September 15th, 2011
01:08 PM ET
"Happy, happy, joy, joy." "Hwarf." "No sir, I don’t like it." If this all seems like a random assemblage of words, then you’re not a child of Nicktoons (and I greatly pity you). The aforementioned are but a few of the indelible memories “The Ren & Stimpy Show” left singed in the brains of kids who grew up in the '90s, like a red-hot poker of cartoon lunacy sent plunging into our gray matter.
Back in August, the animated show about a neurotic chihuahua and his daft feline sidekick turned 20, sending shockwaves of nostalgia and terror through 20- and 30-somethings. And thanks to Nickelodeon’s recent surge of
Though “Ren & Stimpy” featured the familiar anthropomorphism, showtune-y music and absurd violence of Looney Tunes, it broke new ground for kids programming.
Sure, at first glance the five seasons we spent with Ren Hoek and Stimpson J. Cat were nothing but a vile collection of burps, boogers and other grotesqueries. And yes, the series was undeniably heavy on the scatological humor (“Son of Stimpy” consisted of the title character searching for his flatulence-cloud son…like Casper, but greenish). But it was so much more.
John Kricfalusi’s vision was incredibly creative and distinct, an apparently limitless palette of vibrant weirdness. He littered the show with a demented cast of creeps that seemed impossible to conjure with the human mind (like Powdered Toast Man, Muddy Mudskipper and the Tooth Beaver, among others).
Then there was the eye-catching animation. The characters’ faces were endlessly expressive, and those trademark close-ups showcased every glistening boil, throbbing blister, wriggling nerve ending…you get the idea. The images could actually make you SMELL the stink of the characters or FEEL their frantic rage.
Throw together all those elements, and you got a storm of crazed silliness that was irresistible to kids. But my parents (and countless others) loved the series just as much as their offspring. Adults could catch the sly commentary on corporate hucksterism (see: “Log”) and the portrayals of isolation and paranoia. The duo always seemed to be stranded - in the desert, in outer space, in the pound – and thus teetering on the edge of sanity. Such visions can only be fully appreciated by adults who’ve slogged through life’s minutiae.
What kids saw as silly and wild, adults saw as subversive and twisted. Children watched the protagonists jauntily sing themselves happy, while adults saw a message about the imperative to be optimistic, which maybe hit a little too close to home.
The seminal episode “Stimpy’s Fan Club” most perfectly illustrated the show’s duality. To kids, it was hilarious seeing Ren snap after Stimpy got all the adulation from fans: Ren began sweating profusely, speaking in weird tones, and generally behaving in a manner children would describe as “kooky” or “zany.”
Re-watching it now, I was enthralled by the darkness, the commitment to Ren’s descent into madness. I mean, I’m watching a character on a kids’ show contemplate murdering his sidekick (!) in a way that entertained oblivious children while hitting adult themes like power and envy. The likes of “Shrek” and Pee-Wee could reach that level of layered humor occasionally, but “Ren & Stimpy” managed to do it several times per episode.
I’ll always be thankful my parents let me watch “Ren & Stimpy” as a belch-addicted tyke. I remember sitting with the family on Saturday mornings, bowl of Lucky Charms in hand, gleefully singing along to the anthem of the Royal Canadian Kilted Yaksmen. And I remember enjoying the show even more because I could tell my parents were digging it, too. A cartoon like that doesn’t come around very often.
So what memories of “The Ren & Stimpy Show” make you cry out “happy, happy, joy, joy” as the series turns 20?
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