John K. reflects on The Ren and Stimpy Show and chimes in on his latest cartoon
In the 1995 teen comedy Clueless, Cher (played by Alicia Silverstone) sits on a couch with her step-brother/love interest Josh (a very young Paul Rudd). Though they both have wildly different personalities, the two are sharing a quiet bonding moment at home. On the TV, Cher turns the channel to a cartoon featuring a cat and a Chihuahua. Josh asks her, astonished, what the hell they’re watching. “That’s Ren and Stimpy,” she tells him. “They’re way existential.”
This is just a small taste of how this unlikely animated duo managed to become a cultural touchstone for Generation X. The Ren and Stimpy Show hit the pop culture landscape with the force of a neutron bomb when it first aired on Nickelodeon in 1991. But Ren and Stimpy weren’t the product of some mega studio brain trust. It was the product of one man’s imagination, Canadian-born animator John Kricfalusi (aka John K.), who through blood, sweat and tears (mostly sweat, as we found out in our interview), stumbled on to fame by sneaking in through the back door.
“I used to doodle this retarded cat all the time, a million weird variations of him. He was just a phone doodle, like, I would talk on the phone and just draw all the time on notebook pads,” Kricfalusi says of the characters’ origins. “And every now and again, I’d get a drawing that I’d actually like, and I thought, hey, maybe I should make this into a character.”
In the beginning Ren and Stimpy weren’t even a duo, but they were separate doodles (Ren based on an old photograph of a psychotic-looking Chihuahua in a fuzzy sweater) until Kricfalusi’s friend Joel Fajnor suggested that he pair them up.
Kricfalusi tried shopping his characters to Saturday morning cartoon networks in the early to mid-‘80s in a time when no creator-driven cartoons existed on TV. He says that back then, Saturday morning cartoons were solely based on action figures, animated versions of live action shows or horrible rehashes of once popular characters.
“They would take out everything that made the character popular in the first place,” Kricfalusi says of the latter category. “Like in the Popeye cartoon, he wasn’t allowed to fight. Then what the fuck am I watching Popeye for?”
Clearly, pitching to the big networks—ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox—in this sort of environment was doomed from the start.
“They thought I was nuts!” Kricfalusi admits.
“I was super naïve,” he goes on to say. “I thought they had crappy cartoons on the air because they couldn’t find anyone who was funny. But no, they had crappy cartoons on the air on purpose.”
However, Kricfalusi eventually did find a home for Ren and Stimpy. The following is an excerpt from a lengthy interview in which the fiery animator talks about what it took to bring The Ren and Stimpy Show to an upstart cable network and also talks about his new cartoon, “Cans Without Labels,” a short based on a true story.
What changed in the ‘90s as far as television was concerned that made The Ren and Stimpy Show possible?
Nickelodeon. It was a cable network, but it was a little cable network for kids. They’d only done live action shows… They decided in 1987 that they wanted to do cartoons, but they also decided that they didn’t want to buy cartoons from the big studios. Geraldine Laybourne, who was the president of the network, she coined the phrase “creator-driven cartoons,” which wasn’t a new invention. All cartoons were creator driven until the mid-‘60s, until Saturday morning cartoons, which were executive driven. But she came up with this term that was kind of catchy. They wanted to get young artists who really believed in their characters and had something different…
I had this meeting with Vanessa [Coffey], and she was staying at the Universal City Hotel. She was on the 14th floor or something. For some reason the air conditioning was off that day and it was the middle of summer so it was a real boiler.
I brought seven presentations. Ren and Stimpy was just one of them, and I pitched them all. It took me an hour and a half, and this was in 100-degree heat. When I pitch, it’s kind of lively. I was just jumping around, and every time I would shake my head, a sheet of sweat would slap Vanessa across the face. I would apologize, but she said don’t stop, just keep going. She hardly said anything throughout the pitches, she would just say, “More, more.”
They flew me out [to New York] the next day, and they had a room full of executives now. Vanessa was the only one who was going to be in charge of the animation, but they had executives from other departments just to hear the pitch, so she would have people on her side. None of the other executives really understood anything that was going on while I was pitching it. They were all scared…
I was working on the sixth pitch, and I heard stomping coming down the hallway, and it was Gerry Laybourne. She comes in and says, “What the hell is going on in here?” All the executives were terrified, they were like, “This is John from L.A. He’s pitching a show for us.” Gerry said, “Oh, really? Can I hear one?” I just had one left. It was Jimmy’s Clubhouse about Jimmy the Idiot Boy, so I pitched that. I was covered in sweat again. I’m jumping around, and in the middle of it—I have an asthma inhaler in my pocket, and it flew out and hit her right in the tits. It hit her so hard she jumped back. Everyone gasped… Gerry calmly leaned over and picked up the inhaler and gave it back to me. She said, “Keep going.” I finished the pitch, and she didn’t even look at me. She looked at the executives in the room and said, “Buy something from this man,” and she left…
By the end of the week, we had a deal. It was a shitty deal. I had to sell out. I didn’t get anything out of it except a salary, but I wanted to get my stuff on the air. It was the only network in existence at that time that would buy an original animated show. So there you go. That’s how Ren and Stimpy got on the air.
So you didn’t see a dime of any of the Ren and Stimpy licensing, like all the toys and stuff?
No, and it sold like a billion dollars in toys.
Is that something that irks you at all?
