Ren, Stimpy, and the Horrors of Manliness

With tonight’s debut of The Splat!, a much-hyped late-night programming block on TeenNick consisting of vintage Nickelodeon shows from the 1990s, the spotlight has fallen once again on the original lineup of animated series produced by the child-friendly cable network. Originally known as Pinwheel, the kidvid channel has existed in some form since 1977, but it didn’t get into producing original animated series until 1991, when, emboldened by the success of Matt Groening’s The Simpsons, it began to produce its own creator-driven cartoons. For most of the 1980s, television animation was dominated by shows based on toy lines (G.I. Joe, He-Man) or shows based on existing properties (The Flintstone Kids, Muppet Babies). But The Simpsons demonstrated that there was a burgeoning market for quirky, original animated programs, and on August 11, 1991, Nickelodeon responded with its own trio of newly-minted cartoons, produced under the Nicktoons banner: Doug, Rugrats, and John Kricfalusi’s The Ren & Stimpy Show. To say the least, one of these things was not like the others.

Though they featured more surrealism and offbeat humor than what Hanna-Barbera and Filmation were offering young viewers at the time, Doug and Rugrats were nevertheless very comfortable and familiar-seeming shows. Essentially, both were animated sitcoms about well-scrubbed Caucasian children growing up in pleasant, cozy suburban neighborhoods. Sure, Rugrats had the bossy Angelica character, and Doug had leather-jacketed bully Roger, but these were generally nice shows about nice people, with a strong sense of episode-to-episode continuity. Of the original Nicktoons, these are the series which give millennials the warm fuzzies, judging by nostalgia-themed BuzzFeed articles. The Ren & Stimpy Show was something altogether different. Inspired less by sitcoms and more by the anarchic, risque Tex Avery and Bob Clampett cartoons of the 1940s, maverick Canadian-born animator John Kricfalusi based his series on the strange, sado-masochistic relationship between Ren Hoek (voiced by Kricfalusi himself), a hot-tempered, Peter Lorre-accented Chihuahua with a pronounced violent streak, and Stimpson J. Cat (voiced by Billy West), a simple-minded, obese tomcat who  took Ren’s physical and verbal abuse with an imbecilic smile.

Kricfalusi, who apprenticed under “adult” animation pioneer Ralph Bakshi (of Fritz the Cat fame) on the 1980s Mighty Mouse revival, had no patience for sitcom-style continuity. Ren and Stimpy could pop up just about anywhere at any time, depending on the needs of a given script. They could be comfortable suburbanites (as in “Sven Hoek”), but they were just as likely to be homeless drifters, eating out of garbage cans and trying to scam their way into some free food and shelter (as “The Boy Who Cried Rat”). The humor of The Ren & Stimpy Show was decidedly darker and edgier than anything else in the world of children’s television, too, with proudly tasteless jokes about farts and boogers (“magic nose goblins,” in the show’s parlance), frequent use of violent, Three Stooges-inspired slapstick (Stimpy even spoke with the voice of the much-abused Larry Fine), and frequent, disturbing glimpses into the truly sick and twisted mind of Ren Hoek, who referred to his only companion as a “bloated sack of protoplasm” and a “sick little monkey” and often went on lengthy, disturbing psychotic rants (most famously in “Space Madness”).

More importantly, while Doug and Rugrats were about the world of children, The Ren and Stimpy Show was about the world of men. And the adults on Ren & Stimpy were not the well-meaning, befuddled authority figures seen on the other Nicktoons. No, these were lantern-jawed, cleft-chinned alpha males with barrel chests, bulging biceps, deep voices, and plenty of rough, scratchy stubble. Through this series, Nickelodeon was showing youngsters that the world of grownups could be threatening and scary. Time and again, Ren and Stimpy find themselves menaced by huge, terrifying men. There is the Bakshi-inspired fire chief in “Fire Dogs,” the unintelligible drill sergeant in “In The Army,” the burly dog catcher in the pilot, “Big House Blues,”  and the glowering convict Kowalski in “Fake Dad.” Testosterone oozed through the series. Many episodes revolve around the title characters trying their hands (or paws) at various male-dominated occupations: firemen in “Fire Dogs,” soldiers in “In the Army,” wrestlers in “Mad Dog Hoek,” desperados in “Out West,” astronauts in “Space Madness,” and mounties in “Royal Canadian Kilted Yaksmen.”

