[3 August 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
In a perfect world, John Kricfalusi would be the new Ralph Bakshi. Like his friend and mentor, Kricfalusi got his start working for uninspired studios during a lull in animation’s viability as a commercial art form. Like Bakshi, Kricfalusi wanted to make cartoons his own way, not via committee or with an eye to “marquee value” (a mid-‘80s TV term for product tie-in viability). Both men fulfilled their goals after splitting with the mainstream, Bakshi with his adaptation of R. Crumb’s Fritz the Cat, Kricfalusi with his now infamous Ren & Stimpy Show.
But instead of capitalizing on his success (as Bakshi attempted), Kricfalusi saw popularity pollute his cartoon cat and mouse dichotomy, and after a brief tenure with the series, he was shown the door. In fact, the revolution he helped start eventually passed him by, with names like Judge, Groening, Parker and Stone taking the glory. No wonder the man is bitter, and a tad twisted. He almost single-handedly made cartoons cool again, yet he’s had to fight for respect from anyone outside his devoted cult audience.
Ren & Stimpy: The Lost Episodes wants to change all that. Though Paramount’s previous DVD releases of the show featured incomplete episodes, this two-disc set offers, for the first time, Kricfalusi’s vision for the series. It consists exclusively of the Adult Cartoon Party shorts he created for TNN (soon after renamed Spike TV), part of the channel’s attempt to tap into Comedy Central and Cartoon Network’s adult demographic.
Most of these scripts were conceived and written back in the early ‘90s, when Kricfalusi was skimming fan mail for comments. In his mind, these six installments represent “cartoons made by cartoonists,” not formulated by overly sensitive studio executives or mindless marketing types. Only a select few saw the light of day, however. After the series’ June 2003 premiere, a lack of “presentable” content and production delays sent it into reruns. Then, following Janet Jackson’s 2004 Super Bowl appearance, the show was deemed outrageous and vulgar. With three episodes yet unseen, the series was cancelled.
Aside from their less than successful surroundings (does Gary the Rat ring a bell? How about Stan Lee’s destroying Stripperella?), these particular episodes remain lost because they failed to connect with the series faithful. Individuals used to endless reruns of Ren Hok the Chihuahua beating Stimpson J. Cat for no good reason were dumbfounded to see their goofy, gross-out animation pals playing homosexual bed games, ogling woman’s breasts, and trading their typical anarchic behavior for something far more antisocial. Kricfalusi swears this was all done at the request of Ren & Stimpy devotees. Yet one can also sense a little creator backlash his reimagining of the characters.
Actually, “perverting” might better describe what he was doing. Sure, Kricfalusi and his team were still fusing Bob Clampett, Tex Avery, Ralph Bakshi, and Chuck Jones with The Three Stooges. He was also inserting as many poop and fart jokes as he could. But when one entire episode (“Naked Beach Frenzy”) of the unaired installments focuses on Ren and Stimpy as ladies’ shower room attendants (with job titles like “breast soaper” and “shampoo master,” lather derived from a penis-like pump in Stimpy’s pelvic area), it’s painfully obvious that we’ve left behind Nickelodeon territory for the nookie.
Kricfalusi explains the characters’ newfound fascination with sex in his pre-episode DVD introductions. He argues that many fans of the series were kids when it premiered in 1990. Sixteen years later, they are now college to post-university grads whose bodies have gone through all manner of baffling biological changes. When they were grade schoolers, booger and butt jokes were the height of hilarity. With maturity comes the need for erect nipples, cartoon boners, and hairy male ball sacks.
Not every episode is so focused on the groin area. “The Altruists” is a pitch-perfect recreation of a Three Stooges storyline, involving a widow and her handicapped son’s need for money and a place to live. At the same time, Ren develops “issues,” and seeks help from a psychiatrist, who takes us on a trip through this cruel Chihuahua’s troubled childhood, featuring scene after scene of maniacal violence. No series currently on the air trades in such anvil-to-the-head-style mayhem.
Yet it’s the naughty episodes that viewers will remember, from the pre-natal traumas of “Stimpy’s Pregnant” (including an instantly classic “baby turd” finale) to all the pitcher/catcher conversation in “Onward and Upward,” the grossest installment of the series, period. Living inside a bum’s mouth, the two soon find themselves in the lap of luxury, a skid row spittoon. With snot as side dishes and vomit as gravy, the foulness is overwhelming, yet also clever. Kricfalusi’s satire may be obvious, but he’s not just making puke jokes for nausea’s sake.
Similarly, a sequel to a first series favorite, “Fire Dogs 2,” finds Bakshi backing up his former protégé. Kricfalusi has frequently noted that the circus midget-hating fire chief from the first short was loosely based on his old buddy; here Bakshi voices the character, with repulsively rib-tickling results. Kricfalusi uses the episode to one-up the original X-rated animation pioneer, turning the fire chief into a morbidly obese, chain-smoking moron dimmer than a burned-out light bulb.
As Ren and Stimpy are trapped in his world, the chief seeks their advice on sexual prowess and intestinal regularity, embracing them as pals before beating them to a bloody pulp. At first, this plot seems easy to read: our heroes have gotten themselves into another fine, freaked-out mess. But then the subtext kicks in, as Bakshi goes bat-shit, hiring and firing the pair, crying on their shoulders or treating them like scum.
Kricfalusi maintains that he and Bakshi share a fond friendship. They also share a cruel career trajectory. After Cool World, Bakshi lost a great deal of his luster; currently, he’s looking for financing for a next project. Kricfalusi hopes that sales of the Ren & Stimpy DVDs will lead to a commercial rebirth, giving him the chance to make more episodes and release them on the digital format, untouched and uncensored. It should have never come to this for either artist. Whether they ever step back into the mainstream may not be the point. It’s amazing they ever got in, even for a minute, in the first place.
Ren & Stimpy: The Lost Episodes—Ren’s Hot Lifeguards