The 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.
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.
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.