Among the recurring characters were well-muscled superhero Powdered Toast Man, robe-wearing paterfamilias Mr. Pipe, the terse, no-nonsense Mr. Horse (whose “man abs” Kricfalusi compliments on a DVD commentary), and a booming, tuxedo-clad announcer (voiced by West) known simply as That Guy, who in “Space Madness” manages to bully Stimpy into pressing the dreaded History Eraser Button. Little wonder that, when the series was briefly revived as Adult Party Cartoon in 2003, it appeared on Spike, which was then billing itself as the “First Network for Men.”

The overwhelming machismo of The Ren & Stimpy Show seems to come from John Kricfalusi himself, who fought numerous creative, financial, and scheduling battles with Nickelodeon before his messy ouster from the series in 1993. The show continued three more seasons without him under the aegis of Kricfalusi’s former lieutenant, Bob Camp, finally expiring in 1995. In the bonus material from Ren & Stimpy: The Lost Episodes, a 2006 DVD collection of aired and unaired Adult Party Cartoon episodes, the renegade animator comes off as a gruff, gravelly-voiced man’s man with no qualms at all about making crude sexual remarks in the presence of a visibly-nervous female staffer. Back in the show’s glory days, in a 1992 newsstand special called The Ren & Stimpy Show Exposed, Kricfalusi praised Kirk Douglas as “the manliest man who ever lived.” Kricfalusi idolized actors like Kirk Douglas and Burl Ives and frequently incorporated their likenesses, vocal tics, and mannerisms into Ren & Stimpy scenes. Another major influence on the show may have been Kricfalusi’s father, whom the animator recently described on his blog as “the biggest cartoon fan in the world.” In an extended 1993 cover story from Cinefantastique, Kricfalusi explains that it was his father’s disapproval which stopped him from doing any further space-themed episodes of the show. And on the DVD commentary for “Sven Hoek,” Kricfalusi explains that Ren’s terrifying climactic meltdown is at least partially inspired by something the cartoonist’s own father did when he disapproved of a pair of pants his son had purchased.

The single-greatest example of horrifying manliness of all of The Ren & Stimpy Show, however, must be the May 1993 installment “A Visit To Anthony.” The episode’s origins could not be more innocent. A real-life kid, Anthony Raspanti of Newport News, Virginia, had been the first viewer to write a fan letter to the show, and the show rewarded him with an episode in which the famous dog-and-cat team come to stay with him for a while. Harmless, right? “A Visit To Anthony,” however, becomes almost unfathomably dark and creepy as it focuses more on the character of Anthony’s hulking, unstable father, brought terrifyingly to life by actor Randy Quaid. Dad makes no secret of his dislike of Ren and Stimpy, and whenever it appears that the cartoon characters have inadvertently harmed or disillusioned the incredibly delicate child, the proud papa threatens the stars with grievous bodily harm. It all culminates in possibly the weirdest scene in Ren & Stimpy history, which is saying something, as the enraged father summons the trembling, beyond-terrified heroes into the den, which is lit only by a crackling fire, and proceeds to launch into the show’s angriest, most protracted tirade, after stripping to the waist:

Oh, you guys are big shots! Big shots from Hollywood! Is that what makes you feel big? Huh? Pushing little boys around? You feel like big men, playing with a little boy’s feelings, huh? You Hollywood types make me sick! You think because you come from Hollywood, you can push decent people around! People who work for a living! I work my fingers to the bone to feed my wife and my boy, Anthony. OH, ANTHONY, YOU’VE GOT TO PULL THROUGH! I bet you wussies never worked a stinkin’ day in your stinkin’ little lives! Show me your hands! Just as I thought. Soft as a baby’s head!

It goes on from there, including a very bleak joke about a dead fireman. Our heroes manage to pull out of this tailspin with some of their patented gross-out humor, but the damage has been done. And all of this on a show ostensibly geared toward the elementary and middle-school set. Sleep well, children, knowing that this is what the adult world has in store for you.

Ren, Stimpy, and the Horrors of Manliness