If I had even co-owned it, I could make any cartoon I want. I would have owned a giant studio, and animation would’ve kept evolving over the last 20 years… Here’s the crazy thing: It’s really hard to get a hit show and to get an original show that’s a hit, because networks all have theories. They think everything is a formula. But almost every big hit show, at least in animation, snuck in around what last year’s formula was. Like The Simpsons, if Matt Groening had gone in and pitched The Simpsons as a half-hour show to Fox, there’s no way it would have gotten on the air. But the way it got on, it was just one minute of The Tracy Ullman Show. No one was paying attention at the network until it started getting tons of fan mail and got to be the most popular part of the show, so they realized they had to make a series out of it. So that didn’t go through traditionally. The Ren and Stimpy Show didn’t get on Saturday morning, it had to go to the network that didn’t know anything about cartoons and didn’t have any rules about them…
But as soon as these breakthrough shows happen, everybody tries to figure out the formula, like, “Why is The Simpsons so popular?” It’s never because of Matt Groening. It’s because there’s a grouchy father and it’s a family and because it’s sort of like a sit-com, and then a million imitation Simpsons come out and none of them are successful and no one can figure out why. It’s because you didn’t have Matt Groening creating them. They never want to attribute the success to the creator. They think it’s the formula. What are the ingredients of this show that we can copy? Beavis and Butthead was the next big hit. There’s no way that Mike Judge could have sold that as a series right off the bat. He did it as a short, “Frog Baseball”… Liquid Television put it on their show, which was an abysmal show mostly. Most of the stuff [on the show] was unwatchable, but [“Frog Baseball”] caught on. Everyone loved it, so they made a series. That came out, and probably a million Beavis and Butthead imitations followed, none of them successful because they didn’t have Mike Judge. He’s a hilarious guy. There’s millions of imitations of success, but not many successes, because they always sneak in through the back door.
Looking back, do you wish you would you have done it differently with the contract?
There’s nothing I could have done. I wouldn’t have gotten on the air. No one would have known who I was. I’d still be churning out Saturday morning cartoons. There still would have been Saturday morning cartoons.
Do you feel like you did what you set out to do? Make cartoons good again?
I made them different, anyway. For a while, creator-driven was the trend. It became the fashion from the early ‘90s to the mid-‘90s. And then all the cable networks started getting their own studios and started doing the opposite of what made them successful in the first place. Instead of going to creators, they made their own studios and packed them with slaves and controlled them. And they had fewer and fewer hits.
You used Kickstarter to fund “Cans Without Labels.” You were able to raise quite a bit of money for it.
It seems like a lot of money, but it wasn’t actually enough. The cartoon’s a lot longer and more elaborate. I had a storyboard done and a few layouts, but I didn’t have a studio at the time. I tried to produce it out of my house with freelancers, but that just doesn’t work. Maybe if we had a really simple cartoon that would work.
The main character George Liquor [who also appeared in The Ren and Stimpy Show] is based on your father, correct?
Partly, not totally. He’s not a caricature of him. My father doesn’t look like that, but the parts about discipline and that he likes fishing and doesn’t take crap from the kids. He believes in hard work and that everything should hurt or the reward isn’t worth it. That’s my dad.
What’s the story of the cartoon? Is it more of a personal story for you?
It’s a true story. My dad believes in saving a buck. He grew up in the Depression when everything was hard. He never had any money, so if they had a dollar, they held on to it. Even when he had money, he still held on to it. He tried to teach us, the kids, the value of a buck, but it didn’t work. But in the ‘60s, everybody was kind of well off. That was the height of the middle class. The middle class would have been considered rich a hundred years earlier by the way we lived. We didn’t live in a mansion or anything. My dad was like, “You kids have it easy. You have to learn to save a buck in this here world. You never know when there’s going to be another depression!” He was always on the hunt for bargains. He still is! He’ll never buy anything for full price. It’s just plain stupid. And he’ll never buy brand names, because they cost twice as much as the generic labels. He used to go to the local supermarket in Ottawa called Loblaws—William Shatner used to do commercials for it. They were great…
There was a damaged goods section at the back of the supermarket, and there were a couple of shelves where they had cans without labels. They had lost the labels, or they had dents in them so they tore they labels off, and they would just take a big marker and write “5 cents” or “10 cents” if it was a big can. My dad would just run down there with a big cart and run over all the old ladies and stuff and just fill the cart with every single can. He didn’t care what was in them. He didn’t want to know. He just took them all home because he knew one day the Commies were going to drop a bomb on us or something, and he’d be ready. The basement was filled with these cans. No one knew what was in them. My dad swore he could figure it out. He’d count the rings, or whether it had a gold lid or a silver lid, he’d weigh it and shake it. He’d always guess… He’d say, “I know what’s in here! Peaches!” But it was never fucking peaches. It was always something completely hideous, some gruesome thing no one would eat. But once you opened the can, you couldn’t waste it. It could be like beef testicles or something, but you still had to eat it.
Was his gift for thrift something that he passed down to you? Do you consider yourself a thrifty person?
Oh no, not at all. He’s still lecturing me about how I don’t know how to save a buck.
Does your dad like the character?
He thinks the story is great, but he says I made up a lot of stuff. I exaggerated a little bit, but not that much. My dad’s a very extreme personality. It’s hard to exaggerate him more than he already is.
You can check out John K.’s blog at Johnkstuff.blogspot.com.