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Ren & John

Inventive animator Kricfalusi continues to forge ahead

by Lisa Susser

Click here to a gallery of characters by John Kricfalusi

[John Kricfalusi] John Kricfalusi is a visionary with a wicked sense of humor who always seeks to amuse, whether it be through conversation, animation, comics, or toys. He's best known as the creator of the cartoon series Ren & Stimpy, with which he and his creative team at Spümcø, Inc. reinvigorated the art of animation , stretching the boundaries of what Saturday-morning cartoons could be -- not only with explosive visuals, but by tackling subjects like madness and gastrointestinal eruptions.

The twisted tales of asthma-hound Chihuahua Ren and stupidly earnest cat Stimpy have won him legions of fans. But something went very wrong with the relationship between John K. -- as he's known -- and Nickelodeon, the cable network producing the show. Shortly after the second season began, K. and his gang were forced out. Kricfalusi's now working in the comic-book medium with the introduction of his new Spümcø Comic Book. He's also busy working on a toy line (featuring the George Liquor doll, which is based on the character from the Ren & Stimpy "Show Dogs" episode) as well as redesigning a paint-by-numbers and children's arts-and-crafts line in his own inimitable style Although Ren and Stimpy cartoons continue to be made, the characters lack the fluidity of John K.'s creations. And their adventures are harsher, not funnier, merely gross -- lacking the emotionality of Spümcø's work.

He may not be animating our Saturday mornings, but Kricfalusi's zest for life's weirder side is still of interest to his fans. You can't keep a good man down. Sometimes, you can't even let him sleep. When I reached John K. for this interview, he was still clad in his pajamas.

Q: Can you tell me what Spümcø stands for?

A: It stands for quality. It's a Danish word for fresh fish. I saw it on a can of sardines.

Q: What other interests does Spümcø have? Are you developing a CD-ROM, an on-line site?

A: Yeah, all that stuff. We've got a CD-ROM in development now called "Jimmy Gets Laid in the Woods." And we're developing a Web site: "Spümcø's World of Cartoons."

Q: Tell me about the toy line.

A: Well, we have a co-venture with Palmer Paints in Michigan. They're the people who invented paint by numbers. They contacted me a couple of years ago and said they wanted to license our name. They thought the name Spümcø was funny and the kids would remember that and buy their stuff. I said, "Why don't we just do a partnership deal and have us redesign all your packages?" First thing we did was retitle them all. We took "poster paint" and changed it to "TV cartoon paint." If you're a kid, you got one box that says Crayola Poster Paint and another that says Spümcø TV Cartoon Paint, which are you gonna buy? Then we put cartoon characters all over it and we wrote messages from big-shot Hollywood cartoonists on the back. We turned "glitter paint" into "fairy dust," "fluorescent paint" into "atomic blast." The point of using TV Cartoon Paint is that maybe someday you could become a big-shot Hollywood cartoonist.

Q: Did you watch a lot of TV growing up?

A: Every day I'd race home from school, ditch my homework, and watch Get Smart, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Honeymooners, and, of course, I Dream of Jeannie - -- even though it was terrible, just to see her running around half-naked.

Q: Do you remember when you realized you wanted to be a cartoonist?

A: I always drew. But when I was eight years old we moved from Montreal to Ottawa and there was a short spell when I lived with my grandparents while we were looking for a house. I'd come home from school every day and watch two channels: on one there was The Huckleberry Hound Show and on the other there was The Yogi Bear Show. It would drive me crazy. I'd have to flip channels all the way through not to miss anything Ranger Smith was doing to punish Yogi. Then at 4:30 they'd have on Quickdraw McGraw and Beanie and Cecil. I'd sit in front of the TV and draw all the characters, then write stories about them and do comic strips and even did plays about them in school.

Q: Was censorship one of the reasons that things got bad between Nickelodeon and you?

A: The main thing is that they never understood the show. Even the basics. I'm not talking about the outrageous stuff. Just talking about things like "Well, we'd like to do a cartoon with Ren and Stimpy in space." The response was, "What do you mean in space? How could they get in space?" Well, I'd say, "They're just in space in this cartoon." "That doesn't make any sense," they'd reply. "How will the kids understand it?" Well, I'd ask, "Haven't you people ever watched cartoons before? Sometimes Bugs Bunny's in space, sometimes he's a caveman, sometimes he's in a forest. It's a cartoon." They never quite got that.

Q: They must have understood how successful the show was?

