The John Kricfalusi Interview, Part 1

An interesting thought occured to me as I was reading this intense exchange of cartoon ideologies between John Kricfalusi and author/historian Michael Barrier, and that’s regardless of whether you agree with John’s views, Mike’s views, or perhaps even some of what they both have to say, it’s unlikely that Mike could be having this conversation with any other creator of an animated TV series. It’s hardly a secret that John has firmly entrenched opinions about what makes for a good cartoon, but these ideas are rooted in years of diligent study and analysis of the art form. He’s the only person I’ve ever seen who’s dissected (with mathematical precision) the layout compositions from UPA’s GERALD MCBOING BOING and broken down the story structures of Chuck Jones’ WB shorts, and his cartoons are a reflection and outgrowth of this formidable study of the craft. In John’s cartoons, whether the content is to one’s taste or not, the execution and artistry of his films is undeniable; the cartoons are complex and layered in such a way that they almost demand multiple viewings to fully appreciate the thought and nuance that went into their making.

The new REN & STIMPY episodes – NAKED BEACH FRENZY, ALTRUISTS and STIMPY’S PREGNANT – are no exception to the above, and they represent new heights in the continually evolving art of John Kricfalusi. While I’m sure it’s known to a good many readers of this site, now would be an appropriate time to disclose that I worked on these episodes. Admittedly though, at the time of production, there was little thought on my part that the resulting films would turn out to be such an utterly unique viewing experience. One of the show’s layout artists Luke Cormican recently put it best: “A John K. cartoon is no longer a short bit of crazy fun…. it’s now an epic experience that pushes the boundaries of cartooning further than they’ve been pushed before in these modern times.”

These new cartoons are at turns bust-a-gut funny, fervidly melodramatic, unabashedly offensive, and always brimming with vitality and creativity. They are also of a consistently higher quality than the first batch of REN & STIMPY: ADULT PARTY CARTOON episodes, though REN SEEKS HELP from the earlier bunch is no slouch itself. The rising quality is to be expected considering that when production began, John had to train two relatively green crews – one in Los Angeles and another in Ottawa – to meet his exacting artistic demands. At the moment, Spike TV has not commissioned further episodes beyond the original order of six half-hours, meaning that the majority of the artists John had patiently trained for the past few years have been forced to disband and find cartoon employ elsewhere. To borrow another comment from the quotable Cormican, he says, “It’s really a crime that we were cut off right after we had gone through the rough training ground that this season was. It’s kind of like if someone burned down Termite Terrace in 1939.”

While there’s no additional episodes planned, there’s still the issue of these three new episodes which have been produced and remain unseen. Originally expected to debut August 20th on Spike TV, the date came to pass with nary a sight of the cat-and-dog duo. Spike has yet to announce another airdate, though Los Angeles residents fortunately have only to wait until Tuesday September 7. That’s when the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood will present a SCREENING of the new cartoons to be introduced by John Kricfalusi in person.

Below you’ll find the first part of a chat I recently had with John about the new episodes. The second part of our interview will be posted here on Tuesday, August 31. To see clips and images from the new episodes, visit the ADULT PARTY CARTOON website.

Cartoon Brew: A number of the new Ren & Stimpy cartoons run over half an hour. When you initially wrote the stories, were you planning on making them this long or is this just how the stories evolved?

John Kricfalusi: No they weren’t planned before hand at all. I envy novelists because they just write a story with a beginning, middle and end, and when they run out of things to say about the story, it’s over. In TV animation, you’re constricted by the arbitrary length of time. Also a lot of the original Ren and Stimpy’s were half hours. The very first one was a half hour – STIMPY’S BIG DAY. SVEN HOEK and SON OF STIMPY were also both half-hours. I was always struggling with that, even in the first season. No matter what scene we come up with, I always think up a million variations and ways to take the gag further and explore each gag. For example, ALTRUISTS is the extreme example of that. We set out to make a completely gag cartoon. It does have a plot, that Ren and Stimpy are altruists and they want to help a hot lady in distress. But it turns out what they have to do is build a house. We actually had a hell of a lot more scenes, with some even storyboarded for that cartoon, and we ran out of time to produce it. A few of the cartoons are like that. STIMPY’S PREGNANT has a lot more scenes written and we just didn’t have the time to produce them.

Despite their length though, the cartoons never drag or feel padded out. Do you have any methods when it comes to structuring cartoons so that gag scenes which aren’t plot heavy are balanced with the story scenes that drive the narrative forward? Or is it simply just a matter of making sure everything is funny?

No, there’s no general theory about it. I just try to make it funny. And I bore easy so I don’t want to repeat the same type of thing over and over again. I’m not saying that I don’t commit that sin sometimes and I do. Like there were a lot of poo jokes this year which kind of got out of hand. I would forget the previous cartoon; ‘Oh, we just did a poo joke in the last one.’ It was my poo phase. But I had my farts and booger phase too during the first couple of seasons and everyone loved it. I’m over the poo now. In the meantime there’s eight million other types of jokes in each cartoon.

On STIMPY’S PREGNANT, one of the sequences I enjoyed the most was Stimpy preparing the food, but I heard that you didn’t like that particular sequence –

No, I didn’t like it at all.

