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The Great Debate

This page is devoted to reader comments on "An Exchange with John K," my August-September 2004 debate with John Kricfalusi, the creator of Ren and Stimpy.

From Mike Fontanelli, responding to Scott Miller's message below: One thing you wrote that I agreed with heartily: it's clear that you were, almost uniquely among children and grownups everywhere, truly baffled by Ren & Stimpy. You also seem a little confused by some notion that my pointing out the tradition of scatological humor in the works of Voltaire, Rabelais, and Swift (not to mention Balzac and Proust) amounts to a claim of equal greatness for all others who employ it!

But John's work is (inarguably) satire, often at the expense of what I'll politely term "stuffed shirts." In retrospect, it's not very remarkable when said types fail to embrace it.

I should add that anyone who can suggest—with a straight face, apparently—that the best way to tell an absurd story is to remove the absurd element should best keep his comic suggestions to himself. Humorists can't stop and explain the joke to every irony-challenged dullard in the audience, nor should they be expected to.

From Eddie Fitzgerald, responding to Scott Miller's message immediately below: 1) John's timing isn't too slow, everyone else's timing is too fast. That's because TV writers overwrite their stories and everything has to be rushed to fit it all in. It's also because TV animation is badly animated and and quick cuts are needed to cover up the flaws. John's cartoons have fewer flaws and therefore slower timing. Don't get sucked into the idea that MTV made quick cuts mandatory. MTV was revolutionary when it first appeared thirty years ago, but time passes and it's not the trend setter that it used to be. It's time we stopped trying to fit every story into a cutting style that was created to fit fast seventies rock and hip-hop.

2) Probably some John bits are somewhat over the top. So what? The cartoon wrapped around the offending bit is often brilliant, hilarious, and ground-breaking. The amazing thing for me is that the master of over-the-top is also the master of under-the-top. Some of my favorite recent John bits are remarkably subtle: Ren as the straight-faced worker on the scaffold in "Naked Beach Frenzy," as the smoking companion of the kid and the casual patient-on-the-couch in the first half of "Ren Seeks Help," as the timid father in the maternity ward of "Stimpy's Pregnant," and as the upper-crust sophisticate politely pulling up his zipper in "Onward and Upward." Of course Mister Horse is the master of understatement as is He Hog in his role as psychiatrist (the He Hog promotion hasn't aired anywhere but some of the readers will have seen it at conventions).

3) John's a lot more than a rehash of Clampett and Scribner. I see McKimson, Avery, Jones, the Fleischers, H&B, Terrytoons, and a host of print media cartoonists in his work. A friend once said that John is an amalgam of everything that was good about American cartooning, going back to the year zero. If you think about it, every animator should be like that. The rest of us just haven't done our homework. But don't be misled by what I've said here. John is a highly original artist and stylist, one of the most original in the entire history of animation. 4) I was indeed wrong to accuse Mike of being a prude.

From Scott Miller: It seems to me that most of your respondents are simply ducking the question with accusations of prudery (à la Eddie Fitzgerald's ridiculous response) or else suffer from the well-meaning egalitarian urge to level the playing field and present all art and artists as being equal (at the expense of the reputations of the best artists, to bolster those of the worst, or most mediocre, at any rate), as in Dave Brewster's response that "There is no such thing as 'better' in art and you would think that by now we would have learned to praise each other's differences even though we may have nothing in common."

I should probably confess up front (out of honesty) that I have never liked John Kricfalusi's Ren & Stimpy cartoons. At the time they first aired, I was deep into my first phase of serious animation studies, so I tuned in out of curiosity; I found myself baffled more than anything else, not by the humor (which was usually obvious), but as to why anyone thought it was cutting-edge when it looked like an attempt to retread Bob Clampett's Warners cartoons with a "gloss" of toilet humor that Clampett could not have gotten away with in the forties. When I tried to explain this to people who did love the show, I always got the same response: "You just don't get it."

Maybe they're right, I thought, and I let it go. Arguing over a TV cartoon wasn't important.

