John Kricfalusi should be a cartoon character. There's the Woodpeckerish shock of red hair falling over his face. His eyes, hidden behind thick, old-fashioned horn-rims, wear a slightly dazed expression, as if he might be lost in an underground garage. The raspy voice sounds like Kirk Douglas, one of his screen heroes. In conversation, Kricfalusi's body seems to tic and jerk involuntarily, as if he were trying to escape from a straitjacket. His hands pull nervously at his hair, his eyes turn away.
The character inside is quirky, too. Gruff, fearlessly opinionated but principled and, vis-à-vis cartooning -- the only thing he's ever seriously pursued, he says, apart from girls -- uncompromising. At 47, he remains the enfant terrible of animation. A legend among his artistic confrères, his name inspires fear and loathing among many of the network executives who make decisions. He has battled with them all. They complain that he's always over budget, never on time, and puts stuff in cartoons that not only pushes the envelope of good taste, but rips it in shreds and flushes it down a toilet. He says he's just defending what he believes in. If they won't let him do it his way, why do it at all?
Kricfalusi (the c is soft, so the name is pronounced Krisfalusi) is a cultural avatar. His hobbies -- and I'm not kidding -- are tap dancing and yodelling. Virtually everything he likes in movies, music and cartooning was made before 1960, often much earlier. With few exceptions, insists the creator of The Ren and Stimpy Show, his ground-breaking, early 1990s animated TV series, what we produce today is inferior.
Kricfalusi calls it the age of amateurism, and he has given it a lot of thought. We produce amateurs, he says, because in our society everybody must be allowed to express their "creativity," or else they will suffer from poor self-esteem and, Lord help us, we can't have that. Because everybody is deemed creative, no matter what the quality of their work, there are no absolute standards of excellence to which to aspire, no genuine criticism to respond to and not nearly enough training. Everything is good enough, however shoddy its execution; everything will serve. Natural talent is still out there, he says, tons of it, but it tends to be undeveloped and thus one-dimensional.
In animation, these core problems are exacerbated by the corporate, assembly-line, never-offend, just-bring-it-in-on-time-and-on-budget spirit of production.
"This will probably get me in trouble," Kricfalusi says, over a smoked-meat sandwich. We're at Dunn's deli on a Sunday morning in Ottawa. "But every studio I've worked with in the last 20 years is designed against creativity. They're structured so that one person takes what the previous person did and throws it out and starts from scratch. The various departments -- writers, storyboarders, animators, background artists -- seldom talk to each other. Generally, it's done so fast that the quality goes down each step of the way. Instead of adding value, they're subtracting it. By the time it gets to the screen, the original idea has been totally lost."
Producers, even good ones, learn to tolerate the system because the money is good and it's easier to acquiesce than challenge the suits and jeopardize a career or at least the next series. Kricfalusi doesn't think that way. The day before he is to be honoured by the Ottawa International Animation Festival with a retrospective of his work, Kricfalusi guides a visitor around his new studio, a converted, 100-year-old farmhouse (complete with attic ghosts) on the outskirts of the nation's capital, where, for the most part, he was raised and to which he has returned after two decades trapped inside the belly of the animation beast -- Hollywood. Never married, he has returned to the city alone.
Here, under his direction, a team of young talent is crafting six new episodes of Ren and Stimpy (and a made-for-TV movie), featuring further adventures in small-animal psychosis, involving the high-octane, asthmatic chihuahua, Ren (male), with a serious anger-management problem, and his slovenly, none-too-bright, live-in best friend, Stimpson J. Stimpy Cat (also male, go there if you must).
They've been comissioned by Viacom, the very same media powerhouse that, a decade ago, fired Kricfalusi from the show over creative differences, seized control of production and diluted his original vision until it was unrecognizable. He went into semi-exile, producing cartoons for the Internet and animation for music videos. He has produced one other series, a satire on manliness called The Ripping Friends, which may return for a second season next year, if funding is found.
The new episodes of Ren and Stimpy (and the old ones) will air this spring on the U.S. specialty-cable channel TNN, another Viacom holding, as part of a block of prime-time animation programming. What's more, Viacom has basically given him the artistic moon -- complete control over virtually every aspect of the show's content and production. No wonder that, as Kricfalusi moves from room to room introducing his staff, his feet start dancing. Jaunty, upbeat, one hand in his pocket, one holding a diet Coke, he is practising tap.
Ren and Stimpy (the latter evolved out Kricfalusi's telephone-pad doodles, the former from a photograph he saw of a chihuahua wearing a pink sweater) constituted an animation watershed. Ending the period of bland, oppressively nice, politically correct cartooning ( The Care Bears, Strawberry Shortcake, etc.) that had dominated Saturday-morning television for a decade, it revelled in violent gross-out humour, mining the rich comic veins of offensive bodily functions and aberrant behaviour. Belching, farting, nose-picking, vomiting, a riot of physical excess and mental instability -- Saturday morning, the exclusive preserve of kids' programming, had never seen anything like this. Sans sex, it was like a David Cronenberg film on speed. Even Kricfalusi now concedes, "it was pretty extreme."
The medium's official guardians agreed, and fought to exclude episodes that depicted tongues being ripped out and stomachs disemboweled. The final straw, reportedly, was a show that introduced a red-neck character called George Liquor, who adopts the dysfunctional couple and decides to discipline them; Ren rebels and attacks George with an oar, relentlessly. Before the second season had ended, Kricfalusi was gone: He had sold the rights to get it on the air.
"I don't think the industry was ready for Ren and Stimpy," says Toronto-based animator Greg Duffell. "He bucked a lot of trends. But the films were late [on delivery]and there were cost overruns and he became troublesome."
