The first time I saw the cartoon Ren & Stimpy it blew my young mind. It was totally wild and utterly unhinged. It was out there and undeniably brilliant in every aspect; its craft, storytelling and humour.
The show took the classic 'cat and dog' pairing that had been around in cartoons forever and slipped it the brown acid. The result was a show that followed the psychedelically aggressive and deranged mis-adventures of a highly-strung chihuahua named Ren and his good natured yet dim feline pal Stimpy.
Painfully funny it was also painful to watch due its fascination with obliterating boundaries of good taste and its penchant for long, uncomfortable pauses on highly detailed, extreme close-ups of things like rotting teeth, burning-red pulsating pimples or screeching, skin-peeling scenes of Stimpy shaving.
In one episode the pair fall sick and the vibe is so snottily dank and murky thick with disease that even now I feel ill thinking about it. Another sees Stimpy invent a 'happy helmet' for his hot-tempered friend. The scene of Ren's face sharply and suddenly contorting into grotesque shapes while his mouth twists in jerky, screeching agony as the helmet forces a wide toothy grin onto his miserable face is an animation masterclass that's hugely funny but also incredibly disturbing.
Ostensibly a kids' show, Ren & Stimpy is in no way appropriate for children. Obviously, children loved it. But so did everyone. It was an immediate hit and its influence on animation is still felt today, 30 years later. It made a rock star out of its creator John Kricfalusi, who went by the name John K.
Like everybody at the time I was a fan of the show. But because we're talking about the pre-internet dark ages here when the show stopped screening on TV2 I stopped thinking about it. That's why I was very much looking forward to watching Happy Happy Joy Joy, a new show on the making of this influential and iconic series that debuted on the streaming service DocPlay yesterday.
The first half is a celebration of the show as told by everyone involved from animators to studio execs to celebrity fans. It's snappy and fun and filled with cool, very 90s, archival footage of the animators at their crumby studio busily creating a masterpiece whle revelling in the artistic freedom of the show.
Then revelations start dropping thick and fast; Kricfalusi was a creative genius but also a hard taskmaster. Then it comes out he was a creative genius but also an authoritarian tyrant of a boss. Then it comes out he was a creative genius but also an ego-centric and abusive boss who captained his own demise from the helm of the series he created.
This is all bad stuff. In the second half much, much, darker revelations come out.
Kricfalusi talks about the seismic imprint left by his incredibly domineering and disciplinary father. It's not something that excuses his behaviour but it does expose Ren & Stimpy as a creative exorcism of his inner emotional demons.
It makes you realise the show is painfully funny because they're a reframing of his childhood pain. Once viewed through this lens the first season of Ren & Stimpy stops being so funny.
Kricfalusi was quickly booted from Ren & Stimpy after missing deadlines for its second season, becoming impossible to work with and going on an offensive rant to the network. He'd believed his own hype essentially, even though the doco makes clear that the show was a success due to the incredible team behind it, not the single vision of one man, and the network exec's insistence that each episode have an emotional punch amongst all the fry pan battering violence and butt jokes.
But that's not the worst of it. The documentary also confronts Kricfalusi about his predatory and disturbing grooming of a 14-year old fan who moved in with him when she turned 16 and he was 39. His victim Robyn Byrd, who took her story to Buzzfeed in 2018, goes into detail about how he lured young fans with his celebrity status.
As a result of its revelations Happy Happy Joy Joy is as shocking as its wildly innovative, ground-shattering cartoon subject was back in 1991. I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since watching it.
Like all great art it reflects its creator, only Ren & Stimpy's reflection is so purposefully grotesque and ugly that once you see the trauma behind it the joke stops being funny. And that's before getting to Kricfalusi's monstrous behaviour in the studio and predatory action towards young women.
Even if you don't care for the show or cartoons in general it's still a great doco that's insightful, confronting and conflicting. Even though Happy Happy Joy Joy left me feeling Sad Sad Blues Blues.