Just when you thought it was safe to look behind your toilet, Ren and Stimpy are baaaa—oh, wait, they just got cancelled again.
Our reviews of The Ren And Stimpy Show: Seasons Three And A Half-ish (published July 6th, 2005), The Ren And Stimpy Show: Season Five And Some More Of Four (published October 12th, 2005), and The Ren And Stimpy Show: The First And Second Seasons (published December 1st, 2004) are also available.
"Thank Beelzebub nobody was here to witness your filthy ignorance!"—Ren, "Onward and Upward"
Like a fetid zombie sludging out of the mosquito-infested swamp, Ren and Stimpy simply refuse to die. They shamble through your yard, tramping your carefully tilled flower beds, blowing rank clots of mucus on your porch step, until they have reached your back door. If you let them in, they will eat the leftovers in your refrigerator and leave such an oil on your couch that you won't even be able to burn it for kindling. And oh, yes, you will wish it could burn. Only fire can cleanse this.
But wait, is this the Ren and Stimpy of old? The love children of Spumco's John Kricfalusi that were mercilessly ripped from his hairy teat and raised by the craven suits at Nickelodeon and Games Animation? They look the same, more or less. They sound the same, more or less. What is happening here?
What is happening is pure marketing savvy on the part of Viacom, owner of cable channel Spike TV. You've heard of these guys. They used to be The Nashville Network, until they realized that America's trailer parks only really needed one country music channel. So they because The National Network, home of endless reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Then somebody in the marketing department got upset that those Star Trek reruns skewed too much toward women, and—well, I don't know, maybe they were members of the Little Rascal's old "He-Man Woman-Hater's Club." Or, they were afraid that there just wasn't a safe place on cable for all those old Steven Seagal movies, surrounded by sissy-pants girlie networks like Lifetime, and We, and Oxygen, and PBS. Manly shows for manly men. And manly men need manly cartoons.
And no one makes 'em manlier than John Kricfalusi.
Now Spike could have gone the easy route here, picking up John K's last manly project, The Ripping Friends. But no, they went the even easier route, picking an established property with a built-in fan base. Ren and Stimpy. Only this time, the cartoons were going to be for "adults"—or at least adults as defined by Spike TV, which means fraternity guys. Adults, according to the Adult Party Cartoon formula, want butt jokes, violence, and lots and lots of boobies. So really, what has changed since the middle school boys the original Ren and Stimpy Show was aimed at?
After the cancellation of The Ren and Stimpy Show back in 1996, these middle school boys moved on to high school, then into college. Once they hit legal drinking age, they became the target market for Spike. So bringing back Ren and Stimpy seemed like a fine idea for the reborn cabler.
But you say that you don't remember getting to see this Adult Party Cartoon show or these new Ren and Stimpy cartoons when they aired back in 2003? That is why this two-disc set is called Ren and Stimpy—The Lost Episodes. These six half-hour cartoons are all that remain of John K's aborted Adult Party Cartoon series. Well, technically, the series was never cancelled. It just sort of…evaporated. Inspired (by which I mean insipid and unfunny) fare like Gary the Rat and Stripperella (Stan Lee, how you continue to heap manure on your legacy) dragged down Spike's effort to create an animation block to compete with the juggernaut known as Adult Swim. In retrospect, Ren and Stimpy would have had a welcome home at Adult Swim. Instead, Spike's animation block sank like it was tied to the leg of a mob informant thrown into the harbor. Part of the problem was Spike's lack of promotion and support for the show; part of the problem was John K's notorious inability to get cartoons finished on schedule. Adult Party Cartoon vanished after airing only four new cartoons, one of which, "Firedogs 2," was split over two weeks and paired with repeats from the original Nickelodeon show. (The recap for the second half is included as an Easter egg, so you can hear John K reprise the voice of Stinky Wizzleteats.)
Disc One features three episodes, none of which aired on television. In "Naked Beach Frenzy," which oddly enough was also the theme of my high school prom, we enjoy cartoon nipples. Thank you, Spike TV. The plot: Ren ogles girls on the beach. Right away, you will notice how amateurish the animation looks in these cartoons. Sure, the art and color designs are wonderful. Every shot looks like a panel you could frame. But watch that girl chasing the beach ball in the background. When she turns, she literally flips over like a two-dimensional drawing being turned the other way. The timing on the voices (and the vocal performances themselves, led by John K as Ren and Eric Bauza as Stimpy) sometimes do not match the rubbery characters. And the jokes? Here is a sample. When a hairy, naked lifeguard is accepting congratulations and signing autographs after beating up Ren (whom the pretty bikini babes have mistaken for a sand crab), one of the girls shouts out, "Can I have a lock of your pubes?" Later, there is an entire joke sequence built around Ren soaping up a girl's breasts, after which Stimpy squirts "shampoo" from his crotch into another girl's hair. I chuckled at this. Then follows the crotch waxing.
At its best, the original Ren and Stimpy Show blended the dirty jokes with enough satire to give the jokes context. Having Nickelodeon looking in forced John K to justify the gags, to fit them together in such a way that they were harder to cut without making the cartoon incoherent. Without such pressure, John K cuts loose. Frankly, it is too much at times. The story-based cartoons are frankly funnier. For example, "Stimpy's Pregnant" was a premise pitched to Nickelodeon taken way over the top for Spike TV. In this cartoon, Stimpy is apparently female, with all the nesting and waddling and craving of pregnancy. Ren meanwhile lazes about and brags on the phone about the power of his "seed." Now, this is an adult cartoon, a set of gags that you cannot really get if you have not experienced family life. According to the interview that fronts this cartoon, many of the gags were designed by a woman Spumco vet after her own pregnancy, and the intimate perspective shows.
