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The Ren & Stimpy Adult Cartoon Party

[Click here to go to my Commentary page on The Ren & Stimpy Adult Cartoon Party. Click here to go to the most recent posting on this page.]

From Dewey McGuire: I must say, your commentary on Ren & Stimpy really hits the nail on the head. I have more affection for the John Kricfalusi/Ralph Bakshi Mighty Mouse than you might have, and when I saw the first artwork for the then-unreleased original Ren & Stimpy cartoons, I really looked forward to seeing them. I was sorely disappointed. The first Ren & Stimpy film I saw was that dog pound cartoon that was included in a Tournée collection, and I was actually depressed by it, even as the rest of the audience thought it was wonderful. By the time those Yogi Bear things he made for Cartoon Network appeared to the cheers of the cartoon fans, I realized that either this was an emperor without clothes or I had fallen seriously out of touch. Now, with your essay, I feel better!

[Posted July 2003]

From Eddie Fitzgerald, a storyboard artist at John Kricfalusi's Spumco studio: I have to disagree with your valuation of "Onward & Upward," the first cartoon of the new Ren & Stimpy season. The film is flawed but so what? It's a prototype for a new type of Three Stooges-inspired animated comedy, and prototypes seldom look as good as the polished products they later inspire. John's been talking up the Stooges for years but I never paid much attention. I just couldn't figure out how to adapt that kind of loose-structure, pure comedy to TV animation. A typical Stooge story runs like this: The Stooges are hungry and have no jobs. A rich guy sees them and mistakes them for someone else. "What are you standing there for? You're supposed to be inside cooking for my wife's party tonight!" The Stooges pretend to be expert chefs, they botch everything, they slap each other a lot, and at the end they run away toward the horizon. How do you get a TV executive to buy a simple story like that? How do you get momentum and suspense into a story that's almost all gags? How do you put consistent thematic music on it? What if the gags don't work? I couldn't see any anwer to these questions and I thought John was wasting his time. Boy, was I wrong.

It turns out that truly inventive gags performed by charismatic characters provide a momentum of their own. The atmosphere becomes electrified with possibility, and the audience senses it. This technique isn't for everybody; you have to be damned good to pull it off. You don't have an elaborate plot to fall back on if nobody laughs. True comedy is the domain of skilled class clowns, which I'm happy to say John is.

Having said all this I'll admit again that a few "Onward" gags missed their mark. Mostly that's because the show unexpectedly timed out short and overly long scenes had to stay that way in order to fill out the time slot. Some fans got all bent out of shape because of this, but I was delighted. The length problem insured that micro gags (i.e., gags that don't further the plot, like the spoon disappearing into Stimpy's head or the pea or the ashes flicked into Stimpy's nose) stayed in the film. These micro gags are the very essence of comedy, but even at Spumco they sometimes end up on the cutting room floor. This time they all stayed in, and the result was an insight into a new way of doing animated comedy. Some of the people who dissed John for this film will eventually find themselves going down the same path that he pioneered. I hope they'll have what it takes to give credit to the guy who made it possible.

About John's choice of subject matter: granted it's distasteful sometimes, but again,so what? If your disdain leads you not to watch, then think about all you'll have missed, all the funny and artful drawings, all the new discoveries, all the insights and inspiration. Do you avoid Lautrec because he painted prostitutes? Somebody said that geniuses are found, not made. They have their own agenda which they cling to and cannot put aside. Isn't it wonderful that the world produces people like that? Isn't it worth a little climb to get the apple? Ren & Stimpy is unique in so many ways. I don't know of any other animated TV series which I watch with the expectation that something on it might change the way I perceive cartoons forever.

Even John's internet cartoons are challenging. Did you see the Ranger Smith cartoon where Smith fought Yogi on the floor of the cabin? Wasn't it fun to see an inventive cartoon brawl in a modern style? Did you like the blend of limited and full animation? Did you notice that Smith was sometimes drawn in John's "other", i.e., non-Ren & Stimpy style? That's his caricature/phone doodle style. It's a blend of the way kids draw with influences like MilIt Gross, Ed Benedict, Rod Scribner, and Ronald Searle. It also contains a lot of ideas derived from real faces he draws in restaurants. The style depends on delicate, exquisitely rendered line work. I don't know how he was able to put it on the screen using FLASH, which usually degrades delicate lines. I should say, by the way, that John pioneered the use of FLASH for sophisticated animation, rather than the banner ads that the program was meant for.

