Created by John Kricfalusi. The big takeaway is that is what The Ren & Stimpy Show (1991-1996) brought to the world of animation. Happy Happy Joy Joy illustrates the point — Nickelodeon’s gross-out show bent the boundaries of the form. It’s the story of abusive bad boys carving out a new space in syndication. The best pop culture documentaries take such a niche subject and then enhance and expand them so that they become larger in our minds. Happy Happy Joy Joy is as much about bringing auteurism to the animated space as it is a denunciation of its chief creator.
The story argues, Kricfalusi is responsible for sponsoring the “Created by” tag for network cartoons. While it is an influential work that has that attribute, that is also a commonality of the media of its time. It was the era of Tom Clancy’s “Military Book of the Week for Dads” and Sid Meier’s Civilization. This was common practice for early animators and the craft was becoming a prestigious, cool thing to do, once again. It was bound to happen. What is more striking, is the way Ren & Stimpy toed the line between children’s and adult animation. It foresaw the late-night programming blocks that would bring the comedic heart to a space that was generally being thought of as “ads for toys.”
It was a groundswell for harsh and abstract imagery. “Ren’s Toothache” stands out as a primary example, where a rotted mouth of teeth turns grotesque, sharply detailing the smell and abject horror of a nightmare. Kricfalusi created worrying, harsh art, high art in a low space, with a creative fervor and energy that was frightening — bouncing between bad-boy genius to raving lunatic. Happy Happy Joy Joy could be accused of burying the lead. It takes a very long time to get to his pedophilic relationships, as he preys on young fans. And yet, by then, it has created a dark portrait of a troubled studio, with enough friction, that it is believable when we get there. By this point, the film does a good job of not quite sympathizing, of providing just enough rope, and then strangling the artist. Diehard fans will already know and so the ending may be wasted on them, used as a reveal or the lynchpin moment of “ah, discovery!” every modern doc must find. Given the show’s “Created by” status, it hangs over the production like a lost fart.
While it must hit these notes, what we’re here for is the creation story and the golden age of Nickelodeon’s programming block, which created edgy television in an age of conservative values. What still works about Ren & Stimpy are its enduring characters. The key player here is embattled producer Vanessa Coffey, who details the constant give-and-take, the checks and balances that rounded a good show into a great one. It shows a tug-of-war between Kricfalusi and the network. Where he is breaking every rule and the art insists upon itself, the network insists on empathy, and in turn, he mocks the demands in his work, and the formula of a great relationship is created. Happy Happy Joy Joy is worthwhile because it understands the tenuous relationship between creativity and its censor, that challenged art which pushes the boundary, is the art that lasts.
The whole creation myth is worth a look. The idea of Ren & Stimpy is timeless, also because it is baked into classic cinema. Ren is a mixture of the asshole personality of Kricfalusi (self-admitted) and the wild performances of Peter Lorre. Stimpy takes on the impression of Larry Fine, of The Three Stooges. The animation and character action are deeply inspired by the anachronisms of Kirk Douglas’ acting style. It is made for screens and wider audiences because the show is not only designed for the screen, but born from the classic animators and a sense of cinema history. Its best episodes are some of the best of its generation, envelope-pushing works of art that mediate the balance between the high and low brow.
The show was grotesque, but then, so was its creator. It carries the “Created by” status because it is truly an inward reflection of the people who made it. Many of them were great artists. Happy Happy Joy Joy is willing to also tell their story, to understand one man’s mistakes does not control the outcomes of a large group effort. To know that its subject continued long after its creator left, and then when he returned, lacked any of the heart, and plodded into just-for-adults obscurity on Spike TV. For a pop-culture deep dive that explores all of the influence of a ’90s cartoon, it’s as honest and committed to its subject as those can get. It can be easier to be honest when the creator also deserves a “Destroyed by” credit.