Produced by Ron Cicero, Kevin Klauber
Written and Directed by
Ron Cicero & Kimo Easterwood
Featuring John K., Bob Camp, Vincent Waller,
Billy West, Chris Reccardi, Jim Gomez,
Vanessa Coffey, Lynne Naylor,
Robyn Byrd, Richard Pursel
In the world of animation history, there’s no more a tumultuous subject than Ren & Stimpy.
So much so that its chaos will infect any serious effort to chronicle said history. Be it a book (take it from me) or, in the case of Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story, a documentary. And of course that all comes down to the fact that John Kricfalusi, the creator and main auteur and saboteur of the historic show, is certifiably crazy, a point the filmmakers try to imply but never come right out and fully own.
After finishing it, I walked away sensing two things: that this documentary is holding a lot back, quite the opposite of the legendary cartoon it’s chronicling; and that the sordid reality of John K. forced them to make a better film than they were originally inclined to.
(A few points of disclosure: I wrote a book about the show, Sick Little Monkeys: The Unauthorized Ren & Stimpy Story, that was originally published in 2013 and revised in 2017. I was contacted by the documentary’s co-director and producer, Ron Cicero, in 2016 and was more than happy to lend my voice for an interview and also give out contact information for at least a dozen or two people I felt, from my experience, were worthy interview subjects for any project on Ren & Stimpy. I do not appear in the final film, but do get a thank you in the credits. All for the best, as they certainly had more than enough eyewitnesses and participants that should take precedence.)
I was warned many months ago by my friend, researcher and video editor Allen Jankowics, that I probably wasn’t going to like the film. After seeing the film at its premiere at Sundance this year, he gave a pretty good scene-by-scene play-by-play in his own review of why people familiar with the history might find the film problematic, but I think even those that aren’t will still have issues, even if they find it generally adequate as I did.
Like television animation itself, the documentary suffers from constraints, mainly those of being confined to a single film running shy of two hours. In the world of streaming with so many inane, endless documentary series clogging bandwidth, one on the rich topic of Ren & Stimpy and its participants could have easily filled a six to eight 50-minute episode order.
One episode could be about the origins, where animation was before the show, and the projects that established the style and behavioral patterns that would fully blossom on Ren & Stimpy; another on selling the show to Nickelodeon and the pilot; the production of the show itself; the meteoric rise of the show’s popularity and the fall of its creator; and a conclusion about the dirty laundry aired in recent years and how the show’s already tainted legacy can possibly endure. A documentary series could easily follow this model and give proper voice and context to every aspect of the show’s history—the Happy, Happy, and the not-so-much. It’s unthinkable that filmmakers Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood don’t have ample material to do so.
As it is, the film can never do more than pay bite-sized lip service to the history and its figures. We see the mire of filth that was TV animation for most of its existence, but never get the context that Nickelodeon was looking for original, quality animation in a period whern a lot of other companies were spending more money on animation for the same reasons, too. We see lots of footage shot at Ralph Bakshi’s studio during the first season of Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures, John K.’s first bid for artistic freedom and career suicide, but the show is never mentioned once. Strangely, the other shows Nickelodeon executive Vanessa Coffey greenlit, Doug and Rugrats, aren’t even mentioned by name for proper context, and the artists at Spumco, the studio that produced Ren & Stimpy in its first two seasons, certainly have never been shy voicing their opinions on whose cartoon made the better impact. We definitely hear a lot about the phenomenon the show was, how it eclipsed even The Simpsons in popularity for at least a year, but there’s not a whole lot here discussing what made it the greatest animated show of all-time and why we still care about individual cartoons today. Was a single episode truly broken down in any real depth here, save “Man’s Best Friend”, the “banned” cartoon used as the scapegoat to fire John Kricfalusi from his own show? Less learned viewers are likely going to be left asking a lot of questions, and that’s without getting into more controversial matters.
More so, the key talking point that animation is the most collaborative medium of all is nowhere near elaborated in the depth it deserves. John K., his influences and aspirations are front and center, with the other artists often orbiting around him. To be fair, we do get a sense of what director and writer Bob Camp and designer Lynne Naylor brought to the series (although for some reason Naylor’s role in the creation of the actual characters isn’t mentioned), and Bill Wray gets a respectable and well-deserved shout out for his background and color work.
