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Anyone who saw The Ren & Stimpy Show during its heyday in the '90s knows that its creator, John Kricfalusi, has an unusual sense of humor. "Son Of Stimpy," the show's idea of a heartwarming episode, saw Stimpson J. Cat try to reunite with his lost child: a fart. Although the show's gross-out animation and bizarre stories developed a devoted following, it was cancelled after five years in 1996. These days, Kricfalusi is prepping a new website—separate from his "All Kinds Of Stuff" blog, which has daily diatribes on the state of modern animation—with new weekly cartoons and chat sessions with his characters. Before he appeared with fellow animator Bill Plympton at the John And Bill Show in Chicago, Kricfalusi spoke to The A.V. Club.
The A.V. Club: In a recent interview you said The Ren & Stimpy Show's edginess "created a monster that you can't completely benefit from." How so?
John Kricfalusi: When Ren & Stimpy first came out, we did all the stuff that you couldn't do in cartoons before that now seems really innocent, like boogers and farts. That was considered outrageous in 1990, which to me is amazing because every kid in the world makes booger and fart jokes all day long. I had to do quite a bit of convincing at Nickelodeon to get them to let me to do it. But right after that, Beavis And Butt-Head came out. [Laughs.] And then South Park. Now it's almost like anything goes, except for me. When I made some new Ren & Stimpys, I went a little bit further than the originals. Some of my fans got real mad.
JK: Because I put naked girls in an episode, and some of the stuff people used to beg me to put more of in Ren & Stimpy, like make Ren go insane more, or make it grosser. I can't really take advantage of some of the stuff I set in motion. I think it's because my drawings look more cute or something. South Park and Family Guy is drawn in a style that I guess the gag is that it's drawn so primitively that you can get away with anything.
AVC: Can working with censorship improve cartoons? Isn't it similar to working with limitations?
JK: Now and then it did. But it depends. It depends on how bureaucratic it is. If you have a whole bunch of censors and they can't agree with each other, no, there's nothing that can come out of that. [Laughs.] And it's not just censorship. It's not just can you say a dirty word or not. They want you to change your drawings. They want you to change the stories to make them sappy and stuff.
AVC: They want you to change everything about it?
JK: Everything. Every creative aspect. Censorship is a smaller part of it. It's pretty obvious what you can and can't say. No, I'm not much for censorship. I think you should let the audience's reaction decide, and that's what we did with Ren & Stimpy.
AVC: Especially because it sounds like when you get notes back, it's pretty arbitrary what they want you to change.
JK: Yeah, we would get notes like, "Lose the space cartoons. We don't like when they go to space." That was before we made the space cartoons. Then when the space cartoons were a big hit, they said, "Give us lots more space cartoons." When we started "Stimpy's Invention," they absolutely hated it. That wouldn't have been on the air had I not completely fought for it. [Laughs.] Censorship is not a good thing. Talent is a good thing. If you go too far, your audience will tell you, and you'll go, "Oh, okay. Maybe I better not do that again." Trial and error. That's how entertainment used to work. Now you have people second-guessing everything.
AVC: Your blog mentions the importance of music in animation. How does animating a music video differ from a cartoon?
JK: When you're animating a music video, you have to animate to some set music. You're somewhat restricted by that, but you're also inspired by that. The animation becomes secondary if you're animating to a music video. Either way, it's important. Music has really helped my animation, that's for sure. They're pretty similar art forms. They both depend on rhythms. They both depend on your senses absorbing things in time. If you're reading a comic strip, you can read it at any speed you want. But with film and music, the audience has to take it the way the composer gives it.
AVC: You've done updates on older cartoons like Yogi Bear. Is it confining to work with existing characters?
JK: I guess it would depend on who the characters are. I asked to do Yogi Bear. Those are the cartoons that inspired me to become a cartoonist. I was a little kid when those were appearing on television, and I used to stare at them and draw them while watching them on TV. I used to write my own stories and everything. Then when I was a teenager, I started making fun of the cartoons and would do my own weird, caricatured versions of them. I would do dirty versions of them. I'd fill all my textbooks with dirty stories of The Flintstones and do flipbooks, and I'd amuse all my friends. So I showed some of this stuff to Fred Seibert when he took over Hanna-Barbera in the early '90s. He said, "Why don't you make some of those cartoons? That's a cool idea." [Laughs.]
