20 Years Later, Looking Back at the Twisted Genius of Ren and Stimpy

Ren and Stimpy turns 20 years old this summer, and I kicked off celebrations by watching one of my favorite episodes, Space Madness.

It opens in Ren and Stimpy’s trailer, where the duo is getting ready to watch Stimpy’s “favorite live action drama,” Commander Höek and Stimpy. Stimpy grabs his anti-gravity chewing gum and his “genuine super elastic time shorts,” and we get a unique shot from behind as the pair tunes in to the beginning of the show. From the outset, the episode toys with our sense of the real and the fictional, conflating our world with the cartoon world. It’s a hallmark trick of creator John Kricfalusi, who directed the first two seasons — one that allows him to take viewers not just to a different planet, but to something that seems like an entirely different dimension.

“It is not I who am crazy,” Captain Höek says later in Space Madness. He floats midair in a cube of bathwater, eating a bar of soap that he believes is an ice cream bar, having fallen victim to a strange cabin fever-like mental disease. “It is I who am mad.” In the world of Ren and Stimpy, there’s only one choice. You’re either crazy or mad. This stands as the show’s crucial insight about our own world: its thesis about how we perceive ourselves and interact with each another. And it makes for essential watching, even twenty years after the series premiered.

Though my mom forbade The Simpsons when my sister and I were kids, she let us watch anything we wanted on Nick. Thanks to this loophole, we spent an unsafe number of hours irradiating our brains with Captain Höek and Stimpy, Powdered Toast Man, Mr. Horse, Muddy Mudskipper, and an extended cast of the most deranged, grotesque, violent, scary, and hilarious cartoon characters ever conceived.

We loved it.

Yet even for skeptics and those whose childhood constitutions proved too weak to endure the endless quantity of hairballs, vomit, and rubber nipples, two reasons to re-watch Ren and Stimpy this summer stand out.

The first is historical. The show left a deep indentation on some part of my brain, as I found myself easily recalling from dusty childhood memory banks entire swaths of dialogue and lyrics to parody corporate jingles. Yet from the lofty perch of adulthood, it often seems like Ren and Stimpy could only have emerged from its particular cultural moment. To think of the show as a historical object reveals a world in which the metaphor of an Earth-destroying red-button still had purchase; in which the depiction of a free exchange of blood, saliva, urine, and any number of bodily fluids would give an HIV-wary public reason to loosen its collective collar; and in which those parody jingles and fake ads could constitute an actual criticism of corporatist infiltration of childhood. That is: a moment before the Global War on Terror, before political will (and actual medical advances) to address the AIDS crisis, and before everything having to do with the Internet and its infiltration of childhood.

The second and perhaps more important has to do precisely with the cartoon’s portrayals of madness, which seem equally alive in our equally-but-differently insane time. Though some of the politically subversive rhetoric seems a bit worn, Ren and Stimpy taps into the timelessly unnerving fear that even in our ordinary lives we constantly suppress a frothy brew of cruelty, sadism, jealousy, and bodily smells. In other words, we’re all pretty freaked out just beneath the surface. The show gives us an outlet for accepting that we’re all either crazy or mad, regardless of historical moment (though perhaps it’s no coincidence that Pfizer started selling Zoloft in 1991, the same year Ren and Stimpy premiered).

Not that the show’s timeless insights into the psyche were immediately evident. When Kricfalusi (or John K as he’s better known) first sold Ren and Stimpy, Nick executives were skeptical, and only ordered six episodes. They realized their mistake immediately, as college campus viewing parties and merchandise materialized across the country, while ratings ballooned to 2.2 million weekly viewers. In common parlance, the show struck a nerve. By the time the second season arrived in August 1992, the New York Times was already calling it “perhaps the most innovative, maybe even subversive, animated program in decades.” Ren and Stimpy reached a wider audience than ever expected, touching demographics that advertising executives have wet dreams about. Nickelodeon ordered 20 additional episodes.