But Jim Smith, who to most people’s minds was the best draftsman to ever work on the show, is barely mentioned (though he appears briefly). I certainly know what all these drawing hands featured in the film critically brought to the show, but do most people?
The integral role music and sound design played is never touched upon despite how much of it we hear throughout the film (fairly inexcusable, given Smith and the late Chris Reccardi, the show’s main musicians and layout artists, are featured). Nor is the high quality of the animation of Carbunkle Cartoons, the show’s premiere satellite animation studio that set a template for TV animation that places are still trying to replicate to this day. (Carbunkle co-owner and animation director Bob Jaques makes a few appearances, but viewers will not get any sense of just how much he did for the show and TV cartoons in general. Carbunkle isn’t even mentioned by name in the film.)
The frequent topic of conversation is less about these artists’ own work and more how they worked with John K. This show’s universe does revolve around him and any serious examination will have to dig into his personality and psychoses. (His obsession with his father is given screen time that indicates not just intense psychological damage but that an entire episode of that hypothetical streaming series would need to be devoted to it.) Yet it’s hard to accept hearing about John K.’s “genius” at putting emotion on paper, but then we see a Bob Camp or Jim Smith drawing, a Bill Wray or Scott Wills painting, or animation by Bob Jaques or Kelly Armstrong.
It’s not an easy balance to attain. Ren & Stimpy wouldn’t have existed nor reached its peak without John K. as the driving force (for a few shining years, he really was a brilliant visionary), but he couldn’t have done it without a team of artists and a network that believed in him. It’s just as easy to fall back on the myth of a sole “genius” as it is to tear him down because he’s a truly terrible person. To the film’s credit, it does ultimately make clear that John K. needed these people to make this show. Yet sometimes we want to hear about how they did their work, rather than how it always relates to whether the head honcho is a genius or an asshole.
And, yet, let’s face it. We still all want to hear the “John is fucking crazy” stories.
That’s part of what we paid admission for, especially these days. When the film shines, it’s when it takes on the manias surrounding the creator. Producer Jim Ballantine outlines it rather simply in the film: in this world, no drawing, background, piece of animation, or sound mix could go out without John K.’s direct signoff.
And Kricfalusi had no problem sending a drawing back to do over even if he had to do it forty times before drawing it himself. While the intention was always to make the shows better, it’s hard to miss that keeping cartoons like “Svën Höek” and “Son of Stimpy” in the layout stage for three to four months apiece was anything other than an obsession with control and eternal refinement.
Chris Reccardi, Stephen DeStefano, Ed Bell, and Carey Yost talk about how getting a scene or storyboard approved by John K. was a “beating.” The series’ technical director David Koenigsberg, who was one of my own favorite interviewees, gets in a few tidbits about the reality of the show’s apocalyptic bottlenecks, but never enough, possibly out of the filmmakers’ fear of boring a green audience. Christine Danzo, the producer at Spumco in the show’s first season, shows up exactly once to say how John K. locked himself and “Stimpy’s Invention” in his office almost as an aside. Here again, the film holds back.
There should be even more crazy stories that illustrate what a Kricfalusterfuck the whole production was. For example, did Teale Wang, the key color stylist for the entire series (who is interviewed here), seriously not tell her infamous story of spending an entire month on different passes of the gift box Stimpy gives Ren in “Stimpy’s Invention” on tape? Some how I doubt it.
We also want to hear about the controversy—it’s only human nature. The film also gets most colorful when interviewees discuss the Spumco vs. Nickelodeon battles, when everyone on all sides makes you appreciate just how a combatively bodacious cartoon can still stand the test of time. (And I sure didn’t get that visual aid of Vanessa Coffey’s flesh visibly crawling at the mention of George Liquor, the character that John K. insisted on including that led to his downfall, in my phone interview with her!)
John Kricfalusi’s firing from his own show, the inevitable conclusion to his irresponsibility that a few interviewees suggest they always knew was going to happen, normally overrides discussion of the art. The film doesn’t quite give voice to how this was an emotional rollercoaster that splintered the most eclectic family in animation history and the ramifications it had for the industry as a whole (to this day, an independent studio has never been given the freedom that Spumco was given by Nickelodeon). We get a bit of that insight from series writer Rich Pursel (arguably the most articulate of the interviewees), who once told me that Ren & Stimpy really should have had the chance to evolve the way The Simpsons did over many years, but that with the personalities involved it just could have never happened.
