How They Made The Ren and Stimpy Documentary
We at ShareGrid are huge fans of The Ren & Stimpy Show. So, when we heard there was a documentary being made, we jumped at the chance to learn more. I got the pleasure of speaking with the drivers of this ambitious effort, Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood. Currently titled HAPPY HAPPY JOY JOY, the project is completely independent (i.e. no studio backing).
Even as a huge fan of the series, it never occurred to me how much of a risk it was for Nickelodeon to take a chance on a totally bonkers cartoon show. A show not only for kids on a successful children’s network, but adults as well. My personal favorite episode, ‘Space Madness’ includes one of the most iconic sequences of the show in which Ren loses his mind in a space station with Stimpy - feverishly eating an entire bar of soap believing it to be an ice cream bar. And, once you see/hear the LOG product jingle from the very first episode of season 1 (“It’s Loooooog, Looooog - it’s better than bad, it’s good!), good luck getting it out of your head.
Curiously, Cicero and Easterwood didn’t start out as super fans of the show. Cicero explains, “We’re fans of compelling stories and finding subjects that haven’t been heavily explored, especially if they surprise people. It’s exceedingly rare to find examples which haven’t been fully explored.”
I was fascinated by the duo’s detailed devotion to uncovering larger themes than just ‘how did this show succeed in the way that it did?’ Much like Chef’s Table, Cicero and Easterwood are probing, in their own words, “what may be the true secret to creating groundbreaking work, and the cautionary tale of perfectionism.”
April: It’s remarkable that a giant network would take the risk of producing weekly cartoon shows when they never had before, right at the top of their game. Nickelodeon was willing to try growing with their adolescent audience particularly in the early 90’s. Have you gotten any indication from your interviews and research as to why Nick took such a risk in making the show when they had 52 million people watching across the nation, and could have just kept ‘doing what they were doing?’
Cicero & Easterwood: Great question. It’s hard to imagine that Nick wasn’t the powerhouse it is today. But in the late 80’s/early 90’s, Nick—and cable TV channels in general—were like websites are now. It wasn’t seen as “Real TV.” Shows on cable couldn’t submit work to the Emmy awards, for example. There were the Cable ACE awards instead—the 90’s version of The Webby’s.
Before the ‘Nicktoons’ block, which was Ren & Stimpy, Doug and Rugrats, Nickelodeon was mostly syndicated, live-action programming from Canada and overseas. Much like internet outlets now, the risk was low to try new things as the audiences, and therefore the ad revenue and company valuations, just weren’t there yet.
Still, it took visionaries like Geraldine Laybourne and Vanessa Coffey, two execs at Nick, to see the potential of R&S and act on it.
A: What has it been like bringing the project to life?
C&E: Once we were able to convince the first round of artists, like William Wray, Chris Reccardi and Bob Camp, to talk on camera, it became a lot easier. Part of the infamy of R&S is the creator, John Kricfalusi, parted ways with Nickelodeon during season 2 of the series. Consequently, this tight group of artists — some of whom have known each other since they were 14 or 15 -- experienced a very public divorce. Inevitably, sides were taken and friendships were broken. Even though it was 25 years later, it took a lot of persistence to convince everyone we were really there to celebrate the show rather than dwell on the production drama.
A: Why does sharing the story of the show need to happen?
C&E: Most people, when they hear ‘Ren & Stimpy,’ would say it’s just a gross-out cartoon from the 90’s, why bother? But if you look at the series' influence on Nickelodeon, Adult Swim and the hundreds of animated shows and films that came after it—including classics like The Lion King and many of the Pixar titles—it becomes harder and harder to dismiss it as just a kid’s show about boogers and farts. Financially, Ren & Stimpy is itself also a multi-billion dollar property.
Those behind the series—especially John Kricfalusi and Nickelodeon exec Vanessa Coffey--not only changed kid’s programming, but TV comedy, popular culture and the art and craft of animated storytelling. With John in particular, there was a steep price to pay for his obsession with creating something not just great, but in some instances, near perfect. So it’s important to look at that, too.
A: What were the artists’ take on the popularity of the series as it was being aired? Were they shocked by the audience’s reaction to the content?
C&E: There’s a great story several of the artists shared about a signing at Golden Apple, a comic store in Los Angeles. They didn’t really think much about the show’s success until they showed up for what they expected to be a dozen people “from the lower end of the gene pool” only to find a line that stretched down Melrose. It was the first time in a long time that anybody even cared about cartoonists. Suddenly, John K, the series creator, was on the cover of Variety and TV Guide (a big deal back then!)
