Creating Ren & Stimpy: A Conversation with John Kricfalusi

Canadian-born self-taught cartoonist, John Kricfalusi, began his career by working on Saturday morning cartoons like The Jetsons and Fat Albert. In 1987, Kricfalusi's mentor, Ralph Bakshi, hired him as supervising director on his show, The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse. Soon afterwards, Nickelodeon bought his twisted brainchild, The Ren and Stimpy Show, and television animation as we knew it would never be the same. Speaking personally, Ren & Stimpy is my all-time favorite show - and there's no greater honor than having the man responsible for my childhood obsession with Log and Powdered Toast as a Guest on Fülle Circle...    

Jason Anders: What do you remember about the ideas for the original show that you pitched to Nickelodeon?
John Kricfalusi: The show I pitched was called Your Gang and it pretended to be mostly about a bunch of stock kids. One of the kids, Donny Chickenchild, and his dad, George Liquor, owned a crazy Chihuahua and retarded cat. In my mind, George, Ren and Stimpy were the main characters, but I thought they would be too weird for a network to buy if I presented them up front in the pitch - so I kind of hid them among these other kids. Luckily, when I pitched the show to Vanessa Coffey, the Nick exec, she loved Ren and Stimpy and asked me to focus the show around them. It was their very weirdness that attracted her. 

Vanessa was my greatest ally during the first season of the show.  She and I got along great.  I would trade her cute stuff for gross stuff and it made a nice balance.

JA: Once you pitched and sold The Ren & Stimpy Show to Nickelodeon, the pilot was finished in your own animation house, Spümcø - were there any scrapped ideas that didn't make it into the final production?
JK: We storyboarded a lot more material, but the cartoon was only supposed to be eight minutes, so I cut a lot of it out. Visually and story-wise it was what I wanted pretty much, because we did most of the work in-house. I sent about half of the animation to Carbunkle and it came back even better than what I hoped for. Lynne Naylor, Dave Feiss, Jim Smith and I animated the other half.

It was beautifully hand-brush-inked at Bardel, too. The pilot was the best looking episode by far, because unlike when it went to series we could use a small crew of the best people. When we had to produce multiple episodes at once I had less time to spend on each one, and we had to hire twenty times as many people and train them all to do this completely foreign style and approach to cartoon-making.

JA: Do you have a favorite episode?
JK: The ones I liked best were the ones I spent the most time and energy on, the “story episodes” - Space Madness, Stimpy’s Invention, Sven Höek, Man’s Best Friend, and Stimpy’s First Fart. I knew I couldn’t make every cartoon great, or even professional, so some I let go through the factory grinder and a handful I gave more attention to. When I did pay more attention to a certain story, I usually then sent it to Bob Jaques’ Carbunkle Studio to get the “A” treatment in the animation. Bob instinctively understood all my poses and knew just how to time and direct them. The overseas studios would generally just inbetween the poses and trace them badly. Some of the first season episodes are very hard for me to look at.
During the second season I helped start up a new Korean studio that was headed by Greg Vanzo, a talented and clever American animator. I told him everything I thought was wrong about the overseas studio system, showed him my production system, gave him some Carbunkle tapes to use as the standard to shoot for and said I would give him some work if he promised to use my system. To my surprise he did, and their episodes came out very slickly animated. This was the beginning of Rough Draft’s studio. I continued to give my favorite episodes to Carbunkle, but overall the second season was a huge leap in quality over the first season. Everybody was getting used to the style, we were constantly experimenting and we felt like we had revived the progressiveness of the 1930s and 40s – where you could see an improvement in quality in each successive cartoon. It was very exciting - at the same time as it was frustrating that we were getting so much heartache now from the network,  even though we had proved ourselves and made them so much money.

JA: What was the success of the series like for you?
JK: It was successful with the public right away and that was great. It proved I wasn’t crazy – which for years even my friends and colleagues thought I was. The merchandise came later. All the toy and t-shirt companies started calling as soon as Ren & Stimpy came on, but Nickelodeon didn’t even have a licensing department to take care of the orders! They put one together for the second season and that’s when they really cashed in. I was dying to be involved creatively with the toys, and was for a bit, but it quickly became too bureaucratic. They hired something like eleven executives – most of whom didn’t even like cartoons, let alone toys.

