Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Cartoon Closet Part 7

Part 7: The Ren and Stimpy Effect

Gandy Goose and Sourpuss

Before working on Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures in 1987 under Bakshi, John Kricfalusi worked for Filmation and Hanna-Barbera. He considered this type of animation in the eighties, “the worst animation of all time (Spin, Anuff).”
He’s spoken about the lack of respect and creativity animators experienced. Studios, like Filmation, pushed for extremely limited animation, and requiring artists to simply trace the character designs. Working on Mighty Mouse helped define Kricfalusi’s process for creatively driven animation, and helped him explore character traits and humor that would end up being incorporated into Ren & Stimpy.

First airing in 1939, the Gandy Goose cartoons were surrealistic, normally starting and ending with Gandy Goose and Sourpuss arguing in the bedroom. When working on Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures, John Kricfalusi reinvented the characters of Gandy and Sourpuss by exploring the domestic aspects of their relationship. When playfully describing the original characters, Kricfalusi wrote:

"Gandy is a loveable homosexual, Sourpuss was a mean curmudgeon. Gandy and Sourpuss had a funny relationship. They slept together and would invade each other’s dreams. Sourpuss was the asshole character and Gandy loved him nonetheless. Their relationship inspired Ren and Stimpy.”

Though side characters, and only in a few episodes, Gandy and Sourpuss were written as an ambiguous couple. When Gandy Goose is first introduced to the series, he has a mental breakdown because he cannot find his partner Sourpuss. Mighty Mouse takes Gandy Goose to a psychiatric hospital, and Gandy begins to hallucinate about his friendship with Sourpuss (by having flashbacks to the original cartoon). One of these scenes involves Sourpuss shouting:

“Stop that nonsense and come to bed,” followed by a scene of them both sharing a bed.

Ever self-aware, this episode also parodied the animation of the eighties, having Gandy be shocked by the type of schlock that had become popular since the 40s when he was a star. 

...or for 2014: My Little Zygote Friendship is Magic

In a later episode Mighty's Wedlock Whimsy it is clear that, though off scene, Gandy and Sourpuss are showering together. In the same episode, they attend a wedding, appearing to be each other’s date.

Mighty Mouse was not immune to the heavy hand of censoring that had become rampant in the eighties. Some adult viewers deemed the show unfit for children, and yet there seemed to be confusion over what exactly to complain about.

A scene of Mighty Mouse exaggeratedly inhaling the scent of a flower was said to be a coded drug reference. “We heard on the radio that some crazy preacher was raising a stink about Mighty Mouse sniffing cocaine,” Kricfalusi said. “There were plenty of other things we got away with in the cartoons that someone could have jumped on, but this flower thing was manufactured out of nothing. (Wired)”
Krifalusi admitted that they pushed boundaries on the show, that there were many intentional things that could have been considered controversial at the time– like the ambiguous relationship of Gandy and Sourpuss, instead censors went after an inappropriate interpretation of their own making (Spin, Anuff).”

Nicktoons and John Kricfalusi

Labourne and others at Nickelodeon were insistent that the channel would not develop programming just to sell products, as the broadcast networks were doing so successfully in the era of Reaganomics and deregulation. The shows on Nickelodeon, in other words, would not be about ‘toy-hawking’ but would rather be about establishing a place in television where kids could ‘just be kids.’” (pg56).
Ren & Stimpy was one of the first three original cartoons developed for Nickelodeon along with the groundbreaking, but far more gentle, Doug and Rugrats. When Kricfalusi first pitched the show to Nickelodeon, it was in a format similar to what networks had wanted in the 80's. Ren and Stimpy were owned by a diverse cast of multi-ethnic boys and girls. Nickelodeon wanted something different, the heart of Kricfalusi's pitch, Ren and Stimpy themselves.  The show became not only the most watched cartoons they aired, but one of the most watched shows they produced (Labourne Interview).

http://www.2ndfirstlook.com/2012/08/happy-happy-joy-joy-ren-stimpy-show.htmlThe first two seasons of Ren & Stimpy were wildly popular, both with children and adults. "The show did seem to be for everyone but children. But children loved it. Early market research indicated the Ren & Stimpy doubled Nickelodeon's ratings among children aged two to eleven, increasing the total number o viewers to 1.2 million (pg. 170)."

