If you watch any animated TV shows these days, odds are they were inspired by Ren & Stimpy. The groundbreaking Nickelodeon series, which debuted in 1991, revitalized TV animation during a time when it had grown cheap and ugly. Creator John Kricfalusi became rock-star famous as a result. If the program had a meteoric rise, it endured an even faster crash to Earth. The whole crazy tale is told in the superb documentary Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Story of Ren & Stimpy.
Directors Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood start off by tracking how the show came to be, when a Nickelodeon executive didn't care for the pitch Kricfalusi made, but did like two of the characters in it. From there, the creator was tasked with hiring a staff to develop a program around them. He insisted on hiring actual artists, not just folks who knew how to crank out boring animation. Ren & Stimpy used the talents of this team to create something far edgier than most kids were used to. There were plenty of bodily fluid jokes, as well as gags that never should have been included on a show aimed primarily at kids but got by because they went over the heads of the network's censors. (Hearing a former Nick exec discuss the horror of learning what "dingleberry" means after allowing it on-air is hilarious.)
Ratings went through the roof, as the program appealed to more than just children. Teens and young adults related to the crazy humor. That's where some of the problems came in. Kricfalusi (who, like many associated with Ren & Stimpy, is interviewed on-camera) developed an ego. Deadlines were missed, as he scrutinized every episode way beyond what was rational. He also grew abusive, berating his artists over any little thing that didn't meet his impossible standards. Listening to the staff reminisce about the way Kricfalusi ultimately treated them is sad. They all obviously worshiped his talent, making the needless cruelty even more painful.
Happy Happy Joy Joy liberally uses Ren & Stimpy clips to demonstrate how naughty the series could be. For example, whenever something gross happened – which was constantly – an immaculately-drawn image would linger onscreen, so that viewers could revel in its disgusting nature. While that approach is intentionally gross, it was also perfect for the early '90s, when pop culture became increasingly focused on being “extreme.” Subsequently, Ren & Stimpy fit perfectly into an era where The Simpsons and Married...with Children were similarly breaking boundaries.
To make a complete documentary on the subject, Happy Happy Joy Joy needs to focus on who Kricfalusi is as a human being. The best, most innovative art in any form often comes from people with personality disorders; it's that emotional dysfunction that allows them to see the world in a different way. Cicero and Kimberwood devote the last section of their film to the scandal Kricfalusi found himself in, involving underage girls. He seems not entirely apologetic about his actions, and some of his colleagues discuss the fact that Ren & Stimpy has been tainted in the eyes of many fans because of its creator's deeds.
That's an important note to hit. Happy Happy Joy Joy really delves into the good, the bad, and the ugly of what it takes to create a show that breaks all the rules. We may not get a more enlightening entertainment-related documentary this year.
out of four
Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story is unrated, but contains adult language and sexual material. The running time is 1 hour and 44 minutes.