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"Dey ain't no way!"

Sick Little Monkeys coverMy sense from reading Sick Little Monkeys: The Unauthorized Ren & Stimpy Story (Bear Manor) is that it was written under considerable stress. The writing is occasionally clumsy and even surprisingly unidiomatic. Thad Komorowski is still very young, in his twenties, but his youth can't be blamed, since he writes with a professional's fluency on his blog, What About Thad. I suspect the problem was that he undertook writing the book out of a deep affection for the Ren & Stimpy cartoons, affection born in childhood when he watched Ren, the deranged chihuahua, and Stimpy, the lumpen cat, twenty years ago on the Nickelodeon cable channel. Much later, when he began work on his book, he encountered crude hostility from John Kricfalusi and his court. John K., as he is widely known, can tolerate nothing except uncritical adulation, and such absolutism always attracts a following among the insecure and the incompetent.

Predictably, then, some of the people who worked for Kricfalusi's Spumco studio on Ren & Stimpy refused to share their memories for Sick Little Monkeys; but many others did speak for publication. The resulting book is a highly detailed, highly persuasive portrait of a very strange cartoon director and his often very strange films.

Kricfalusi is a devotee of the kind of animation that distinguishes Bob Clampett's best Warner Bros. cartoons, animation that is intensely expressive and highly elastic, but always under the director's firm control. Kricfalusi was, however, making Ren & Stimpy under conditions that bore no resemblance to those at a Golden Age Hollywood studio. There was no question of his working as closely with his animators as Clampett did, since Kricfalusi's animators were overseas, not down the hall. Kricfalusi tried to make up for TV animation's relentless tropism toward the cut-rate and mechanical through character layouts that would introduce into Ren & Stimpy the same expressive distortion that distinguishes the Clampett cartoons. However striking some of the results, this was ultimately, and predictably, an exercise in futility. There was no way Kricfalusi's layouts, or anyone else's, could simulate the freedom of Clampett-style animation, even when he insisted on so many layouts that it became impossible to produce the cartoons on TV animation's conveyor-belt schedule.

The layouts and thus everything else were always late, and Kricfalusi could not produce as many shows as he was committed to produce. So, during work on the second season, Nickelodeon took Ren & Stimpy out of his hands and gave it to the studio called Games Animation. Kricfalusi's ouster is viewed by many cartoon fans as a triumph of commerce over art, but I have trouble thinking of him as an abused victim. Instead, it seems surprising that Nickelodeon didn't pull the plug months earlier. That's not to say it was a good thing that Kricfalusi lost his show, only that it is impossible to imagine an alternative outcome.

Thad Komorowski struggles to like some of the Games cartoons, and he obviously found the people who made them more sympathetic and likable than Kricfalusi's loyalists—how could he not have?—but the Games cartoons I've seen aren't just terrible, they're terrible in a way that illuminates what I think is the main source of the Kricfalusi cartoons' much stronger appeal. After reading Sick Little Monkeys, I streamed a lot of Ren & Stimpy, mostly in chronological order, using the helpful episode guide at the back of the book. I hadn't seen many of the cartoons in years; some I hadn't seen at all. As I watched one episode after another, I realized that the Kricfalusi cartoons have a connection with reality lacking in most animated cartoons and almost all TV cartoons, the Games Ren & Stimpys definitely included. It's a bizarre, stunted connection, but it's there.

That connection manifests itself partly in a negative way, through a consistent lack of real comedy. Cartoons like the short built around "Yak Shaving Day," to take a well-known example, are mostly just silly, but they have a free-association quality that reminds me powerfully of the sort of idle fantasizing I did as an eight- or nine-year-old, stringing together non sequiturs for the amusement of other kids, who would of course feed the fantasizing with nonsense of their own. And then there is Ren & Stimpy's preoccupation with human waste, with shit and snot and farts. I think it's normal for small boys to be fascinated by such bodily functions—at least I hope it's normal, since I remember drawing some pretty disgusting pictures when I was in grade school—and it's such a preoccupation that shapes a Ren & Stimpy episode like "Son of Stimpy," aka "Stimpy's First Fart." As I watched that show, I kept waiting for some little ironic twist, some gracious wink, some acknowledgment of just how weird it was for grownups to make a cartoon in which a fart is more than a throwaway gag; but it never came. Instead, an eight-year-old boy's sensibility reigned unchallenged, as in all cartoons that are unequivocally Kricfalusi's.

That the Games cartoons turned out so badly was probably because many of the people making them could only pretend to share Kricfalusi's sensibility. Kricfalusi's Ren & Stimpy, by contrast, was infantile, but sincerely infantile. That became a real problem only when his subject matter, sex being the obvious example, demanded a more knowing treatment than could be provided by someone who thinks like an eight-year-old. Thus the grotesque horror that was the short-lived Spike TV series called The Ren and Stimpy Adult Party Cartoon, which Spumco made a decade after the original series appeared.

Thad Komorowski's book is an account of a rolling disaster that has yielded cartoons more often morbidly fascinating than enjoyable for other reasons. It is a disaster that has not run its course, since John K. has not yet taken up another line of work. Kricfalusi still has a sizable following: in 2012, he raised a remarkably large amount of money, almost $137,000 from more than 3,500 backers, through a Kickstarter campaign for a short cartoon to be called Cans Without Labels. The comments posted by his backers are particularly interesting, since some of them seem to be losing faith, finally, in the face of growing evidence that Cans Without Labels is unlikely ever to be completed. The true believers are of course quick to denounce such apostasy.

Although Thad Komorowski does his best to sustain his enthusiasm for the Kricfalusi Ren & Stimpy in the face of daunting odds, the book ultimately documents how difficult and almost always impossible it is to make TV cartoons as rich and rewarding as even middling-good theatrical cartoons from the past. While reading Sick Little Monkeys I thought often of a portentous remark by one Mrs. Robertson, a live-in housekeeper, in James Thurber's My Life and Hard Times: "Dey ain't no way!" Truly, dey ain't.

[Posted May 5, 2014]