– which is surprising though because a lot of people who’ve seen the cartoon think that’s a really funny bit. Which scenes then do you think work well in STIMPY’S PREGNANT?

Well it’s probably a good thing I don’t censor myself. Sometimes I’ll leave things in that I don’t think are working and other people tell me it’s their favorite scene in the picture. To me, the very best scenes are in the very beginning when Stimpy is trying to bring himself to tell Ren that he’s knocked up. And then once Ren freaks out, Stimpy has to calm him down and get him to go along with it. That whole sequence to me is the best acted thing we’ve ever done and I was really proud of that. There’s just tons of expressions and drawings in every scene of that. There’s more drawings in STIMPY’S PREGNANT than any cartoon we’ve ever done. 40,000 cels, and at least half of them are damn keys. It’s like an old Rod Scribner scene. When you freeze-frame it, there’s no inbetweens.

That’s definitely one of the things that I noticed is that the new cartoons are less pose-to-pose than the original series. But to play devil’s advocate, one could argue that it’s a waste of time to put in so many key drawings and expressions in a cartoon when they’re going by so quickly. Projected at regular speed, the audience doesn’t see most of them, so what is the ultimate purpose of putting in so many drawings?

Well, when you watch a gripping actor in live action, a very subtle actor such as Peter Lorre or Kirk Douglas or Robert Ryan, you can’t see every expression. They don’t act pose-to-pose; no actor goes pose-to-pose. You see the change in the thought process from one expression to another and there’s a lot of things happening in between. The more subtle and rich that it is, the more the audience believes it and the more real it seems. So in this sequence, yeah you’re not going to see every single drawing as you’re watching in real time, but it’s way more gripping storywise. That’s the best part of that whole cartoon; it’s like a melodramatic movie. It’s all about the acting; the more changes that you can have between the key expressions and emotions, the more realistic transitions you have.

I’m sure you felt that. It was really tense at times, when Stimpy was thinking, “How am I going to tell Ren that I’m going to have his kid?” It was almost not funny because it was so real. I wanted people to feel that because a lot of parents probably go through something similar. Obviously we exaggerated it and made it more severe, but I’m sure there’s a lot of accidents happening out there in real life. And there’s got to be that moment when the wife has to tell the husband and she thinks she’s going to get in trouble for it. I’m sure a lot of people will identify with that.

I think you just hit on a really interesting point. In some of the episodes like REN SEEKS HELP and STIMPY’S PREGNANT, there were moments where I thought the cartoon was disturbing. It wasn’t the humor, but the animation itself felt disturbing. Perhaps that’s because our eyes are not used to seeing so many expressive, intense drawings in animation.

Well I love extremes in different mediums. The extreme of a cartoon is surrealism, that cartoons can do anything. A character can explode, can fly into pieces and come back together, can have their heads blown off, squash into a pancake, turn into an erection, I love all that stuff. But that’s not all I love. To me, if I make the character so real, so believable, and then do wild stuff with it, it puts you in a whole other world. It makes the weird stuff even more believable. Like in STIMPY’S PREGNANT the whole opening, after the puke stuff’s over, turns into this realistic drama. Then when all the intensity is released and Ren accepts that he’s going to have the kid, it’s all happy and light-hearted. All the birds and squirrels show up, and then it goes right into gags. So it’s about contrast. I like to do a lot of different mood and feelings, it’s not just a string of gags. It certainly isn’t a string of one-liners. There’s all kind of things. There’s acting, slapstick gags, surreal gags, verbal gags, the way the characters talk.

Also I’m not merely influenced by animation. If I was, I probably would have much shallower cartoons. I would draw off less experience and information, but I love movies and old sitcoms. I mean, THE HONEYMOONERS is a great example. When you watch Jackie Gleason, he’s completely gripping throughout the show. Even if it’s a Norton scene and Norton’s doing a lot of funny stuff, you could just watch Ralph’s reactions and they’re hilarious, subtle and amazing. He’s doing all this stuff that builds tension and real emotion in the scene. Cartoons don’t generally do that. The closest ever were Bob Clampett’s cartoons. They did it, but not to the extent of the live-action movies and the classic sitcoms of the ’50s and ’60s.

Can you point to any specific examples of where you were influenced by a live-action actor or actress in these new episodes or was it just general inspiration?

I don’t think I used anything specific this time around. I did during the original seasons because I was learning to act with my pencil and so I had to draw upon things that I knew really well. When you learn something, you learn by imitation first but I think I’ve gotten past that stage where now I can just feel things from my own life experience and I just act them out in the mirror. Sometimes I don’t even need a mirror. You’ve seen me do it, right? Have you been in my office where people try to come in and talk to me while I’m drawing a scene. You see me in all sorts of contorted poses.

Right. You look very focused.

Sometimes if I have a really tricky expression, I’ll use a mirror. But a lot of times, I can feel it in my heart and I know what it looks like. I’ll just draw it. But I couldn’t do that when we first started Ren and Stimpy. There’s a lot of scenes in the original Ren & Stimpy’s that we just stole out of old movies.

(To be continued…)