PopCult: The Obsessive Journal of Quality Pop Culture

Q&A: John Kricfalusi’s history of animation (and what he really thought of ‘Toy Story’ and ‘The Simpsons’)

The animation industry of the late 20th century was still churning out a lot of weak stuff. At the time of this interview, self-distributing your work on the Internet was still not a viable thing, so animators who wanted their work to be seen had to rely on studio executives. And few animators loathed studio executives like John Kricfalusi, the creative genius behind Ren & Stimpy, the insane cartoon that somehow aired on Nickelodeon for a couple of seasons before he got booted. It was the cartoon that made cartoons cartoony again, and influenced new generations of animators. While studios do still put out weak stuff, there are a lot more ways now to find interesting work outside of cable networks or theaters. For more on Kricfalusi, read this feature story.

Interview originally conducted October 1996

Update, March 30, 2018: This investigation by BuzzFeed may explain a lot.

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Do you think the state of animation has progressed at all since you started?

Very slightly, yeah. It turned a corner.

What do you think the highlights are?

Well, I thought Toy Story was pretty good. And not for the obvious reasons–you know, that it’s the first computer-animated movie. I could really give two shits about whether it’s cell animation or computer animation or what it is. Does it work–as a story, as characters? Well, the story was a little predictable and kind of corny, but it was constructed a thousand times better than any modern Disney movie. And it didn’t have any of the Disney formula stuff–they didn’t stop and break into hateful songs every two seconds, there were no sidekicks. Unbelievable! In modern Disney movies, every straight character has a sidekick. Nobody ever questions it–why would you need a sidekick? Aladdin, for example, not only the straight characters but also the evil characters have sidekicks. And all of them completely miserable sidekicks. They‘re not funny–I guess they’re supposed to be comedy relief, but you don’t laugh at them, you just kind of cringe with embarrassment. Aladdin had two sidekicks–he had the genie and the monkey. And the bad guy–the grand vizier or whatever the hell he was–he’s got a wacky sidekick, so, so much for being afraid of him.

Modern Disney movies–actually, Walt Disney created this himself, except that they’ve exaggerated it, is he would take the edge off of the dramatic moments by putting comedy relief in them. Which is, to me, a huge mistake–if you’re going to be dramatic, be dramatic, scare us. Soon as you put this fake comedy in it, you’re neither laughing nor are you being scared–it’s just a complete waste of footage. In the meantime, all this gratuitous comedy relief and all this gratuitous singing is eating away time in the movie that could be spent on developing the characters’ personalities–which they never have more than one trait. I mean, what was Aladdin’s personality? He’s a guy who wants a girlfriend. What was the girl’s personality? She’s a girl who wants a boyfriend. Well, is that any different from anything you’ve ever experienced? What makes it a particular guy? What makes it a particular girl? What makes the villain a particular villain? He’s not–he’s just “a villain.” He looks like a villain–he’s skinny, he’s got a big nose, he’s a villain. What type of villain? No one in particular, he’s just the same guy out of the silent movies.

So what I liked about Toy Story was they picked their lead characters and they spent a lot of time on them. And the acting was interesting, too. If you watch a Disney movie–and when I say Disney movie, I’m including all the fake Disney movies. Everybody’s always going up against Disney, making these fairy tale type things. Well, not only do they copy the fairy tale storyline, but they copy every crazy little horrific detail of the formula–the singing, bad songs that don’t have tunes, the wacky sidekicks, and even the character designs. And not only the character designs–you see the same character designs in every Disney movie, with some slight variations–they all make the same expressions. They make the same five expressions. Every single cartoon character in a Disney movie has five expressions, if you’re lucky. And you’ve seen them a million times in every movie, over and over again, except with each progressive movie they drawn worse. In Toy Story, they tried a whole bunch of new expressions; they invented a bunch of expressions custom-tailored to fit how the characters were feeling in the particular instant in that particular story. That’s a revolution far beyond the computer animation. That’s a revolution–characters that act visually; I’m not talkin’ about the sound, I’m not talkin’ about Tom Hanks. I’m talkin’ about the animator–how he made the character’s face bend, how he posed the character. It was new. It wasn’t really a dramatic testing of the water, but it was enough of a leap away from the Disney stuff that that’s a real revolution. If they keep going in that direction, it’ll really be something.

