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.]
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 scatologicaland thus potentially very funnyfrom
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 upreally, 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 sympathiessuch 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 disgustthey'll play with feces and put anything
into their mouthsand 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
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 aliveso much more like real peoplethan
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'sdistortion 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 wildernessafter
being ousted by Nickelodeon from Ren & Stimpy, he made
commercials, Internet cartoons, comic books, and the rare cartoon
for TVwith 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
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]