By Jonathan Pacheco
Press Play Contributor
I’m sure you’ve seen it before: a movie wants to take an easy satirical jab at the state of TV programming and how it’s rotting the brains of our youth, so it shows some wide-eyed drooling kid watching a cartoon so loud, crass and violent that you know it has to be fake. Ren & Stimpy is that gross and twisted fake show, except quite real. It set the mark for what you could get away with in children’s television, and it had me planted in front of the screen, the drooling kid, poisoning my mind more and more with every passing minute. But that was 20 years ago, and now that I can take in the escapades of Stimpson J. Cat and Ren Höek with a more discerning eye, I can fully appreciate the show’s crude charm while also recognizing how it eventually went wrong after the departure of creator and showrunner John Kricfalusi.
For me, the most fascinating thing about Ren & Stimpy is that you simply can’t trust what you’re shown. You don’t expect a kids’ cartoon to have much episode-to-episode carry over, but this show isn’t even consistent from shot to shot. Missing eyeballs, ripped tongues, specific facial expressions, the way a shirt fits, vomit on a character — none are important enough to warrant continuity between cuts. But continuity isn’t simply ignored here, it’s totally flouted, as if the animators saw every new shot as a fresh opportunity to draw something completely different, damning any rules of animation with a dangerously Ed Wood-like enthusiasm. Interspersed among these shots are the famous gruesome close-ups (“gross-ups?”): detailed, mostly static paintings, typically included to accentuate something disgusting, such as crusty boogers, curly butt hairs or skid marks left by a fart. They’re skillfully crafted frames, to the point where it almost feels like the very concept of each episode was conceived just to animate around these central works of art.
Adding to its bizarre appeal is the show’s timing, but not in the traditional comedic sense. Especially during the first few seasons, Ren & Stimpy punctuates its conversations and actions with frequent lingering pauses. I often wondered if the artists were incapable of animating more than one movement at a time because many actions in a shot happen sequentially rather than simultaneously. Ren smacks his palm in emphasis, pauses, speaks his line, pauses, continues smacking. For some reason, the animation couldn’t (or purposefully refused to) walk and chew gum at the same time, and the humor of this style of pacing, intentional or not, perfectly complements the show’s off-kilter characters with a sort of dimwitted vibe.
After Nickelodeon fired Kricfalusi midway through the second season thanks to struggles with censorship and the showrunner’s inability to deliver episodes on schedule, animation duties were passed from John K.’s Spümcø to Nickelodeon’s in-house Games Animation department, and the directing reigns were given to Bob Camp. Fans of the show lamented the loss of its creator’s auteurist touch and noticed a sharp drop in overall quality. As a kid during the time of the switch, I saw no difference; still lots of violence, fart jokes and “gross-ups,” right? So what’s to complain about? These post-Kricfalusi seasons — up until the show’s cancellation after its fifth year — do have their moments and even some great episodes (an all-time favorite will always be “Ren’s Pecs,” in which the fat of Stimpy’s apple bottom is used for Ren’s studly chest implants), but viewing these seasons now, I clearly see reason for disappointment. By Season 4, there really is a noticeable difference in animation quality. Most of the episodes feel cheaply and hastily created, abandoning nuance for less creative facial expressions and easier visual gags. Even the painted close-ups are mostly lifeless, and, in some episodes, used so frequently as to indicate the work of an imitator rather than an originator, as if the animators were following a checklist. Call me crazy, but I saw love and affection in the way Spümcø and Carbunkle Cartoons crafted Stimpy’s buttcrack and Ren’s bugging eyeballs.
