Dr. Toon interviews John Kricfalusi about his favorite cartoons, which have inspired the Ren & Stimpy creator's forthcoming screening series at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, California.
On September 7 and 8, 2004, the Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Blvd. in Los Angeles. will be hosting a special two-night presentation by director/animator John Kricfalusi. The first night includes a retrospective of his recent and past work, while the second night showcases John's favorite cartoons, directors, and animators. John was kind enough to provide this in-depth sneak peek to AWN readers. Here's what we'll see and why!
Dr. Toon: Let's start with the cartoons you chose for the retrospective and why you chose them.
John Kricfalusi: Well, there are two nights. The first night I'll show my cartoons and on the second night I show my favorite classic cartoons. I wanted to show an assortment of stuff; it's a retrospective and you don't want to show everything that's the same, so it's not back-to-back Ren & Stimpys although I am running some of the Spike TV Ren & Stimpys that no one has ever seen before. These will be premieres, I guess. The first cartoon I'm going to show is "Naked Beach Frenzy", because every time I've run that one in the theater, it's brought the house down. Hopefully that will put everyone in a good mood so that they'll like my crappy cartoons that follow!
That episode is just like its title it's got lots of naked girls running around bouncing all over the place. If you ever want to see an animated naked girl, it's in this one. This it what you wish "Red Hot Riding Hood" would have done. Basically, Ren & Stimpy go to the beach, Stimpy thinks that Ren is there for the fresh air and sunshine and he's proud of him, but it turns out that Ren's really there to see the half-naked girls in their string bikinis. And they don't even stay on for very long. Then they get jobs as shower attendants in the women's shower room it's like a luxury shower room for girls. Ren & Stimpy attend to their every imaginable need.
After "Naked Beach Frenzy" I go into a history of Spumco. I'm going to start with an episode of the Ralph Bakshi Mighty Mouse. It's my favorite episode, one that Bob Jaques and I came up with. Jim Reardon and I wrote the script. It's called "Mighty's Benefit Plan," but I always refer to it as "Elvy and the Tree Weasels," because that's really what it's about. It's a takeoff on Alvin and the Chipmunks. This is a restored film in terms of content. There were a couple of scenes that we wrote and actually animated that were too much for even Ralph, and he cut them out for fear that the network would come after us and kill us - this was 1987. I put them back in for retrospectives.
Then we'll have a commercial reel where we're going to show the Old Navy commercials and a Nike commercial and maybe some station IDs for NBC, some stuff like that. Cuter than some of the stuff people know me for.
DT: Were you contacted by agencies to make those commercials or were you just hiring yourself out as a free agent?
JK: Some of the commercials Ron Diamond got for us, like the Nike commercial. I don't remember how we got the Old Navy commercials; it might have been through Ron. We didn't work with an ad agency on those; we worked directly with the Old Navy guys.
"Man's Best Friend" comes after that. That's the banned episode of Ren & Stimpy that has aired on Spike but not everyone has seen it and that's a pretty good crowd pleaser. That's the famous "George Liquor episode" that got all of us at Spumco fired from The Ren & Stimpy Show. My favorite character to animate, that's George Liquor American.
DT: That was his second appearance, right? He first showed up in "Robin Hoek" as a sheriff, right?
JK: Yeah, and he was in "Dog Show." Right after "Man's Best Friend" we're going to have a little intermission, a sort of question-and-answer period. After that we're coming back with "Boo Boo Runs Wild." That's very rarely seen, and I don't know why they don't run the hell out of that because every time I run it in a movie theater people go crazy. It's got that great "Ultimate Fighting" scene at the end where he beats the living crap out of Ranger Smith who doesn't want to see that?
I'd been drawing Hanna-Barbera caricatures ever since I was a kid. In fact, I used to do all these wacky caricatures of Ed Benedict's style. Ed's the greatest, one of my big heroes of all time. I showed them to (Cartoon Network's) Mike Lazzo and Fred Seibert. They both loved them and said, "We gotta make some cartoons like this." That was a life's dream. I didn't think there was any way in hell that somebody would let you monkey with their trademarks. I don't know why they didn't build a series on that.
By now we could have made 122 episodes! I'd never run out of stories for those characters. The early Hanna-Barbera characters had so much ingrained in them; they had Ed Benedict's great designs, great voices by Daws Butler, Don Messick, Jean Vander Pyl, Janet Waldo, Mel Blanc, Bea Benaderet, all those great people.
