This weekend I watched the first two seasons of Ren & Stimpy for the first time since not long after they appeared twenty years ago. For those unfamiliar with the show, as I saw aptly described somewhere Ren is an emotionally unstable chihuahua while his friend Stimpy is a good-natured but dim-witted cat. The show debuted around the same time as The Simpsons and prior to South Park, but hasn’t had the same longevity or afterlife in syndication that those shows had.
Watching the show as an adult, it holds up pretty well. One thing that didn’t really strike me as a kid is just how old-fashioned the show is in its look and even its plots and characters. The show doesn’t just seem like it’s from the 1990s; it seems like it’s from the 1960s. Apart from its old-style animation, its use of classical music and credits put it far closer to Looney Tunes and Disney cartoons than today’s stuff. Maybe I didn’t notice it as a kid because most cartoons looked that way.
But while its environment is decidedly that of the world of the mid-20th century, Ren & Stimpy basically tries to skewer the values of that world at every opportunity. In the recurring ‘Commander Hoek and Cadet Stimpy’ cartoons, our astronauts’ flights into outer space are not portrayed as noble acts of bravery, but as a descent into instability (both mental and physical) and eventually madness. The household couple that Ren and Stimpy run into on occasion – the deep-voiced husband with his pipe and robe and his perfectly pleasant housewife – are on the surface your average 1950s/1960s household, but scratch the surface and you soon see they are semi-freaks that would teach their babies to walk by using fire coals, and have dozens of uses for rubber nipples. And old TV adverts come in for the biggest skewering of all – terrible, terrible products like Sugar Frosted Milk, powdered toast, and the infamous log from Blammo – are sold to their fictional audiences with wholesome smiles and jingles. One could go on and on … from memory, creator John Kricfalusi liked the old Disney cartoons, but at the time Ren & Stimpy came out he hated the ‘Christmas card’ stuff they were producing.
For me, three moments soared above the rest, and had me cackling as much or even more than I did as a kid:
1) ‘Space Madness’ where Commander Hoek goes completely mad, and Cadet Stimpy tries to resist pushing the History Eraser button;
2) Ren and Stimpy dancing along manically to the ‘Happy Happy Joy Joy’ song, with Ren forced into being happy by Stimpy’s mind-altering helmet, and singer Stinky Wizzleteats muttering less-than-happy interludes; and