Cartoons Aren't Real! Ren and Stimpy In Review
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.