When we’re young, we all stumble upon something too dark, too weird, too mature that warps us in some way — something that we absolutely shouldn’t have gotten our hands on at such an impressionable age. Maybe we find our dad’s porn collection. Maybe we watch a horror movie. Or maybe you’re someone who was exposed to The Ren & Stimpy Show, a program that aired on Nickelodeon in the early-to-mid-1990s, which was ostensibly made for kids. After all, it was animated and featured a funny talking dog and cat who got into all kinds of mischief.
But within five minutes of watching any Ren & Stimpy cartoon, it was clear that this was far different than other children’s TV shows. Ren the dog was a screaming, angry psychopath who violently abused his slow-witted but adoring friend Stimpy the cat. The animation often focused on gross-out imagery — infected teeth and swollen body parts — and seemed to constantly involve Ren and Stimpy losing their minds. The show was rude, crass, weirdly sexual, demented and inappropriate. And that’s why kids loved it.
Since everything else from the 1990s is being rediscovered, it seems fitting that Ren & Stimpy get its own nostalgic tribute. But in Happy Happy Joy Joy — The Ren & Stimpy Story, a documentary that just premiered at Sundance, that nostalgia is poisoned by cruel reality. We constantly hear adults whining that their childhoods have been ruined — either because Hollywood decided to reboot your favorite 1980s comedy with female characters or it turns out Michael Jackson was a pedophile. To these people’s mind, the world is conspiring to remove some joy from their lives. But although Happy Happy Joy Joy directors Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood are here to salute a groundbreaking animated program, they hint from the start that there’s a darkness to this look back.
That darkness originates from the show’s creator, John Kricfalusi, whose life since being booted off the program more than 25 years ago has been a decidedly unhappy one, culminating in accusations of underage sexual abuse that were published in BuzzFeed in 2018. The documentary follows a conventional Behind the Music narrative structure, but there’s a bitter irony at the film’s core: Kricfalusi blew our minds as kids with Ren & Stimpy, and then he ruined our childhood (or, more specifically, our feelings about his beloved show) by how he’s behaved since.
The directors have done an impressive job of gathering artists, writers and crewmembers who worked on Ren & Stimpy, including close collaborators Bob Camp and Lynne Naylor. (Naylor was actually Kricfalusi’s longtime girlfriend.) They help to tell the story of the cartoon’s earliest days — how Kricfalusi was considered a sort of mad genius who resisted the safe, conservative animation that was the norm for kids’ programs at the time. Initially, Happy Happy Joy Joy is like every other underdog oral history, showing how a scrappy band of outsiders took on the status quo and conquered the mainstream. The format is familiar but enjoyable, especially for anyone who remembers growing up with Ren & Stimpy, which constantly mocked the banalities of children’s television by being abrasive rather than comforting and friendly. You want nice? Go watch My Little Pony. If you wanted a show that made happiness seem like a mental disorder not to be trusted, you tuned in every week to Ren & Stimpy.
But even in Happy Happy Joy Joy’s opening reels, we sense not just that the show will lose its way but that Kricfalusi will be a looming specter haunting the proceedings. The documentarians managed to wrangle what appears to be a somewhat lengthy on-camera interview with Kricfalusi, who’s just as surly and awkward in the present-day segments as he is in archival footage from Ren & Stimpy’s heyday. The man’s whole life is cartooning, a colleague says about Kricfalusi, which becomes self-evident quickly because he seems uncomfortable around people. His relationship with the world is right there in his creation: He always saw himself more like Ren than Stimpy, who he dismissed as an “idiot.” “I guess I do identify with an asshole,” Kricfalusi says in an older clip, but he doesn’t appear too bothered about that.
In fact, by all accounts, that’s how he treated everyone who worked on Ren & Stimpy, demanding they all aspire to his high standards and berating those who fell short. It’s not unusual in the entertainment industry for creative geniuses to be personal nightmares. And like in many of those cases, because Ren & Stimpy was a cultural and critical smash, the verbal abuse was simply tolerated.
