Have you ever thought that Ren and Stimpy's popularity was based on their abstract representation of our early '90s fears and anxieties regarding political uncertainty and the AIDS epidemic? Well, Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman has.
The idolatry, accolades and endearments are long over; so, for the most part, are the recriminations, accusations and bitter parting shots. Animation insiders who aligned their sympathies with either camp, as well as the fans who chose sides, have moved on to different interests. The Ren and Stimpy Show, animation's version of the Dreyfus affair, ceased production in 1995, and today it lies buried under strata of imported anime, several incarnations of the Cartoon Network and the recent small-screen triumphs of Nickelodeon and Disney TV. For those who followed this unique, creator-driven series from its premiere in August of 1991 through the controversial and contentious firing of head man John Kricfalusi in September of 1992, all that remains are memories, regrets and whatever episodes were handily captured on videotape.
No Dead Ringers
Still, the past cannot be erased or forgotten; there was a Ren and Stimpy, not to mention a George Liquor, a Mr. Horse and a Muddy Mudskipper. The visual style of American animation was coated with Spumco for more than a decade, and the cultural mainstream of the country was tweaked as well. Two clones were spawned almost immediately (allowing for the vagaries of production schedules), Donovan Cook's Two Stupid Dogs and Disney's Shnookums and Meat. Even The Simpsons, Matt Groening's primetime hit, found occasion to cameo the pathological pets; ad captandum vulgus. The commentaries, magazine covers, campus viewing parties and merchandising were omnipresent, and the "Log" song vied with "Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy" as a cultural signifier of cool. With one brief star turn, a scrawny, dyspeptic Chihuahua and an obese, brain-damaged cat demolished the previous forty years of commercial animation. We saw Superman's fists crash through walls of concrete, and we winced as the chips flew by at hyperspeed; as we turned to peer through the hazy dust of that destruction, Superman shouted: "YOU EEDIOT!" and vomited up a hairball at our feet.
There have been many attempts to explain the appeal and popularity of this show, but in keeping with postmodern culture and our abbreviated attention spans, all of them were either done at the time of Ren and Stimpy's ascendancy or shortly after the exile of Good King John -- a revisionist view is in order! The show has been described by analysts and pundits as "Tex Avery on drugs," a maniacal evolutionary offshoot of the classic Looney Tunes, a postmodern take on Hanna-Barbera kidvid, or some posthumous stepchild of Bob Clampett's rule-shattering mayhem. These are not unwarranted comparisons if one considers the wild takes and casual violence of the Avery cartoons or the emotional sturm und drang that boiled through Clampett's creations until the force of that maelstrom distorted their bodies.
Still, the differences between John K.'s cartoons and those that influenced them are considerable. For one thing, Avery's attitude toward his characters was far too impersonal, and the damage done to them left little impact on the viewer. Clampett's characters had an emotional life, but tended to behave like amphetamine-drenched buzz saws when angered, frightened or bent on aggression; this played into Clampett's tendency to direct cartoons at an almost preternatural pace. In truth, while elements of these can be seen -- animation does tend to build on its precedents, and Clampett was Kricfalusi's spiritual mentor -- The Ren and Stimpy Show was built on a much deeper foundation where superficial comparison to animated precedents does not apply. Although Ren once assured his fatuous feline friend that cartoons weren't real, John Kricfalusi brought to them an uncomfortable touch of reality that had no forerunner in modern animation.
What had never been explored before (at least not to this depth) was the concept that cartoons and their characters could harbor a deep, resonant pathology that infected both body and spirit. This is not the same, nor is it as simplistic, as stating that John K. showed us "the dark side of cartoons." Ren and Stimpy could be bright and funny, and many of their adventures were more endearing than disturbing. However, the dog and cat were organic to a degree that separated them from any other animated creations to date. This allowed Kricfalusi and the Spumco crew to inflict grotesqueries upon the pair and their supporting cast that rivaled -- and surpassed -- those dreamed up by animators such as Jan Svankmajer. Nickelodeon's frantic interference and censorship prevented viewers from seeing tongues torn out and eaten (Sven Hoek), disembowelment (Rubber Nipple Salesmen), exsanguination by a giant leech (Nurse Stimpy) and the quaffing of water from a dirty toilet (Big House Blues). As it was, the show's fans got to enjoy mucus, farts, parasites, nasal hair and sundry other effluvium in abundance. This was only the beginning.
The Ren and Stimpy Show featured filth, illness, disease and mutilation to an unprecedented degree, making these horrors an integral part of the show. Close-ups and held shots of parasites, blood-rilled eyes and hairy, inflamed skin often resembled plates from pathology textbooks, highlighting the fragility of our flesh and the insidious diseases and injuries that threaten it daily. In Ren's Toothache, exposed nerve endings writhe in the dog's pestilent gum sockets. Consumed by sickness in Nurse Stimpy, a glazed Ren sweats feverishly from his pores, as mucus sputters in his nostrils. Mr. Horse's fall in Fire Dogs violates the rule of cartoon invulnerability; he shatters his spine. As with those textbooks, it is hard to stop turning the pages to see the next sickening insult to our mortality; we retain our morbid fascination with the overturned car, the autopsy table, the visceral thrill of the gory crime scene.
