L-r: Ren, Stimpy.


Medium: TV animation
Produced by: Spumco
First Appeared: 1991
Creator: John Kricfalusi
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During the 1970s and '80s, American TV animation was dominated by "parent action groups", which …

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… dictated non-violent, inoffensive content, strongly de-emphasizing individual achievement and self-worth in favor of group identification. Many cartoons of the '90s, such as South Park and Beavis & Butt-Head, were a reaction to that. It was The Simpsons that started to break out of the mold and Beetlejuice that began sneaking it into kids' programming areas, but Nickelodeon's Ren & Stimpy series is the one that made outrageous action and gross-out humor fashionable.

The Ren & Stimpy Show debuted on Nickelodeon, cable TV's leader in children's programming, on August 11, 1991. That same day, Nick unveiled Rugrats and Doug, thereby instantly putting itself on the map in the cartoon world. Rugrats slowly grew into an international phenomenon, and Doug, now owned by Disney, is still a viable property. Ren & Stimpy is the one that instantly caught the attention of both children and adults. Within a couple of months, it was the most popular show, animated or not, on cable TV.

Nickelodeon's initial goal in cartoon production was to run shows that resulted from the creative vision of artists, rather than, like He-Man, Strawberry Shortcake and so many other contemporary animated shows, as part of a coordinated marketing campaign where quality in toys, cartoons and other products took a back seat to arranging for them to sell one another. Among the small studios they approached for original characters was Spumco, run by cartoonist John Kricfalusi.

Kricfalusi and his partner, Carl Macek, responded with an ensemble show, whose large cast would consist of parodies of various cartoon genres. Nickelodeon producer Vanessa Coffey nixed most of it, but did okay the cat/dog pair. That's how Ren Hoek (a high-strung chihuahua with a German accent, voiced by Kricfalusi himself) and Stimpson J. Cat (a large, dumb cat of indeterminate variety, voiced by Billy West, who also did Bugs and Elmer in Space Jam) got their show, and how Kricfalusi, their creator and (at first) main guiding light, was catapulted to fame.

The Ren & Stimpy style included hugely exaggerated poses and expressions, lots of jokes about bodily functions and, without quite slipping into obscenity (a few shows were rejected for going too far), a general disregard for the canons of good taste. It also delivered its share of biting social commentary. Kricfalusi and his crew also weren't shy about doing permanent damage to their characters, such as cutting their tails off, having Ren's teeth rot and fall out before the readers' eyes, or even leaving them dead at the end of an occasional episode. Naturally, they'd be restored in the next one, with no explanation given or needed. Kids responded enthusiastically; and many of their parents, who had grown up with the bland network fare of the previous couple of decades, were also captivated by the idea of cartoons that pulled no punches in the pursuit of humor.

Or so it went during the first and second seasons, anyway. By the end of the second, Kricfalusi and Nickelodeon were having serious difficulties working together — or perhaps, as Kricfalusi's account has it, Nick simply didn't want to share the revenues of the hit series. Since the company legally owned Ren & Stimpy, it was Kricfalusi's studio that had to withdraw. West then took over Ren's voice, as well; and what social satire that had been visible through the disgusting parts was de-emphasized. The last of the cartoons Spumco had worked on were used during the third season. New production companies made an effort to maintain the style, but viewers could see the difference, and ratings dropped. It still retained enough of a following to last five seasons, 52 episodes in all, and to survive a while longer in reruns.

It was during the Kricfalusi days that Marvel Comics licensed the property for comic books. The Ren & Stimpy Show #1 was dated December, 1992. It was written by Dan Slott (who had previously worked on Marvel's Mighty Mouse comic) and drawn by Mike Kazaleh (whose earlier Captain Jack had been published by Fantagraphics Books). The comic book ran about as long as the TV series, ending with #44 (July, 1996). Slott and Kazaleh generally went after the show's audience rather than habitual comic book readers, but they did guest-star Spider-Man in the sixth issue.

The Ren & Stimpy Show lay dormant for a few years, but apparently it isn't finished. In 2003, TNN, another cable network owned, like Nickelodeon, by Viacom, began running new episodes in late-night time slots. With mostly an adult audience (its lead-in is a superhero named Stripperella), before heading into new production it kicked off with those few episodes Nick had rejected.

Now that its gross-out humor has made it an institution, it seems unlikely to resume its more biting aspects.


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Text ©2003-05 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Viacom.