'Ren & Stimpy' succeeds by breaking rules


In a television cartoon world where stylistic familiarity has bred ever-increasing viewer contempt, "The Ren & Stimpy Show" is proving there's an audience anxious for something a tad, uh, different.

OK, maybe more than a tad.

"Ren & Stimpy" may well be the most bizarre series ever to make it onto a mainstream TV network schedule, a grotesque piece of retro '50s surrealism that plays as if it were created under the influence of hallucinogens.

But the animated show that airs at 11 a.m. Sundays on Nickelodeon has sprouted into a breakout hit since its August premiere. It is a show that has toyed equally with the gray matter of adults, kids and the college crowd.

Wildly original and derivative in its satire from virtually every animation genre and era, "Ren & Stimpy" is the hilarious embodiment of everything cartoons aren't supposed to be: gross, illogical, crude, tacky, choppy, inconsistent and often downright depressing.

Its main characters consist of a concave, violently moody Chihuahua named Ren -- who sounds like a sleep-deprived Peter Lorre -- and his pal Stimpy, an abnormally large cat with a bulbous nose and gullible bearing. He's all head but precious little brain.

Attractive these guys are not. A better description would be ugly, unstable and generally pathetic.

Ren and Stimpy certainly do things no self-respecting Hanna-Barbera toonster would ever consider.

Stimpy not only uses his cat box, he also eats the litter. Once in a while, he has been known to cough up a hairball or two. Ren likes to pass gas in the bathtub. Ren also once removed Stimpy's brain, replaced it and then flushed the surrounding fluid like a toilet.

That isn't even to mention the episode sending up the story of Rapunzel that found Ren climbing the tower using Stimpy's hair -- inside his nose.

"Ren & Stimpy" revels in the kind of sick alternative humor that is generally relegated to a public-access channel or, say, a nice safe 3 a.m. time period when the network executives are snoozing.

Instead, Vanessa Coffey, Nickelodeon's vice president in charge original animation, rewarded creator/producer/director John Kricfalusi's "Ren & Stimpy" with a prime Sunday-morning schedule slot on Nickelodeon and a recently concluded Saturday-night run over sister station MTV.

"I know the show breaks all the rules for cartoons," Ms. Coffey said in a telephone interview from Nickelodeon headquarters in New York. "The thing is, the statement our company made before committing not only to 'Ren & Stimpy' but also [fellow Nicktoons] 'Doug' and 'Rugrats' was that we intended to change the face of animation. I think we've accomplished that.

"There were people at this company who were convinced I'd lost my mind," Ms. Coffey admits. "But I knew John's work, and I knew this could fly. I'm still not entirely sure why."

If nothing else, the minds that have embraced "Ren & Stimpy" are getting a thorough education in warped animation that lacks rules and boundaries.

The boys (if that is indeed what they are) thus far have flown on a space mission through the black hole, disguised themselves as Dalmatians to work as firehouse dogs, performed their own versions of classic tales such as "Robin Hood" and crash-landed on a distant planet.

Not so weird? How about that Ren got so seriously ill in one episode that he nearly died? Or that they suffered a separation that just about broke their collective spirit?

Take that, kiddies.

Yet it isn't so much what happens to Ren and Stimpy as the way the show is presented that skirts the borders of the Twilight Zone. The characters are drawn according to no specific model, meaning their appearances entirely lack continuity and mutate -- sometimes significantly -- from episode to episode.

"John said the one thing he never wanted to hear out of my mouth was that these characters are off-model, because there is no model," Ms. Coffey says.

"Ren & Stimpy" further operates on a mandate to emphasize visuals and descriptive noises over storytelling, pouring out a steady stream of over-the-top sight gags and sound effects.

The audience regularly hears burps, grunts, screams and insane cackles that serve to complement the sight of bodily fluids, diseased skin and organs, severed limbs, hideously bugged-out eyes and all variety of unidentified odoriferous objects.

If it seems difficult to fathom someone admiring this unwieldy object, no less an authority than Matt Groening, co-creator/producer of "The Simpsons," counts himself as a "Ren & Stimpy" fanatic.

So huge a fan is Mr. Groening that he acknowledges without a hint of malice that "Ren & Stimpy" has "out-Simpsoned 'The Simpsons.'

"Kricfalusi and his staff went way over the edge and created their own unique outrageousness," Mr. Groening said, "and I think it's pretty great animation."

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