- Buy the DVD
Reviewed by David Medsker
he Ren & Stimpy Show: Seasons Three and a Half-ish,” if nothing else, is one hell of a cautionary tale. It tells the story of how a group of non-creative types wrestled control of a brilliantly warped “kids” show (their audience was in fact hung over college kids) from its original owners, and proceeded to fuck it up royally. To be fair, the episodes here aren’t completely awful; many of them are in fact very amusing. But from the very first episodes, there is the unshakable sense that all concerned were less interested in making truly great cartoons than they were in protecting their golden goose. Once that decision is made, the end, as they said in “28 Days Later,” is seriously fucking nigh.
Here’s the skinny on what happened behind the scenes with “Ren & Stimpy”: The cartoons were originally made by Spumco, a studio founded by “R&S” creator John Kricfalusi (who goes simply by John K.). Almost immediately after Nickelodeon gave them the green light to make the show, Nick disliked the show’s look, tone, and even the voices of the main characters. When the show became a smash hit, both sides continued to tolerate each other a little longer. Eventually, when John K.’s deadline issues and irascible behavior (i.e., his insistence that they let him make the cartoons they promised to let him make in the first place) became too much for the Nickelodeon suits to bear, they fired Spumco and decided to produce the show in-house. Then, in what some animation fans view as a Brutus-style betrayal, Bob Camp, one of Spumco’s most senior people, left to run Nickelodeon’s new studio, Games Animation.
Disc 1 consists almost entirely of stories that were started at Spumco but finished at Games, and that Spumco sensibility shines through. “A Yard Too Far” has Ren and Stimpy salivating over some hog jowls on a windowsill, but they have to get past the pet baboon to get them. The baboon shots are beautiful and hilarious, and with any luck, the young kids won’t even realize that when the baboon marries Ren’s hand puppet (don’t ask), Ren winds up giving the first hand job ever shown on Nickelodeon. “Jimminy Lummox” has Stimpy giving cruel Ren his conscience; only Stimpy’s conscience is even crueler than Ren is, beating him to a pulp any time he loses his temper. “Circus Midgets” is one giant Spumco callback. Along with the title characters (who kidnap Ren & Stimpy and then go on the most schizophrenic crime spree in history), there’s a sperm whale singing the Royal Canadian Kilted Yaksman theme, and the fire chief whose irrational hatred of circus midgets was exposed in “Rubber Nipple Salesmen.”
From the very beginning of Disc 2, however, it all starts to fall apart. In “Ren’s Retirement,” Ren turns 10 (70 in human years), and the thought of old age so freaks him out that he instantly becomes an old coot. “Jerry the Bellybutton Elf” is even worse, a tired psychedelic trip where Stimpy goes inside his own bellybutton and meets a sadistic elf (voiced by Gilbert Gottfried, natch). A couple episodes later, when Rosie O’Donnell pops up as a sneaky girl scout, you can almost see Nickelodeon’s corporate wheels turning, looking for ways to optimize the show’s viewing, and therefore earnings, potential. This isn’t “The Simpsons,” where Homer could tour with Sonic Youth and Smashing Pumpkins one week and Hank Hill can come to watch a football game the next. The world of “Ren & Stimpy” is completely their own, and Nick’s soulless attempts to combine their world with ours smacked of both opportunism and desperation. Despite the fact that it was soon followed by the hilarious “Lair of the Lummox,” the last Spumco piece produced by Nickelodeon, “Jerry the Bellybutton Elf” will stand, for this writer, as the moment that “Ren & Stimpy” jumped the shark.
The producers of this DVD were very wise to bring in John K. and his old crew to provide commentary for these episodes, even though they had all been kicked off the show at this point. Kricfalusi is both complimentary and unforgiving; he openly acknowledges when he sees something truly exemplary, but also eviscerates them for being lazy, like when Ren and Stimpy cry the wrong way in “Lair of the Lummox.” (Kricfalusi has a point here: they were supposed to be happy tears, but Ren and Stimpy were weeping.) There was a noble but failed experiment on the audio commentary for “Circus Midgets,” where Ren and Stimpy do the commentary. John K., for all the teasing he does about Billy West’s post-Spumco impression of Ren, doesn’t do a very good impression of it himself these days, while Stimpy (now voiced by Eric Bauza) plays the role of sycophant while “Ren” complains about the sloppy, unfinished backgrounds (a valid complaint) and the sound of his own voice (people in glass houses, John).
The best exchange takes place between John K. and Eddie Fitzgerald, who John rightfully refers to as the man of a thousand laughs. Fitzgerald says, “We were wondering what you would do if you were making this cartoon.” John K. instantly replies, in his typically blunt fashion, “I’d put some jokes in it.” Granted, they only brought the Spumco boys in to review the cartoons that they started production on, and Games subsequently finished. Still, it’s refreshing to get the perspective of those who couldn’t care less if the parent company is upset with their observations.
Especially because one of those observations perfectly sums up what is wrong with so many of the episodes contained here: They’re mean for the sake of mean, and gross for the sake of gross. The introduction of Wilbur Cobb in “Stimpy’s First Cartoon,” who inexplicably became a fan favorite, is simply disgusting, with Cobb losing his arms, an ear, and even his face at one point or another, and derailing what was up to that point a very funny episode. The fatal flaw to “Jimminy Lummox” is that Ren gets punished whenever Stimpy does something stupid, when in fact Ren has every right to be angry with Stimpy for the things he does. A giant worm eats the insides of Ren and Stimpy in “Ren’s Retirement,” something Spumco wouldn’t dream of doing (and, to be fair, wouldn’t have been allowed to do if they wanted to).
There are enough serviceable episodes on “Ren & Stimpy: Seasons Three and a Half-ish” to rope in fans of the Spumco-era work, but it’s clear from the get-go that something is off, that the essence of the show has been bootlegged. Kricfalusi wanted to start a cartoon renaissance, to give animation back to the animators. It appears that the revolution lasted about two and a half seasons. Sigh.