The Ren & Stimpy Adult Cartoon Party
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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
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 attentionall 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
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
[Posted October 2003]