After thirteen years of this, however, I have to wonder if my accusers were wrong, and you are right. In fact, I'd probably go a bit farther than you have, and say that I think that Kricfalusi is completely lacking in the directorial skills necessary to pull off the kind of humor he so obviously loves. Having sampled the "new" R&S cartoons, I think that not only is his timing too slow and his cutting leaden (every so often a shot seems to have been held four or five beats too long), but he has no idea how to pace or even present his gags in a way that "the normal audience" everyone keeps mentioning would find funny. Everything seems to be presented too emphatically and baldly; it's like being nudged in the ribs repeatedly by an uncle who has no idea how to tell even the simplest knock-knock joke, and who laughs at his own punch lines, and so the grossness of the grossest gags receive far more prominence in each cartoon than is strictly necessary.

This is all beside the question of taste entirely. Of course, there's always the possibility that Kricfalusi loves offending people so much (as so many people who use shock humor do) that he finds the entire question of presentation to be besides the point, in which case our sensibilities differ so much that I could never understand why he does what he does, or why anyone would find it valuable, much less why it would be great satire.

As for the question of greatness—I guess I can only point out that a sensibility that can embrace Kricfalusi as an equal to Voltaire, Rabelais, Aristophanes, and Jonathan Swift must be limited, if the person who holds it can honestly see no difference in quality between his work and theirs. If Kricfalusi had actually wanted to "tell a story about obsession, alienation, maternal sacrifice, and fear of abandonment, among other extreme, gut-level emotions," in Mike Fontanelli's words, it would actually have been more challenging to confront those issues in a direct, honest way, and not clothe them in a story about a gigantic fart, which is such an absurd idea it cancels out any possibility of being taken seriously as satire or comedy and instead becomes a pathetic self-parody. If Kricfalusi's followers can't understand that, there really isn't any point in arguing with them, because their horizons (not those of their critics) will be so limited they honestly won't see or understand any of Kricfalusi's limitations, or those of his cartoons, until he disappoints them.

I wonder—if Kricfalusi hadn't been kicked off of his series by Nickelodeon (and made a sort of martyr in the process), would so many people defend him so passionately? There's nothing like a victim to spark off an impassioned, overly protective, somewhat defensive cult following—and heaven help the object of their devotion if that person should somehow slip in their eyes. Only a fan can take a mistake as a personal betrayal.

From Jeff Schiller: I've been following your debate and I recently checked out your Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age from the library (I know you'd prefer that I buy it but hey...). So your debate is certainly serving to stir up interest in cartoon acting (I know I must not be alone).

So far it's been an excellent read and highly illuminating into the complex field of animation in the U.S. (Where am I? 1938. Disney just released Snow White and they've started work on Pinocchio.) When I first got the book I leafed through the contents and was disappointed to see that you didn't really treat Warner Bros. with the respect it was due until over halfway into the book. Understandable, since it is a chronological history, but it still discouraged me. However, as I started to read I found that even the history of the Disney studio was tremendously absorbing. It is amazing to hear how the animators were striving for cartoon acting and basically creating this craft during the thirties. Some of the anecdotes are also priceless, given that almost all of these folks have since passed away.

Obviously, the focus of the book in the beginning is very much on Disney and the development of "real" cartoon acting (the kind you espouse in your 9/23 response to John). Since I'm not an animation history expert I have to take your word that Disney deserves that strong a focus and the couple of chapters that talk about Bray, Harman-Ising, Fleischer, Terry, and Lantz are sufficient coverage. It does seem a shame to lump "everyone else" into a couple of chapters, though.

I'm sure my initial knee-jerk reaction to the Disney bias is what John K felt when he said he "hated your book." Given his predisposition against Disney I guess that probably left a sour taste in his mouth as he read through it. But I wonder how much he really read?

Anyway, I'm very much looking forward to the focus shifting to Warner Bros. later in the book. Your book also really makes me want to go back and look at the Grumpy scenes in Snow White and also to freeze-frame The Great Piggy Bank Robbery.

From Christian Ziebarth: While reading your debate and other things about John K., I got the impression that he's a very stuck-up, cocky character. I reserved judgment, though, until I could see him in person. And I did see him in person a couple weeks ago when he came to LA to show some of his Ren and Stimpy cartoons. He was actually rather low-key and amiable (and there was a moment when he had an easy opportunity to rip on you, but he didn't), so I wonder if he doesn't realize that he's coming off in the press as being stuck-up and cocky.

