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COVER STORY : Toontown Terrors : Two twisted characters and their anarchistic animator have made cable’s ‘Ren & Stimpy’ a ready-for-prime-time phenomenon

<i> Daniel Cerone is a Times staff writer</i>

Behind the thick-framed black glasses, the salt-and-pepper beard and the shock of swept-back hair, John Kricfalusi has the rugged, squared-off looks of his idol, Kirk Douglas. On a bookshelf in Kricfalusi’s Melrose office sits a signed photo of Douglas in his gladiator outfit from “Spartacus,” along with a bust of the man Kricfalusi reveres as “one of the most subtle actors in Hollywood.”

Watching Kricfalusi in action, acting out a series of his pencil drawings from a storyboard, one can detect the Douglas influence--the tight, gravelly voice, the very broad physical mannerisms combined with very subtle emotions. This is a side of Kricfalusi that most people don’t see, or perhaps they just don’t notice.

That’s because the 36-year-old Kricfalusi--a free-thinking animator who has been fired from almost every major animation studio in town--paints his life, and his work, in colorful, aggressive strokes.

Kricfalusi can’t stand the thought of his voice artists reciting cold dialogue from a script the way other cartoons do, for example, so before going into recording sessions, he throws himself--sometimes literally--into a one-man performance of the entire show to prime his actors.

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Take one such recent voice-recording session: Kricfalusi draws close Billy West, a voice actor standing beside him, and points to two unusual figures on his storyboard. The small, anemic one, Ren, could pass for a rabbit-eared mosquito but is actually a psychologically terrorized Chihuahua. Stimpy, the one shaped like a fireplug, is a fat, dumb cat with all the feline finesse of a water buffalo. They’ve just arrived at the doorstep of an idyllic suburban house.

“We open on the haaaaappiest home in America,” Kricfalusi drawls in a syrupy voice, parodying the kind of sticky-sweet animation that disgusts him. “Inside we hear Anthony: ‘It’s Ren and Stimpy, Mom! Oh boy!’

“Anthony runs out of the house. He says, ‘They’re my favorite cartoon characters! Can I keep them?’ Mom says, “Well, we’ll have to ask your father. But it’s all right with me.’ ‘Yippee!’ Anthony runs over to Ren and Stimpy. They’re all hugging each other, crying, ‘ Happy, happy, joy, joy! ‘ “

Kricfalusi melodramatically pauses to wipe tears from his eyes.

“The next morning Anthony wakes up and heads over to the bathroom. He’s going to go take his morning leak. And he opens the door and there’s Ren sitting on the can taking a dump, reading a romance novel. And Anthony’s never seen that before. He looks in and says, ‘What? No! NO! What are you doing? Cartoon characters don’t do that!’ And Ren looks at Stimpy and says, ‘Oh, brother.’ ”

West, the voice of Stimpy, takes one glance at the drawing of Ren hunched over a toilet and busts out laughing.

He’s not the only one laughing at these two cartoon characters, whom Kricfalusi created years ago as office doodles. Today he produces, directs, animates and provides many of the voices--including Ren’s--for “The Ren & Stimpy Show.” They are the closest thing America has seen to Kricfalusi’s unexpurgated imagination--even though they, like all of his creations, have been tempered by concerned network executives.

In the year since they debuted on the Nickelodeon cable channel, the Ren and Stimpy characters have somehow woven themselves into the fabric of American pop culture--based solely on six half-hour episodes that have been endlessly recycled and that garner what would be considered average ratings for a Saturday-morning cartoon on one of the major broadcast networks, about 2.1 million households a week.

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Radio stations air snippets of dialogue from the show. Jay Leno and Arsenio Hall have included Ren and Stimpy in their monologues. Retail outlets can’t keep the short supply of T-shirts and hats in stock. Sunday-morning viewing parties became a national trend this year on college campuses, where at least 100 unofficial fan clubs have been formed. And kids of all ages are doing their best impressions of Ren, who sounds like a twisted version of Peter Lorre (“What is it, man?”).

That’s not all. “Ren & Stimpy” has attracted a steady stream of national press from such publications as the Wall Street Journal and Time. The show finished second behind HBO’s “Dream On” earlier this year as cable television’s best program in a national poll of TV critics. And “Ren & Stimpy” is in the running for an Emmy this month against “The Simpsons” as nighttime TV’s outstanding animated program.

