All images © John Kricfalusi and Spumco.

 

Ed. Note: Here we are several years after this interview, and John K.'s Spümcø has finally gotten its second chance at a mass audience. SpikeTV (nee The National Network, nee The Nashville Network) has commissioned the trailblazing animation company to recreate its biggest hit: Ren and Stimpy. And the new show has been immediately condemned as being too "gross," just like the original series (though the worst offending episodes of that era were actually produced by Nickelodeon). What critics miss is the fact that Spümcø's Ren and Stimpy made cartoons into cartoons again, rather than the lifeless factory products they had become in the Hanna-Barbera age. In style, humor, and content, Kricfalusi's original Ren and Stimpy cartoons changed modern TV animation, as any survey of The Cartoon Network's or Nickelodeon's new cartoon series will reveal. Yet, the guy still can't get respect; while mainstream magazines like Entertainment Weekly poo-poo his current efforts, they heap praise on his many imitators. That lack of public recognition, combined with Kricfalusi's industry reputation of being a "difficult" artist (or perhaps one with self-respect), has made it difficult for Spümcø to launch new characters. For several years, Spümcø struggled onward with TV commercials, rock videos, and a short about Ranger Smith of Yogi Bear fame for the Cartoon Network. Finally, FOX TV bought into Spümcø's The Ripping Friends last year, though it died quickly. Throughout it all, Kricfalusi and Spümcø have fought the good fight in the name of real cartoon entertainment. Can Kricfalusi and company repeat its success with such old characters? One can only hope.

* * *

In the dark days of cartoons–the Plague Years–there were all manner of Saturday morning horrors: Smurfs. Care Bears. Cabbage Patch Dolls. Strawberry Shortcake. This was the nadir of childhood wonder, capping 30 years of Hanna-Barbera tyranny–cartoon characters without facial expressions, without personalities, without any true sense of wit. Scooby-Doo had wreaked his vengeance upon the art of animation, all but vanquishing the wonders of Warner Brothers cartoons. Bugs Bunny and critters of his ilk existed only as T-shirts.

Then came The Ren & Stimpy Show. (Well, okay, The Simpsons came first, but that’s a different story.)

Although they didn’t put an end to all cartoon evil, the tailless cat and the anorexic Chihuahua nevertheless reintroduced a brave concept to animation in 1991: cartoons with soul, just as Bob Clampett and Tex Avery had intended. Soon, their influence spread to other, newer cartoons.

Too bad Ren and Stimpy got shot down along with the people who created them.

 

John Kricfalusi, Ren & Stimpy mastermind and known Canadian, has got problems. As he sits in his big-shot office at Spümcø Inc. in Hollywood, California, plotting new ways to spread his radical cartoon ideas, he’s hit a brick wall. Sure, he’s got plenty of hot properties in the works–Jimmy the Idiot Boy, Dr. Jean Poole, not to mention George Liquor, American–but he’s come across a nemesis so nefarious, so purely evil in its single-minded stupidity, that the Spümcø revolution may be in danger of becoming bumfuzzled.

His voice curdles with disgust as he describes these repellent creatures:

"Executives. They really have no concept whatsoever of what people like because they don’t have any experiences themselves that they can relate to. When you meet people in the executive world in entertainment, you’d swear they are the squarest people you’ve ever seen in your life. These are people you have to tell that other people like sex. They’ll go, ‘Really? Maybe we should put some of that in our shows!’ The last people who should be in charge of entertainment are the ones who are in charge of entertainment today. It’s the weirdest thing–they’re like the Frog People or something."

In the two years since he and his crew of animators at Spümcø were booted off Ren & Stimpy by Nickelodeon for being too creative, too original and too sophisticated, Kricfalusi has been working the executive trenches, flinging out one brilliant idea after another. There was He-Hog, The Atomic Pig, which was to premiere on the USA Network in 1995. There was The Ripping Friends, a would-be feature-length cartoon about a group of four macho heroes who make the world safe for manliness from their superindustrialized complex, R.I.P.C.O.T. (Really Impressive Prototype City of next Tuesday). Producer Joel "Die Hard" Silver was reportedly interested at one point.

And now there’s George Liquor and Jimmy the Idiot Boy, characters he’s lately been pitching to the FOX network. George is an ultra-right-wing American who tries to teach his nephew Jimmy how to be a Real Man. The characters were also to be the stars of a new comic book–Spümcø Comic Book–but it was canceled after one issue by Marvel Comics because it was too risqué for their wholesome brand-name image. As a result of this kind of wheel-spinning, Kricfalusi says he’s going to try and self-finance his next series, and take the finished product to the networks or syndicators.

"Whenever you have something ‘in development’ and you take it to a network, they usually want to change it completely–change it so much that it has nothing to do with what it’s about," says Kricfalusi.

"I don’t even think in terms of marketing needs. Not at all. And I think that’s what’s wrong with all entertainment today–99 percent of it. The second you have to say ‘marketing need,’ it means you have no concept yourself of what people like. I think all popular entertainers succeed or fail based on how well they communicate emotions to their audience. And it’s not something you can research–market research is not going to help you. Either you’ve got something to say that people connect with or you don’t. So we don’t think in terms of marketing needs–we just do what we think is funny or nasty or horny or whatever. Usually, people like it–except if they’re executives. Executives, they don’t get it. Which drives me insane."

It’s this kind of staunch opinion that has made Kricfalusi stick out like a sore thumb on the four-fingered hand of animation. He started his career by venturing to Los Angeles in 1979 and working on some of the worst cartoons of all, Heathcliff and The Smurfs. It was there he became intimately aware of the causes of cartooning’s ills. Unlike the Warner Brothers work of his hero Bob Clampett, cartoons were (and still are) being written and directed by non-cartoonists, who were in turn controlled by network executives. Sophisticated humor and complex characters were vanquished in favor of politically correct, static characters that were often product tie-ins.

What’s more, an assembly line atmosphere reduced the animation quality of the cartoons, by the cheap Hanna-Barbera method of having emotionless, nearly unmoving characters. Whereas early cartoons were created as short works to be shown before movies–fostering experimentation and innovation–Saturday morning cartoons existed mostly to fill time slots and sell products.

John Kricfalusi made it his quest to change that–to bring back the production method of having cartoonists create their own cartoons and draw their own story boards, instead of having non-cartoonists write non-cartoony scripts. Teaming with semi-iconoclastic animator Ralph Bakshi (Cool World), he started employing his ideas on The New Mighty Mouse, with hit or miss results. But this got him the attention of Nickelodeon, which was then looking for new cartoon ideas, and he sold them on The Ren & Stimpy Show.

"I tricked ’em!" he explains, revealing how he managed to convince those particular executives to buy the show. "I told ’em it was going to be unfunny–that it would be wiggly lines, nobody would be able to follow the stories, and nobody could identify with the characters. And they said, ‘Oh! That’s exactly what we want!’ And I totally lied."

Ren & Stimpy was indeed the opposite of that–so much so that it became a surprise success in 1991, creating a lot of merchandising dollars for Nickelodeon. Perhaps conscious of how much money they were making off the two characters, the network decided to take control of the show in ’93, ousting Kricfalusi and continuing production themselves. Ren and Stimpy were immediately dumbed down, their antics becoming dull and often inexplicable. The show was canceled in 1995.

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