Nor was illness confined to the body; Ren Hoek was violently psychotic, and Kricfalusi complained of how Nick executives wheedled him to give the Chihuahua a softer side. Ren may have been easily frazzled, bad-tempered and abusive by nature, but in episodes where he actually lost his mind, it was the result of a slow, cumulative process that took most of the episode to develop. In Space Madness, Ren goes slowly mad over the course of a galactic journey. When the boys enlist In The Army, the rigors of military life drive Ren insane late in the cartoon. Witness Ren's stunning descent into menacing lunacy at the conclusion of Sven Hoek. Only after his fragile sanity was overwhelmed would Ren detonate into a screaming klaxon, neon-pink eyes dilating into twin novae inches above his jagged, monolithic teeth. Contrast these examples with Bob Clampett's The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (a favorite, incidentally, of Kricfalusi's): Daffy Duck begins the cartoon in a manic state, engages the action by knocking himself out, and never slows down until the finale; we are always laughing. It is Ren, and not Daffy, who illustrates the true process by which rationality is gradually replaced by raging disorganization, and the effect on us is vastly different. Stimpy underwent a similar meltdown in Nurse Stimpy, but the full range of the slobbering cat's repressed sadism was best displayed in Stimpy's Inventions, a parable of mind control that must rank as one of the most chilling cartoons ever animated.
The series boasts countless examples of bodily wastes and fluids lumped and puddled about in flippant denial of the paranoid AIDS nation we had become by the 1990s. Sven Hoek slaps a used, bloody bandage on Stimpy's delighted nose, and soon the two are both waist -- or is it waste -- deep in Stimpy's litter box, sharing "a private moment." Stimpy, in another notorious episode, gives "birth" to an animated fart, perhaps the symbolic love child of Stimpy and his canine housemate (Kricfalusi "outed" the couple, as if that was necessary, in an interview with The San Francisco Examiner on January 28, 1997). It matters little if Ren and Stimpy were gay; it matters considerably that Ren and Stimpy were often diseased or exposed to copious bodily fluids. How did all of this contribute to the overwhelming popularity of the Ren and Stimpy Show? After all, illness and insanity are typically unpleasant subjects let alone a template for what were allegedly children's cartoons. The answer lies not in comparison to other cartoons, but in comparison to another medium, that of folk and fairy tales.
A Modern (and Gross) Fairy Tale
Over the past seventy years or so, psychologists (primarily of the psychoanalytic school) reinterpreted many of the world's most popular fairy tales, finding in them a common thread: they were believed to be abstract representations of fears, needs and anxieties common to both children and adults. It was through these symbolic tales that powerlessness could be confronted, anxieties (including sexual ones) safely expressed and dealt with, and wishes fulfilled. Chief among the proponents of this theory were Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and more recently, Bruno Bettleheim (who saw these tales as a way to negotiate growth through developmental stages). In this way, for example, George Liquor can be viewed as a grinning, evil gingerbread witch to Ren and Stimpy's Hansel and Gretel, or perhaps the devouring Oedipal figure (Liquor "owned" the pair in at least two episodes) of psychoanalytic lore.
The world of the early 1990s was an anxious and uncertain place. The aforementioned AIDS epidemic spread across the globe like some malignant viral stealth fighter; by the time of Kricfalusi's ouster in 1992 the disease had claimed 200,000 American lives. Frightening new viruses such as Ebola were sifting out of the rainforests. The fall of Communism brought instability and conflict to a suddenly fragmented Eastern Europe; genocide in that area and Africa permeated the headlines. America led an international force into the explosive Middle East where suspicions of chemical, biological and nuclear "weapons of mass destruction" ran rampant. The term "New World Order" was bandied about in the media and the White House but few could define what this actually meant or what it held for the future. While we waited to see what came next, terrorist activity increased around the globe. If American society was ever prepared to accept revisionist fairy tales, this final decade of the millennium -- portentous for this fact alone -- was the ideal time.
Kricfalusi's Ren and Stimpy shorts thus struck several resonant chords among both children and adults. On a surface level, they were funny, subversive cartoons with an offbeat retro look, but a deeper examination revealed them to be an encapsulation of some of our darkest fears, ones in which the soul and body are powerless against a world out of balance. Perhaps the most striking example of this was the episode Black Hole, which finds the duo stranded on a bizarre, hostile planet; they begin to mutate into progressively hideous versions of themselves before imploding at the end of the cartoon. John Kricfalusi became a folk teller for the 1990s, however unwitting or subconscious the process might have been. Kricfalusi's genius was twofold: not only did he tap into the collective unconscious of a nation and retrieve its angst, he then circumvented the prevailing studio system and prosocial miasma that hung over television animation in order to mirror these fears back to us. Nickelodeon, which was probably expecting something more in the spirit of The Angry Beavers or CatDog, was little prepared for cartoons that carried such elemental, archetypal force; their response was to censor and protect. Yet, there was no other way to tell these stories; fairy tales, which have been with us since the 1500s, are cruel, frightening and capricious by their very nature. In the history of American animation, only Kricfalusi and Walt Disney fully recognized this fact. The Ren and Stimpy Show was a landmark in animation history, but few contemporary critics seem to have noted how deeply its roots were buried in history -- and in ourselves.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.