But the storylines, argues Martin (Dr. Toon) Goodman, a columnist for Animation World Magazine, represented far more than simply the dark side of cartooning, which is how Kricfalusi's work was generally portrayed. In Ren and Stimpy, filth, disease and mutilation were endemic -- a perfect expression of the times, a revisionist fairytale, releasing all our pent-up anxieties about exposure to risk, wasting illness and plague. "I really do believe he created a folk myth for the nineties," Goodman says. "He tapped into our basic societal fears. Never before had "cartoon" characters exhibited deep resonant pathology that infected both body and spirit."
And, despite the censorship battles, Kricfalusi definitely had an impact. The series because a cult favourite, appealed to kids and adults alike and scored big ratings on Nickelodeon.
Richard Meltzer, writing a piece on John K., as he is known, says that without Ren and Stimpy, there would never have been Beavis and Butt-head or South Park. Kricfalusi, he says, made the cable network knuckleheads "realize there was indeed an audience, a mega-audience, for puerile humour till you puked."
Ren and Stimpy was different for another reason -- the sheer intensity of the cartooning. In much modern animation, if you see an eye, the most it will do is blink or squint. In Kricfalusi's work, the camera takes you inside the eye socket itself; you see every blood-red, pulsating optic nerve.
What he detests about most contemporary animation is that it deliberately forfeits the inherent strength of the genre. For him, the heart of cartooning is that it allows characters to defy natural law, to do things physically that can't otherwise be done and, not incidentally, generate laughs. His paradigm are the old Bugs Bunny/Looney Tunes creations of the late Bob Clampett, whom Kricfalusi regards as the greatest cartoonist of all time.
"To me, that's the essence of the cartoon -- performance. If you just illustrate the gags, it's boring. If you don't milk performance, you're wasting the whole power of animation." Nor is he greatly impressed by popular writer-driven animated shows like The Simpsons. "The characters look the same in every scene. They have model sheets, rulebooks, that tell you how wide the eyeball has to be. Seven pupils. They actually say things like this. It's ridiculous. They might as well do the whole thing on computer."
If you want good stories, Kricfalusi once said, read Hemingway. "I can't get past the ugly drawings. Without the drawings, who gives a shit?"
"My rules are antirules. My rule is, never draw an expression that you've drawn before. Or that I've drawn before. Ever." Kricfalusi was born in Chicoutimi, Que., the only son of a Canadian air force officer. His childhood was migratory -- Montreal, Germany -- but when he was 9, the family settled in Ottawa. And he discovered cartoons. "That's all I did. I watched cartoons, drew cartoons, wrote cartoon stories." In addition to Clampett, he loved the work of Tex Avery (Porky Pig, Daffy Duck) and the old Hanna-Barbera material.
He arrived in Hollywood in the early eighties. Dropping out of Ontario's Sheridan College after two years, he was convinced that his talent and ideas would be instantly recognized and that he'd be hailed as the new messiah of animation.
Not quite. Hired to work on remakes of Heckle and Jeckle, The Jetsons and Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, he soon discovered that the studio system militated against genuine creativity. "I was ruining characters that I had loved as a kid. I worked on Fat Albert for like a day. Then they saw I wasn't suited to that."
Ironically, what had helped kill quality cartooning was demand. By giving animation a full Saturday-morning TV window, the studios suddenly had to produce more cartoons than ever before, much faster than ever before. All kinds of people were recruited, most of them without talent.
In 1982, Kricfalusi went to work for Ralph Bakshi, another animation legend and crazy man. "He wanted to do shorts and put them in the theatres. Who wouldn't love that? Rather than be tortured by goddamn Michael Bolton music and those stupid quizzes and commercials. Anyway, he asks me to critique his first short. I was terrified because Ralph is maybe 6 foot 3 and 250 pounds and has a wild temper. I watch the film and it's horrible. 'So, what did you think?' he says. His girls are sitting there waiting to take notes. So I said, 'Well, you're not going to hire me, but I have to tell you that's the worst cartoon I've ever seen.' His cigar fell out of his mouth and he jumped up and he screamed 'Hire this motherf---er! He's the only guy who tells the truth around here!' "
He lasted a month. "Everyone else there hated me, and we couldn't sell the shorts." But years later he teamed up with Bakshi again on The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse, a 'toon that anticipated the subversive vision of Ren and Stimpy. " Mighty Mouse was really the beginning. It was the first cartoon in 40 years that was made by cartoonists," Kricfalusi says. Thursday night. At the National Archives in Ottawa, a crowd of 100 has turned up for the John K. retrospective (there's a second one tonight at the National Arts Centre). There's about 10 films on the program, including a Ranger Smith episode with Yogi Bear, in which Boo-Boo decides he really wants to be a bear, not a pretend human, and the offending Ren and Stimpy episode Man's Best Friend that got him fired. Afterward, in an informal question-and-answer session, Kricfalusi is asked what advice he would give to aspiring animators. "Teach yourself to draw, because there's no way you're going to get it in school." Inevitably, the cartoon world is eagerly awaiting the new Ren and Stimpy. It wants to see how long the honeymoon with Viacom will last because it knows already that Kricfalusi is unlikely to mellow, to blunt his edge. "I don't see him slowing down," says columnist Goodman. "He's a born iconoclast."
Kricfalusi himself isn't looking too far ahead. In addition to Ren and Stimpy, he has signed to direct a second season of The Ripping Friends. Although the world has lately soured on the Internet, he predicts it will recover. "Everything is going to end up on the Internet. There won't be magazines any more. It's the first medium you can use any time, anywhere."
To him, this is just common sense, just as it's common sense to him that cartoons should be cartoony. "If that's subversive," he says, "then it's subversive to make music that has melody. I'm not subversive. I'm just old- fashioned."