Maybe even five years ago, a film like Happy Happy Joy Joy would probably have had a different tenor: Sure, Kricfalusi might be a jerk, but look at this great work of art he made! And, in fact, it appears that this documentary was initially meant just to be a celebration of the cartoon. In 2017, Cicero and Easterwood recorded a video asking fans to contribute to their Indiegogo page to help finish the film, and at that point, the tone was a lot lighter — perhaps not surprising since it was before the assault allegations against Kricfalusi had become public:
The completed documentary is far warier and more mournful, telling the story of Ren & Stimpy’s ascension to zeitgeist-y phenomenon and eventual fall after Kricfalusi was canned by Nickelodeon. But throughout, there’s a constant concern about the torment he brought to those around him. As formulaic as the documentary can be in its talking-heads-and-choice-clips presentation, you can’t miss the somber edge to what you’re watching. It’s not just that Kricfalusi made people’s lives hell — it’s suggested at one point that maybe Naylor was his own personal Stimpy in terms of enduring his emotional abuse — but every scene we see from Ren & Stimpy is infused with an anger and unwellness that makes it uncomfortable to enjoy now. Anybody who wants an easy hit of nostalgia should just watch old YouTube clips.
Methodically, the filmmakers recount how Nickelodeon ended things with Kricfalusi and continued to make the show with his creative partners, causing a rift between him and them that continues to this day. We see how he tried to revitalize his career, first by focusing on a Ren & Stimpy supporting character — the obnoxious George Liquor (who Kricfalusi modeled after his contentious relationship with his dad) — and then launching a more risqué version of his program called Adult Party Cartoon. Those projects failed, and then came the 2018 BuzzFeed article in which two women who were Ren & Stimpy fans, Robyn Byrd and Katie Rice, accused the cartoonist of inappropriate relationships. (Byrd was his girlfriend when she was only 16. Rice claims that, when she was a minor, he would masturbate on the phone while talking to her.)
Byrd appears in Happy Happy Joy Joy and talks about her time with Kricfalusi — how she thought he wanted to be a mentor for an aspiring artist, when instead he used his power position to seduce her. Her anecdotes, and others we hear from his male colleagues who recall how much he talked about liking young girls, are depressingly reminiscent of other #MeToo stories. (In the documentary, he offers a halfhearted, muddled apology that’s not dissimilar from the one he attempted after the BuzzFeed piece came out.)
But the fact that Kricfalusi reportedly preyed on young people is especially loathsome since what made The Ren & Stimpy Show so transgressive and influential was that it pushed aside boundaries for what a children’s program could be. All of us who loved the show as kids appreciated that it was giving us a weirder, uglier view of life that we didn’t see in our protected childhoods, yet somehow suspected was always there anyway. Naturally, fans assumed that the people who made the show would protect us from that ugliness — they were on our side, they wouldn’t harm us. Kricfalusi betrayed that trust. No wonder Vanessa Coffey, a Nickelodeon executive at the time who loved that psychotic dog and dopey cat, is in tears when she talks about Kricfalusi’s alleged sexual abuse. “It hurt that he used Ren & Stimpy in that way to lure girls into his vault,” she says.
Rice isn’t in Happy Happy Joy Joy, and in September 2018, she tweeted her reservations about the documentary possibly glorifying Kricfalusi’s abhorrent behavior:
I don’t think anyone watching the film will feel that Cicero and Easterwood soft-pedal that aspect of Ren & Stimpy’s creator. The documentary recognizes the brilliance of the cartoon while delving into the complicated relationship any fan now has with the show because of what we know about Kricfalusi. No doubt some will be annoyed that the movie spends time on Kricfalusi’s personal life: Can’t we just enjoy the cartoon? Me, I wanted to somehow rescue Ren and Stimpy from the man who brought them to life. Kricfalusi claimed he identified with Ren because Ren is an asshole. That’s an insult to Ren — sure, he’s a rage-fueled egomaniac, but he’s no monster.