We’ve got to get away from the two-year-old storylines. As soon as we get to the point where animators can really do sophisticated acting–and I don’t mean realistic acting, I don’t mean serious acting… I mean, there’s great comedic actors, like Jackie Gleason. Fantastic actor, and a real character. He’s a character you can identify with, his expressions and poses are always context with a particular instant in the story–he’s a real actor. We need that in animation. That hasn’t been around since Bob Clampett’s cartoons in the 1940s. And we tried to do it with Ren & Stimpy; I guess one of the things people notice is a lot of new expressions from when we were doing it. Now you see the same expressions that we created for specific scenes within specific stories have become cliches–but we were constantly making up new expressions because that’s the way people really are. And that’s what makes you identify with the characters: their performance. The reason why you like the Honeymooners is not so much for the scripts or the story or the idea, but for the characters.

What do you think of the newer cartoons in the Ren & Stimpy mold, ones that have assumed your stylistic sense?

Well, I think it’s kind of funny, because the things that they copy are all the wrong things. They kind’ve missed the point. Like, I see a lot of splotchy backgrounds. I just have to laugh when I see that, because we used that maybe once in a while, like when Ren went insane or something, we’d put a spotted background in; I usually painted those myself, just because I thought it’d be something weird to do. But it wasn’t meant to be a cliche, which it’s become. I’ve seen in all kinds of cartoons now, but they’re not in context with the story–they’re just sort of arbitrary. You can see the director saying, “Gee, Ren & Stimpy had splotchy backgrounds! That’s the key to its success!” Every scene’s got a splotchy background–it has no effect any more, it’s no longer a surprise or anything. What else? I see specific expressions from Ren & Stimpy characters in other cartoons. That’s not a bad thing, though–the fact that people are copying something new rather than copying something old, which was the situation before. In features, they all copied Disney. In Saturday morning cartoons, they all copied Scooby Doo–which was the most horrific thing ever created. At least they’re copying something new. So somewhere in all this copying some new guys are gonna come along and go, “Well, hell, we’re copying something that was new a couple of years ago, maybe we could just invent something new.”

Do you think there’s anybody out there doing that?

The weird thing about animation today is that it’s not really run by the animators. And there are some really extremely talented animators in the business. Tom Mitten, he’s a producer over at Warner Brothers–he’s one of the funniest guys you’ll ever want to meet. He’s just hilarious, the weirdest sense of humor, completely original. He’s one of those guys you can just stand around for three hours just to listen to him. Well, he was working with me on The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse for Ralph Bakshi a few years ago, and he would write the weirdest stuff; he was great. And he was a guy who had been in the business for ten years, and nobody’d ever thought to hire him as a writer. He was doing storyboards illustrating other people’s terrible scripts–in the meantime, all day long he’s cracking everybody up just on his own. And I bugged him for years, “You should be writing.” When I finally got this job with Bakshi to do Mighty Mouse, I hired him. I said, “Tom, you’re gonna write now–you’re a funny-ass bastard, get that stuff into the cartoons.”

Eddie Fitzgerald, he did a short for Hanna-Barbera called “The Worm,” and he’s a fantastic cartoonist full of just wild ideas. He’s got a totally original style, and he’s been in the business for 16 years or something. Where’s his show? He should have a show.

Let me give you a quick capsule of animation history. From the beginning of animation ‘til about 1965, animation was created by animators, cartoonists. Totally. And there was never a question. You know, it’s like if you want somebody to work on your car, you don’t get a piano player to do it, right? You go to a mechanic. You get a plumber to plumb your pipes. Well, a weird thing happened in 1965: animators got kicked out when Saturday morning cartoons were invented. All of a sudden, the network executives took over and they started hiring people who could draw to write the cartoons. And at first, it was sort of a necessity, just because there were so many cartoons being produced in 1965 for television, far more than was being produced theatrically during the golden age of animation, the ’30s and ’40s, in any particular year. So, anybody who could draw at all had to be drawing.

The old writers, the Mike Malteses and Warren Fosters and Ted Pierces, were getting old; some of them were retiring, I guess a couple had died early. So they had to find writers somewhere–they got them anywhere they could get ‘em. You couldn’t get a real writer to write a Saturday morning cartoon–forget it. So they started hiring the gophers, the truck drivers at studios, the film editors–anybody who expressed any interest in writing a cartoon started writing them. Eventually, they ended up getting the power in animation. They endeared themselves to the network executives, and from 1965 ‘til the beginning of Ren & Stimpy, cartoonists weren’t making cartoons anymore. Cartoonists were slaves working for people whose IQs were 30 points below theirs. You know, if you read some animation scripts you would be shocked at the level of poor writing–you can’t even call it writing it is so bad. And every cartoonist is the same. This isn’t just me talking–I’m speaking for a thousand cartoonists who lived this misery for a couple decades. Cartoonists, when they read scripts, they do either one of two things: they either fall asleep after the first page, or they start screaming.

