Karl Cohen investigates the appeal of Spike and Mike's Sick and Twisted Festival and gives homage to the two men who helped create this strange film aesthetic.
If you think all animated cartoon stars are sweet, innocent and pure, you are not ready to experience Spike and Mike's 1999 Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation, which is slowly wending its way around the U.S. Animated cartoons, like other art forms, have evolved in many different directions. While many are still as wholesome as Snow White, there are others that conservative ministers might claim are corrupting the youth of America.
The crazy world of Craig "Spike" Decker and the late Mike Gribble. © Mellow Manor Productions.
This article includes a review, but is not intended to convince anyone to see or avoid the current Spike and Mike program. Instead this was written to educate and to explain this growing phenomena. The focus will be on the programs of Craig "Spike" Decker and the late Mike Gribble as they played a major role in the creation of this strange film esthetic.
Spike and Mike's Sick and Twisted film packages have been coming to town since 1990, when they first advertised "extra twisted films" at their Saturday midnight shows. In 1991 they put together their first full length program of this type of film and ran it as an evening event. Like it or not, sick and twisted animation continues to grow in popularity. It has become part of American popular culture along with the sick and twisted TV shows Ren and Stimpy, Beavis and Butt-Head, and South Park. Spike and Mike were the first to really exploit the marketing potential of these quirky films. They gave the animators a showcase and encouraged the growth of the movement. Today Mellow Manor, the company they founded, remains the leading exhibitor of this trend.
They have discovered most of the pivotal films and filmmakers of the movement including Eric Fogel (Mutilator), creator of MTV's Celebrity Death Match, and John R. Dilworth (Dirty Birdy), creator of Courage the Cowardly Dog, an animated series for the Cartoon Network. In 1997 they exhibited the film that was later developed into the TV series South Park. Spike and Mike's biggest discovery was Mike Judge, the creator of Beavis and Butt-Head. They commissioned the first two films that star these pathetic anti-heroes. They also showed Judge's earlier work. Spike and Mike's biggest financial mistake was giving up their rights to Beavis and Butt-Head without getting a percentage of future profits.
The 1999 Sick And Twisted Program
Having previewed the latest Spike and Mike show, I can guarantee that it contains something to offend almost every reader of this publication. Not only is most of the humor in questionable taste, many images in the collection are ugly. Some of the visuals are truly sick looking and some of the jokes are really depraved.
I would write the show off as worthless junk if it were not for the fact that some of it is genuinely funny. While past shows contained relatively few works that I thought were memorable, the new collection seems to be a deliberate attempt to improve the quality of the program. There are several new types of subjects to laugh at and several films exhibit professional production standards. While I was expecting the somewhat predictable gags about sex and violence this year, I was not ready for several truly outrageous moments. For example Tongue Twister by Sean Scott deals with the childhood fears of having your tongue stick to a frozen pipe in the winter. The work took me by surprise and I found what happens in the film hilarious (caution: this is a really sick work).
Several works this year are somewhat sophisticated and avoid the loud brash style of storytelling that has dominated past shows. In Chicken Coup a rooster discovers that his pet fish fathered what he thought was his off-spring. This isn't a great work, but it did make me chuckle. Billy's Balloon, about balloons getting their revenge, is another nice understated tale. It won the grand prize for Best Short Film at Slamdance this year and was selected to be shown in the official competition at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival. A quick glance at the titles in the program tells us a wide variety of subject matter is covered. Among the titles are Die Hard in Under Two Minutes, Bowlin' for Souls, Swing Sluts, Radioactive Crotch Man, Forrest Dump, The Beckers: Cannibalism and Your Teen, and Home, Honey, I'm Higher: What You Should Know About Drugs. The film about a middle class son developing a craving for human flesh, including his own, was an unexpected treat and possibly the best work in the show. Unfortunately the "naughty" parody of Forrest Gump (1994) was a mindless pre-teen bathroom joke and the pro-drug movie was well made but boring. Swing Sluts is a tribute to really stupid valley girls. While I consider the film awful, I assume it will be a hit with the intended audience.
Previous Spike and Mike programs have had a somewhat juvenile heterosexual consciousness, so it came as a surprise to see an inoffensive homosexual gag in one film. Even more unusual is Legend of Raggot, an outrageous comedy about a bored gay couple that devises a ludicrous plan for finding sexual fulfillment. It was directed by Sean Scott who also animated Tongue Twister. I suspect he is an emerging talent who will go on to bigger and more outrageous projects. Part of the program's success comes from the films being extremely short. Most are designed to deliver their punch lines as quickly as possible using an economical amount of artistic talent. A dozen works in the show are under three minutes in length and nothing is over six minutes long. This results in a fast paced program. Another strength of the new show is the expanded variety of subject matter. This keeps the show moving forward. If one form of humor doesn't amuse you, just wait a minute as the next film might very well have you laughing.
Students at San Francisco State used to complain that the shows got boring quickly as there were too many cartoons that were similar. One wrote in a term paper that the 1993 show was, "essentially boring and redundant... the festival wore thin, (I was) dissatisfied with the show when it ended." The present program has enough variety and vitality to keep most fans entertained from start to finish.