To the misfit band of animators at Spumco, Kricfalusi’s aggressively independent production company, “Ren & Stimpy” is simply an antidote to what they regard as namby-pamby characters and shoddy animation in today’s Saturday-morning network cartoons. Rallying behind Kricfalusi like scribes to a prophet, they hope to open the eyes of the animation industry and help lift it from what Kricfalusi calls “the Dark Ages.”

“Ren & Stimpy,” they say, is a throwback to the gag-filled character animation of the early Warner Bros. cartoons, combined with their own personal pop influences. The unbridled comic relationship between Ren and Stimpy is patterned after Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Kramden and Norton, with a good dose of gross-out, schoolyard humor tossed in for fun.

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The result is one of the entertainment industry’s hottest new licenses. Although Nickelodeon is being cautious with its merchandising plans, a feast of goods is being prepared for the new season that begins Saturday at 9 p.m., when “Ren & Stimpy” will move to prime time as part of a new two-hour block of original programming on Nickelodeon. (It has been airing Sunday mornings as part of a 90-minute cartoon block, with “Rug Rats” and “Doug”; it also was seen for a while in prime time on MTV.)

Mattel will release action figures next month, followed by plush and squeaky toys later this year. A Marvel Comics line is due out next month. There are plans for products that include a new line of T-shirts and hats, beach towels and boxer shorts. “Ren & Stimpy” episodes should be available on videocassette early next year, and Nickelodeon has hopes for a feature film.

All this from a man who was widely regarded in the animation industry as unemployable when Nickelodeon hired him for the “Ren & Stimpy” pilot.

“You get to a point where you’re so good at something you either have to be a boss and given your own venue, or you starve,” said Bob Camp, 36, who helped Kricfalusi form Spumco in 1990 with two other disillusioned animators, Jim Smith and Lynn Nayler. The studio is now 50 employees strong. “Nobody would give John his own venue. He had been sitting at home, at his kitchen table, drinking beers and smoking cigarettes. He just sat there drawing for months, out of work.”

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For Kricfalusi, who was raised in Canada by a father who generally hated cartoons, the success of “Ren & Stimpy” is a new experience. He’s not surprised by the accolades and the attention, because he believed all along that if someone let him make cartoons the way he wanted, they would be a hit. But he’s also not comfortable with what a lot of people are saying.

“Have you been following the press?” Kricfalusi asked. “Some of it really bums me out, particularly the Time magazine article. It was ignorant. You’d expect it to be the most intelligent. They made us sound like child molesters, like all we care about is disgusting people. Of course, we do want to disgust people, but that’s not all we do. We go for both the highest common denominator and the lowest. What we do is avoid the middle.”

Kricfalusi defends his brand of humor--next season’s sentimental Christmas episode is tentatively titled “Stimpy’s First Fart"--as innocent fun. Although certainly some have been offended by his work, Kricfalusi believes he has never reached too far.

“Too far to me would be disembowelment or something,” he said, “blood spurting everywhere. The booger jokes are completely harmless. The grosser you can draw a booger, the funnier it is.

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“There’s this impression that I only want to do cult animation. That’s people’s fear, and they want to tone me down so I’ll appeal to a more popular audience--which is crazy to me. Because the last thing I want is a cult following. I don’t want 10 people watching the show. It’s a popular medium I’m using, and my influences are popular.”

The press has not been alone in its inability to understand Kricfalusi, who has been burning bridges in the animation community his entire professional career. (“I worked on crap for 10 years, the worst animation in history,” he says to sum up his past.)

In fact, he boldly disagrees with the popular notion that there is currently a renaissance in animation. “People forget what renaissance means,” Kricfalusi said in exasperation. “ Renaissance means a flowering of creativity. It doesn’t mean a garbage dump of creativity. That’s what we have right now.”

What led to the formation of Spumco was a series of notorious run-ins Kricfalusi had with the networks.

