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#9 Best in TV Animation: The Ren & Stimpy Show

renstimpylogoThe thumping bass line leads into a frantic percussion section punctuated with a quick strike of a guitar and The Ren & Stimpy Show is on! The third and most unique of Nickelodeon’s early 90’s Nicktoons, the show was a throwback to the Golden Era of cartoons embodied by directors such as Chuck Jones and Tex Avery. This was a show for animators, for cartoon lovers, for people that wanted a show to just make them laugh. The process of creating an episode, from start to finish, was handled by one director and just a few writers who bounced ideas off one another. There was no rigid, segmented process where every aspect of the show had to be overseen by a specialist and there was no nefarious merchandizing gimmick turning the program into an extended commercial. The Ren & Stimpy Show simply existed for the love of it.

The early days of Nickeldeon consisted of live-action programming mixed in with educational programming for young children. The animation came from outside sources with the most notable being the Looney Tunes package program featuring classic cartoons. As the network grew, the desire to produce its own cartoons naturally arose and thus the Nicktoons were born. Consisting originally of Doug, Rugrats, and The Ren & Stimpy Show, the block first began airing on Sunday morning in 1991 and were so successful that they ended up being just the first in a long line of cartoons. While Doug and Rugrats were fairly tame in their approach to entertainment, Ren & Stimpy stood out for their crass, gross-out style of humor that would eventually land them on Nick’s late-night block of Saturday night programming and even a handful of MTV appearances.

Ren's rotting teeth, as seen here, are an example of the highly detailed (and often gross) still images the show would make use of.

Ren’s rotting teeth, as seen here, are an example of the highly detailed (and often gross) still images the show would make use of.

Conceived primarily by animator John Kricfalusi, Ren and Stimpy were atypical characters existing in a fairly typical format. They were a natural odd couple, being a dog and cat, but broke the mold in a sense by being rather unappealing to look at. Ren, gangly and liver-spotted, resembled a mosquito more than a chihuahua at times while Stimpy was a cat in name only. Rotund with a big, blue nose, he had no worries of being mistaken for Sylvester or Tom. The show was a half-hour program but mostly consisted of two shorts that would drop Ren and Stimpy into completely new environments with no continuity from one episode to the next. In fact, several episodes ended with the characters in hopeless situations or even implied death

The show’s intention was to make the viewer laugh. There were some bits of sentimentality tossed in to appease the network, but mostly the show wanted to be funny in the most obnoxious way possible. The characters often screamed with Ren in particular prone to violent tirades. Stimpy was the dumb one with a good heart while Ren often abused him both physically and emotionally. The show was able to retain its humor because Ren usually got what was coming to him making the show feel like it earned the laughs that came at Stimpy’s expense. The show often resorted to gross imagery for its humor. Stimpy would frequently cough up a lumpy hairball or show viewers his collection of snot he kept under a coffee table. Kitty littler featured prominently in multiple episodes with characters even eating the stuff right out of the litter box. By far, the show’s most memorable gross gag was the long-running extreme and highly detailed close-up shots of characters. These still images usually depicted characters at their worst with bloodshot eyes and hairy moles. The most memorable may have been when Ren revealed a mouth full of rotting teeth in response to Stimpy’s proper dental hygiene.

Because of its penchant for violence and toilet humor, Kricfalusi often found himself battling with standards and practices at Nickelodeon. One very memorable episode featured the characters playing a board game called “Don’t Wiz on the Electric Fence” climaxing with Ren doing just as the box suggested he not do and all the characters being sent to Hell. Another episode, “Man’s Best Friend,” climaxes with Ren violently beating a man with an oar. The animation goes into slow-motion as Ren strikes the man and his head violently squishes and twists with each strike of the oar. It’s the episode often cited as being the last straw for Kricfalusi, who was fired by Nickelodeon in 1992, barely a year after the first episode aired.

Nickelodeon would turn to co-creator Bob Camp to head up the show for the remainder of its run through 1995. Voice acting dynamo Billy West, originally hired to voice Stimpy, took over as Ren and added to his impressive resume (though one wonders what lasting damage all of the screaming from this show did to his vocal chords). Still, without Kricfalusi the show was doomed. It was still capable of making people laugh at times but it often felt directionless, even pointless.

The background was often used as a tool to heighten the emotion and intensity of the onscreen action as opposed to merely being a set piece.

The background was often used as a tool to heighten the emotion and intensity of the onscreen action as opposed to merely being a set piece.

