On the Net with...John Kricfalusi   by Rob Bernstein

Shifting uncomfortably in my seat, I fear that Ren & Stimpy creator and Spumco President John Kricfalusi might actually make good on his threat and tear my lips right off. Invoking the voice of everybody's favorite neurotic Chihuahua, Kricfalusi imitates a scene from the classic episode where stupid Swedish cousin Sven, and even stupider companion Stimpy, have smashed Ren's priceless collection of dinosaur droppings and his jar of rare and incurable diseases.

Somehow, I've come to play Stimpy in Kricfalusi's re-enactment. His chair knocked over, his face burning with murderous fury, Kricfalusi slams his hands down on his desk. "You know what I'm going to do to you?!" he huffs with psychotic pleasure. I shake my head "no," partly amused, partly terrified. "First, I'm going to tear your lips out. Yeah, that's what I'm going to do, tear them right out. And then, I'm going to gouge your eyes out. And you know what else? I'm going to tear your arms right out of the sockets, and they're going to go 'pop,' just like that."

Before I can wipe away the cold bead of sweat that's glissading across my nervous grin, Kricfalusi calms himself, almost as cartoonishly fast as he had riled himself up. Righting his chair and sitting down once again, he explains to me in a more even tone, "That speech was created to avoid any physical violence in that episode of Ren & Stimpy. But as soon as we handed in the film, [Nickelodeon] edited out, 'gouge your eyes out.' It's totally arbitrary what networks cut. It's criminal. It ruins the art, it mutilates it."

John K.
John K.
And that's why Kricfalusi has taken his act to the Web. No censorship of his work, no network type expurgating lines or suggesting lame jokes. The company's Web site (www.spumco.com) promises to include all of the dirty pictures, underwear-sniffing jokes and nipple-twisting sequences that corporate execs would otherwise censor. "If we're sitting here laughing our guts out at a gag we want to do, we're just going to do it and we don't care who we're going to offend."

Kricfalusi's offbeat humor and anything-goes, anti-network disposition pervades nearly every nook of his company, reflecting itself in the office's laid-back decor, in the silly posting about the Kooky Spooky Yo-Yo on the communal fridge, even in the name of the company itself, which, an employee admits in confidence, was chosen because "it sounds like a dirty word." Whatever it is, everyone at Spumco seems to get the same joke. At times, the off-kilter atmosphere is all encompassing--the water-stained, wood-paneled walls of the office space seem to bend and twist as if inked directly from Kricfalusi's pen. The place is, in a word, loony.

At the far end of one of two long hallways, hung with animation cels and comical staff pictorials, is Kricfalusi's office. Decorated with assorted baubles (sorry, no Log), Flintstone Glycerine Bath Bars, framed shots of Kirk Douglas (one of Kricfalusi's heroes) and Three Stooges puppets designed by Kricfalusi himself, the workspace feels more informal and lounge-like than most family rec rooms. There, along with Spumco's producer and Webmaster, Stephen Worth, Kricfalusi is describing a new strip entitled "Baby Comes First." The story involves Spumco star Jimmy the Idiot Boy, who, while babysitting a child, accidentally misshapes the infant's head after pressing the child's skull's soft spot.

Exhibiting an animator's love for unusual head shapes and sizes, Kricfalusi goes on to advise me that the best skulls for cartooning can be found at Norm's Restaurant in Van Nuys, Calif. "No artist can imagine the heads that the Lord can come up with. The Lord is the funniest man ever."

Eventually, after a few other digressions, including a lengthy and detailed depiction of Tank Abbott, a frequent combatant in a pay-per-view Ultimate Fighting show--"the last vestige of honest entertainment in the world," according to Kricfalusi--the two disclose the plans for the company Web site.

Björk's "I Miss You" video
Spumco.com is an ambitious project that has been in the making for the last six months. Affecting a '50s, Ovaltine ad campaign sensibility, the site satirically dubs itself "The Wonderful World of Cartoons." And indeed it's just that. The page doesn't offer Captain Midnight decoder rings, nor does it provide much with regard to Ren & Stimpy, which Spumco developed and sold to Nickelodeon in 1990. Instead, visitors to the site will discover the company's marquee animated characters, Jimmy the Idiot Boy, a low-IQ'd lad with hormone control problems, and George Liquor American, an angry, commie-loathing jingoist who guest starred in several Ren & Stimpy episodes, including the banned "Man's Best Friend." The unlikely pair, who recently appeared in a video Kricfalusi developed for Icelandic rocker Björk, and who were adapted to star in TV ad campaigns for Fanta Orange Soda in Mexico, Barq's Root Beer in the United States and Aoki's Pizza in Japan, are already emerging as hot, new animated stars. They're a ways away from matching the explosive popularity of Spumco forerunners Ren and Stimpy, who were originally conceived of by Kricfalusi as Jimmy's and George's pets, but the pair already have a following among comic lovers thanks to the successful Marvel release of Spumco Comic Book Issue #1.

