The Obsessive Journal of Quality Pop Culture
John Kricfalusi, circa 1993. Photo by Libby Simon

The One True King of Cartoons: Will John Kricfalusi ever get his due?

In 1991, John Kricfalusi and his Spümcø studio made cartoons cartoony again. In an era when “animation” meant stiff, dumb, imagination-free shows that existed merely to hype product tie-ins, John K.’s The Ren & Stimpy Show reintroduced the concept of artist-driven cartoons that have a style and humor all their own—cartoons that require skill and effort to create rather than just an assembly line mentality. Ren & Stimpy inspired not only direct imitators at the time, but also new generations of animation artists who would later shift the industry back to its roots of truly idiosyncratic hi-jinks. But here we are, 20 years after this interview, and John K. still can’t get (or keep) a regular gig. Attempts at a new series on Fox (The Ripping Friends) and a resuscitated Ren & Stimpy on Spike (Ren & Stimpy “Adult Party Cartoon”) did not succeed with many fans or critics, so over the years he’s been mostly grabbing odd jobs, from The Simpsons to Miley Cyrus to Stussy. Meanwhile, his assorted websites haven’t been refreshed in quite a while. Isn’t there a streaming service out there with the chutzpah to give this guy a job? Surely the results will be more interesting than the last five series they funded and didn’t even place on the highlights page for people to find. C’mon! [For the extended interview with John K., read this Q&A.]

Originally published Jan. 25, 1996

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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 in 1991. (Well, okay, The Simpsons came first, but that’s a different story.)

Although the tailless cat and the anorexic Chihuahua didn’t put an end to all cartoon evil, they 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.

The return of facial expressions to cartoon characters: a model sheet by John K. for how to draw Ren (no doubt for the 2003 Spike revamp). More examples can be found at the Unofficial Spumco Website.

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  (depending on who you ask) too difficult, 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,”  Kricfalusi says.

“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.

The cartoon empire that almost was: the Spumco Lodge.

Even though it was killed off, Ren & Stimpy spawned a number of imitators, from the depths of Nickelodeon’s Shnookums and Meat to the heights of USA’s Duckman. Although they copy some of the Ren & Stimpy look and attitude (including facial expressions), few (except perhaps Duckman) conjure the same magic.

“Well, I think it’s kind of funny, because the things that they copy are all the wrong things,” says Kricfalusi. “They kind of 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. I’ve seen all kinds of cartoons with splotchy backgrounds 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!’

“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. 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.’”

Although this type of inspiration doesn’t seem to be striking the animation community at large, Kricfalusi does see a few causes for optimism lately. First, Hanna-Barbera started an animation shorts program with the Cartoon Network to advance new talent. And second, the great behemoth of formulaic animation, Disney, tried something different last year.

“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 Toy Story, they tried a whole bunch of new 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–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.”

As Kricfalusi and Spümcø continue to negotiate with Hollywood execs, their own ideas for revolution mount: the reintroduction of theatrical shorts (featuring George Liquor and Jimmy), animated features for the direct-to-video market, a new publisher for Comic Book, and as ever, a new TV series. In the meantime, the studio has worked on animated commercials for Coca-Cola and Nike, and an online comic for AT&T starring Brik Blastoff of the Outback.

Another Spümcø pop culture invasion has been in the realm of toys, with a complete line of dolls, cel painting kits and paint by numbers kits made by Palmer Paints. Most appealing is the talking George Liquor doll with the pull-string in his butt, who grittily exclaims, “Take it like a MAN!” All of the products are entertaining in a multitude of ways (“You can actually sit there and read the boxes for a couple of hours.”), and are prime examples of what inspires Kricfalusi most–pop culture that works hard to be good.

“To me, the stuff I like the best is the stuff that’s the most intense, most sophisticated, and the most emotional,” he says. “That includes Elvis, Kirk Douglas, Bob Clampett, 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?”

Nope. And if the suits have their way, there won’t be.

News from the cartoon trenches: a Spumco newsletter.

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.