The one thing about Hanna-Barbera, though they never took it far enough. They had all the ingredients in their earlier cartoons, but I guess it must have been their system; they didn't really have a director system. Had they given that raw material to powerful directors like Bob Clampett or Tex Avery, they really could have done something with them! I love those cartoons and I still watch them to this day. They're very conservative, yet very solid in character development and design. If somebody would let me, I would just keep making Hanna-Barbera cartoons forever. There's something about the first three years of the Hanna-Barbera cartoons that feel really good.
The first season of The Flintstones was great. It had Ed Benedict's designs, it had Walter Clinton's layouts and Art Lozzi's absolutely amazing backgrounds. He used more subtle, more harmonious colors Lozzi was an unsung hero and not too many people know about him. There was a guy who later became head of the background department named (Fernando) Montealegre. His colors were real garish, all pink, bright purple and fluorescent colors; I've never really liked that. Most cartoons you see today still have garish color; they're pink, purple, and green. Genndy Tartakovsky's cartoons are exceptions they have great color.
After the Hanna-Barbera tribute we're going to show an episode of "Weekend Pussy Hunt" that no one has ever seen, episode 12, the one that never made it to Icebox. After that we're going to show an educational cartoon. People don't know that side of me. Not only do I want to make people sick to their stomachs when they watch cartoons, but I also want to better them! So we're going to run "What Pee Boners Are For" because I know everyone's wondered that and this cartoon explains it. The cartoon stars Slab and Ernie, George Liquor's little nephews. It's designed and drawn by Aaron Springer and I, and AnnMarie McCarty who'll also be at the show did the Flash animation. Her and I created Flash animation back in late 1996, and the first cartoons appeared on the Internet in 1997.
MSN had contacted us saying they wanted to start a network online. I had the same idea only I didn't know how to do it because I didn't know of any technology that would allow for animation. They told me that there was this new animation technology called Flash but it wasn't really being used for animation, it was being used for banner ads. MSN said, "Why don't you try making cartoons with it?" By coincidence, AnnMarie had appeared at the doors of Spumco about a week earlier looking for a job. She met with Kevin Kolde, the founder of Spumco and told him all about Flash.
AnnMarie was a huge fan of mine, knew every one of my characters, even the ones that had only appeared in comicbooks. Kevin told me to call her because she knows how to do Flash. We believed that we could make cartoons with it, so we started working on The Goddam George Liquor Program. All the techniques we pioneered on George Liquor and Weekend Pussy Hunt are now in use not only on the Internet, but on television.
After "What Pee Boners are For" we're going to show "Stimpy's Pregnant." This is another historic event from Spumco because it's the first full, on-screen live animated childbirth. The 600 people in the Egyptian Theater will be the first 600 to witness this event. Then we're going to have a break with a question-and-answer period. By the way, Jerry Beck is going to be part of this, and John Gibson is helping us put this on, too. We're trying to lure Leonard Maltin to come in and do guest disclaimers for some of the cartoons.
After the question-and-answer period, for the real die-hard fans who want to stay to the end, we're going to run "Ren & Stimpy - Altruists," the Ren & Stimpy episode that has more jokes in it than any Ren & Stimpy in history. They're trying to help a poor widow and her handicapped child. It's a throwback to the Three Stooges; they would help people once in a while.
It was funny because you'd watch Moe just beat the crap out of Larry and Curly for five minutes and then they would hear somebody crying, and it would be some widow that's about to have her motel foreclosed. So Moe all of a sudden gets a heart! "Come on fellas, we gotta help this poor lady out!" They do something nice but Moe continues to beat the crap out of everybody! It's hilarious. That's what "Altruists" is about.
So that's the end of Night Number One. I really hope people don't miss the second night because that really showcases some of the most fun cartoons ever made. All made by cartoonists with no executive interference and they all scream with pure joy. I'll show all the classic cartoons, but we'll run a couple of Ren & Stimpy s. I'll have a print of "Big House Blues," the uncut one that is the real pilot for Ren & Stimpy. That one was fully animated between Spumco in L.A. and Bob Jacques' and Kelly Armstrong's Carbunkle in Vancouver. It was inked at Bardel Studios in Vancouver.
It's got some of the best animation you'll ever see in the series because it wasn't really made for TV, it was just made for all of us to prove ourselves. That cartoon is full of influences from Bob Clampett, and I'm then going to explain what I ripped off for "Big House Blues."
DT: Do you want to talk about that now or save it for the show?
