An animator, writer and director who never backed down when it came to preserving his creative vision. And what a vision it was!
The Ren & Stimpy Show
…because, honestly, this show should never have been kids’ programming. Creator John Kricfalusi took the traditional “cat vs. dog” cartoon trope and twisted it into a bizarro buddy comedy with adult overtones. The show’s unique off-brand of humor combined ultra-violent slapstick and gross-out gags with suggestive jokes and intelligent parodies. Although the show received high ratings, Kricfalusi’s battles with cable censors eventually forced him to leave the show…until his adults-only reboot nearly a decade later.
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“Ren & Stimpy” was a Nickelodeon series ostensibly aimed at kids and, at least in the early days, creator John Kricfalusi wielded an extraordinary amount of creative control over the show, allowing him to push the boundaries of acceptable children's humor. He had actually created the title characters when he was in college, and before being removed from the show, provided the voice of Ren. In fact, “Ren & Stimpy” was a very personal project for Kricfalusi, who applied extraordinarily high standards to the level of humor and the artwork. Perhaps due to the influence of his mentor Ralph Bakshi, Kricfalusi never intended for “Ren & Stimpy” to be just for kids, which is clear to almost anyone who has seen the show. He constantly pushed the envelope in terms of the level of violence and suggestive humor, which probably contributed to the show’s popularity but also sparked outrage from the morality police. As Nickelodeon assigned more executives to oversee the series and tamper its content, Kricfalusi pushed back, at one point using an alias for an episode of the show he disliked. While we may think of the visionary showrunner as a staple of modern TV, especially for youth oriented in the 1990’s, this wasn’t exactly the case. And while there are plenty of stories about artists battling with the forces of the entertainment industry to preserve the integrity of their vision, a cartoon that takes delight in bodily functions wouldn’t necessarily seem the obvious choice for media martyrdom. But again, this was a personal project for the creator. In fact, Kricfalusi’s dedication to his material led him to produce both a spin-off web series featuring side characters he owned the rights to, as well as an intentionally vulgar update of the show for Spike in the mid-2000’s.
The visual style of “Ren & Stimpy” is unique from almost any other animated series. Although the main design of the show is rooted in the classic cartoon fashion of “Looney Toons” characters, the artists drew inspiration more from the earlier, more distorted incarnations of Bugs and company. The storyboard artists also added both a level of detail and psychedelic flourishes to the backgrounds that rewarded careful – or maybe even enhanced state – viewing. However, anyone who ever tried to enjoy a meal while watching an episode can attest to the show’s signature element: the artistically rendered close-up still shot. Usually reserved for the most disgusting gags in the episode, the animators would cut from the show’s main look to a painterly rendition of foul odors, festering body parts or accentuated posteriors. The result generally resembled something between Da Vinci and Dali, but were always worthy of both awe and revulsion in equal measure. In fact, these images probably remain both the enduring legacy of the show’s visual look, as well as the perfect metaphor for a series that combined artistry with toilet humor.
One of the major precursors to the off-kilter humor of Adult Swim, “Ren & Stimpy” was perhaps the original show that was silly enough for children, but just right for stoners, open-minded adults and more laid back members of the parental set. While the gross-out gags and violence may have defined the show, the humor was never unintelligent. Kricfalusi’s insistence on upping the ante of the show’s animated sadism seemed to underscore the idea that, in fact, “Ren & Stimpy” wasn’t that much less brutal than anything Bugs and Daffy did. One of the great strengths and joys of animation is the medium’s ability to ignore basic laws of physics and biology, and “Ren & Stimpy” seemed intent on proving why this had social value. The series also took delight in parodying the commercial nature of the media industry, with products like a toy log with greatly exaggerated uses or the board game that teaches kids the vital lesson, “Don’t Whizz on the Electric Fence.” When it wanted to be, the show could demonstrate a level of wit and irony that probably will never be seen again on a show marketed exclusively to kids.
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