Critics lauded the combination of rich visuals, bonkers narratives, and an ironic score of classical music, even as parents freaked out about the show’s physical violence. Meanwhile, Nick executives tried to get their heads around the situation. In an interview with Time before season two, the channel’s VP for Animation Vanessa Coffey said, “These episodes are designed to be refreshingly outrageous for at least 15 years.” But inside Nickelodeon, things got complicated. Kricfalusi — whose groundbreaking cartoon had been turned down by the major networks, including animation-friendly Fox — scrambled with his team at Spümcø to produce new shows. He had a particular creative vision and persnickety work habits that drew on traditional approaches to cartooning. More pressingly, his spats with Nickelodeon over more extreme episodes led to delays in production, and an escalation in internal tensions.

The network found a simple solution: they pushed out the creator. Barely four weeks after the Time piece, USA Today reported, “The future of Nickelodeon’s cult hit The Ren & Stimpy Show is in doubt after reports that creator John Kricfalusi was ousted for failing to produce new episodes in time.” Nick owned the characters, wooed writer Bob Camp and others away from Spümcø, and started production under the auspices of Games Animation. (You can read about the saga on John K’s blog, which also features storyboards and other Ren and Stimpy materials that I may or may not have spent hours looking through).

John K’s episodes are the most psychologically dense in the Ren and Stimpy canon, and I wonder what the show would have looked and felt like had it run its course with him in charge. What I do know is that in John K’s characters are constantly on the brink of mental collapse and he does not shy away from showing what a breakdown looks like from the inside.

Take “Stimpy’s Fan Club”, in which a jealousy-plagued Ren spends a three-minute monologue plotting to murder his popular pal. In several frames, we get a literal inside look at Ren’s skull, lodged behind his eyes, watching a peacefully slumbering Stimpy. A two-by-four holds up Ren’s brain, and bloody veins hang down toward a green muck. “I know it’s just one quick twist,” Ren muses as dotted lines appear over Stimpy’s midsection, “and it’s over.” But as he creeps toward Stimpy to do the deed, something short circuits. “It’s happening again,” Ren shouts, clutching his head, “my brain. My hot, stinging brain.” He screams. We don’t know what’s happening as Ren howls in an agony and the background flashes. But the moment seems at once profoundly disturbing and comic. Disturbing because Ren’s mind has taken control of his body, and comic because of the amount of tension released. We laugh because, just for a second, it seemed like the cartoon was about to turn actually dark (it still makes me weirdly nervous). It’s only when Kricfalusi pulls away that we remember that, well, it’s just a cartoon.

“Stimpy’s Invention”, the episode in which the song “Happy Happy, Joy Joy” makes its appearance, depicts an inverse scenario in which Ren’s body retakes control of his mind. Stimpy looks to cheer up the perpetually grumpy Ren using a remote controlled helmet. Ren, debilitated by the device and its imperative to BE! ALWAYS! HAPPY! limps down the stairs smiling maniacally when Stimpy arrives with a record of his favorite song. Stimpy puts on the album and the two dance. But Ren escapes to the kitchen. He gleefully smashes the helmet with a hammer. The song ends in a familiar pose: with Ren’s hands around Stimpy’s neck. Ren has retaken control of his mental and emotional faculties, relieved to be angry again.

Mind and body are constantly at war in Ren and Stimpy. After John K’s departure the cartoon becomes increasingly violent, but loses much of the psychological complexity it has in its best moments. I don’t mean to take sides in an animation war, especially since some great episodes (“Ren’s Retirement” and “Insomniac Ren,” among others) happen well after Kricfalusi’s departure. All I do mean to say is that Ren and Stimpy is back on Nicktoons this year, and readily available on iTunes. The show makes a fantastically rich commentary on the psyche, and definitely bears reconsideration. There’s almost too much to say about it. So if you’re not watching already, you insipid little monkey, then you’re really just a bloated sack of protoplasm.

A-J Aronstein teaches writing at the University of Chicago and blogs at The Tasty Spoonful. He lives on Chicago’s Northwest Side.

20 Years Later, Looking Back at the Twisted Genius of […]