The Rise & Fall of “The Ren and Stimpy Show”
by Jim Swallow
Cartoon; to me, the word has always conjured images of Tom and Jerry, Bugs Bunny, the raucous crazy slapstick created by Fred Quimby, Chuck Jones and Tex Avery. In today’s TV paradise, you’ll find that proud tradition is almost non-existent, replaced with Disney-fed moral pap or cheap, heinous and vacuous dross… There are a few challengers, but sadly one of the greatest has been absorbed by the very forces it meant to gross out: The Ren and Stimpy Show.
This toon of toons sprang from the mind of Spumco Animation creator John Kricfalusi, as a fragment of another show pitched to the MTV-owned Nickelodeon children’s TV network. Originally, Ren Hoek, the Asthma-hound Chihuahua with the Peter Lorre voice and Stimpy, the kitty-litter-eating doofus cat were just wallpaper characters in a series concept called “Your Gang”. When they were spotted on the proposal by executive producer Vanessa Coffey, the germ of the idea began (the proposal to Nick also contained the seed for ‘Jimmy the Hapless Boy’, Spumco’s current project). From these humble beginnings came the shambling beast that became The Ren and Stimpy Show, dogged by machinations behind the scenes and outrageous tales of censorship, overspending and other backstage tomfoolery.
The show’s basic tenet was a simple one; a mis-matched ‘odd couple’, one pseudointellectual and borderline psychotic, the other grotesquely stupid and flatulent, but both best pals. In each story we would find dog and cat engaged in adventures of varying idiocy; out of this simple framework, Kricfalusi and his writers at Spumco spun cartoons the like of which had never been seen on Saturday morning kidvid. John K himself was a fan of the older toons from before the made-for-TV generation, especially the work of the legendary Bob Clampett. He took the classic weirdo slapstick and blended in a 90’s edge of such utter surrealism that at times it’s scary. While the kids would enjoy the blatant pie-fights and fart gags, adults tuning in would find themselves confronted with violent weirdness and disturbed humour. Whatever the execs at Nick thought, ‘Ren and Stimpy’ wasn’t just for children.
What it was, was crazed, dynamic and utterly hilarious in the most insane fashion. The show shot to instant cult status, even getting it a guest appearance for the leads on Fox’s “The Simpsons”. Head-twisting oddness abounds throughout the series, whether you’re talking about the Shaven Yak and his Enchanted Canoe, the ear-mangling ‘Happy Happy Joy Joy’ song, or the Bloody Head Fairy.
In terms of story content, at its weakest, Ren and Stimpy veers close to the more outrageous episodes of Tiny Toons, but more often than not it goes off the deep end of utter psychosis – witness Ren’s bathtime monologue in ‘Space Madness’. If you like your comedy twisted and your cartoons bizarre, you’ve found it here.
But these story elements helped cause the eventual ‘death’ of the true Ren and Stimpy. Creator Kricfalusi argued with the Nickelodeon suits about the plot content, reportedly yelling and bugging his eyes to make points, answering requests to drop the most lavatorial moments by demanding even more in their place. The aforementioned executive producer Vanessa Coffey was quoted as saying that she did not want Nick to become known as “the network of boogers and farts”, and after skyrocketing budget problems and missed program slots, John K and Spumco parted ways with Nickelodeon, leaving voice actor Billy West (who provided Stimpy’s dulcet tones) to step in and speak for Ren, as Kricfalusi had done since the show began. It’s still airing on Nick both here and in the US, and surprisingly (or perhaps not), the Spumco-created are the faves. John K may be gone but the Network of Boogers and Farts lives on…