The screening of Academy Award-winning Bunny and 1999 Cannes' Official Competition Selected Billy's Balloon proves that Spike & Mike isn't just shock. Courtesy of Mellow Manor Productions. © 1998 Blue Sky Studios and © Bit
In past years much of the artwork was amateurish looking. It appears there was a conscious effort this year to select better looking films for the show. Spike and Mike commissioned four works in the current program and all have well designed titles and graphics. It appears somebody within the company, who likes the 1950s modern design look, has worked with the animators to improve their visual designs. What Is The Appeal Of These Shows? Since sick and twisted animation mainly appeals to a young audience, I have been asking students for their opinions of the show for many years. Several have commented on what motivated them to see it in their term papers. One said, "People are drawn to the obscene, the bizarre, the freak show. People like to test their tolerances... it promises the wild and raunchy. These are cheap thrills - cheap thrills are good thrills." Someone else said he was "curious to see rare, hard to see work." He had heard the program had a large cult following just as the Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) did a few years ago. The desire to be shocked was important to many people. One person explained that he wanted a change from his daily life and he wanted to see something that he couldn't see on TV or at regular movie houses. He expected to be shocked and offended. He said, "Being shocked can be fun... the show is meant to be shocking, not cute or sentimental."
Many students commented on how seeing a Spike and Mike program was a unique experience. At theaters with high ceilings giant beach balls, balloons and sometimes inflatable love dolls are tossed into the crowd before the film begins. One student wrote, "As I entered the theater I was greeted by nearly 700 laughing and screaming people bouncing and bumping giant beach balls to and fro as though they were taken back to their childhood. This was a fantastic sight." There are several other factors that have contributed to the show's popularity. The program has always been advertised as "17 and over only!" so it has attracted many under age kids. Spike maintains security guards check IDs, but I have known many students who were proud to have seen the show before they turned 17. The party atmosphere also allows students to come to the theater drunk (beer and wine is served in San Francisco at the Palace of Fine Arts) or stoned. The most pathetic term paper I have read was from a woman who saw a sick and twisted program. She wrote, "I really wish I could give you concrete examples, but I slightly altered my state of mind and now I can't remember some things."
The Sick And Twisted Aesthetic
I see similarities between this new animation movement and the punk music that emerged in the late 1970s and `80s. Lack of artistic training does not prevent the artists from finding an audience and much of what is produced is disposable and quickly forgotten. Both use strong, ugly images to express themselves. Both movements are sometimes sarcastic and critical of mainstream society. Both make their statements without regard to artistic talent. One does not have to be enthusiastic about either punk music or sick and twisted animation to be "cool" or part of the scene. You simply have to be there. I attended several punk concerts where there was little or no applause and it didn't seem to matter to the performers. I do not recall a crowd ever demanding an encore. At the film shows there is laughter, but not much applause for the best films. Nobody seems to care about the other films. After the shows students rarely show any excitement for their favorite films. Many say they are not sure they will see the next annual program.
I am fascinated about the future of sick and twisted animation. What will happen if the quality of the shows continues to improve and they become popular with a more mainstream audience? At present there is a max of really crude works and those that are more sophisticated. Will raising the standards too much ruin the slightly seedy or naughty feeling young people have about attending these programs? The fascination with forbidden images will continue to draw crowds no matter what happens, but will the art form eventually become institutionalized like Mad Magazine/TV or Saturday Night Live and draw similar audiences? Sick And Twisted Trivia 1. The South Park children are known for their use of obscene language. Some people mistakenly believe these kids were the first animated stars to swear on TV. Who holds that dubious honor? 2. Beavis and Butt-Head have really ugly behinds. They have exposed themselves many times to MTV audiences. Some people mistakenly believe they were the first animated stars to drop their pants in front of their TV audience. Who holds this honor? 3. South Park is based on a short animated Christmas greeting by Matt Stone and Trey Parker. In it Jesus and Santa Claus fight to the death over the meaning of Christmas. It was made several years before the TV show and unauthorized video copies have become prized collectors items. What is the title of this work? 4. Spike and Mike commissioned the first films to star Beavis and Butt-Head. What are their titles? 5. Spike and Mike's first sick and twisted show included an animated Lenny Bruce classic made in San Francisco in 1968. What is the title of the film and who made it? 6. Who was the first theatrical cartoon star to swear in his movies? Answers: 1. Bart and Homer Simpson. Their favorite swear words are still "hell" and "damn." 2. Bart Simpson. 3. The Spirit of Christmas. 4. Frog Baseball, 1992, and Peace, Love and Understanding, 1993. 5. Thank You Mask Man, produced by John Magnuson and directed by Jeff Hale. 6. Flip the Frog, 1931-'33. He said "hell" and/or "damn" in a few of his films. Karl Cohen is President of ASIFA-San Francisco. His first book, Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators, is published by McFarland Publishers. He also teaches animation history at San Francisco State University.