Sometimes TV shows drag their funny, interesting, and highly-rated feet across our living rooms for years. “Thank god this happened!” we cry in glee. Other times, the powers that be cancel those shows and then resurrect them to diminishing returns. That’s where “Brilliantly Canceled” comes in, looking at the shows that had a healthy, original run only to come back in a new, inferior form.
When The Ren & Stimpy Show first aired in 1991, it was a revelation, a revolting, occasionally terrifying revelation. Being one of the few shows on children’s television to reflect the actual humor of a child, Ren & Stimpy acted as a softened Garbage Pail Kids, complete with boundless toilet humor and excessive violence. Surprisingly, Ren & Stimpy was to be one of the Nickelodeon’s flagship shows and was included in both the network’s new Nicktoon and Snick initiatives, not only covering the network’s two key demographics, teens and pre-teens, but also grabbing some adults.
The show, in spite of itself, worked. Ren & Stimpy squeaked by censors time and time again, managing to keep a main character that talked to the ghosts of his own farts and be really, really funny. That’s not to say the production wasn’t troubled. Much like the show’s spiritual stepbrother, MTV’s Beavis and Butt-head, Ren & Stimpy remained a target for censors and parent groups. The show’s creator, John Kricfalusi, had to work under close scrutiny, balancing network concerns and his own intense interest in naturalistic poo-poo jokes.
But much like all great art that undergoes the gift of hardship, The Ren & Stimpy Show prevailed, stamping a sizable impression on a generation of soda-fueled youngsters during its five-year run. All great art requires some sort of setback to attain greatness, and just like how George Lucas thrived when people like Sir Alec Guinness called Star Wars “fairytale rubbish,” Kricfalusi brought an edge to Nickelodeon, and later, went over it.
In September 1993, Kricfalusi was fired from The Ren & Stimpy Show. Citing late delivery of episodes and creative differences as the cause, Nickelodeon let the show continue under the watchful eye of their gaming division for the next three years.
Kricfalusi’s Ren & Stimpy legacy, however, wasn’t cemented for another decade, when Spike TV revived the show, airing previously banned and several brand new Ren and Stimpy cartoons without fear of censorship, a chance to see Ren really open up that butt of his and give Stimpy the business. Spike wasn’t looking for Nickelodeon’s watered-down, near flatulence-free show. This was a new version that required a new name: Ren & Stimpy’s Adult Party Cartoon. And by adults, they mean the 16-year-olds who grew up on the show and are ready to handle such hilarious topics as spousal abuse and eating boogers.
The first episode of Ren & Stimpy’s Adult Party Cartoon, “Onward and Upward,” is a perfect summation of the revival. Now living inside the nose of a homeless person, Ren and Stimpy awake in their marital, though sexless, bliss to the snores of the nose’s proprietor. Fed up with eking by, Ren pines for a better life, so the couple moves into the spittoon of a local dive. No longer a sexually ambiguous cat and dog duo, Adult Party transforms them into a homosexual couple, altering their dynamic dramatically. For instance, a major motivator for Stimpy in “Onward and Upward” is sexual. He’s like Peg Bundy, begging his disinterested husband for sex.
But what really makes the show hard to swallow is Ren. His dominating role in their relationship turns him into an abuser, tricking Stimpy into kissing the anus of a rat in one scene, smacking him constantly, and repeatedly calling the cat a “bitch” in the episode “Stimpy’s Pregnant.” Even for cartoon characters, this all comes off as pretty harsh and never funny. This is a theme that runs throughout the show, but it’s also something the show doesn’t do particularly well. It’s hard to tell why the decision was made to make the Ren and Stimpy lovers, but in almost every occurrence of them acting as such, Ren makes sure to physically abuse Stimpy, something that just seems wrong, especially for cartoon characters that are having a hard enough time being funny.
The relationship of Ren and Stimpy becomes the absolute focus of these new episodes, and when placed next to older episodes, the new show’s warts become all the more apparent. Comparing the show’s satire of American culture, Spike gave watchers a crash course in what does not work on TV. Comparatively, when looking at another episode from the season, like the infamous “Man’s Best Friend,” which was actually banned by Nickelodeon in 1991, you can see these two engaging with American culture and mocking it. Adopted by George Liquor, Ren and Stimpy get a lesson in obedience by the over-stimulated American consumer. The George C. Scott-inspired Liquor is hilarious because his overt chauvinism is undone by his own actions. Ren the abuser simply gets to keep abusing. He’s not the butt of the joke, which he should be.
Adult Party Cartoon seemed doomed from the start. Spike forced John Kricfalusi into making the show’s humor more obvious. Kricfalusi claims, “I wasn’t ‘given license’, I was kind of forced to. I just wanted to make it the way I always did. The stories even came from the first 2 seasons of the show, but we added stuff hat the executives thought would be more like South Park. There are a few scenes that I would take out if I had my own way. And I never try to be merely ‘crass’ – certainly nowhere near as crass as modern prime-time cartoons.” But the show really does come off as crass for crassness’s sake.
On Nickelodeon, the show found new and creative ways to test censors and their audience, and part of that fun was being in on the joke. With everything being so explicit and so loud in Adult Party Cartoon, the show comes off as annoying and trying. In the end, Billy West, the original voice of Stimpy, had a good head about the project, refusing to do it because it didn’t sound funny. Boy, was he right.
Matt Schimkowitz is a writer, TV-watcher, and talks more about canceled TV shows and other irrelevant nonsense on the twitter and blogosphere, respectively.