Ren & Stimpy

ren and stimpy

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The Ren & Stimpy Show, often simply referred to as Ren & Stimpy, is an American animated television series, created by Canadian animator John Kricfalusi for Nickelodeon. The series focuses on the titular characters: Ren Höek, a psychotic chihuahua, and Stimpson J. Cat, a good-natured, dimwitted cat. The show premiered in 1991, on the same day as the debut of ‘Rugrats’ and ‘Doug,’ the three of which comprised the original Nicktoons. The show ran for five seasons on the network.

Throughout its run, the show was controversial for its off-color humor, black comedy, toilet humor, sexual innuendo, and violence, all of which contributed to the production staff’s altercations with Nickelodeon’s Standards and Practices department. The show developed a cult following during and after its run. It was pioneering for satirical animated shows like ‘Beavis and Butt-head’ and ‘South Park.’

Ren Höek is a hot tempered, scrawny, violently psychotic ‘asthma-hound’ Chihuahua. Kricfalusi originally voiced Ren, styled as a demented Peter Lorre. When Nickelodeon fired Kricfalusi, Billy West, already the voice of Stimpy, took the role using a combination of Burl Ives, Kirk Douglas, and a slight ‘south of the border accent’ for the rest of the Nickelodeon run. Stimpson ‘Stimpy’ J. Cat is a three-year-old, fat, stupid cat. West based the voice on an ‘amped-up’ Larry Fine of the Three Stooges.

The show features a host of supporting characters. Ren and Stimpy play various roles themselves, from outer-space explorers to Old West horse thieves to nature-show hosts. While the characters are sometimes set in the present day, the show’s crew tended to avoid ‘contemporary’ jokes that reference current events. Some characters, such as Mr. Horse, are exclusively cameo-based, appearing in many episodes in scenes that have little bearing on the plot, as a running gag. Some notable artists and performers who voiced incidental characters on the show are Frank Zappa, Randy Quaid, Gilbert Gottfried, Rosie O’Donnell, Dom DeLuise, Phil Hartman, Mark Hamill, and Tommy Davidson.

The series ran for five seasons, spanning 52 episodes. The show was produced by Kricfalusi’s animation studio Spümcø for the first two seasons. Beginning with season three (1993–1994), the show was produced by Nickelodeon’s Games Animation.

‘Ren & Stimpy” cartoonist Bill Wray recalls Kricfalusi created the Ren and Stimpy characters around 1978 for personal amusement during his time in Sheridan College in Canada. Kricfalusi was inspired to create Ren by an Elliott Erwitt photograph, printed on a postcard, called ‘New York City, 1946,’ showing a sweatered chihuahua at a woman’s feet. Stimpy’s design was inspired by a Tweety Bird cartoon called ‘A Gruesome Twosome’ where the cats in the animation had big noses. In a call for new series by Nickelodeon, Kricfalusi assembled a presentation for three shows, among them a variety show titled ‘Our Gang’ with a live action host presenting different cartoons, each cartoon parodying a different genre. Ren and Stimpy were pets of one of the children in ‘Your Gang,’ serving as a parody of the ‘cat and dog genre.’ Vice president of animation production Vanessa Coffey did not like the other projects but did like Ren and Stimpy, singling them out for their own show.

Kricfalusi describes his early period with Nickelodeon as being ‘simple,’ as there was only one executive, Coffey, with whom he got along; when another executive was added, he moved to alter or discard some of the Ren and Stimpy episodes produced, but Kricfalusi says the episodes stayed intact since he did a ‘trade’ with Coffey: he would have some ‘really crazy’ episodes in exchange for some ‘heart-warming’ episodes.

Responses to the show were mixed. Even as the show came to garner high ratings for Nickelodeon, tensions rose. Many of the people involved in the show attribute Kricfalusi’s friction with Nickelodeon to episodes not being produced in a timely manner. Kricfalusi attributed the delays to Nickelodeon, withdrawing their approval to scenes and episodes that they had previously approved. Another issue of contention was the direction of the show; Nickelodeon later asked the new studio to make it lighter and less frightening. Kricfalusi points specifically to the episode ‘Man’s Best Friend,’ which features a violent climax where Ren brutally assaults the character George Liquor with an oar, as leading to his firing.

Without Kricfalusi, Nickelodeon moved production from Spümcø to its newly-founded animation department, Games Animation, which later became Nickelodeon Animation Studios. Billy West, having refused Kricfalusi’s request to leave along with him, voiced Ren in addition to Stimpy. Fans and critics felt this was a turning point in the show, with the new episodes being a considerable step down from the standard of those that preceded them.

The animation production system used in ‘The Ren & Stimpy Show’ was similar to those found in Golden Age cartoons: a director would supervise the entire production process from beginning to end; this is in contrast to cartoon production methods in the 1980s, where there was a different director for voice actors, and cartoons were created with a ‘top-down’ approach to tie in with toy lines. Bill Wray describes the initial lack of merchandise as ‘the unique and radical thing’ about The Ren & Stimpy Show, as no toy company pre-planned any merchandise for the show, and Nickelodeon did not want to use ‘over-exploitive’ merchandising. Kricfalusi notes that ‘Ren & Stimpy’ re-introduced the layouts stage, and re-emphasized the storyboard stage. Eventually, artists drew larger storyboard panels, which allowed for the stories to be easily changed according to reactions from pitch meetings, and for new ideas to be integrated.