JK: I could tell you now. One of the main things you see in Ren & Stimpy is that all of a sudden the backgrounds disappear and you get these weird, blotchy backgrounds. That came from Baby Bottleneck, a Clampett cartoon that has practically no backgrounds. Once the story gets going there are only color cards. There's a scene where a machine hits Daffy Duck on the head with a tiny hammer and his head warps and starts bouncing all over the place. As it's doing that the background cards flash different colors. I was amazed - that's the first time I'd ever seen that done and I thought, "I've got to steal that!" Then I took it further by adding weird spots to the backgrounds.
That sort of evolved through the Ren & Stimpy series. When a character experienced different emotions we would change the background. Visually we would follow the characters' emotions to where the designs would change in the cartoons according to what they felt - not just they way the characters looked but the way the backgrounds looked.
After that, the cartoons I really want to show are the classic cartoons, because to me the cartoons made from the 1930s to the 1950s are the best ever made. So, in rough order, I want to show a couple of early Fleischer cartoons. Swing You Sinners (1930) is a Bimbo cartoon. It's exactly what a cartoon should be. The story is just, Bimbo's in a graveyard, and all the spooks come out. The music just builds and builds there's a great momentum to the cartoon that keeps building until it gets completely insane at the end. When you look at Sinners you've got to compare it to what you've seen from Walt Disney in that time period.
It's beyond me how Mickey Mouse or Walt Disney ever became a success. Disney must have been the blandest human on the planet, it's like he was from another century. When you look at Disney's early cartoons they're the blandest things in the world. Then you see what Fleischer was doing, it's just leagues ahead of Disney.
DT: Interesting thing about Swing You Sinners; nearly everybody working on it was animating for the first time because Fleischer had to replace a bunch of animators that quit. That is amazing!
JK: Well, Grim Natwick worked on it, and his animation of the ghouls and monsters is amazing. Ghosts, dinosaurs everything! After Swing You Sinners, we'll run Mysterious Mose (1930). That has a lot of Grim Natwick in it, and what I think are the cutest animation drawings of Betty Boop ever done. Absolutely beautiful.
DT: Doesn't she still have dog ears in that film?
JK: Yeah, but she's really great looking! If you look at the first Betty Boop cartoon, Dizzy Dishes (1930) she's hideous in that one, but that's Grim Natwick, too. Whenever she talks her mouth comes out like a foreskin. I still love that cartoon but Mose is such a contrast because Betty looks so cute. She doesn't look like a big fly or something. I'm going to show a Popeye cartoon but I'm not 100% sure which one.
Sometimes it's hard to get the studios to give you a print of something. I put down A Clean Shaven Man (1936) but pretty much any Popeye from 1933-1938 is going to be great. One thing that's special about the Popeye cartoons is that they gave everyone unique walks and runs. There's a real funny walk for Popeye, almost like little dances that he does. Olive's are crazy, those big spaghetti legs flying around. Fleischer did that better than anyone ever did, and they excelled at animating technical stuff, too.
I had more trouble getting the prints I want to show for Chuck Jones. I wanted to show The Dover Boys and Tom Thumb In Trouble. The thing about Chuck Jones is, everybody knows his cartoons. If you were showing the best of Jones you would probably show stuff like One Froggy Evening but I like his 1940s cartoons better than the ones that made Jerry Beck's The 50 Greatest Cartoons. One of the things I want to achieve with the second show is to display "The Age of Cartooniness." Not the "golden age," because not everybody making films was cartoony. Disney wasn't he was the anti-cartoonist. He didn't like cartooniness.
Chuck Jones didn't either. I don't know how many people besides historians and diehard fans know that, but when the general public thinks of the "golden age of animation" they think of Chuck Jones. What I wanted to show is what Jones would have been if it had not been for Bob Clampett. Jones had two general tendencies; One was the tendency to do super-cute, Disneyesque syrupy-sweet cartoons, and the cutest, syrupy-sweetest cartoon ever made is Tom Thumb In Trouble. It's so sweet that it's rude! One of my very favorite Jones cartoons. My other favorite is The Dover Boys, the first stylized cartoon. It inspired John Hubley and all the UPA guys and caused a revolution in animation. And Jones almost got fired for it!
DT: Leon Schlesinger hated that cartoon.
