The unwholesome-looking skinny one with the ample ears is neither insect nor rodent — he’s a type-A Chihuahua who talks like Peter Lorre on steroids. And his lumpy, tailless companion, whose tongue often hangs out just because he forgets to put it back in his mouth, is a cat: guileless, unworldly, infantile — the perfect consumer. Their names are Ren and Stimpy, and they inhabit a grotesque, wildly imaginative realm something like ours, but louder, messier, and a lot more elastic. They are also the biggest news in TV cartoons since The Simpsons.
From the moment The Ren & Stimpy Show debuted last August in Nickelodeon’s new Sunday-morning cartoon lineup, the half-hour show drew startling ratings and fervent fan mail from 5-year-olds, frat boys, lawyers, housewives — even a nuclear physicist. All fall Nick aired the six episodes it had originally commissioned, and although R&S puts some viewers off (Stimpy retching up a hairball offended one reviewer), buzz on the ‘toon kept growing. By Christmas it was obvious that R&S was ready for prime time. Nick’s sister channel, MTV, began airing the show during the evening. It instantly joined MTV’s top 10. On college campuses from the University of Texas to Harvard, students make the show a weekly ritual. Fan clubs are sprouting by the dozens. Fans dress as Ren and Stimpy at theme parties, and a woman in Texas had the pair tattooed on her left shoulder.
The warped brain behind the phenom — and the mouth behind Ren’s voice — is John Kricfalusi, 36. He began cartooning as a kid in Quebec, and his background makes a perfect recipe for an iconoclastic animator: He watched TV omnivorously, and, he says, was kicked out of every school he attended. Moving to L.A. in 1979, he eventually became a supervising director on Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures, where he introduced a troupe of typically odd Kricfalusian figures. Then he decided to sell his own cartoons. He teamed a Chihuahua (”They are such psychotic little creatures,” he says) with a goofy-looking blob he’d been doodling for years, and a comedy team — less Tom and Jerry than Laurel and Hardy — was born.
In 1988, Kricfalusi concealed Ren and Stimpy, Trojan horse-style, within a more standard neighborhood-kids idea called Your Gang and went to the networks. Any interest? ”They just wanted to call the guards,” says Kricfalusi. ”I was jumping around, hooting and screaming and spitting on them and stuff, acting the whole thing out. It was like, ‘How do we get this guy out of the room?”’
Kricfalusi finally found his creative home that summer when he pitched Your Gang to Vanessa Coffey, Nickelodeon’s vice president of animation. She hated Your Gang but loved what the horse was hiding, and Ren and Stimpy were on their way.
A typical episode might find Ren and Stimpy hosting a nature show, disguising themselves as dalmatians to get jobs as firehouse dogs, or acting out their own versions of classic fairy tales.
These days the animator — who starts the day by watching Pixie and Dixie and Jinx the Cat cartoons — spends his time turning out the 20 new R&S episodes that will reach the air in early summer. The success of his creation simply astounds him.
”I don’t understand it,” Kricfalusi admits. ”In fact, something should be done. We can’t let it go any further. Warn the President!”