Well, okay, when Ren & Stimpy came along, I told Nickelodeon this history lesson. I said, “You know, we shouldn’t even be writing scripts, we should be drawing storyboards.” That’s how all the old cartoons were created; there never were any scripts. Disney never used scripts, Warner Brothers, MGM–all those cartoons were written on storyboards. Walt Disney has been quoted many times saying that a script is not appropriate for animation–it’s a visual medium, visual storytelling, tell the story with pictures first. So I managed to convince them to let us do it, amazingly. We did it, it became a hit, and all of a sudden people started taking notice, even the executives started to take notice. And more shows started coming along. Nobody’s gone to the extent that we did with Ren & Stimpy, giving the cartoonists control, but Ben Edlund and The Tick, well he’s a cartoonist. I don’t know who his writers are or anything, but at least the guy at the top is a cartoonist. Mike Judge, Beavis and Butthead. There’s some imitation Ren & Stimpies, like Snookums & Meat–well, the guy at the top is a cartoonist, Bill Kopp. Even though he wrote most of the cartoons, he did write them on scripts, he didn’t write ‘em on storyboards, but he gave the storyboard artists quite a bit of leeway to interpret them, add gags and things. That’s a revolution for modern animation. Used to be that cartoonists had absolutely no say whatsoever in the creative process. We literally had to just line by line illustrate the script–that system gave us shows like Scooby-Doo, Josie and the Pussycats, The Smurfs, the Carebears, He-Man.

What do you think about The Simpsons, though?

Well, The Simpsons was created by a cartoonist. That’s sort of a half and half. In fact, you should interview Matt and get his point of view on this stuff. My sense is that it would be even better if Matt was totally creatively involved. In fact, my favorite episodes were the one minute, 30 second Tracy Ullman ones that were really, really cartoony. They were wacky as hell, they were really funny–not only were they written funny, they moved funny. It’s a little more conservative now than what it was in the beginning. And you can tell the writers have a lot of input in it, because writers tend to like to hear themselves speak. Whereas performers want to hear the characters speak. What writers do is they feed the performers lines that they think are funny, that they would say themselves at a party. So most modern cartoons sound like bad writers talking to each other. You know when cartoon characters are always referring to other cartoons or other television programs? Or Steven Spielberg makes a cameo on the set? Well that makes me want to vomit. That’s a writer masturbating, a bad writer masturbating. It’s somebody who doesn’t care about the characters, who wants to share his wealth of trivia knowledge with the audience because he thinks it’s going to impress people or something. My whole approach is make the characters seem believable by themselves. You should like the characters–not what they have to say, but who they are, what makes them different from other characters. When you watch a modern cartoon, every character makes these stupid throwaway lines about, you know, Jerry Seinfeld, “That reminds me of Jerry Seinfeld and what he said about…” If I wanna hear what Jerry Seinfeld has to say I’ll watch the Seinfeld show. That drives me crazy–that’s just amateur writing. That’s what you do in high school. And yet, amateur writers are in charge of the animation business.

But it’s changing–it’s starting to change. The mere fact that there are cartoons like Tiny Toons and Animaniacs, which are imitations of old fashioned cartoons–that would never have happened ten years ago, when we were doing the really stiff, Scooby-Doo-ish type of stuff, where no characters did anything cartoony. Well, these modern cartoons, even though they’re written by the same types of bad writers, they’re imitating the old cartoons–they’re pretending to be visual cartoons. The writers who write that stuff are really writing themselves out of existence, because in a few years people are gonna figure out, “What do we need those guys for? Let’s just get the cartoonists to write it themselves.” Which is starting to happen. So that’s the state of the industry today–it’s starting to get back to a healthy state. It’s not in a healthy state yet; there’s no renaissance like what you read about all the time, there’s no renaissance going on. There’s nothing today being produced that can touch the cartoons that were being produced in the ’30s and ’40s. Nothing even close–Ren & Stimpy included, Toy Story included. The animation was better in the ‘40s, the writing was better in the ‘40s, and the acting was better in the ‘40s.

Is that something you hope Spümcø can do?

Well, I hope a lot of people can do it.

There don’t seem to be too many companies like Spümcø out there.

