of it all. It started the revolution. We were in art school and all we started talking about was Ren & Stimpy. Ren & Stimpy was God. Then it all came: The Simpsons, Liquid Television, Beavis & Butt-Head. God, those were some good times!

Mathew Klickstein is the author of SLIMED! An Oral History of Nickelodeon's Golden Age, which is in stores everywhere and will tell you more about Nickelodeon than you probably should know.

  • Just One Thing

    No specific mention of "Space Madness"? I imagine that for many a young lad and lass, that was their introduction to alt-comedy. For me, it preceded Monty Python by a year, probably.

    • ProfKlickberg

      @Just One Thing Ha! Funnily enough, "Space Madness" was the specific show I was trying to find clips of to imbed in this article. Yes, that definitely was a key moment in 90s comedy.

  • Jason Berkowitz@facebook

    Great article. One thing though, Matt there already is a book about the early years of Nickelodeon (and it contains great info on the behind-the-scenes of all the first Nicktoons). http://www.amazon.com/Nickelodeon-Nation-Politics-Economics-Americas/dp/0814736521

    • ProfKlickberg

      @Jason Berkowitz@facebook Thanks for reading, Jason! Yes, I'm well aware of that book and am friendly with its editor (and contributor) Heather Hendershot. She's been very encouraging and the book is a terrific academic text. I do think it's time for something a bit more mainstream on this front, so we'll see how it goes! ;)

  • Galen Andrews@facebook

    Did anyone else find that John K Simpsons couch gag to be terrifying? I really like his style and although it can be unsettling it never bothered me as a kid.

  • Thad Komorowski@facebook

    Thanks for the entertaining read. It reminded me that I've been spending the better part of my adult life writing a book about this show and that I'd better finish it sooner than later. Back to work…

    • ProfKlickberg

      @Thad Komorowski@facebook Cool! Hit me up some time. Maybe we could collaborate, if you want. Always happy to help (and to be helped!).