JK: I love the cartoon, I think it's amazing. It's stylized but it's funny, it has Warner Bros. jokes in it. It's not like Tom Thumb, which is unlike a Warners cartoon. Those two cartoons say "Chuck Jones" to me more than any other he's done. When he started making his real funny cartoons, that's because Schlesinger was telling him, "You'd better start making Clampett-style cartoons or you're out of here!" Jones wanted to be known as a "high artist" and maybe to him there were two ways to approach that. One was through cute for some reason cuteness is associated with high art or stylized stuff that looked like illustrations or magazine cartoons. That's what "The Dover Boys" looked like. Leon Schlesinger wanted no part of that. He just wanted pure entertainment.
Then we come to Bob Clampett, whom nobody had to tell to be entertaining. That was just in his blood, he was walking entertainment. He made cartoons in which not only was the animation good, every single part of his cartoons was good. The music was great, the timing phenomenal, the sound effects every element of the film he was using, Clampett loved. Compare him to other directors like Tex Avery. Avery pretty much loved just one thing: getting a gag across. He experimented with design to a certain extent but his soundtracks weren't very good and he was strapped with Scott Bradley, whose idea of funny music was to play everything off-key. Avery didn't care about acting. Clampett cared about everything.
Clampett's cartoons heighten your senses they wake you up and keep you on the edge of your seat because everything is going on at once and the characters are so alive. In other director's cartoons even good ones you feel the directors pushing the characters around. You really felt that in Chuck Jones' films, especially the ones about Elmer, Bugs and Daffy. Take that Rabbit Fire trilogy. In those cartoons Bugs Bunny always wins. But he doesn't do a thing to deserve winning. He stands there and holds up signs.
These "pronoun trouble" jokes were done in other cartoons long before Rabbit Fire. They don't work. And Daffy Duck is not a stupid character. That stuff might work with Elmer but not with Daffy. So really, it's cheating. There's no reason that Daffy should lose except that the writer and director dictate it. Bugs Bunny is the one who should get his face blown off, and the only reason everybody buys that Bugs Bunny wins is because they remember the earlier cartoons where Bugs had a personality and we saw him regularly defeat other characters.
Bugs isn't the same in a Clampett cartoon. In the early films he's a real character and you can feel his personality coming out of him, not being dictated by the director. He's really fun, has sort of a teenage wiseass personality and picks on other characters. The point I'm making is, the characters in Clampett's cartoons are more alive than in Jones; they seem like real creatures, filled with the spark and the joy of life. So here's my choice of Clampett cartoons to run. Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (1943) but they're not going to let me. I have no idea why. I don't know why you can watch Gone With The Wind on TV every year the same company owns them - you can show that film but you can't show Coal Black, which many people believe is the greatest cartoon ever made.
DT: The speed of that cartoon is dazzling. It's unbelievable all the business Clampett stuffed into that cartoon in the amount of time he had.
JK: Well, Clampett was the most controlled director of all time. He could get five times the information into a cartoon than anyone else could. Then we're going to run Gruesome Twosome (1945), the best Tweety Bird cartoon. A lot of people don't know that Tweety was once cool. In the Clampett cartoons he was totally cool. First of all, he's an actual baby bird and he's sadistic. Lightheartedly sadistic, but he really enjoys inflicting pain.
Gruesome Twosome is one of the most violent cartoons ever made; not because of the violent gags that happen, but the execution of them they look like they really hurt, and the energy is amazing. Here's where Clampett really sucks you in: he starts a cartoon with this happy-go-lucky music and you think it's going to be a childlike adventure- then all this sick stuff starts happening! Only Clampett could get away with this combination of "cute" and "sick" because the way he did it was so damn appealing.
Tortoise Wins By a Hare is next, one of my favorite Clampett cartoons. I picked it because it's a perfect example of how Clampett understood the characters better than anyone else. Most people think that characters should have only one trait. Bugs Bunny is a winner, period. Clampett's characters have more levels than that. Sure, Bugs is known as a winner. Now, somebody who is used to winning in real life is not going to be a good loser. So in Clampett's cartoons when Bugs loses he goes completely insane and he can't stand it.
At the beginning of Tortoise Bugs is watching the previous Tex Avery cartoon (Tortoise Beats Hare) where he loses the race against the tortoise. He flings his carrot and goes into the greatest tirade in animation. Just watch Rod Scribner's animation of Bugs losing his cool and yelling, "He can't do that! I'm a natural-born speed merchant!"
Then we'll run one of the all-time best, The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (1946). This is the cartoon where I discovered Bob Clampett. I was 23 years old, going to Sheridan College in Toronto. On weekends I would go into town where Reg Hartt used to run old cartoons at his theater. I might have seen Clampett cartoons on TV as a kid earlier but syndication cartoons were a mishmash of scratched-up 16mm prints. When I saw The Great Piggy Bank Robbery I was just floored. Up until then Chuck Jones had been my hero.