Pixar is trying to change things, and they have changed things. They’re on their way, and I think they’re gonna do great. I don’t see any other particular animation studio really making great strides. Hanna-Barbera has a shorts animation program with the Cartoon Network. They decided to institute the shorts program, which means they produced 48 cartoon shorts that they’ve been running on the Cartoon Network. Normally, TV cartoons are made in series, right? You start with 13 episodes. Well, most of the best cartoon characters ever created were created in the shorts of the ’30s and ’40s–Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Tom and Jerry, Mighty Mouse. They were created as shorts. But in between all of the characters that lasted a long time, were a lot of experimental shorts, characters that maybe they did one cartoon, or two or three cartoons. But what they were doing was constantly trying out new characters, seeing which ones clicked, and the ones that clicked they’d do more cartoons, and some of them lasted and some of them didn’t. It was a great system. Whereas, with Saturday morning cartoon program, or a prime time cartoon program, if you produce 13 half-hours, and it dies after the second half-hour, you spent a lot of money. There’s a big gamble, like The Critic. Well, what Hanna-Barbera’s doing is, “let’s do 48 shorts, let’s find a bunch of young directors who haven’t had a chance before, or may have a little bit of a chance, see what they come up with, trying all new original characters.” Eddie Fitzgerald did one, there’s a guy named Genndy Tartakovsky, he’s doing a couple of shorts with a character named Dexter called Dexter’s Laboratory. Well, they were successful as shorts, and now they bought a series from them. He’s a real talent, he’s great. So that’s a good healthy thing that’s going on in animation right now.

So there is a sense of optimism in the air, then.

Well, it’s reserved optimism. There’re still great obstacles and forces running against just plain common sense.

What kinds of pop culture inspire you, beyond other cartoons?

I’m inspired by a lot of things. Bob Clampett is my favorite cartoonist, for his Warner Brothers cartoons in the 1940s. Kirk Douglas is my favorite actor. I like Joan Crawford a lot. I love Elvis, and not just his hit songs. I actually like his more soulful stuff, the stuff he wanted to sing for himself that weren’t necessarily hits. The reason I like them is because they were fantastically sophisticated and inventive, and that inspires the hell out of me–that he’s always trying new things. People don’t know that about him–he was really an amazing guy. I don’t hesitate to call him a genius, in every creative sense of the word. He’s just got it; he’s not just a guy who thrust his groin all over the stage, which I think is great, by the way. It’s the coolest. I thrust my groin all the time, too.

To me, the stuff I like the best is the stuff that’s the most intense, most sophisticated and the most emotional. That includes Elvis, Kirk Douglas, Bob Clampett. There’re very few people like that, but those are the ones that I like. I like the Louvin Brothers, who are country and western singers from the ’40s and ’50s, who were extremely ignorant–which, by the way, one of the major gauges for how good country music is. It has to be a huge statement of ignorance in order for it to be great. It’s an emotional anguish and helplessness against the forces of nature or the forces you can’t control, that you can’t possibly understand–that’s what makes great white man music.

What other influences… there’s Don Martin, in his early MAD stuff. I could plug people forever. Monty Python. The Three Stooges. There’s a movie called Night of the Hunter with Robert Mitchum, completely intense, completely artistic, soulful, emotional, just amazing. I love that. I like things where people really go all out to entertain you, I mean, they use skill, they use technique, they use emotion, they work at it. And there’s nothing like that today. Is there anything intense today, that is highly skilled and highly emotional at the same time? As good as Toy Story was, it was really cold. It wasn’t really emotional at all–the emotions were manufactured, like here’s the sad scene. Yeah, it was cleverly calculated and it was in the right place in the story and well constructed and the acting was well thought out from a mechanical standpoint, but you didn’t feel like it was coming out somebody’s loins and somebody’s life experience. It was just, well here’s the sad scene and here’s the happy scene–but you just didn’t feel a life experience being told in it, whereas in The Honeymooners you do. I feel like those characters really knew that Brooklyn experience, and they’re telling stories from their lives.

What do you hope people get out of your own work–anything more than just entertainment?

No, if they’re just enjoying themselves I’m pretty happy. It’s funny, because I’ll read articles in pseudo-intellectual magazines every once in a while about Ren & Stimpy and they’re really funny, all the stuff they read into it. It’s really great. But that’s not what we’re aiming for at all–we’re just trying to touch people emotionally, as corny as that sounds.

Another one of my big influences is my partner, Jim Smith, who has a real raw, rugged, tough, solid drawing style. He hates it when I say this, but it’s very manly. He’s a fantastic artist, he designed a lot of the Ren & Stimpy stuff, came up with the idea for “Space Madness” and designed most of it, drew a lot of it. He almost single-handedly did “Untamed World,” and he’s got a style that is great because it’s totally personal for him. You can see the influences he has–he’s influenced by Frank Frazetta, by John Kirby, by Chuck Jones. But when he puts them all together, it’s totally, uniquely him. And that is the kind of art I love, when somebody has a lot of influences behind him, a lot of skill, a lot of knowledge, but somehow churns it all up into a new statement. It’s Jim, it’s Elvis, very few people.

Any message to America’s youth?

Uh, just to the girls.

Coury Turczyn

Coury Turczyn is a concerned consumer of popular culture. Got an interesting story idea or an amazing financial opportunity to share? Contact him at coury@popcultmag.com.

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