JA: How did the reaction to the show impact your career?

JK: It didn’t really help my career at all. If anything, it hampered it. When Ren & Stimpy hit, I was getting more credit for the show than Nickelodeon was, and I in turn gave credit to the key cartoonists on the show, even on the title cards up front, which was unheard of at the time. There were whole magazines coming out dedicated to the show and the artists who made it. All of a sudden fans knew the cartoonists’ names and started to think of us as... well, almost like rock stars. Nickelodeon must not have liked that, so eventually they took over the show and started their own studio to produce it, and soon the artists were forgotten, even while they still touted that their cartoons were “creator-driven”. 
After that, with every new show I sold, the networks expected an overnight blockbuster hit like Ren & Stimpy, yet put all kinds of obstacles in the way of achieving one. I had to work with lower budgets, new crews and all kinds of creative restrictions that didn’t allow for another Ren & Stimpy to instantly emerge. And no networks had the patience to wait a season for the shows to build the audience - unlike many shows today that take years to become popular. The instant success of Ren & Stimpy set the standards too high for me personally to benefit from it... yet. 

JA: Let's talk about some of the work that artists on the show created for you, starting with background painter Kristy Gordon on Adult Party Cartoon.
JK: Kristy is an extremely talented all-round artist. Unbelievable! She was doing layouts for me on The Ripping Friends and I don’t think she had even started painting yet. One day, after I got the call to make new Ren & Stimpys from TNN (later Spike), Kristy asked me if she could try out painting for it. I gave her some Golden Book paintings to copy as a test - also a Mary Blair painting and I think a Mel Crawford painting. Her copies looked exactly like the original so I hired her.

When we started the series, I hired a lot of artists (including Kristy) before their jobs were actually needed. This was to give them time to practice and experiment with techniques. Kristy developed a style of her own that was beautiful, but quite different from the Bill Wray and Scott Wills Hanna Barbera-stylized kind of backgrounds. Her stuff was softer and sort of more “realistic” – less stylized anyway. In reality, the show never had a set style – not till Nickelodeon took it over and tried to standardize everything. I always encouraged my artists to try different styles and find specific approaches that matched the very different stories we did. Some stories were strictly light and wacky, where a Hanna Barbera sponged background style was appropriate. Other stories were more moody like Stimpy’s First Fart and Scott Wills treated those BGS much more “realistically.”
Kristy started by studying all the old style paintings I liked, and quickly developed her own style and techniques, which I loved. Then she decided to become a serious painter and is a real star now!
JA: Who are a few more talents that worked on the series you felt had a grasp of what you ultimately wanted for the show?
JK: I’ve worked with a lot of top talent, but no one had an overall idea of what the show was about but me – because it was my show and my dream had always been to have a show, any show, that would bring back the classic cartoon approach of constant experimenting and constant improvement of our skills. I always want to work with top specialists who have natural talent in certain areas. Those are hard to find and you can’t do a series with nothing but stars. There just aren’t enough of them, and even stars need training and practice. Before Ren & Stimpy there really wasn’t a place that encouraged growth and skill... well with one exception, Ralph Bakshi’s Mighty Mouse.

Mighty Mouse was our training camp for Ren & Stimpy – especially mine. I learned creative discipline on that show. When we started it, I naively thought that if you had a studio full of creative people all the cartoons would automatically come out great. We tried everything and anything on that show, and sometimes when we were lucky we made cartoons that worked from beginning to end. Usually they were anarchic jumbles of weirdness for weirdness sake. Mighty Mouse became sort of a cult hit, but not a mainstream success. 
After the show didn’t succeed, I thought about what the problems were and studied the episodes that worked. I swore if I got another chance to do a show I would concentrate more on the main characters instead of just random craziness.