The next six Jimmy and George comics will be released by Dark Horse on a bi- monthly schedule, while a separate story involving the pair is being adapted for the Web site.

For hardcore animation hounds, Kricfalusi is also publishing a cartoon e-zine at the site that looks to put other industry magazines to shame. "Some guy came up with all the opinions on animation like 40 years ago, and everybody has blindly spouted them since then," argues Kricfalusi whose unique work has received sharp criticism from more conservative-thinking, persnickety animators. "We offer information about cartoons other magazines wouldn't print. We've already interviewed all kinds of animators, classic animators like Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, Friz Freleng, and people in the business now like Mike Judge, the creator of Beavis and Butt-head."

Less daffy fanatics of animation, to whom the above names mean nothing, can choose instead to peruse the site's wealth of posted drawings, download QuickTimes and .avi files of Spumco works, like the animated NBC peacock commissioned by the network, or view a real-time video (served from RealVideo servers) of the aforementioned Björk music video and Aoki Pizza commercial. Of course, diehards can also enter the company store which offers some incredibly cool, and some incredibly strange products, like limited-edition animation cels, painting kits and speaking Jimmy the Idiot Boy dolls (apparently, the dolls have sold out). Convinced that only "trustworthy" proprietors selling quality goods on the Net will survive, Kricfalusi feels Spumco is well-positioned for the future.

Not surprisingly, Microsoft is also hoping to rope in the studio--as content providers for the face-lifted Microsoft Network. "The people at Microsoft have an interesting idea," says Kricfalusi. "They want a story that we already wrote called 'Weekend Pussy Hunt.' The show won't just tell one linear story. You'll be able to follow any of the characters. It's a pretty good idea, but I think it's too simple. I imagine we're going to discover a lot more things to make it interactive."

Kricfalusi welcomes the "interactive" challenge, which really is not surprising; after all, his work is some of the most free-thinking animation that's been done in years: rebellious, innovative, nose-tweaking. But will interactive animation draw? Can it work? Kricfalusi is the first to admit that he hasn't got the answer, but he's not afraid to find it out, explaining that there's little to lose, except maybe time, since the Net is such a cheap medium to work within. "That's a big factor that's gone from entertainment, the ability to fail," says Kricfalusi, who views his online domain as an experimental laboratory. "You're not allowed to make a mistake. In the process of everyone guessing what is a mistake and what is not a mistake, you lose everything. Part of getting good at anything is being able to fail."

george liquor
George Liquor
Product testing, market surveys--it's all wasted protein according to Kricfalusi, who has always lived by his instincts. A native Canadian, the maverick animator moved to Los Angeles in the late '70s to pursue a career in what he insists is, "the highest form of art ever created." Inspired by such late greats as Bob Clampett, famed for his work on classic Bugs Bunny cartoons, and Dave and Max Fleischer who began producing Betty Boop cartoons in the early '30s, Kricfalusi says he was amazed by the medium's versatility, its integration of sounds, picture, rhythm, abstract design, and of course, gags. But after working on The New Adventures of Beany and Cecil for ABC, he realized that resuscitating the suffering art form would mean going about it alone. "The network wanted to have Beany and Cecil teach moral lessons. Bob Clampett cartoons teaching moral lessons? He was always sneaking dirty jokes into his stuff. I mean, Cecil is a big pecker."

Thus Spumco was born. It wasn't long before the talented Kricfalusi was invited to pitch original show ideas to Nickelodeon, which was looking to purchase copyrights to new characters not based on existing toy product lines. Unwilling to part with his darling Idiot Boy and raucous George Liquor, Kricfalusi instead developed a project based on the two characters' pets, Ren and Stimpy.

Jimmy of the Future
And it was a smash hit. The show succeeded in becoming one of the most watched shows in cable broadcasting history. Nickelodeon, realizing they had a winner in their midst, began to meddle with Spumco's daily operation. Fights inevitably ensued between network and creator, and in 1992, with his contract up, Kricfalusi was shown the door. The move proved fatal for the beloved Ren & Stimpy show, which lost Spumco's Član vital and, more significantly in advertisers' minds, its viewers.

Despite the popularity of Ren & Stimpy, the three years succeeding the unfortunate dissolution of the show found the Spumco gang falling on hard times, keeping the company barely out of the red with the odd project here and there. The Nickelodeon breakup left other networks wary of the "combative" Kricfalusi. In 1996, however, the work drought came to a fortuitous end, bygones finally bygones, as studios and licensees again began to turn to Spumco to shake up the animation industry and act as bellwether on a number of new projects. In fact, Spumco is now in the process of developing three 7-minute animated shorts for Hanna-Barbera, starring Ranger Smith of Yogi Bear fame.

"As long as there is infinite choice, the people will gravitate toward better," says Kricfalusi, making reference to the Web, the success and failure of content online, and his studio's 180-degree about-face.

"If you're a good performer, the audience will love you and ask you for an encore. If you're crappy, they'll boo you off stage."

With spumco.com now boasting thousands of hits a week, it appears the people have spoken. And they're cheering, "Encore!"


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