AVC: What were your dirty versions of The Flintstones like?
JK: Oh, I would do flipbooks of Barney giving it to Wilma and stuff. [Laughs.] It kept me from getting beat up by the football players because I was a skinny cartoonist kid. I was pretty nerdy. But they thought I was cool 'cause I could do dirty drawings of all their favorite cartoons, and they'd protect me from all the other bullies.
AVC: You've said that TV is going to die, and the refuge for animation is online.
JK: I've been saying that for 15 years. [Laughs.] I can't imagine it's not going to happen because TV keeps figuring out new ways to abuse the audience. It's getting so hard to watch television now. They've got those giant television network logos all over the screen in the way of the picture you want to watch. A million commercials that are twice as loud as the show, the shows get worse and worse. They don't even have real shows anymore. They have these reality shows. Amateur time stuff. Can't you just hang out with your neighbors and see that? What do you need to see that on TV for?
AVC: Bob Clampett is often cited as a big inspiration for your animation style. Who inspired your writing style?
JK: Probably just from cartoons, believe it or not. And old movies. Old sitcoms. I mean, obviously cartoons influenced me, but I put a lot of stuff in my cartoons that you'd never see in a cartoon normally. Kirk Douglas movies are a big influence. [Laughs.] So are Peter Lorre movies. The Honeymooners and Three Stooges are huge influences. Monty Python. But then everybody says Monty Python, so it doesn't really count. I think they influenced who ever saw it. I'm inspired by nature shows. I used to watch nature shows and laugh at them. Everyone thought I was crazy. "Why are you laughing at a nature show?" Isn't it beautiful? Isn't it beautiful watching hyenas eat their young? [Laughs.] This was crazy! What's beautiful about nature is just insane. A bunch of crazy stuff happening. Then I made that "Untamed World" cartoon and made fun of nature.
AVC: What's the biggest misconception about animation?
JK: To tell you the truth, I don't really know what the average person thinks about animation. I think the average person thinks that it's made by cartoonists—and it used to be. When people think of The Simpsons, they think of Matt Groening. They don't think of whoever the 200 writers are. In the old days, that was really true. You thought of Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, Walt Disney. But at one time, there were no writers. It was all written by artists. There are artists who are writers, but there was no such thing as cartoons that were written by somebody who couldn't draw.
AVC: At The John And Bill Show, you'll be playing cartoons highlighting each of the seven deadly sins. Which sin are you most partial to?
JK: [Laughs.] I feel like I just got caught by Stephen Colbert.
AVC: I nailed you?
JK: You nailed me. [Laughs.]
AVC: Well, there's lust.
JK: Lust is one of the funniest sins. You know what? That's one thing that cartoons don't cover very often, and I can't understand why. You don't get pretty girls in cartoons very often. It's bizarre to me. It's one of the greatest things to see in animation. I know in kids programming you're not really allowed to draw sexy girls. I managed to get a couple into Ren & Stimpy. In the Powdered Toast Man episode, Lovely Assistant is really hot. She's only in a few scenes, but, boy, I got lots of letters saying, "Give us more of that!" We'd try to, and then the executives would tell us, "Well, that objectifies women," and "it's offensive," and all this stuff. [Moans.] You don't even see it in prime-time cartoons. There are no sexy girls in The Simpsons. Would you ever take your pants down and watch The Simpsons? Those cartoons are designed to be so primitively drawn that you wouldn't be able to do a sexy girl because you have to draw well. Drawing a funny animal, you don't need a lot of detail to make it work. But to draw a sexy girl, there's certain things you can't leave out.
AVC: So when you were little, where did you learn to draw those sexy Flintstones?
JK: I used to copy Betty And Veronica comics, only I would draw them in totally skimpy bikinis with nipples peaking through and stuff. [Laughs.] I had to hide the drawings because I thought my dad would kill me if he caught me. He'd think I was a dirty little pervert.
AVC: Are you?
JK: Well, I'm a dirty big pervert now.