Ink & Pixel: Ren & Stimpy
Ink & Pixel is a source of pride and joy for me as a writer and as such, I’m always striving to take this column further for those who read and enjoy it. If you yourself, or anyone you know, helped to make any of the amazing feature animated films found within this column, I would love to talk to you to further my knowledge. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can discuss it further.
Remember all the crazy crap that creators used to get away with when making cartoons in the late 80s and early 90s? It used to be that instead of politically correct, overprotective programming for children there existed a world where you could tune in on any given day to watch the Care Bears raise the dead, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lusting over their human companion, or maybe even trip balls with Tigra while watching Thundercats. Just like how movies that were rated PG used to get away with child characters cursing, cartoons were at one time able to push the limits of what was considered “acceptable” for young viewers. There is perhaps no better example of this than Canadian animator John Kricfalusi’s REN & STIMPY.
REN & STIMPY is the 1991 Nickelodeon cartoon series that aired alongside other animated children’s programs Doug and Rugrats. After winning the attentions of the channels “older” audiences it was later paired up with other “more mature” Nickelodeon programs as part of SNICK, a late Sunday night block that featured the pre-teen sitcom Clarissa Explains It All, a musical variety program entitled Roundhouse and a spooky campfire tale oriented show called Are You Afraid of the Dark?
Often described as the most psychotic cartoon ever to be intended for children, REN & STIMPY revolved around the often gross-out antics of a less than intelligent cat named Stimpy and his easily angered Chihuahua companion, Ren. Seen as the Oscar and Felix of the cartoon community and often thought of to be one of prime time televisions first homosexual couple, REN & STIMPY was packed to the gills with impossible scenarios, homicidal firemen, a super hero made from powdered toast, and enough mucus, vomit and fecal matter jokes to make even those with the strongest of stomachs reach for a barf bag.
The idea for REN & STIMPY first came about when artist John Kricfalusi created a “retarded” cat character influenced by the cat characters of Bob Clampett in a 1940’s cartoon entitled “Gruesome Twosome” featuring the Looney Tunes character Tweety Bird. His signature physical characteristic being his shiny, bulbous nose, Stimpson J. Cat was voiced by Billy West (FUTURAMA, SPACE JAM, THE WEIRD AL SHOW) and acted as a sort of surrogate mother to Ren and his kaleidoscope of temper tantrums.
Because the “Which way did he go, George? Which way did he go?” approach to less than intelligent or “retarded” (their words, not mine) character voices were the norm at the time, Billy West had to sort through hundreds of different voices before Kricfalusi instructed him to make Stimpy sound even more adult than was originally intended. Kricfalusi felt that it would be funnier if this simple-minded, child-like character sounded much more like Larry Fine of The Three Stooges fame.
Unfortunately, Stimpy by himself was not enough of a spark to light the fires of inspiration. It was after Kricfalusi happened upon a postcard entitled “New York City, 1946” with photography by Elliott Erwitt that he was first inspired to create the character of Ren. Pictured on the postcard was a rather sickly looking, bug eyed Chihuahua dressed in a tiny sweater. Kricfalusi found the image to be absolutely absurd and immediately rushed home to pen out some rough sketches of what would later become one of the most deeply disturbed cartoon characters ever created. Kricfalusi even provided the voice for Ren, modeling it after the Austrian actor Peter Lorre.
It took a total of nine years for Kricfalusi and his art team at Spumco to find a home for REN & STIMPY. Nickelodeon was quickly becoming known as a company that was willing to take a few risks with their newly planned block of animation, and as such it provided the perfect platform for REN & STIMPY’s extreme approach to animated comedy. And risks were something that Nickelodeon was going to have to be prepared to take if the extreme content that was planned for the show would ever make it past their censors.
Consider this, Stimpy was created and written as a character that was known to the writers as only having one nerve ending inside of his body. This means that it would require a staggering amount of pain or trauma done to the characters body for him to feel anything at all. This is where the abusive nature of Ren’s personality and his tendency to take his aggressions out physically on Stimpy comes into play. If you look closely at Stimpy’s facial expressions during these scenes they often depict the character entering a blissful state. So it turns out that Stimpy is somewhat of a masochist. Who knew?
Perhaps you think I’m being a little extreme but I assure you that this is only the tip of a very jagged iceberg. Nickelodeon very early into the shows first season attempted to put a halt to one of the shows flagship episodes. Of course I’m talking about the timeless “The Happy Helmet” episode in which Stimpy, in the hopes of curing his friend Ren of a relentless state of depression (again, this was a kids show!) builds a helmet that when activated, forces the wearer into a “happy” state of mind against their own free will. Nickelodeon, upon viewing the episode claimed that it was nothing more than psycho-drama and pulled it from the schedule. To combat the situation John Kricfalusi literally got onto his hands and knees and begged the show runners to pass the episode.
Nickelodeon eventually conceded to Kricfulsui’s pleading and as a result the shows popularity skyrocketed once everyone on the planet couldn’t stop singing that “Happy Happy Joy Joy” song featured in the episode. It was this episode that put REN & STIMPY on the map primarily because of the genius of its execution. Show runners and audiences began to pay attention to just how intensely emotional the show could actually be.
One of the reasons for this is because during the shows storyboarding process there was one very simple rule that everyone working on the show had to abide by or else they’d be putting in some unpaid overtime. That rule was: Never, under and circumstance, draw the same expression or use the same joke twice. Every piece of art that made it into the final cut of each episode of the show first had to be approved by John Krichulsui himself. If you were found using any material more than once your work was immediately crumpled up and tossed into the garbage.
Nickelodeon eventually pulled the show from its rotation after it appeared that it simply was not finding a solid audience and basically just confused critics. The show was also known to be in constant rewrites as most of the gags and visual material was steadily becoming more and more crude with every episode. Censors were watching the show very closely, nitpicking every little thing, such as a moment when Ren threatens Stimpy with a rolled up newspaper.
With a menacing grimace stretched across his face Ren bears down on Stimpy, casting a dark shadow over his frightened friend. Because this was a children’s program, and some children come from abusive homes, it was suggested that this scene be stricken from the show. But like all of what you see in REN & STIMPY, this scene and so much worse ended up making it onto a program that kids watched before going to bed the night right before a brand new school week. REN & STIMPY for a few years was the talk of every cafeteria table. I myself can still do a pretty good Ren and I never eat an ice cream bar without thinking of my favorite episode “Space Madness”.
In 2003 the show eventually came back under its new title Ren & Stimpy “Adult Cartoon Party”. This version of the show was, if you can believe this, even more extreme than its predecessor! The show now boasted a expressly homosexual relationship between the two characters including an episode with full on female nudity and explicit sexual acts. The show lasted three episodes before it was pulled from the Spike TV evening lineup. These three “adult” episodes and the rest that were planned for a full season wound up becoming part of a DVD collection called “The Lost Episodes”.
REN & STIMPY might have been absolutely grotesque at times. It might have even left a few scars, but this show paved the way for so many that followed in its wake. Programs like ADVENTURE TIME, SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS, BEAVIS & BUTTHEAD and pretty much anything you find on Adult Swim would never have seen the light day if a “retarded” cat and a psychotic Chihuahua with a pension for violence didn’t open the flood gates.
So, I ask you, do you think something like REN & STIMPY would ever survive as part of an after school line up in this day and age? Have we become too coddling in what we allow the youth of today to view? I watched REN & STIMPY and I turned out just fine, right? Right? Yeah. That’s what I thought.
|Extra Tidbit:||In 1995, Spumco lent their art designs to Bjork for her music video for the song "I Miss You". The video was directed by John Kricfalusi.|