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Kricfalusi had come to Hollywood in 1980 and worked at a variety of animation jobs--including stints on revivals of “Heckle and Jeckle” and “The Jetsons.” His first big career boost came in 1987 from Ralph Bakshi, the controversial animator who made a name for himself in the 1970s with the X-rated “Fritz the Cat” (and who produced this summer’s “Cool World”). Bakshi spotted a young version of himself in Kricfalusi and made him director of his CBS series “The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse.”

Kricfalusi’s irreverence--or irresponsibility, depending upon one’s point of view--quickly emerged on that Saturday-morning cartoon. The “Mighty Mouse” staff shared studio space with Bagdasarian Productions, which produced a Saturday-morning revival of the Chipmunk characters from the 1960s. But Kricfalusi thought the producers at Bagdasarian were taking their NBC series, “Alvin & the Chipmunks,” much too seriously.

“It was sick and twisted and evil, the way they were making these pseudo-human Chipmunk characters so real,” Kricfalusi said. “David Seville was now like their father, instead of their manager. I wanted to know what a full-grown adult male was doing living with three lower life forms, forcing them to sing and go to school and wear human clothing.”

So Kricfalusi produced an episode of “Mighty Mouse” called “Elwy and the Tree Weasels.” To top it off, the episode was narrated by Mashy the Pup, a dead dog with a tire track down his back who peeled himself off the pavement to talk. Kricfalusi based Mashy on a favored pet dog at Bagdasarian that had been run over by a car outside the studio.

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“We were just a bunch of animators who finally got their chance to do whatever they wanted, so we went crazy,” Kricfalusi said. “We were constantly writing Mighty Mouse out of the stories, trying to come up with new characters.”

“Mighty Mouse” was regarded as a groundbreaking hit in the animation community, but not with general audiences. After the first season, Kricfalusi and his agent turned to Bakshi and demanded 30% of the show’s profit plus merchandising rights. Bakshi couldn’t afford to do that, and the two parted company as friends. But Bakshi was impressed by Kricfalusi’s stand, considering that he was untested at the time.

“He had never even worked on his own before,” Bakshi recalled. “I said, ‘Before you become a renegade, you’ve got to first nail something.’ I said, ‘You’re a renegade before the fact.’ We’d laugh, but he didn’t quite understand, because John is very, very emotional. He goes with his gut, and he doesn’t know how to back down.”

In 1988, ABC hired Kricfalusi and put him in charge of a revival of the early-'60s cartoon “Beany and Cecil.” The show ended up being yanked off the air midway through its first season because it had strayed so far from what the network wanted.

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“Working for the networks is like being in the Inquisition,” Kricfalusi said, sighing. “You’re a heretic if you have any ideas. You are not allowed to think if you’re an artist working for a network.”

On “Beany and Cecil,” Kricfalusi and his crew kept trying to slip in “funny” drawings and jokes without ABC’s approval. At the end of one episode, Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent was singing and boy Beany came floating by in a big washtub. Cecil leaned down and sniffed hard, and Beany shot up his nose. Then Cecil turns and blows Beany’s clothes out and they float down the river.

“I was standing in the editing room when the ABC people saw (that scene) for the first time,” said Bob Camp, who worked on the show with Spumco partners Kricfalusi and Smith. “Nobody expected it, including me. That was wonderful, to see the looks on the faces of the ABC executives when they saw it. They screamed and their eyes bugged out. ‘What is that!? What was that!? That’s not in the storyboard!’ ”

“I happen to think he’s one of the most talented people in animation. He just doesn’t belong in children’s programming,” said an ABC executive who worked with Kricfalusi. “He’s sort of like a wild mustang--a beautiful, beautiful horse. And there’s a certain beauty in a wild mustang’s raw state. But to become a Kentucky Derby winner, it has to be able to deal with structure and form and discipline. And that’s where his potential downfall lies.”

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Although Kricfalusi’s relationship with Nickelodeon is a world apart from what he experienced at the networks, there have still been conflicts. “Nickelodeon has the three Rs: resistance, reluctance and resentment,” Camp said.

Nickelodeon, which has made a $40-million investment in original animation over the next several years, first ordered 20 episodes of “Ren & Stimpy” for the season that opens Saturday. Kricfalusi, who oversees every detail of every episode, scaled the number down to 13 because he couldn’t keep up. And even those 13 will be rolling out slowly, into 1993.

