Stimpy's Pregnant, and Births One Sick Little Monkey
Let us now say a brief, kind word about network censors.
Not that I’m terribly fond of network censors as a breed; I’m not fond of plague-bearing rats, either. Still, they are a part of the cartoon ecosystem, and—circle of life, hakuna matata, whatever-hippy/dippy-Gaia-crap-you-choose—they have their role. Every once in awhile something they do rebounds to the general good, and even if they do it unintentionally, we can at least recognize that some good was done.
So, for instance, I’m not sure that John Kricfalusi’s infamous battles with Nickelodeon over the content of Ren and Stimpy were a tragic and wasteful loss. Granted, the Nick goblins eventually killed, ate, and excreted his show, and there’s neither excuse nor justification for the post-Kricfalusi episodes. But I wonder if, during the early seasons, they didn’t stimulate his creativity. John K. is a master at drawing and animating the thoughts of his characters; Ren and Stimpy and George Liquor and all the rest are so expressive they practically claw their way out of the screen and slap you purple. Reaction shots are usually funnier (in my opinion, at least) than whatever provokes the reaction—think of Wile E. Coyote wincing under a tiny parasol as the shadow of the falling boulder looms ever larger—and John K.’s terrific character animation let you appreciate the joke, marvel at the artistry and fill in the unseen bit all with one picture. “Cling tenaciously to my buttocks”? Powdered Toast Man’s reaction after giving that advice suggested a lot more about what was going on back there than a shot of the actual clinging might have.
All of this is a roundabout way of tentatively suggesting that Spike TV’s Ren and Stimpy Adult Party Cartoon series lost something when it added so much. Being on an avowedly “mature” bloc means that John K. has much more freedom, and he seems to be taking ultra-super-maximum advantage of it—though to what purpose I am not sure. Is he animating what he’s always wanted to animate, or does he have a dozen years’ worth of backed-up frustrations he’s letting loose? Well, whatever the story is, he’s got it geysering out of both ears now. So viewers with weak tummies or delicate sensibilities are encouraged to avoid “Stimpy’s Pregnant” and “Naked Beach Frenzy,” or to watch them from behind slightly splayed fingers. A light spritzing of holy water over the TV might also be in order.
Which isn’t to say the shows are bad or unfunny. Quite the opposite. They are often hysterically funny and amazing to watch, albeit in a “grab onto your girdle, Ma, before the g-forces rip it from under your dress” kind of way. Whatever extra effort John K. and his team are putting into the gross out gags, they certainly have not taken it out of their efforts to draw rich and expressive characters. If anything, they may be too profligate with the facial expressions, some of which flick by so quickly that they barely have time to register.
Plot has never been a Ren and Stimpy strong point—though that hardly mattered when they were seven- to ten-minute shorts. But the new episodes are designed to fit a half-hour format, and it’s a bit more wearying to have a “situation” hammered out for that length of time. “Stimpy’s Pregnant” borrows heavily from 1950s sitcom stereotypes, especially I Love Lucy, to parody the stages of pregnancy and “the big moment” itself. It’s a good idea for a frenetic short, but some of the gags, such as a pregnancy-sating meal whipped up by Stimpy, feel padded. Thankfully, there remains the saving grace of John K.’s style: Even when not much interesting is happening, it is still fun to watch.
(Oh, and how exactly can Stimpy be pregnant, and how did he get that way? The sexual orientation of the main characters has long been a subject of speculation, and this episode won’t settle it either: It takes mischievous, contradictory fun in alternately describing Stimpy as male, female, male-actor-playing-female-character, and some combination of them all.)
The plot of “Naked Beach Frenzy” isn’t similarly genre-busting in itself, but it is somewhat more inventive. It has lots of girl-ogling (and hairy beach-ape gagging), but it also has a clever bit set in a women’s shower in which Ren must fight to maintain a “professional” demeanor as a bathroom attendant. There is some good and subtle (if you can use “subtle” to describe John K.) stuff there.
The paradox of it all is that a tremendous amount of discipline goes into making cartoons that are so wild and uncontrolled; it takes a strong hand to make a character as solid as Ren seem so convincingly explosive. But there’s another kind of discipline that seems to be lost in the Adult Party Cartoon series: the discipline to keep from being outrageous for outrageousness’ sake, to know when less is more. Personally, I miss the more oblique, more cartoony and less raunchy Ren and Stimpy of the early Nickelodeon years. (I was in college when that series debuted, so I’m not speaking as a nostalgic rug monkey.) I wouldn’t wish John K.’s travails on anyone, and I certainly wouldn’t wish the censors back in charge. But I wish he could find the friendly equivalent somewhere. That Ren and Stimpy are completely lacking in self-control is an unalloyed blessing; that Ren and Stimpy’s Adult Party Cartoon seems equally undisciplined is not similarly unalloyed.