[Posted September 2003]

From David Brewster, an animator on such Disney and DreamWorks features as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Road to El Dorado: Your reaction to John's first Ren & Stimpy show is natural. Without question, he truly has the ability to disgust and offend. But it is that kind of subversive, obsessive, sensational attack on a subject that is his trademark . It both repels and attracts, but in some ways it liberates us from the realm of the mediocre rehash that audiences are given. Like an exotic food it tastes odd, but God knows it tastes far better than the tasteless mush we are constantly offered. Myself, I think there is a lot of room for mistakes here, and while we can be put off by its infantile appearance I believe there is honest redemption in the process of allowing it to be that kind of rambling thought . Even if it was plucked from a darker musing or occasionally misses the mark. It is the process that is important, I think, and not whether it hits every target.

I first saw the very first episode of the original Ren & Stimpy before it aired. I laughed my head off and then turned to a friend who had worked on it and said, "It will never air." My prediction was based on how little room networks give cartoons and how little tolerance they have for allowing that kind of step into adult humor. Well, it made air. Since then everyone and their brother has tried to imitate it, most failing completely. To me, they fail because they are unwilling to access parts of their humanity that John has always been willing to.

To me Kricfalusi's cartoon style is less important than the thought boundaries he's moved. I think even the drawing is irrelevant when laid beside how freely he has flirted with our willingness to accept hidden reflections of ourselves. Whether it is Ranger Smith in a homoerotic wrestle with Yogi or Ren's rotting teeth. John isn't creating the oddness around him, he is just placing it in a funny frame. To some, the unfortunate part of this is that we lose the charming safety that cartoons have always had. I don't think that's true, any more than adult humor changes the live-action medium. Rather than see this as self-destruction I see it as an ongoing search for humor. Will it fail on occasion? Will it go too far time and again? Yeah, but then the hits are really spectacular. Some of his have changed the industry.

I sat beside John in school at Sheridan College, and it was clear from the beginning he was going to be the exception to a lot of rules. No matter how much angst he creates in his audience, I have no doubt that it is far more anchored in himself. In an email conversation with him I once described his work as requiring you to have to slip off your mental slippers, sit back, and enjoy the ride. He is not a describable commodity as a film maker, as you have no doubt found. His extreme opinions are not based on the want to offend but the need. Not hurtful, but a cathartic release.

I once heard him describe Disney's Hunchback as this horrible film (one I animated on, by the way), and I first felt a bit angered, but then I remembered who was saying it. John has a creative Tourette's syndrome. He has no more control over it than did any of the other great artists. I fear for him as much as I admire him, simply because he will not have a life with any moment of peace. We, the enemy, will always be out there trying to push a sensibility that he has struggled against his whole career. Seductive and enticing to all those who haven't seen the light.

It all reminds me of a conversation I watched between Ray Bradbury and Ray Harryhausen. They were talking about how you had to be a fanatic to retain your art. That if you were less than a fanatic people would round your edges off and turn your work mediocre. I think that as offensive or juvenile as his work may appear at moments, John is trying his hardest to retain his pure devotion to something that he believes in. Is he wrong or right? I don't know. All I do know is that his work tears me up, makes me feel uncomfortable, and forces me to pay attention—all at the same time.

And though I admire Bakshi for great work like Heavy Traffic I think John has found a marketable structure where Ralph never did. John was totally individual long before he ever worked for Ralph (I even reminded him of his plans, in school, to produce SuperDuperman , the first effeminate super-hero. Superduperman had the upper body of Superman with the feminine hips of a woman and very high heels). He knew what he was going to do, even then. I could tell you a lot about his Sheridan College experience because even then he was swimming against the traditional tides. He fought every inch to be where he is now. Whether you are of the mind that he is a saint or the devil, it was an awesome climb. Teachers would yell at him. The teachers along with everyone else had buried the thought of real cartoons, long before producers ever had. For some reason they could not recognize what he was trying to do.

And consider, he was not really a great animator,even though his drawing skills were truly awesome. Not someone who saw structure in motion with exacting precision. His entire style is based on those bizarre expressions that counterpoint his subversive dialogue. Never looking for weight or convincing detail. Pure expression. To me it is just another approach, but to John it is the only. I don't think I could ever resent him for that, though, because the results are pleasing . He once asked if I wanted to work for him, but I was not able to because of other commitments. Really, I would rather eat the ice cream than learn to make it, anyway .