With the benefit of time, wisdom, and insurmountable evidence, I’m glad most people, the filmmakers obviously included, have come to the conclusion that the martyrdom that took up so much space for two decades was Hollyweird fantasy, and that the reality was, as Chris Reccardi said, “no one worked harder to fuck it up” than John K. did. (How can you not come to that conclusion?)
One of the film’s gifts is that it presents concrete evidence that John Kricfalusi is pretty much a completely useless interview subject.
He mostly relays the same recorded stories anyone who’s followed his works and words have heard a million times before, only getting interesting when he realizes he’s in a forum he doesn’t control for a change. When the filmmakers (rather forcibly) ask him if he’d have done anything differently during the series, all he can muster is, “That’s an impossible question to answer.” I’m not sure what he could possibly say in response to his former colleagues’ endless stories and evidence, but it does stand as recorded evidence that what Bill Wray said to me in an interview is absolutely true: “What’s difficult for him is to take personal responsibility for a difficult personality. It’s very difficult for him, if possible at all.”
The film likely would have wrapped shortly after the Spumco-Nickelodeon split, probably excising discussion about the much-maligned seasons Nickelodeon produced without John K. at its own studio, Games Animation. (I’ve been called out for playing favorites, or trying to appease interviewees, by saying nice things about those cartoons, but I assure you many of the cartoons made at Games are genuine favorites, and interviewees sure weren’t appeased by what I wrote about the ones that aren’t.) Possibly, it’d have been shortchanged in favor of discussing the legacy Ren & Stimpy has left in its wake that’s felt in the animation industry to this day. We have remnants of that in the film, but not nearly enough to justify why people still are intrigued, influenced, and interested in a cartoon from a quarter-century ago. That may be the documentary’s one shortcoming that is entirely, and regrettably, understandable and unavoidable. As Rich Pursel quotes director Vincent Waller, “the characters are covered in shit-paint now.”
For at least half of this film’s production history, John K. was not involved and refused repeated requests for interviews. Even so, the filmmakers did speak to almost everyone of importance in the world of Ren & Stimpy (getting Lynne Naylor to consent to talk about this subject on record is no small feat), and then some. The documentary was completed and was intended to be a celebration of the show and its artists.
Then that Buzzfeed article dropped.
Naturally, the filmmakers were thrown into turmoil, as there was no classy way to release the film without acknowledging the disturbing developments. When one of Kricfalusi’s victims, Robyn Byrd, who worked in-house at Spumco and was John K.’s girlfriend when she was well under the age of consent, was announced as an interviewee (ironically enough, considering until the article’s publication the filmmakers wanted nothing to do with her, as her place in the John K. timeline was after the original Nickelodeon series), all of a sudden John K. was open to the idea of an interview.
For the last twenty minutes, the film takes a disturbing detour to present what’s essentially a back-and-forth between John K. and Robyn Byrd giving an overview of their relationship. (Katie Rice, an ex-Spumco artist and the other victim profiled in the Buzzfeed piece, refused to be interviewed.) Preceding it is a montage of John K.’s post-Ren & Stimpy work that is truly bizarre—the audience is slammed with near (and often outright) pornographic images in a manner that explicitly disapproves the likes of Weekend Pussy Hunt and Ren & Stimpy Adult Party Cartoon, without an explanation of what exactly led to this turn to the irredeemably repugnant in both his professional and personal life. It ignores that a lot of these cartoons were heralded by fans for years, that they were worked on by a lot of new up and coming talent who were indoctrinated with the John K. Kool-Aid and broke off after figuring out their messiah was a Jim Jones type (whether these folks have publicly admitted it or not). It’s only been since the expose that it’s fashionable to call these post-R&S John K. works out for their lack of substance. We only hear briefly in the film about how cultish Spumco was during Ren & Stimpy, but we’re never told how much worse it got with a martyr figurehead and the kind of environment that tolerated he was sleeping with a child who wrote him fan letters. If the lack of context earlier raised questions, audiences are going to be positively dumbstruck by this abrupt diversion, and might even be insulted.