From an animated perspective, the show was quite excellent. Everything was hand-drawn and the backgrounds often popped with detail. The show was not afraid to borrow from several styles of art, even abstract. In addition to the detailed still shot the show was known for, there was also frequent use of emotive backgrounds, usually when a character screamed or was frightened. Instead of the standard background being present, it might be a splatter effect or just splotches of color. Music was a big part of the show as well. The jazzy theme song was unmistakeable, and some of the show’s most iconic scenes include song such as the “Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy” segment from “Stimpy’s Invention” or the theme for the Royal Canadian Kilted Yaksmen. The music and visual effects all came together to help give the show it’s off the wall vibe.

The Ren & Stimpy Show could be described as one of those programs, or events, that burned too hot for it to last long. It may have remained in production until 1995, but the show’s creative output was only at its peak for a year or so. For that reason, it’s inclusion on such a list as this one could be debated, but it left such a mark on the 1990’s that it felt too hard to exclude. Many shows would follow and try to imitate what The Ren & Stimpy Show started but virtually none of them succeeded. Even Kricfalusi tried reviving the show in 2003 as an adult-oriented comedy program but the magic was long gone. It’s possible Ren and his pal Stimpy were simply not meant to last as long as Bugs or Daffy, but for the short while they were around they made an impact and their cartoons stand the test of time.

The Ren & Stimpy Show: Seasons 1 & 2

51KRQ4AZ4SL._SY300_It’s probably safe to say that there has never been a more controversial Nickelodeon show than Ren & Stimpy. Conceived by John Kricfalusi and his team of writers/animators at Spumco, The Ren & Stimpy show was a throwback to the days of Tex Avery and Chuck Jones when cartoons didn’t need a message or contain any sort of educational content. Beyond the format, there were numerous controversies behind the scenes as well as Spumco was slow to deliver new episodes and John K. was constantly fighting with the censors at Nick over the content of his show, eventually leading to his firing with Nickelodeon/Viacom still holding the rights to the characters. Because of this, seasons 1 and 2 of The Ren & Stimpy Show are easily the seasons held in the highest regard by cartoon fans as they’re the only two series creator John K. worked on. The show would last another 34 episodes after John K’s firing and would eventually be revived in the new millennium when the rights reverted back to Kricfalusi as the short-lived Adult Party Cartoon. Kricfalusi’s right-hand man, Bob Camp, remained onboard with Nickelodeon and there were some good episodes released in season 3 and beyond, but the best was definitely contained in the first two seasons.

Ren & Stimpy was another take on the venerable cat and dog genre of comics and cartoons. The two were designed to play off each other with Ren being the smart, cunning, and less conscionable one, and Stimpy the dim-witted, good-natured character. There was no continuity from one short to the next allowing Ren and Stimpy to hold-down whatever kind of job fit the mood of the short, live in any part of the world, or just plain exist in a more ridiculous version of reality than the next. Sometimes they lived in a house, sometimes a trailer, sometimes a tree, though usually they were poor and sometimes even homeless (as was the case in the pilot). Spumco’s addition to the genre was more gross-out humor, more surrealist imagery, and just out and out lunacy. Save for perhaps Marvin The Martian, most Loony Tunes shorts occurred in reality with anthropomorphic characters. There were different rules for physics, and firearms certainly never functioned as intended, but there did seem to be clearly defined rules. The Ren & Stimpy show shunned such rules. Ren, in particular, seemed to lack a definite form as his face and body would constantly change shape to suit the scene. Expression was important to John K. and his characters often exhibited new and interesting expressions, with Kricfalusi allegedly demanding his animators not repeat expressions in subsequent cartoons. The backgrounds often lacked form and were more interested in surrealism. The pilot, “Big House Blues,” is probably the best example of this. Whether it was by design or to keep costs down, I’m not sure, but it added a unique dimension to the show.

Backgrounds weren't always clearly defined and often used to evoke a certain emotion.

Backgrounds weren’t always clearly defined and often used to evoke a certain emotion.

Aside form the presentation aspects, The Ren & Stimpy Show differentiated itself from other programs of its day and past with its own brand of humor. Violence was a staple of the program with Ren often getting irritated with Stimpy and resorting to slapping him across the face while berating him for being a “fat, bloated, eeeediot!” Even the characters would react to a situation in a violent fashion with their eyes bugging out impossibly far and their brain smashing through their skull. The show also delighted in poking fun at its audience by creating parody commercials for children’s products that really weren’t that far off from the real thing (I bet 90% of the viewing audience wanted some powdered toast). There was also plenty of gross gags throughout the show. The gross humor is probably what the show is remembered for best over 20 years since its debut. If it wasn’t Stimpy’s hairballs making you gag, it was the close-up still shots of characters like the fat lady from “Fire Dogs.” These hyper-detailed, unanimated sights, were another unique feature of the show often utilized to show just how ugly the world of Ren & Stimpy was. There was plenty of scatological humor as well surrounding used kitty litter or even Stimpy’s personified fart.