By the end of "Stimpy's Pregnant," I was won over by the exaggerated portrait of the real anxieties couples feel during pregnancy. If you've been through this (and my wife and I have, twice), you'll get the jokes. I also noticed by this second cartoon that some of Spumco's house style had evolved since the days of the original show. The needle-drop music was still there; the body parts were still veined and gooey. John K's obsession with never repeating a pose or facial expression is evident in the variety of drawings. But gone were the highly detailed, painted close-ups in favor of a more simplified style, probably meant to hurry up the production.
"Altruists" is an homage to the Three Stooges. A long (40 minutes, with too much padding) homage. The boys help out a hot MILF, her ample breasts, and her headless son, doing good deeds through violence and crime. Leaving my opinion of the Stooges out of it, I do think that this cartoon is pretty funny on its own merits. It could use some serious editing though.
Disc Two features the cartoons that actually did run on Spike TV. I can see now why Adult Party Cartoon initially left a bad taste in my mouth during its television run. All three times that I tried to watch the show, I was forced to sit through "Onward and Upward," a collection of every disgusting body-fluid joke (vomit used as gravy, snot used as shampoo) and gay reference ("Are you ready for a speedball, my little plumpkin pumpkin?") that the Spumco team could think to cram into a single half-hour. John K claims the cartoon was made in response to all the Nickelodeon fan letters requesting as many disgusting gags as possible. "We made it for you guys," he says in the introductory interview, barely concealing his contempt.
The venom in "Onward and Upward" will make your eyes burn. This is John K's revenge on his Nickelodeon audience and their demands for faster, cheaper product with exclusive focus on the gross. I wonder, though Kricfalusi never mentions this, if the cartoon is meant to be Spumco's attempt to mock the derivative work of the Games Animation team that took over Ren and Stimpy at Nickelodeon. Ren's facial expressions are great as always, but the cartoon itself is a chore to watch.
"Firedogs 2" is also a callback to the Nickelodeon days, being a sequel to—you guessed it—"Firedogs." But really, the cartoon is an excuse to work in an extended cameo by John K's former mentor, animation legend Ralph Bakshi. In fact, John K spends his entire nine-minute intro telling Bakshi stories (Eddie Fitzgerald talks for sixteen more minutes about the master cartoonist during a follow-up interview). There is no actual fire-dogging, just hanging about with the "fire chief" for the night. Then the cartoon abruptly ends. If you know Bakshi personally, watching a chain-smoking, foul-mouthed guy with Bakshi's voice (much too close to the recording mic) sit on the toilet is probably hilarious. I've never met Bakshi, and you probably haven't either.
In a strange way, it might be best that "Ren Seeks Help" closes out our survey of the history of Ren and Stimpy as a vicious dissection of the perverse relationship between these two co-dependent characters. After watching it, you can never again watch a Ren and Stimpy cartoon innocently. John K aptly describes this one as a "psychodrama" and "film noir." Ren commits some unnamed horrible act, enters psychoanalysis, and learns all about his painful childhood. It is a brilliant concept, and the art design is beautiful, some of the best in the entire series. But the slow, deliberate, and repetitive scenes of animal torture are not so much funny as really, really creepy. Usually, we keep our emotional distance from Ren's brutality, just as in Kricfalusi's beloved Three Stooges films. But "Ren Seeks Help" is what might result if Jeffrey Dahmer made a cartoon, displaying an almost loving devotion to sadism. This is not a comedy; it is a horror movie.
As for the extras, the first disc features overlong introductions by John K and Weird Al Yankovic. Why Weird Al? I have no earthly idea. Just drop it, ok?
Well, to be fair, I think the reason Weird Al is here is that he was free, since John K was working on a music video for him at the time. If this DVD had come out earlier, we might have gotten Tenacious D (Spumco did a wonderful video for a song whose title modesty forbids me from naming here).
Before each cartoon, John K introduces us to some of the members of the manly Spumco team. Some of them are even girls, so I guess the guys have all had their cootie shots. We also get pencil animation and animatics, storyboards, and other goodies for two of the cartoons, and interviews with Spumco staffers for all six. The interviews are quite revealing, since the animators are eager to point out technical and continuity errors. Everyone talks about Spumco as more of an animation school where they can experiment and practice techniques than a business. No commentary tracks are offered for the cartoons themselves, and the crew remains quiet about their experiences with Spike TV and why Adult Party Cartoon is no longer on the air. Silence speaks loudly here: the mere fact that John K does not bash Spike like he did Nickelodeon on the Ren and Stimpy Show commentaries suggests that he had a fairly good working experience at Spike and is probably hoping for more commissions.
It is a pity that the cartoons made for Spumco's currently defunct website or the two Yogi Bear shorts developed for Cartoon Network could not be included here. We also don't get the brutal "Man's Best Friend," an episode from the Nickelodeon days that did not reach the air until Spike TV, but you can see that one on the first and second season DVD set.
If you could only purchase the first disc and skip the second, Ren and Stimpy—The Lost Episodes would be a great buy. Overall, the Adult Party Cartoon run ended up airing the worst of the revived Ren and Stimpy, but the Ren and Stimpy—The Lost Episodes DVD will allow John K fans to still catch up with the unaired cartoons, all of which suggest what fun the show might have been if it had been allowed to mature a bit before Spike pulled the plug.
Sicker and more twisted than ever, Ren and Stimpy may never steal back their crowns from the younger generation. Still, they often have some bite left. In the words of Dr. Horse, "there's something about the miracle of poo that always breaks me up." I wouldn't have said it better myself.
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• Introduction by "Weird" Al Yankovic
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