December 1, 2004

Blood and Wounds: Ren & Stimpy on DVD

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When I was seven, my parents gave me two assignments: 1) not to kill myself; and 2) not to bother them. Both of these tasks were easily fulfilled since my parents forced me to watch over six hours of television a day. Sure, it irreparably ruined my psyche and body, but it was worth it for one momentous occasion: the first airing of Snick.

For those who don’t recall, Nickelodeon rolled out the four-show block in 1992, offering an alternative to ABC’s TGIF line-up. Snick, a word just distant enough from Nick to make you sound like a blithering moron on the playground the next day, was fueled by Clarissa Explains It All, Roundhouse, The Ren & Stimpy Show and Are You Afraid of the Dark?. Because I was brought up in a good Protestant household, I was not allowed to watch Clarissa or Roundhouse on the grounds that it was somehow morally reprehensible to view healthy kids making friends and having fun. But my parents were also flagrant and diabolical hypocrites with poor reasoning skills, so I was permitted to watch Ren & Stimpy. It was the craziest thing I had ever seen. Weaned on Full House and Mr. Wizard, I simply had no idea what was happening. What were these creatures? Why were they relentlessly shoving spikes into their bodies? Why did their limbs tremble as they projected malicious smiles onto little children? What did the phrase, “I’m going to gouge out your eyes,” mean?

I now know that there’s a devious history of bizarre animation. “Funny Faces,” the first animated film, is one of the great mind-bombs of the twentieth century, and even the most boring Chuck Jones clip runs through more hallucinogenic imagery and meta-narratives than an experimental novel. But for my generation, Ren & Stimpy was the first point of access to the perversity and hysteria of great animation.

Now that the first and second seasons have been compiled in a three-DVD box set, we have the opportunity to relive and revise our memories of the show. Most viewers will be pleasantly surprised to find that the cartoons are just as chaotic, harrowing, and hilarious as they remember. From the opening montage’s lightning-fast psychedelic bop through the perils of the Royal Canadian Kilted Yaksmen, Ren & Stimpy continues to be a thoroughly stimulating and perplexing cartoon.

The most remarkable facet of the show was a bathroom humor that turned into some sort of grim, ghoulish realism. It’s often unwatchable. Ren, a Chihuahua, and Stimpy, a huge red cat, are constantly caked in grime and spittle. Their stubble brushes away barrelsful of sweat, and their mucus forms monolithic slabs they carry around in their pockets. Often, they can’t even get up from bed, held down by their own churning bodily fluids.

Coupled with this physical burden was the mental stress of even the simplest thought. Their minds are exposed, vulnerable and subject to spellbinding acts of masochism. Stimpy, for instance, keeps accidentally dropping his brain out of his ears. In “Sven Hoek,” he announces, “I have an appointment,” and proceeds to throw a quarter into a slot in the wall, revealing a trapdoor with a donkey in it. The donkey’s hoof shoots back and connects with Stimpy’s head, sending the cat across the room into cringing spasms of anguish and ecstasy.

Nevertheless, Ren holds some sort of ambiguous dead-end job to pay the rent and usually comes home every evening to Stimpy’s ignorance. Consumed with anger and fed up with the sheer stupidity of the world, Ren’s body convulses and implodes. His veins sprout out of his head, and his mouth starts to drool. His eyes literally can’t contain his rage. Nerve endings splay across his forehead. It would be a brilliant Honeymooners-esque parody of domestic bliss if it wasn’t so insanely tense. In fact, it doesn’t even seem intended as humor. “First, I’m going to tear your lips out,” Ren tells Stimpy. “Then I’m going to take your eyes out of their sockets. And you know what else? Yeah, you want to know? I’m going to hit you. Yeah, and then I’m going to knock you to the ground. And when I stand over you, I’m going to laugh and laugh.” And this was on a show for kids sandwiched between episodes of Hey Dude! In a different episode, he stands over a sleeping Stimpy, screaming, “How easily I could end this farce with these hands?”

Ren is also subject to the most neurotic, narcissistic and paranoid tendencies of anyone since Howard Hughes. In the notorious “Space Madness” (which takes place in “the amazing year 400 billion”), Ren ruminates dementedly on his celebrity and madness. “Didn’t you see them? Didn’t you see the crowds?” he cries. Then, he tells a bar of soap, “We’re not hitchhiking anymore; we’re riding!” In “Black Hole,” Ren’s entire body collapses and dries out amidst a climate of logs, reptiles, pink sheep, and British gentlemen.

Despite this vicious dreamscape, Ren & Stimpy also displays moments of unrivaled parody. In the show-defining “Stimpy’s Invention,” Stimpy builds Ren a “happy helmet” that causes Ren’s fragile body to perpetually curl up into a stretched, sinister smile. This results in the famous “Happy Happy Joy Joy” sequence where a Raffi-like singer reflects on, well, being happy, before completely breaking down: “I’ll teach you to be happy! Yeah, I knew I’d shoot him, but you didn’t believe me!” It ends with Ren deliriously taking a hammer to his own brain. It’s as effective a sequence as anything from A Clockwork Orange.

The DVD box is affordable and uncensored, and contains commentaries by creator John Kricfalusi, as well as a behind-the-scenes short. Now, ten years after the fact, everyone can recall that one shining moment when a children’s TV channel was stranger than Crumb or Burroughs.

Archived article by Alex Linhardt
Sun Arts & Entertainment Associate Editor