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 suggestwith a straight
face, apparentlythat 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 greatnessI 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
I wonderif 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 followingand 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
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
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
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 traditionand 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 grantedand dismiss it out of hand as mere gross-out
I think Mr. Barrier is unable or unwilling to grasp the larger
point. That is: the gross parts in R&S are merely superficial
elementscomic 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 emotionshowever
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
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.
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
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."