I wouldn't have gone to his screening if I didn't have some leftover love for Ren & Stimpy from the early nineties, and it was great to see some new material, but I don't think I could hack all the animation in the world being just like Ren & Stimpy. Yet John K. subtly or not-so-subtly implies that he knows the one way animation should be done, and if you like something he doesn't, then you'd better feel really stupid. George Liquor was pretty funny, but I'm not sure I could stand to watch more than once in my entire life the scene where George gets really, really, really angry. Characterization does not mean showing a drawn-out buildup to somebody getting angry, and it doesn't mean showing facial expressions in a different unnatural contortion in every frame. For all of John K.'s talk of how he knows how to get timing in animation just right, I have to say that there are way too many moments where the "camera" lingers too long on one action or expression. And he can defend to the death his right to do gross-out humor or say, "Look beyond the poo," but when he uses scatology so extensively, his admirers are likely to end up being merely an army of Beavis and Butthead clones.

From Dave Brewster: Why has John never made a feature? Does he concede that making a feature is a far different filmmaking experience than making shorts? And if there is no comparison, why does he constantly try to compare animation that has a totally different purpose with cartoons that aren't searching for the same short attention span in an audience? Shorts for Disney were not at all his bread and butter, in fact they were a basic training ground. John's shorts allow him his hypercompressed view and don't challenge him with creating characters that have to last 80 minutes. Stimpy can be pregnant for a few minutes and we can explore the touchy elements of unwanted pregnancy, but in a minimalist way that that limited story structure allows.

I love R&S cartoons, wouldn't want them to change their creative approach ever, but I realize they are not Disney and for a good reason. It is what makes them so refreshing . The audience is totally different and so the story structure, animation style , taste, and approach are all totally different. It is not that one is superior to the other or ever has been.

John's fists-up, I-am-better-than-you attitude was born of a system that only had Disney to compare things with and that tried to make John into Disney. But he won the battle, he got his work aired and changed the face of television. Now, rather than blame the executives that had limited vision, he seems to be implying that there is only one way. It is a matter of social history that once the oppressed are freed and are given power they will become the oppressor. There is a fine line to walk between being an innovator and oppressor. Is John now in the same place the people who dissed him were? An interesting question.

John says, "Cover your eyes when you see the poo." Am I mistaken or is this not the same thing that he should do when he runs up against something he finds offensively corny?

I am so tired of the whole argument . There are no battles to be won here, and no superiority to claim. I no more want the world filled with nothing but Disney's films than I do with only Spumco's . John should be promoting all the different ways to make film and not just attacking the one because it dominated for so long. Hubley and Clampett were just as effective in their own way, and there is no real comparison to Disney or Spumco sensibilities . And from what I've seen and read you could make arguments that they both employed a lot of Disney technique. There is no such thing as "better" in art and you would think that by now we would have learned to praise each other's differences even though we may have nothing in common.

From Mike Fontanelli: What's wrong with poop jokes? Aristophanes, Jonathan Swift, Rabelais, and Voltaire, among others, all committed the occasional "lapse" with a well-placed shit gag. Their reputations haven't suffered any for it, either. Spumco is merely following a great literary tradition—and they're in pretty good company, it seems to me. Ren & Stimpy was and is so innovative, on so many levels, that it's easy, ironically, to take it for granted—and dismiss it out of hand as mere gross-out humor.

I think Mr. Barrier is unable or unwilling to grasp the larger point. That is: the gross parts in R&S are merely superficial elements—comic embellishment or punctuation. John is really after bigger game.

For instance, "Son Of Stimpy" wasn't really about an anthropomorphic fart, that was only the absurd context used to tell a story about obsession, alienation, maternal sacrifice, and fear of abandonment, among other extreme, gut-level emotions—however ludicrous the trappings of the story.