It should be pretty obvious at this point that The Ren & Stimpy Show was not for everyone. For those of us who grew up with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, it wasn’t such a radical departure but the inclusion of the gross elements turned off a lot of the older generation. Kids like gross stuff though, well, some do. I was probably the right age when the show premiered for it to leave an impression on me. Sometimes the humor was over my head, and it took me several years to notice the not-so-subtle homosexual innuendo between the main characters, but for the most part I got it and it worked for me. And now when I re-watch it, it’s almost better because a part of me is surprised at just how much made it to air and how Ren & Stimpy couldn’t exist in today’s world. Seasons 1 and 2, in particular, hold a special place in my heart. I watched the show until the end, but these episodes are the ones I remember the best and the ones I enjoyed the most. If I were to make a top ten list of my favorite Ren & Stimpy cartoons, all ten would likely come from this set.

The show often utilized highly detailed still shots to illustrate gross imagery.

The show often utilized highly detailed still shots to illustrate gross imagery.

The first DVD release of The Ren & Stimpy Show took awhile to arrive, and when it finally did it was greeted with a mixed reaction. Not because of the episode selection though. Sorted in their original air date order, the episodes span the best of the era. There’s “Stimpy’s Invention” and its memorable “Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy” sequence. There’s the visit from Ren’s cousin Sven and the absurdity of that ending. The trilogy of Commander Hoek and Cadet Stimpy are here as well, along with other notable episodes such as “Rubber Nipple Salesmen,” “Fire Dogs,” and “In the Army.” This set basically could be titled the John K. era, and while John K. proved with the Adult Party Cartoon that he didn’t exactly possess the golden touch, the show was at its best when he was in control and voicing Ren. His Ren is a little more sinister sounding than Billy West’s, who voiced Stimpy and would voice Ren for season three and beyond (he also voiced him in a couple of season two episodes, though I am not certain why). The show embodied those surrealist elements more freely under John K’s watch and following his departure the show focused in more on the gross aspects. It lost a little bit of its soul, but I suppose that should have been expected.

The show created other stars other than just Ren and Stimpy, probably none no bigger than Powdered Toast Man.

The show created other stars other than just Ren and Stimpy, probably none no bigger than Powdered Toast Man.

This DVD set’s biggest selling point was the inclusion of the original pilot and the infamous “banned” episode, “Man’s Best Friend,” starring George Liquor. Emblazoned in bold letters on the cover of the DVD is the word “UNCUT” designed to grab the attention of any who see it. What isn’t explained, is that the word only applies to a select few episodes. By the time this DVD was created, Ren & Stimpy were airing on the Spike network in conjunction with the new Adult Party Cartoon. The Adult cartoon was cancelled almost immediately, but Spike continued to air what it dubbed the “Remastered Classics” of old Ren & Stimpy cartoons. Unfortunately, the television landscape had changed and Spike demanded more time for commercials so these remastered classics were less remastered, and would have been more appropriately titled as edited for time. These new masters served as the basis for most of this set and some things were lost. “Ren’s Toothache” seems to be the biggest casualty as much of Stimpy’s oral hygiene sequence is missing, which was an excellent example of the show’s use of sound effects to create an uncomfortable reaction. The other big victim is “Haunted House” and its removal of the insane Bloody Head Fairy. Basically, the cover is a lie and a pretty cheap trick to attract attention. It’s for that reason I actually waffled on buying this set until recently when it was down to around ten bucks. I don’t regret my purchase, but it still bugs me that many of these episodes have been edited and aren’t the episodes I saw as a kid.

At least we now have “Man’s Best Friend” and didn’t have to resort to the internet to view it. It’s not the best episode of Ren & Stimpy, but it’s a solid B+ affair with perhaps the show’s most violent sequence. It’s also nice to finally see the unedited version of “Big House Blues” and the full scenes we’ve been seeing in brief clip form during the show’s opening sequence for years (specifically, Ren drinking from a very gross looking toilet). There’s some bonus content in the form of a brief documentary on the show’s creation and around half a dozen commentaries. Because the show was only a half hour, this set is the type you can basically blow through in a weekend, but it will be a pretty good weekend.

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