Cartoons Aren't Real! Ren and Stimpy In Review

by Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman

Ren and Stimpy acquainted viewers with Ren Höek and Stimpson J. Cat and ushered in a new age of creator-driven animated series. © Viacom International, Inc. All rights reserved.

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.

Donovan Cook's Two Stupid Dogs chronicled the irreverent adventures of a big dog and a little dog. TM & © 2001 Cartoon Network. An AOL Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.

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.


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