It’s respectable enough they gave Byrd a voice and let Kricfalusi essentially hang himself, but there’s no getting around that this exchange is tacked-on, giving this topic neither the class or respect it deserves, especially considering how much the filmmakers publicly bemoaned that the whole film was upended because of the 2018 news story.
More so, Kricfalusi’s weird distortions of his relationship with Byrd are never corrected in the film. She began corresponding with him when she was 13, not 16 as he reminisces, and the Svengali-ish relationship lasted 7 years (sexual for more than half of it), so as is, the scope of this man’s crimes aren’t conveyed to the audience well. Again, had it been a mini-series, an episode could have focused entirely on this aspect of John K.’s history and legacy (and eased audiences into it gradually) to give it a far more sensitive handling. It’s a shame that a largely accurate documentary fades out on a crude note that gives a sexual predator the last word on the subject.
In reading many interviews with the filmmakers and watching the finished product and marshaling my thoughts on it, it’s fairly obvious they didn’t recut the film to address the scandal as they claim—they recut it because they landed John K. and could actually feature the central figure that would have otherwise been seen only in archival footage. (Akin to how John K. is only present in previously published quotes in Sick Little Monkeys. Spoiler: it’s a better book for it. Unless you can get him to admit to something, he’s just going to give you the same mantra he has for decades. The proof is this film.) As previously noted, there’s really no way around it: John K. is going to be the main character in any serious examination of Ren & Stimpy, but this was supposed to give the other guys and gals a bigger voice and a spotlight in a larger venue (certainly larger than any I could have given). And once again, his self-destructive abusive behavior ruins everything and sucks all the air out of the room. For a film with the subtext that this is a guy who charms people into giving them what he wants, it’s ironic (and expected) that he charmed the filmmakers to do same, despite years of excuses and rejection. Here again was what came up repeatedly in my own research playing out in real time: if John K. can use you, you exist.
Whatever my opinions are, the filmmakers should be commended: they did ostensibly trim a lot of fat. Promotion for the film up until 2018 presented a film that looked to be made by Disney: cloying, too many fans, too many “expert” opinions. Aside from a few celebrity talking heads and some non-participants, those featured in the final film are all people that actually worked on the show. (Although it’s cool that a guy with a toy collection warrants more screen time than Jim Smith or Bob Jaques in a Ren & Stimpy documentary.)
I have little doubt that what we ended up with is a better film than what we would have gotten had it come out prior to the Buzzfeed article, even if it still comes up short.
Ren & Stimpy still remains the most important TV cartoon of all-time, a handful of episodes ranking among the best animation ever done. Its greatest cartoons push every possible angle to the extreme, the culmination of animation’s malcontents at the height of their powers. For what it is, Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story deserves accolades for getting so many people on record before they became rambling Wilbur Cobb-type figures (or worse). It delivers a reasonably good primer for those that want to see the faces behind the screen credits and get a hearty appetizer’s taste of just what a dark, crazy world it could be. Ironically so, given the film’s title.
For me, despite the barrage of costly licensed clips, I never got the sense that the filmmakers really do like this show, and they did admit many times that they were not fans prior to making the film. We certainly see the passion others felt in the interviews, and also in the film’s liveliest moment, footage from the Golden Apple Comic signing in Los Angeles with most of the show’s crew in attendance that attracted thousands of people at the height of the show’s popularity in 1992. You just can’t fake passion, which may account for why the film is often disjointed and fails to deliver despite having so much meat. Again, someone sincerely could give this whole story a mini-doc series treatment, one that gives ample attention to the art, merit, and significance of the show, and the creepiness of John K. The conclusion here really is that this is too much for a single two-hour film to handle, no matter who makes it.
But is it even still possible for Ren & Stimpy to even attract new fans now, and bring about newfound passion? Again, it’s no easy balancing act: the bad times were as bad as you could humanly get, but the great times did happen, and they were really great. Neither should be forgotten, and they’ll both ensure the show and characters (both real and animated) will still endure further discussion, dissection, debate, disapproval—and maybe even delight again, some day.
Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story arrives On Demand an Digital HD on August 18th