Nickelodeon used this to help develop their brand. Ren & Stimpy also aired for a time on MTV in order to cross market the new channel and bring the teen and young twenties market back to Nicktoons. "The result was a near-doubling of viewers to 2.2 million households, with 45 percent of the audience being eighteen or over(pg. 171)."

Yet, as the series progressed Nickelodeon became more and more uneasy with the type of material that had come to define Ren & Stimpy. The second season became an ongoing  battle with Kricfalusi about story content, with the end result in him being fired. At the time, official statement was that Kricfalusi couldn't keep deadlines, while Kricfalusi called out Nickelodeon on their censorship (pg. 198). But in actuality it was more complicated then that
In retrospect, it is almost shocking that a children’s show like Ren & Stimpy was made at all, considering the Care Bear fare of the eighties. But the nineties gave creative freedom back to the animators. “The early years at Nickelodeon were characterized by a heady sense of freedom in the historically highly controlled children’s television industry (pg. 60)."   

Because of its timing, Ren & Stimpy was allowed to revel in a level of both gross out and black comedy that would never slide passed Standards Departments of today. Kricfalusi took advantage of that, exploring  how far he could push the medium without conforming to expectations of "child-friendly." He actively critiqued the child genre and the kind of marketing to children that had become common in the eighties(pg. 196). 
Ren & Stimpy is the kind of show that would have been an Adult Swim darling if such an animation block had existed at the time, but the Simpsons had only just begun airing a few years prior, adult targeting cartoons were few and far between. Ren & Stimpy was rated TV-Y7, and Nickelodeon feared it excluded that child market (as defined by the network, because clearly the show was popular with children).
As Banet-Weiser puts it, "Nickelodeon wants to be hip, but not that hip: while dedicated to "respecting" and empowering its audience, the channel defines respect and empowerment within the terms of the general market (pg. 198)."
Labourne had regrets about how the situation with Kricfalusi ended. Ren & Stimpy was symbolic of the creator driven animation movement Nickelodeon wanted to foster, and yet, as she said of the show, "in some ways it was a more adult property then we should have had on Nickelodeon." Labourne felt that at a certain point Ren & Stimpy began to violate Nickelodeon's basic standards for children. The network decided that "parting ways" with Kricfalusi was their only option.
Ren and Stimpy 

Ren and Stimpy had an ambiguously coded relationship. In the audio commentary for the uncut DVD, Kricalusi talked about one of the censorship incidents for the episode Son of Stimpy (Here). In this Christmas themed episode Stimpy "gives birth" to a sentient fart, but when his child goes missing, he becomes inconsolable. While trying to cheer up Stimpy, Ren suggestively points out the mistletoe that hangs above them, fluttering his eyelashes flirtatiously. This angers Stimpy who ends up only emphasizing the sexual undertones of the scene by saying "Gosh darn it Ren, that's all you can think of?!"

Ren and Stimpy in the snow under some mistletoe.

Initially Nickelodeon asked that the mistletoe scene be removed, because of the potential gay reading, but the story goes that when they found out that cutting the scene upset a gay employee who worked for Spumco (the animation studio for Ren and Stimpy) the network had the scene added back.

In the "In the Beginning  Featurette" Kricfalusi mentioned that he received letters from gay couples who identified with Ren and Stimpy's relationship. When Kricfalusi goes on to say, "I don't whether they're gay or not, that's their own business." His statement seems a bit tongue and cheek, after all Ren and Stimpy are his creation, their business is his business. 

But, what exactly Ren and Stimpy's relationship was, has been much debated by fans and scholars alike. Jeffrey Dennis wrote in Queertoons "They reflect the Hanna-Barbera era of presenting signs without sufficient contextual markers to fix the dyads as friends, siblings, or coworkers, but with the added awareness that there was another possibility: as Provenzano (1994) states, the two are "not not gay." But Dennis was quick to add that he saw the show as presenting same-sex desire as "perverse" and that the pair was "presenting a parody of heterosexual relationships."

Ren threatening to tear Stimpy's arms off, while Stimpy cowers in fear.