The show’s aesthetics draw on Golden Age cartoons, particularly those of Bob Clampett in the way the characters’ emotions powerfully distort their bodies. The show’s style emphasizes unique expressions, intense and specific acting, and strong character poses. One of the show’s most notable visual trademarks is the detailed paintings of gruesome close-ups, along with the blotchy ink stains that on occasion replace the standard backgrounds, ‘reminiscent of holes in reality or the vision of a person in a deep state of dementia.’ This style was developed from Clampett’s ‘Baby Bottleneck,’ which features several scenes with color-cards for backgrounds. The show incorporated norms from ‘the old system in TV and radio’ where the animation would feature sponsored products to tie in with the cartoon, however in lieu of real advertisements, it featured fake commercial breaks advertising nonexistent products, most notably Log.

Carbunkle Cartoons is credited by Kricfalusi for beautifully animating the show’s best episodes, improving the acting with subtle nuances and wild animation. Some of the show’s earlier episodes were rough to the point that Kricfalusi felt the need to patch up the animation with sound effects and ‘music bandaids,’ helping the segments ‘play better, even though much of the animation and timing weren’t working on their own. One reviever describes the show’s style as changing ‘from intentionally rough to much more polished and plushie-toy ready.’

The Ren & Stimpy Show features a wide variety of music, spanning blues, folk, pop, jazz, classical music, jingles, and more. The opening and closing themes are performed by a group of Spümcø employees under the name ‘Die Screaming Leiderhôsens.’ Three albums have been released: ‘Crock O’ Christmas,’ ‘You Eediot!,’ and ‘Radio Daze.’ In addition to music written specifically for the show, a number of episodes utilized existing works by composers such as jazz musician Raymond Scott, Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Alexander Borodin, Antonín Dvořák, Rossini (particularly ‘The Thieving Magpie’), and a host of ‘production music’ by composers such as Frederic Bayco, which fans later compiled into several albums.

Stimpy’s rousing anthem titled ‘Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy’ was composed by Christopher Reccardi and written by Charlie Brissette and John Kricfalusi. The line ‘happy, happy, joy, joy’ is first used in episode three of the series; the song is first played in episode six. It is sung by a character introduced as ‘Stinky Whizzleteats,’ who is named in the episode’s script as Burl Ives. Several references to Burl Ives’s songs and movie quotes are sprinkled through the song, giving it its surreal air.

The creators of ‘Ren & Stimpy’ did not want to create an ‘educational’ series, a stance which bothered Nickelodeon. As the show grew in popularity, parent groups complained that Stimpy was subject to repeated violence from Ren. Other sources for complaint were the toilet humor and harsh language. Some segments of the show were altered to exclude references to religion, politics and alcohol. The episode ‘Powdered Toast Man’ was stripped of references to the Pope and the burning of the United States constitution and bill of rights, while in another episode, the character George Liquor’s last name was erased. Several episodes had violent, gruesome, or suggestive scenes shortened or removed, including a sequence involving a severed head, a close-up of Ren’s face being grated by a man’s stubble, and a scene where Ren receives multiple punches to the stomach from an angry baby. One episode, ‘Man’s Best Friend,’ never aired in the show’s original run for its violent content. The show’s spin-off, ‘Ren & Stimpy ‘Adult Party Cartoon,” debuted with this episode.

In 2003, Kricfalusi relaunched the series. The new version was aired during a late night programming block on Spike TV and was rated TV-MA. The series, as the title implies, explores more adult themes, including an explicitly homosexual relationship between the main characters, and an episode filled with female nudity. Billy West declined to reprise his role as the voice of Stimpy. Fans and critics alike were unsettled by the show from the first episode, which featured the consumption of bodily fluids such as nasal mucus, saliva and vomit. Only three of the ordered nine episodes were produced on time. After three episodes, the entire animation block was removed from Spike TV’s programming schedule.

The immediate influence of the show was the spawning of two ‘clones’: Hanna-Barbera’s ‘2 Stupid Dogs,’ in which Spümcø employees including Kricfalusi had some limited involvement after their departure from ‘Ren & Stimpy’; and Disney’s ‘The Shnookums and Meat Funny Cartoon Show.’ Writer/animator Allan Neuwirth writes that ‘Ren & Stimpy’ ‘broke the mold’ and started several trends in TV animation, chiefly the revival of credits at the head of each episode, the use of grotesque close-ups, and a shift in cartoon color palettes to richer, more harmonious colors. A direct influence can be seen in the series ‘SpongeBob SquarePants,’ with physically extreme drawings that contrast against the characters’ usual appearance, the ‘grotesque close-ups.’

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One Comment to “Ren & Stimpy”

  1. I miss Ren and Stimpy. I once painted a t-shirt with them, except Ren was in a Star Trek uniform, and Stimpy was a Klingon with a bony forehead ridge. Oh, and Stimpy was also disintegrating below the waist because Ren had just phazered him.

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