In a series with highly original characters as vivid and complex as Ren and Stimpy, the focus is always on personality. My friend Jeff Pidgeon once said that John's characters are all "sans hope." That's a weird way of putting it, but he's essentially correct. Kricfalusi's cartoons have an edge to them and a point of view, and are ultimately (harsh) comments on human nature itself.

The emphasis of his stories is usually on the stupid, violent, gross, or psychotic. The ludicrousness of the situations and the outrageousness of the drawings take the underlying anger off it, and makes it all comically palatable for the general public. But that doesn't change the fact that Kricfalusi is still calling society absurd.

Like all great satirists, he's right.

From Eddie Fitzgerald, responding specifically to my message posted on September 23, 2004: Mike, it's a good thing you weren't alive in Lautrec's time because I think you would have felt it was your duty to storm Carrie Nation-like over to the artist's place and give him hell for painting "low" women. You'd have used the same kind of argument you used against John: "Vile worm! Do you really think putting prostitutes into pictures makes them better? Would the Crucifixion have been more photogenic if it had taken place in a brothel!!??" Here you would have accented each word with a sharp bop on the artist's head with your umbrella. "I-think-you-know-the-answer!!!!!"

From John Richardson: It's absolutely intoxicating to read your debate with John Kricfalusi. Thank you for posting this! I'm one of those milquetoasts whose opinions fall somewhere in the middle on many of your disagreements, but I agree so emphatically with both of you so much of the time. And mainly, I believe 1) in analyzing what makes Clampett's cartoons so great, and 2) in dag-blame-it-just-plain-enjoying them, which both of you have obviously done a lot of.

It helps me to hear John K's methods of studying and training his animators; I'm an early-stage animator myself. But also, in some intangible way, reading your debate on cartoon acting actually seems to activate some part of my brain that comes up with character designs. Moving images come into my head, of really well-animated, funny, complex characters. (I think they're new ones, too, which would be a real plus, I guess.) Anyway, all that is to say that this debate is a very, very good thing for animation. I can't be the only one so inspired by all this. Keep each other going on this, please. Incidentally, my pulse raced when he wrote that he'd seriously like to make a cartoon just for you. Even if it were dripping with sarcasm... just think of the possibilities. Life is indeed good.

From Eddie Fitzgerald: In the field of comedic acting in shorts no one, not even Disney, could match Warners in the forties. That's obvious. You can't compare the acting in the Donald Duck shorts to the Daffys, not even the non-Clampett Daffys. In the field of dramatic acting we'll never know if Warners could beat Disney because Warners never attempted it. All I know is that when I still-frame animation for the sheer pleasure of watching cartoon acting I only occasionally choose Disney over Warners.

Disney handicapped himself with limited goals. He was trying to be charming, humorous and artful rather than funny. Warners funny allowed for more acting opportunities than Disney humorous. To get an out-loud laugh with acting you can't simply flesh out rotoscope reference, you have to suprise an audience with something clever that they haven't seen before.

It's odd that comedic acting hasn't played a greater role in animation. When you think about it animation is a perfect medium for it. You can't do it very well in newspaper strips or comic books. It sure is fun to draw. Iit's doubly fun because no two artists will ever act out a scene the same way, so it provides an opportunity for artists to break out of the frustrating anonymity of the animation process. Much credit to John K for bringing comedic acting back to the center stage. When the rest of the industry lost interest in animation and confined itself to peripheral design and cinematic experiments John rolled up his sleeves and tinkered with the very nuts and bolts of the craft. Thanks to John being an animator is fun again.

From Bradley Bethel: I've read most of your debate with John Kricfalusi about his most recent efforts with Ren & Stimpy. While I'm glad that the Adult Party Cartoon has been given a second chance, I agree with your critique of the show. Although it was a given that the show would be different, the results were quite disappointing. "Onward and Upward" wasn't horrible, but it was pretty senseless. I absolutely hated "Ren Seeks Help"; the subplot with that suicidal frog got old very quick. "Fire Dogs 2" was pretty lame, too. It was supposed to be a followup to the classic Nick episode, but that was just the pretext for bringing Ralph Bakshi back to the spotlight, for old time's sake. No real plot there, let alone any related to the original "Fire Dogs."