A: Yeah, they did, but [laughing] that didn't seem to matter. The first season we knew we were going to have a lot of creative differences because what I wanted to do was much wilder than what they were prepared for. They went into it with kinda an open mind. They wanted to do things that were more innovative than what was on Saturday morning. But we were a little more surprising than what they were prepared for. So every time we came up with a new idea, they didn't want to do it. And the whole show was kinda based on surprising people.

So cartoons like "Space Madness" and "Stimpy's Inventions," Nick hated. They hated the ideas for them. We wrote the story, they approved it, grudgingly, then we did the storyboard, then they wanted to renege -- which was a common occurrence. We'd already have it in production, ready to go, we'd have spent a lot of money. "This cartoon is horrifying; it's about mind control. Kids will have nightmares for years and we hate it and Ren looks too weird."

On "Stimpy's Inventions," I actually had to get down on my knees and beg the executive we were working with -- "Please let me do this cartoon. I'll take out some of the weird expressions on Ren but we can't take them all out. That's what's funny about it. Kids are going to love this, parents are going to like this, and you're going to like this when it's finished." So she gave in. Of course when it was finished it became the most popular cartoon of the year and they all loved it all of a sudden.

When the second season was getting ready to start up, I had a meeting with all the top executives at Nick. And I said, "Did you like what we did for the first season?" They said, "We love it." I told them, "We're going to have to work differently this year; first of all you're going to have to pay more for it because the way you guys work -- having us redo everything and not trusting us - -- we're working 16-hour days and we can't do that. We're going to have to hir e more people." They didn't want to do that. I said, "Well, if you don't want to do that, you're going to have to make the approval system a lot easier. I want to remind you that you hated `Space Madness,' you hated `Stimpy's Inventions.' Now you love them, right? I'm going to say to you, I don't want to do it under those conditions."

They said, "We promise." And then we started the second season and they made it worse. I hired a lawyer and asked him to get Nick to stick to their approvals. Nick just got mad, really mad. That was the system: agree, renege, punish. We had 55 people working at the studio. They think they're punishing me, but they're punishing people who are really dedicated -- who are killing themselves working longer hours than they would at any other studio just because they love the project. Nick cut off their nose to spite their face. We created a number-one hit show. It was upbeat. It was fun. It was edgy, but there was nothing in it that was gonna send you to hell.

But the really shortsighted thing to me was that they looked at it like it was only one show, one opportunity. We were inventing all kinds of characters for them. We could have done all kinds of spinoffs: Powdered-Toast Man, Mr. Horse. We could have had 10 to 15 years together of successes. Really, really shortsighted to just throw it all away.

Q: How did Nickelodeon come to own Ren and Stimpy? Do they still own the merchandising?

A: I own the merchandising to Ren and Stimpy now. But of course Nickelodeon are changing their agreement. They don't want to give up the merchandising rights. I sold Ren and Stimpy to Nickelodeon. I tried to sell Ren and Stimpy to every network, and everybody thought it was too weird.

You have to remember that the climate for animation was very different a few years ago. There was nothing original in a cartoon for about 20 years. Everything was based on a product, like He-Man, G.I. Joe -- or they were based on old cartoon characters like The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse, The New Adventures of Tom and Jerry. You just couldn't sell them a new "Bugs Bunny." No one wanted to risk that. They wanted to go tried and true. Nick changed that by saying, "Let's do original characters, but we'll own them. That way we'll make a ton of money on them if they're successful." Nick said, "The only way we'll take the show is if you sell the rights to the characters." At that point we had no choice. We wanted to prove that we could do something different from what everybody else was doing and make it a success.

Q: When you were 11, you sent a story to Walt Disney called "Hot Noseyface." Did you think they were going to take your story?

A: Yeah, sure. I always think everybody's going to buy everything from me, then they don't and I can't figure out why. The animation business is really depressing. Cartoonists, for years, were really kicking around and oppressed, had no creative say in their business. It's a world of alcoholism and drug abuse. It used to be joyful. Bugs Bunny, maybe Mickey Mouse, was joyful; Tom and Jerry -- all that stuff looks like it was a lot of fun to work on. Do Saturday-morning cartoons today look like people are having a good time? It's torture to do that.

That's the history of modern animation , the Scooby Doo mentality -- the most bland, ugly, lifeless characters in the world when it's so easy to do exciting-looking characters who're really fun and doing impossible things in animation. Instead, we do normal things. What's the point of that? And the normal things are much harder to do. To draw a realistic-looking human -- 12 of them for every second of film -- is insane. Why do the mundane when you could do magic?

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