This despite the fact that “Ren & Stimpy” has a $400,000-plus budget an episode, well over the $250,000 spent on most Saturday-morning cartoons.

“John may not admit it, or like to admit it, but he’s more in line with the independent filmmakers out there,” said animation historian Jerry Beck, a friend of Kricfalusi’s. “Every ‘Ren & Stimpy’ cartoon is a little personal film he’s making every step of the way, from supervising stories, to directing and doing the voices, to drawing his own layouts. Basically this is his show, and his entire staff is really wrapping around him to get his vision through. There’s no other situation in TV animation like that today.”

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One animation director suggested that Kricfalusi has become power hungry in his personal drive to return animation to its glory of the 1940s, when individual artists and not TV networks reigned supreme.

“I know John wants to do a good job. I wonder, though, if by having his own studio he hasn’t become what he despised at the other studios,” the director said. “Because now he rules with an iron hand. He’s looking for ideas that are only up to his standards.”

At this point, there doesn’t even seem to be agreement on how many more “Ren & Stimpy” installments viewers can look forward to. Vanessa Coffey, Nickelodeon’s executive producer of animation, says there are plans for a total of 65 episodes, but Kricfalusi wouldn’t comment on any firm commitment beyond this season.

Nickelodeon also wants a “Ren & Stimpy” movie, but once again Kricfalusi won’t commit.

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“We’ve got too many ideas for other characters we came up with that we’d like to see done as a feature,” said partner Jim Smith, 37. “And they would belong to us. Ren and Stimpy basically belong to Nick. We want to produce something we own outright and have control over. That way, we won’t have to answer to anybody.”

Movie studios are regularly phoning Kricfalusi, he said, but no deals have been struck. He has expressed interest in helping bring theatrical shorts back to movie theaters with Jimmy the Hapless Boy, his personal favorite character, whom Nickelodeon originally wanted but for whom Kricfalusi would not sell the rights.

Despite their differences, Kricfalusi is quick to acknowledge the courage Nickelodeon demonstrated in putting on “Ren & Stimpy,” an entertaining children’s program with no pretense toward education.

“Our philosophy has evolved over the years,” said Nickelodeon President Geraldine Laybourne, a former teacher. “In the very beginning we thought we should follow the public-television mode and basically try to improve kids. We were very careful about it and provided stellar role models for kids.

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“But what we often did was leave kids feeling bad about themselves, because they weren’t the best athlete or student in their school. When you show kids perfect role models all the time, they walk away feeling bad about their families or themselves or their human condition.”

Kricfalusi originally pitched Nickelodeon four series--including “He-Hog the Atomic Pig,” a superhero who loses his powers when criminals slap marmalade on his butt with a spatula, and “The Predator,” a fugitive undersea creature who moves from town to town while waiting to evolve.

Ren and Stimpy were actually just two crazy animal characters in a bland series pitch called “Your Gang,” which Kricfalusi created to soft-peddle to the broadcast networks. There was just one drawing of Ren and Stimpy. Ren, who had kidnaped all the infants in the country as hostages, was holding up a youngster at a press conference, saying: “Ladies and gentlemen of America, I have your babies!

Nickelodeon’s Coffey zeroed in on Ren and Stimpy and later helped develop their characters.

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“Originally, Ren was just completely a psychotic, manic-depressive, insane, over-the-top, unpredictable character,” Kricfalusi said. “I didn’t want to fall into the pathos trap, where you just plug pathos into an episode--the Jerry Lewis syndrome. But we added a softer side to Ren, a warmer side to Ren and Stimpy’s relationship, and that came from Vanessa.

“Jackie Gleason did a great job at that, being funny and pathetic at the same time,” he said, referring to “The Honeymooners.” “I’d laugh my guts out after he’d scream at Alice and then realize he was wrong.”

But there have been squabbles. Nickelodeon has approval over every stage of production, from outline to storyboard to animation. On last season’s episode titled “Nurse Stimpy,” Kricfalusi refused to put his name on the finished product because of changes demanded by Nickelodeon. So the opening credits instead read “Directed by Raymond Spum.”