One of the myths the film will dispel is the idea that the series was solely attributed to one man’s vision. It was definitely a collective output. John Kricfalusi's artistic talent, while formidable, is not the true source of his genius.
A: Besides the fact that as a team you’re artistically drawn to stories on the fringe, what other story elements drew you to want to understand how R&S became such an influential phenomenon?
C&E: It was important to us that at the end of this 18 month process, we didn’t have a 2-hour DVD extra. We wanted to make sure the film looked at more universal themes; it wasn't just porn for cartoon nerds (and I say that lovingly as a comedy nerd.) So the other elements that drew our interest were questions like, “What does it really take to disrupt the status quo and create a legacy?"; “What are the consequences and are they ultimately worth it?", and “What separates “real art” from pop art—if anything?” Through all of this, we started to REALLY appreciate R&S and the art of animation. It’s remarkable the emotional impact it can have, especially when you consider it’s a collection of drawings.
A: What do you envision the non-fan is expecting from a documentary like this, and how do you plan to ensure the dialogue about the film ultimately pulls them in?
C&E: In editorial the question we keep asking ourselves—as two guys who started as non-fans—“Why does anyone care?”--whether it’s a sound bite, premise or story point. And just as importantly, “Is this funny and entertaining?”
We’re hoping the non-fan comes away with an appreciation for the artistry and influence of the show, and can gain broader insight into what it takes to produce groundbreaking work. There are insights here that pertain to not only art and entertainment, but any attempt at greatness. The show's been dismissed as just "a kids gross out cartoon" for so long, I think people are going to be surprised.
The only way to control the dialogue is to be unforgiving on how the film is edited and make a great film. The material is all there.
A: How did you find the comedians who you profile in the doc?
C&E: A lot of online research. With Iliza Shlesinger, we loved her theatrical approach to stand up, saw that she loved cartoons and tracked her down at a show a friend was hosting. With Bobby Lee, Bob Camp mentioned he might be a fan. When we sat him down, he said, “When you called me to be a part of this film on Ren & Stimpy… it’s like I was just cast in Batman.” I guess Bob was right!
A: What has been the most frustrating part of making this film? And as far as the narrative of the doc, what’s been the most difficult thing to uncover, if anything?
C&E: Honestly, the hardest thing has just been whittling down the enormous amount of footage. We knew going in that many of the folks would be entertaining storytellers, and that’s been an understatement. Some of the most insightful moments came from those one or two steps removed from the inner core of artists. You would think we could cut out a lot of interviews based on foggy memories but surprisingly, most of the stories have lined up, despite it being 26 years since R&S premiered. We got the sense many of the artists had been holding their breath, waiting to share their experiences since the crew split up after season 2.
The other challenge is, when you’re doing a documentary centered around excellence, you have to make sure that’s reflected in the film itself. Consequently, we’ve had to launch a Kickstarter to pay for the original animation and some of the finishing costs. The days of putting up a great project on Kickstarter--and not having to become social media data analysts—are over.
A: What’s been the most surprising thing(s) you weren’t expecting to discover through your interviews?
C&E: Wow, a lot. A few… just how remarkable the cartoon is from an artistic standpoint—the writing, the visual artistry, the music, etc, etc; the tremendous dedication and sense of caring that so many of the artists brought to the show; how far and wide the show’s influence goes; what may be the true secret to creating groundbreaking work; and the cautionary tale of perfectionism.
A: What kind of gear and techniques do you use for filming art and have it feel alive?
C&E: We are big fans of the Canon C300 markII and the Fujinon lenses, especially the 20 - 120mm zoom. The package is light enough and small enough to go on sticks or hand held. Of course it’s easy for me to say that because Kimo is also the DP / Operator and I didn’t have to sling it on my shoulder. But considering we both met doing lighting and camera back in the days of film, I think he would agree the Canon package is a dream. The footage also looks great right off the chip, yet still has a tone of latitude to play with.
There’s also much to be said for walking into just about any situation and with minimal lighting, making it look great. That has as much to do with the chip sensitivity as it does Kimo’s talent. It goes a long way towards making the subject comfortable when there’s not a team of 40 and 25 lights.
A: Can you tell us about your next project?
C&E: It’s in pre-production so would rather not give away too much but I can say it’s like HAPPY HAPPY JOY JOY in that the subject matter and where the story goes is not what you’d expect. It has to do with science, law and feminism….and nothing to do with animation.
The link to the Ren & Stimpy doc’s Kickstarter page is: www.renandstimpydoc.com