JA: Let's talk about the creation of Adult Party Cartoon...
JK: I didn’t have total freedom on the show. From the beginning the execs at Spike TV told me I had to make the show “different” because it was now going to be aimed at adults. I didn’t know what “different” meant, because it was always different. There never was a set style. So they said make it deal with more “adult themes." So I just took stories we had written for the original series and added some more R-rated stuff to them – which I think was a mistake.
Also, to have “total freedom” isn’t just a matter of being allowed to do whatever ideas you can think of. You really don’t have freedom unless you have other important factors – enough money, a crew that is trained and you have been working with for some time, overseas studios that understand your style and good music. On Adult Party Cartoon we had to basically start three new studios in three countries, and I spent a lot of time just training and flying back and forth, instead of directing and being funny all day long.  By the end of the series we started getting into the swing of things. We needed a second season to smooth out the problems - like slow timing and too much in your face gay jokes. Bruno should have learned from my mistake! It was much like the time we spent doing Mighty Mouse, we had to start from scratch and re-invent the wheel.

In order to do your best stuff, you have to have continuity and everything in place – you have to keep making stuff for a while to get into the swing of things. You and your crew need practice working together and time to gel. Otherwise you are starting over with every new show and have all the same problems to deal with. Imagine if Tex Avery or Chuck Jones had to change crews after every five cartoons, and then wait five years before making new cartoons and then make them cheaper. That’s what Spümcø’s history has been. Networks seem to understand that most cartoon shows take some time to gel and find their way, but never understand that with mine. I have to make perfect cartoons the first day or I’m a dirty bum.

JAWhat was it like working with Katie Rice and Eric Bauza?
JK: Both Katie and Eric were great. Natural talents who only needed some experience to blossom. Katie started by doing clean-ups of layouts and some layouts of her own, too. A very tough job to start at. She has a natural talent for drawing cute girls and when we did Naked Beach Frenzy I told her I wanted her to design and layout a lot of the cute girl scenes. She did a great job and the cartoon gets screams of approval wherever I show it, especially during her scenes. Katie is also very funny and her drawings have a subtle irony about them. I had her lay out the “cute” scenes of Stimpy’s baby in Stimpy’s Pregnant. Those scenes are cute and kinda sick at the same time.
Eric Bauza had been following me around for years and calling me “sir” before Adult Party Cartoon. He started as an intern on our Weekend Pussy Hunt flash cartoons around 2000. Then he became my assistant on The Ripping Friends and helped me do a lot of stuff to the point where I couldn’t do it without him. The whole time he was working for me he kept pitching me his voices and I kept stupidly brushing him off, “Yeah yeah, sure Eric…”  Then when we started APC I asked Billy West if he would come back and do Stimpy, but he wasn’t interested, so I turned to Eric and said, “now is your chance.” I gave him a tape recorder and told him to go listen to Three Stooges and learn how to do Larry Fine’s voice. “Don’t imitate Stimpy. Imitate Larry. Then record it and play it back and criticize yourself. When you think you’ve got it down, come back and do it for me.” He did exactly that and he was great. From then on he was one of my main voice actors.

Nick Cross, Fred Osmond and Helder Mendonca were other young artists that really did a lot of great stuff on APC. We had many more talented artists, too - as always. I’ve been lucky that way. If Spümcø had continuity and the same artists stayed on for multiple projects, I believe the cartoons would get better and better and easier to do. I love talented people and they are the ones that make a cartoon series work, not the characters themselves.

JA: What are your favorite Adult Party Cartoon episodes?
JK: Maybe Ren Seeks Help or AltruistsNaked Beach Frenzy gets the biggest laughs. People stand up and scream through it when I show it at festivals. Some people walk out during the screaming though. You can’t please everybody all the time!

JA: Finally, what are your fondest memories of The Ren & Stimpy Show?  
JK: My fondest moments were at the beginning and end of each production. Writing and pitching the stories to the artists and Vanessa Coffey was fun. Imagining how the cartoon will turn out... basically before the headaches start. The production is not very fun. That’s hard work, obstacles, training, network notes, overseas studios throwing out your work, retakes, and internal politics. When a cartoon was finished we would then have studio parties and invite all kinds of people in to view them. When they laughed that was a lot of fun. When I show cartoons at retrospectives it’s even more fun because there are lots more people laughing. I did a live pitch for an episode of George Liquor at the San Diego Comic Con the other day and everyone laughed extra loud, and that’s why I do it. And no one walked out through it.