Ren and Stimpy share a home/bed together, but their relationship fluctuates. In one episode Stimpy is a masochist who loves being struck by Ren. Ren is just as likely to lovingly flirt with Stimpy under mistletoe, as to threaten to tear Stimpy's limbs off - while Stimpy (no longer masochistic) cowers in the corner, whimpering in fear. Ren and Stimpy are as gay as an episode needs them to be. While they are coded in a relationship, situational comedy trumps character identity.

Ren and Stimpy were not openly recognized as a canon same-sex couple until the Ren & Stimpy Adult Cartoon. This new series targeting adult audiences aired on the new Spike TV. The press release at the time stated: "the duo is back -this time as a gay couple" (emphasis mine).

Spike TV was careful to point out to their adult audience, that as a children's cartoon, Ren and Stimpy were not gay. But what about Ren and Stimpy's friendship had actually changed? What subtle nuances now marked their relationship as romantic? The main difference in their behavior towards each other was that they were now having sex (albeit be it graphic visual euphemisms for sex, like "playing baseball" and "sawing wood.)"

Ren and Stimpy "sawing wood." They are literally sawing wood but it is set up visually to look like they are having sex.

While the show its self was universally panned, fan reaction to the outing of the characters was mixed. Many viewers expressing shock at the characters "new" sexuality.  "Because in this cartoon, Ren and Stimpy are apparently lovers," said one reviewer. Echoing the press release, this sentiment was repeated in a multitude of reviews when describing Ren and Stimpy, "who are now apparently a gay couple." "Ren and Stimpy are now gay, it seems," wrote another.  

Not that all the reviewers were negative, the more neutral Entertainment Weekly compared Ren and Stimpy's relationship to that of Ignatz and Krazy Kat, writing that, "Kricfalusi indulges the weirdly asexual-yet-homosexual relationship between Ren and Stimpy."

But the fact was, Kricfalusi had officially outed the pair six year before the Spike TV series, and five years after he was pulled from the original show on Nickelodeon. In a 1997 interview with the San Francisco Examiner he was asked if Ren and Stimpy were intended as a gay couple, and said:

"Totally. In Ren's case, it's not completely by choice. He'd rather have a beautiful human woman if he could get away with it. Since he can't, Stimpy's easy. He's madly in love with Ren." His description of their relationship emphasized aspects of the classic traits of the male duo but within a romantic context.

His focus on domesticity, camp humor, and a knowing wink at a modern audience in terms of a subtextual reading of classic duo comedy - not only influenced animation of the nineties, it shaped modern expectations for the male duo in cartoons. Ren & Stimpy ushered in a new decade. Animation became zany, it was allowed to cross boundaries between adults and children: campy was cool.

John Kricfalusi 's Other Legacy

In 2018, Buzzfeed News released an article revealing that John Kricfalusi was a sexual predator who had groomed young fans who had reached out to him. John K. was seen as a force for innovative change in animation. He blogged lessons to teach traditional cartooning skills and Spumco was known for hiring inexperienced artists (often fans) and training them. This was used as a cover to prey on young girls.

An interview for the Adult Party Cartoon was recorded featuring John K. with one of his victims. In the video Kricfalusi talks in derogatory terms about women, sexualizes and belittles Rice, admits to having been at her 15th birthday party, and claims studios don't let artists draw sexy girls because networks are run by (insert lesbian slur here).

Even before the extent of Kricfalusi's abuse had been made public, he was known for being difficult to work with. In 1992 Kricfalusi was fired from the original series and was not allowed to be involved in any capacity. Voice actor Billy West said of the man (in an interview before the 2018 article): 

"When I go to work for someone I NEVER bring my personal problems to the arena. The creators of most of the shows I've done don't seem to do that either. John K. wasn't a little bit difficult to work with. He was darn near impossible to work with. His abuse of actors including myself is legendary and was not so much about the search for perfection—it was about borderline sadism and control. His whole fixation with hell dads and boys and torture and punishment... There's a difference between cries for help and comedy."

It was recently announced that there would be a reboot of Ren and Stimpy. Response has been mixed, but as Jenny Nicholson put it:



Kricfalusi might have taken the risk of making Ren and Stimpy an openly gay couple, but it came from a man who treated being gay as a type of gross-out humor. For as influential as Ren and Stimpy was at the time it came out, it cannot be separated from the man who created it. Kricfalusi's predatory behavior and abuse are a part of Ren and Stimpy's legacy, too.

Part 6: Campy as a Commodity

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