And by the way, John hating your book is an honor in disguise. Ask him how he feels about Walt Disney and enjoy the company. No one who lives and creates his way could do anything but reject anyone else's opinion. Love your site.

[Posted October 2003]

Eddie Fitzgerald, whose initial comments about John Kricfalusi appear above, responded to Dave Brewster's message with the following: John Kricfalusi must have been a holy terror in his art school days. David, if you have any stories about John at Sheridan this would be a perfect place to print them.

I met John shortly after he came to Los Angeles.He lived and breathed Clampett. I was a raging Clampett fan myself, but even I couldn't watch them endlessly the way he could. It seemed like he almost always had cartoons playing, and when he wasn't watching them and still-framing and drawing them he was talking about them. His apartment was always full of new drawings, which he generously gave away to anyone who admired them. Even then he was a world-class caricaturist. Sometimes he'd get a funny likeness right away, sometimes he'd fill up half a sketchpad till he got it right. His advice to other caricaturists was to draw the picture to please the crowd, not the person sitting for it. Plump people were made to look obese, slight overbites were turned into exploding piano keys, and a single tiny pimple on the nose became a cluster of big, black, hairy baseballs at the end of an outrageous sausage. Girls in particular were not always happy with this treatment but spectators loved it. In those days had a loose, flamboyant, unconstructed style. The drawings were bursting with energy and happiness. I can't emphasize this enough. They were flat-out ecstatic!

Artists who read this might be curious about the tools John used in this incredibly creative, pre-Ren & Stimpy period. Mostly he drew on bond-paper sketch pads or on Xerox paper, but he also liked to draw on 11 x 14" card stock, which he bought by the ream. Come to think of it, he loved to draw on restaurant napkins and paper place mats, anything that was at hand. Preferred pencils: Berol 314's, Prismacolor True Blue and Scarlet red, and black Sharpie markers. He liked to listen to music and drink beer while he drew. He had plenty of Edgar Winter, Frank Zappa, and Elvis, but he also liked ballad singers like Peggy Lee and Burl Ives. He played these records on a tattered machine that most thrift shops would have turned their noses up at.

I should say something about the state of the TV animation industry in Los Angeles at the time John arrived in 1979-80. The three networks bought nearly all the TV animation, so production was geared to their schedule. You worked six months and were laid off for six months. The goal of most people in the TV industry was to be recognized as professional so they'd be sure to be called back at the start of each new season. Not many people talked about creativity or new ideas. Personal projects that artists worked on at night were indistinguishable from what they worked on for the studio during the day. The perception was that Avery's generation had exhausted every creative possibility and all that remained for us was to be on time with useful drawings. This was the attitude that John confronted when he came to LA. People who'd spent all their time learning to be professional and acquiring a network of friends who would all hire each other just couldn't understand why John was talking about a meritocracy of the funny. They thought he was crazy. I expected that John's obvious skill would attract the attention of the best, i.e., the most professional studio artists, and that they as a class would reach down and lend him a hand. Instead they remained chillingly silent. It was pretty clear that John was on his own. I don't know where he got the courage to persevere through those years.

What was the early John like? As David said, he was enthusiastic and confrontational, but those aren't the traits I remember most clearly. What sticks most in my mind was how fundamentally sane and kind he was. I imagine a lot of people who fell into disagreement with John will do a spit take on reading this, but I'll stand by it. John believed in laugh-out-loud funny drawings that move in a funny way. He believed in telling a laugh-out-loud funny story. He believed in skill. That's a profoundly simple and sane agenda. As for being kind, John was generous with the commodity most people hoard, namely his time. He always had time to help another artist who was struggling with a drawing. He had no secret techniques, he cheerfully shared everything he knew. I've seen him insult people's work right to their face and watched them furiously gather up their work and storm out of the room. What a pity. If they'd only stayed and said something like "Oh, yeah!? What's wrong with it?" they'd have seen the other side of John, the craftsman eager to share. I used to see him spend hours with people criticizing their work in minute detail, saying things like "See that line? Why did you do that? You could have brought it out to here and gotten more contrast."

[Posted October 2003]