(Spum, after which Spumco is named, is a fictitious character whom Kricfalusi tells unsuspecting reporters--and anyone else who will believe him--is the creator of animation. As the elaborate story goes, Spum worked on a chain gang breaking rocks in 1856. On some of the rocks he drew men in tumbling positions and then juggled them to create the illusion of movement. Friends of Kricfalusi believe he developed the name Spum because it sounds dirty.)

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An example of the humor that gets the ax from Nickelodeon: In one of next season’s episodes, called “Out West,” Ren and Stimpy are about to be hanged. Before he dies, Ren feels remorseful and says to Stimpy: “I have a little confession to make. At night while you were asleep, I soothed my saddle sores with your tongue.” And Stimpy gets a big grin and says: “That’s OK, Ren. I wasn’t really asleep.”

For the completed episode, Nickelodeon had Ren’s line changed to: “I polished my boots with your tongue.”

Unfortunately, Kricfalusi says, things are not getting any easier. He says he’s having more problems than ever with Nickelodeon now that “Ren & Stimpy” has become so popular.

Said Ralph Bakshi, who has gone through similar battles: “Basically, once something becomes successful, you have lots of people trying to tell you how to maintain that success. And their way of maintaining success is to tell you not to take the chances that made you successful. Suddenly all these people are terrified to tamper with it, and they don’t realize the reason you got there in the first place was because you took some risks.”

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In Kricfalusi’s eyes, animation died in the 1960s when Hanna-Barbera began hiring sitcom writers to churn out scripts to meet the voracious demands of network TV. Before that, cartoons were made mostly as theatrical shorts, and they were generally the vision of one animator who didn’t work from a script.

“Why can’t a sitcom writer write a cartoon?” Kricfalusi asked. “For the same reason he can’t write a symphony. Try writing a symphony on a typewriter. You can’t do it.”

For “Ren & Stimpy,” Kricfalusi has returned to the old, independent style of animation, storyboarding his episodes with pictures instead of scripting them with words. The idea is to draw characters who can act and don’t rely on dialogue to be funny. To that end, his animators, whose enthusiasm for Kricfalusi borders on the fanatical, push themselves endlessly.

“I just think John is Mozart,” layout artist Eddie Fitzgerald said with a straight face. “What gets in the way of most cartoon stories that are being done for TV is that they’re so plot-oriented you end up leaving a lot of the gags on the floor. Here the gags are the main thing.”

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There’s no consensus of opinion in the animation community about Kricfalusi or his work. Some animators are amazed by the wild humor and Kricfalusi’s freedom of expression on “Ren & Stimpy,” while others cite technical gaffes and call the series mean-spirited.

“I just marvel at the dynamic compositions, the hilarious poses,” said David Silverman, supervising animation director for “The Simpsons,” which, unlike “Ren & Stimpy,” is driven by written and not visual jokes. “The drawings are truly funny--they make you laugh--and that’s missing from a lot of animation.”

One of the animators to whom Kricfalusi pays homage with his style declines to comment on “Ren & Stimpy.” Chuck Jones, one of the early Warner Bros. animators, won’t talk to the news media unless he has something positive to say. “He thinks the story lines are a little more crude than he’s used to,” a spokeswoman for Jones said curtly.

“The art of cartooning is the art of total exaggeration,” Bakshi said in Kricfalusi’s defense. “What permeates all of John’s stuff is John. You can’t be too gross in animation. You can’t be too anything in animation. That’s the point John and I stand on. Cartooning is anarchy. That’s all it’s ever been about.”

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Joe Barbera, who brought animation into prime-time television in the 1960s with such shows as “The Flintstones” and “The Jetsons,” was more diplomatic. He said anything that creates new dialogue in the animation community is important.

“I’m not knocking Disney stuff,” he said, “but whenever a Disney show comes along, there’s nothing to talk about, because there’s nothing new about it. The characters are all consistently the same, with minor variations. Whenever anything comes along that’s another step forward in the business, thank God, because otherwise we’d be bogged down forever. This shakes up the whole business.”

For his part, Kricfalusi doesn’t really see what all the fuss is about.

“I’m really only rebellious in this day, because we’re living in such a bland, cultureless age,” he said. “So I’m not doing anything weirder than what they would have done in the 1940s. I mean, my sensibility is not the 1940s; it’s the 1990s. But I have to rebel just to get the standards back to what they used to be, just to put animation back on track and make it an art form.”

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