Then there was a period of time where I discovered Joe Adamson's book Tex Avery: King of Cartoons. I had never seen an Avery cartoon but the pictures in the book were really funny and I thought, "This guy really is the king of cartoons." I finally saw King Size Canary (1947) and Ventriloquist Cat (1950) and thought they were the funniest things ever. Then I saw The Great Piggy Bank Robbery and my jaw dropped.
Not only was Robbery funny, it had real emotion in it. Right at the beginning you see Daffy Duck pacing up and down waiting for his comic book like it's the most important moment in his life. Another one of my favorite scenes is the one where Daffy suddenly realizes that all the piggy banks have been stolen. Over the next few weeks I saw more of Clampett's cartoons and realized that it wasn't a fluke. This director was the real thing.
All the other directors were just imitating this guy, and every other cartoon from this period is just a watered-down version of Clampett. He was the tornado that pulled everyone along in his wake and his energy kept the studio going for four or five years after he left Warners in 1946. After that everything slowed down again.
The other directors knew they could never match Clampett's timing or pace and were tired of competing with his cartoons. After Clampett left and they had to find another director for his unit, Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng went to the boss and said, " Take Bob McKimson. " And the boss this must have been Leon Schlesinger said, "McKimson doesn't have the personality of a director. He's too mild-mannered." But that's why they wanted him. They didn't want a guy in that position who'd be any competition to them. Friz admits that. Chuck would never in a million years admit that.
When I talked to Friz and asked him once, "How come in the early cartoons Daffy Duck was so Daffy and in the later cartoons he was a mean, greedy duck?" Friz told me, "Well, John, y'know, that early duck he was crazy! How long could a thing like that last?" I said, "How about 50 years?" Friz said, "Yeah, after Clampett and Avery left Chuck and I got together and we said, `Let's bring these things back down to Earth where they belong!' So that's what we did
We'll show Baby Bottleneck (1946). I want to show Russian Rhapsody (1944) but for some reason we're getting a note back that it's racist so we can't show it but I can't remember anything racist in it. Unless you're not allowed to say bad things about Nazis! That's the best animation of Hitler ever, that's why I picked that one. Hitler's a great cartoon character, right up there with Bugs and Daffy. Then we'll have Tex Avery's King Size Canary, that's one of my favorite cartoons. I wanted to show Uncle Tom's Cabana (1947) butwell, you know.
Then we're going to show Deputy Droopy (1955). That's a really funny Avery cartoon but it's doubly good because of Ed Benedict's design and layout. Ed also did the poses. It's a transitional cartoon between the full animation age and the early TV age and it's the greatest combination of stylized design and animation, I think. Ed wouldn't agree with me, though he used to say that UPA had the greatest studio. I couldn't figure that out, because I find UPA's cartoons completely boring.
Ed took graphic design, worked with Tex and Tex's great animators and made it beautiful. The animation in UPA cartoons is lousy. They're basically in-betweening pose to pose. There's no timing to it. But the animation in Avery's cartoons is great. Ed didn't like it! He said, "Aaah, damn animators! Ruined the stuff!" I thought they made it look beautiful. I can't figure that out at all!
All right, I want to show at least one Terrytoon and we're trying to get A Cat's Tale (1951), which is a Mighty Mouse cartoon, and it has some of the best animation by Jim Tyer. He fits in with the theme of the night, "When Cartoons were Cartoony." Tyer is probably the cartoonist animator ever, even more than Rod Scribner. There's just crazy animation of the cat and I can't even describe the cartoon because if you just talk about it, it sounds like there's something normal happening. But when you watch it there's nothing normal about it, because Tyer is doing the craziest animation in the world!
Then I'm going to show a Walter Lantz cartoon hopefully we can get this one Solid Ivory (1947). It's directed by Dick Lundy and has a lot of Grim Natwick animation in it. It's the cartoon where Woody Woodpecker is playing pool and he knocks the cue ball off the table and into the henhouse. The hen thinks it's one of her eggs and there are a lot of wacky cartoon gags as Woody tries to get the ball back. It's animated and timed so beautifully, and the chicken is so funny that it's fun to watch, especially when she falls in love with Woody.
There are a million cartons I'm leaving out because, well, there are only two hours. One of these days I'd like to organize a festival. We could go studio by studio, director by director, animator by animator. I'd like to do one that doesn't reflect all the history books that have been written. They always list the same 50 or so cartoons!
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.