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The Uses of Disgust

[Click here to read feedback about this review or to listen to a roughly one-minute, 1,000KB audio excerpt (MP3 player required) from my 1997 interview with John Kricfalusi, in which he acts out what was planned to be a downloadable "Christmas card" starring his characters George Liquor and Jimmy the Idiot Boy. Be prepared for indifferent sound quality, and lots of helpless laughter from me.]

On June 24, 2003, Amid Amidi, proprietor of the estimable Animation Blast Web site, posted a reminder to his audience that a new show called The Ren & Stimpy Adult Cartoon Party would debut later that week on the TNN cable network. "It's been over a year that I've worked on the show now, and I must say that it's been a truly unforgettable and unique experience," Amidi wrote. "It's been a real education going to a studio everyday where I'm surrounded by passionate, enthusiastic and dedicated artists who are all committed to the same goal as our visionary leader John Kricfalusi: to make funny well-drawn cartoons."

As it happened, I didn't read Amidi's posting until the day after I'd seen that first show. I don't think I've ever seen a sadder animated film, or maybe a sadder film of any kind. There will be a total of six new Ren & Stimpy shows this season, intermixed with R&S cartoons Kricfalusi made for the Nickelodeon cable network in the early nineties. On the evidence of the first show, we're witnessing self-destruction on a scale unmatched since Kricfalusi's mentor, Ralph Bakshi, incinerated himself more than a quarter century ago.

How can I put this? The comedy in the first show was based largely on the consumption by the two title characters (an overwrought Chihuahua and a clueless cat) of bodily fluids expelled by other characters. There was also a fair amount of comedy based on suggestions of anal intercourse. Ren and Stimpy are now gay, it seems (Ren is, as he says, the "pitcher," Stimpy the all-too-eager "catcher"), although I recall not a hint of such an orientation in the original series. Kricfalusi even scoffed at the idea in at least one interview.

As Kricfalusi has said, he set "the standard for gross and confrontational humor" in the original Ren & Stimpy Show, but the new show has charged across the line that separates the merely scatological—and thus potentially very funny—from the irredeemably disgusting.

Comedy always depends on context for its effectiveness. To take the simplest possible example: There's nothing particularly funny about seeing an anonymous person slip on a banana peel and land in a humiliating position. But, ah, if it's Jeffrey Katzenberg… Comedy of the kind that Kricfalusi is attempting is especially demanding. If you expect people to laugh at a character who is consuming what another character has deposited in a spittoon, you've got to set the gag up—really, really set it up. Kricfalusi doesn't do that. He presents what most people find disgusting as if it were funny in itself.

It may be even more accurate to say that Kricfalusi thinks that most people's disgust is what makes such comedy funny. Kricfalusi denies the validity of any kind of disgust, at least where bodily functions are concerned. To be disgusted, he says in effect, is to reject life.

The problem is, disgust is actually very useful. If we're disgusted by the thought of ingesting other people's bodily emissions, that's not evidence of shriveled sympathies—such disgust protects us from getting sick. Disgust is good. What's bad is being disgusted by the wrong things (people of other races, for example). Disgust must be taught, and it can be taught well or badly. Very small children don't feel disgust—they'll play with feces and put anything into their mouths—and that is why the comedy in Kricfalusi's new series is not liberating, but is, instead, literally infantile.

What makes this self-destruction sad (rather than, well, disgusting) is Kricfalusi's great talent. Despite his unfortunate affiliation with Bakshi, Kricfalusi's true allegiance has been to Bob Clampett and to Clampett's Warner Bros. cartoons of the forties. In the original Ren & Stimpy series, "inappropriate" music, jarring cuts, and other such eccentricities all served, like Clampett's departures from the then prevailing standards for a well-made cartoon, to thrust all the weight onto the characters. It was they who had to carry the cartoon.

When I last saw Kricfalusi, in 1997, interviewing him for a business magazine, he said, "I love people who are extreme and subtle at the same time. If the camera only has Kirk Douglas's shoulder in the shot, his shoulder is stealing the scene from whoever else's face is in it." It is thanks to just that combination of the extreme and the subtle in their characters that Clampett's and Kricfalusi's best cartoons are so extraordinary. Like Clampett, and like no other cartoon maker since Clampett, Kricfalusi has understood how extreme distortion can make characters seem more real, rather than less, if that distortion seems to originate in the characters' state of mind.

Distortion of the Clampett/Kricfalusi kind must be rooted in awareness of how much real people differ in appearance day to day, hour to hour, even minute to minute. Our faces and bodies are not rigid masks, but are highly plastic instead. Most of us navigate through this world, filled with people whose physical presence is constantly in flux, with the help of a sort of mental trick: we impose on others a uniformity of appearance that does not really exist.

I remember Milt Gray's telling me of once hearing Friz Freleng grump that none of the drawings in a Clampett cartoon resembled the model sheets. I think that's one reason the characters in Clampett's cartoons seem so much more alive—so much more like real people—than those in Freleng's cartoons. There is no "model sheet" for real people, no fixed state. Slavish devotion to model sheets, so common over years, is one more way that animation has cut itself off from real life and trivialized itself. Computer animation, which depends ultimately on rigid templates for its characters, is just the latest example of this dreary phenomenon.

The suppleness and fluidity of the animation in Clampett's cartoons is beyond the reach not just of Kricfalusi but of anyone making TV cartoons today (although Kricfalusi is adept at planting hints of an elasticity that he cannot depict). Kricfalusi has tried to make this limitation a virtue by introducing distortion even bolder than Clampett's—distortion that always seems to originate in the characters themselves, and that builds in intensity as the cartoon itself spirals onward, seemingly almost out of control.

Kricfalusi has remarked that, for all his love of Clampett's short cartoons, he has trouble writing such short cartoons himself, and it's clear from his best cartoons why that should be the case. Kricfalusi's best cartoons depend on their cumulative effect, whereas the impact of Clampett's best cartoons rests on their emotional immediacy, scene to scene. As Kricfalusi told Martin Goodman in an interview for Animation World Network, "Maybe I get more into the psychology of the characters than Clampett does."

Kricfalusi has returned from a decade in the wilderness—after being ousted by Nickelodeon from Ren & Stimpy, he made commercials, Internet cartoons, comic books, and the rare cartoon for TV—with his virtues as a filmmaker scarcely in evidence. His weakness for infantile comedy, held in check during the Nickelodeon series by the network and presumably by his own sense of what the network and his audience would tolerate, is now being indulged to the fullest.

Thanks to the rebroadcast of the original Nickelodeon episodes, Kricfalusi has turned out to be his own most severe critic. Even the episodes that were suppressed or censored because of their raunchy content (for example, Nickelodeon understandably did not want to show Ren drinking out of a filthy toilet bowl) have a discipline and point lacking from the first of the new shows.

I've met Kricfalusi only twice, once over breakfast with Milt Gray in 1995 and then for that 1997 interview, at Spumco's offices and over dinner. I was impressed both times by his devotion to the medium and his grasp of its history. I asked Oxford University Press to send him a copy of Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age in 1999, and I was disappointed to read later, in Goodman's interview, that Kricfalusi "hated it."

I didn't recognize my book in Kricfalusi's description of it ("a whole book about how rotten everybody was! … He hates it when they get over-distorted in cartoons"), and it may be that Kricfalusi wouldn't recognize The Ren & Stimpy Adult Party Cartoon in what I've written here, if he were to read it. He might find such criticism irrelevant, anyway. As he told me in 1997, "All I really want to do is draw funny pictures." That's a worthy aim, and I wish he had realized it.

[Posted July 2003]