I was seven years old when Nicktoons premiered on Nickelodeon in 1991.
The children’s cable network had mostly aired syndicated shows from other networks and was now launching its cutting edge original Saturday morning cartoons with three new shows: “Doug,” “Rugrats” and — the edgy rebellious one — “The Ren & Stimpy Show.”
I watched in anticipation for the new shows and enjoyed all three, but I was enthralled by “Ren & Stimpy.” It was like nothing else I had ever seen in a cartoon, not even “The Simpsons,” which premiered a few years prior.
It was beautifully (and disgustingly) animated with detailed close-up shots and exaggerated emotional expression that displayed madness on the screen. There was sexual innuendo, shocking violence and boiling rage. It wasn’t meant for kids, but it aired in the middle of the day on a network aimed at young children.
A new documentary, “Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story,” chronicles the rise and fall of the controversial cartoon. Directors Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood premiered their movie as part of the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020, a few months before COVID-19 put a halt to in-person film festivals.
For the most part, they tell a pretty standard story of how the cartoon got made and what made it so popular and controversial. Talking head celebrities like Bobby Lee and Jack Black heap praise on “Ren & Stimpy” creator John Kricfalusi for being an eccentric genius who pushed boundaries. The first 30 minutes of the documentary is full of glowing compliments and goes into great detail about what made the show so revolutionary. They interview animators, studio executives and obsessive fans. The usual documentary format.
I haven’t revisited this beloved cartoon in many years, but during the first part of this documentary, I was overflowing with nostalgia and a desire to rewatch this show. As they kept showing controversial clips that slipped through Nickelodeon’s censors, I kept thinking to myself: “How did they get away with this?”
But the troubled artist John K (as he’s called) is — predictably — exposed as a man who’s dealing with some serious mental health issues. He’s described as berating his staff with profanity and slurs. He fights with network executives, telling them to “Go f— yourself.” He refuses to meet deadlines, costing the network millions and leading to delays in episode air dates. He’s finally kicked off the show after submitting an episode in which an abusive dog trainer named George Liquor — based on John K’s actual father — is beaten mercilessly with a boat oar.
Some animators play off John K’s attitude by calling it self sabotage. Others play off his abusive behavior to his staff by calling it “being a perfectionist.”
But something darker seems to be at play.
And then the documentary takes a turn.
I was unaware of the accusations leveled at John K in 2018. I don’t know if I should even call them accusations since he freely admits it in the documentary, but he was never convicted in a court of law.
In summation, John K began writing letters back and forth with a 14-year-old female fan of “Ren & Stimpy” in 1995. He was 30 at the time. He basically was grooming her and then had her move in with him when she was 16. He admits to the sexual relationship and animators admit in the documentary that everyone knew. The victim speaks openly in the movie, saying that he wouldn’t let her leave the house and she still has nightmares about him. The documentary filmmakers question John K firmly but he gives a very weak apology without saying he did anything wrong. He basically says he’s sorry if she feels like she was hurt.
The woman tries to reconcile the art that is “Ren & Stimpy” with the artist that created it, saying: “I understand you need pain to make great art, but that doesn’t mean you need to inflict pain.”
So this is when the documentary sort of makes me angry.
What John K did was criminal (the statute of limitations have passed) and it feels weird that I just watched an hour of people heaping praise on him.
Yes, the cartoon itself was quite genius, but the movie clumsily tries to reconcile the fact that the show has been somewhat tarnished by the reputation of its creator.
There’s a big debate about whether you can still enjoy a piece of art that was created by (or includes) a reprehensible person. Can you still watch “The Cosby Show” or movies that feature Kevin Spacey? Where do you draw the line? Can you separate the art from the artist?
The documentary gives maybe three minutes to these questions and it’s a shame. It almost feels as if the documentary was deep into production when the 2018 Buzzfeed article came out that exposed John K. It’s quite possible that’s what happened, but these two directors should have used that as an opportunity to give more weight to this important subject. I’m not saying you can’t still explore the greatness that was “The Ren & Stimpy Show” but you can’t just tack these sexual assault incidents on at the end.
Furthermore, the documentary never even touches the fact that John K was alleged to have child pornography on his computer.
The smiling talking heads of Bobby Lee and Jack Black never come back on screen to say how these revelations have altered their nostalgia. Again, maybe they were interviewed before it all came out.
In the end, “Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story” is a fascinating look at a controversial show and its controversial creator. I was never bored watching it, but I felt like I needed a shower after the credits rolled. The title of this documentary is very misleading.