The writing similarly follows a lazy pattern. There’s a good amount of thought put into the progression of jokes and violence in the earlier seasons, leading to some brilliant climaxes; if you need proof, just re-watch “Mad Dog Höek.” The later seasons struggle to find this same rhythm. A childhood favorite episode of mine from this era, “Blazing Entrails,” begins promisingly with a more-braindead-than-usual Stimpy hopping out of bed to brush his teeth with a hammer, and the next morning cooking Ren an aromatic breakfast, only his hanging tongue ends up being the crispy bacon and his blinking, bloodshot eyeballs are the eggs. However, watching the episode now, I see how remarkably boring the rest of it is as Ren enters Stimpy’s enlarged body, treating us to a series of lame virus and organs jokes before Ren eventually fights off an Ignorant Gland with a choke hold on Stimpy’s tiny brain. Episodes like that feel like they’re just going through the motions.
A key element missing from “Blazing Entrails” present in the likes of “Son of Stimpy” or even “Ren’s Pecs,” is the true affection between our beloved cat and dog, despite the show’s defiant stance against being a “lessons” program (admittedly, “Son of Stimpy” is one of Kricfalusi’s purposefully “warmer” episodes, meant to appease Nickelodeon, allowing him to keep doing crazier stories). Sure, Stimpy’s love for Ren, really more motherly than homosexual despite what most people like to claim, is clear throughout the show’s entire run, but there’s a sweetness to Ren’s fragility and dependency on his friend, despite his irrepressible violence and verbal abuse. The characters worked because you saw why they were lifemates, and too much of that insight was slowly lost during the Bob Camp/Games Animation era.
Kricfalusi didn’t always have the golden touch. In 2003, he revived his characters in the ill-advised Spike TV spin-off, Ren & Stimpy “Adult Party Cartoon.” To appease the network’s request for a more extreme version of the show, John K. threw out his inhibitions along with every ounce of subtlety and innuendo in favor of incredibly cheap sexual and scatological jokes — and that’s saying something, considering the show’s reputation. (In the opening moments of the first episode, Ren tricks Stimpy into kissing a squirrel’s dirty anus. Welcome back, John Kricfalusi.) In this new rendition, Ren and Stimpy are now blatantly homosexual, or bisexual, since they both still love the ladies, most famously in the unaired episode “Naked Beach Frenzy,” in which the two, working as shower attendants, jump at the chance to soap up some boobs. Not too much of a stretch for these characters, even though we should remind ourselves that we are talking about a dog and a cat here. The problem is how obsessed the show is with this idea in the most unimaginative and unfunny ways. “Altruists” spends a good two minutes on a scene where Ren straps a long handsaw to his hip and begins cutting away at a log propped on Stimpy’s backside by thrusting his hips back and forth. A lot of more thrusting and moaning later, Ren finishes, handsaw limp, leaving a deposit of sawdust on his partner’s back. When you think it couldn’t get any worse, Stimpy, still with the residue on him, asks Ren if he would stay and cuddle, to which Ren responds, “Shame on you! Clean that shit up,” tossing a rag at the tearful cat.
It’s very easy and quite popular to bag on “Adult Party Cartoon,” but it’s mostly for good reason. Even as a college freshman when the show premiered, right in the show’s demographic, I always felt it was way off in its approach. Not too surprisingly, the censorship of Nickelodeon and inherent restrictions of early ’90s kids’ TV pushed Kricfalusi and Spümcø to greater creativity, cleverly redefining the limits of what could be gotten away with. Greater freedom on Spike TV led to lazier conception and writing.
The once untouchable legacy of Ren & Stimpy is now a mixed bag in my eyes. My adoration for its raw, crude, insane take on comedy is as strong now as it was when I was 10 years old and attempting the “Happy Happy, Joy Joy” butt bounce dance with my sister (I know we weren’t the only ones to try it, though we were probably the only ones to try it naked). But even if you somehow discard the “Adult Party Cartoon” fiasco, it’s difficult to ignore that the show’s best days were behind it before it even made it halfway through its run. But what a crazy run it had.
This piece can also be read at Edward Copeland on Film here.
Jonathan Pacheco contributes film and theater criticism to The House Next Door and Edward Copeland on Film while only pretending to write on his own site, Bohemian Cinema. In order to eat, he works in the Dallas area as a darn good web developer. Follow him on Twitter, if you like.