Creation and destruction, brilliance and monstrousness, are hopelessly entangled in the saga of The Ren & Stimpy Show, Nickelodeon’s early-‘90s animated series that skyrocketed to instant influential fame and then flamed out after the contentious departure of its mastermind, John Kricfalusi. Kimo Easterwood and Ron Cicero’s Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story recounts the meteoric rise and fall of that beloved kids’ show, which wasn’t really for kids, and whose highs and lows were all the byproduct of its creator. A uniquely gifted artist, Kricfalusi dreamed up characters who were insane manifestations of his own warped emotional and psychological issues—the most damning of which was ultimately exposed by a March 2018 BuzzFeed article in which Robyn Byrd accused Kricfalusi of carrying on an inappropriate sexual relationship with her beginning when she was just 14 years old.
Both Byrd and Kricfalusi address that scandal head-on in Happy Happy Joy Joy (on VOD August 14), the former referring to her mentor-turned-abuser as “sick” and the latter offering up a teary-eyed apology: “I’d definitely tell Robyn I’m sorry. Really, really sorry. Because I didn’t realize how affected she was until that article came out. And it just made me feel complete shame and guilt, and felt like the lowest creature on Earth. So I would love to tell Robyn in person. If she watches this, give me a call. Please.” Nonetheless, there’s no indication here that any such reunion is forthcoming, nor that anyone who was once associated with Kricfalusi wants anything to do with him now. And from Easterwood and Cicero’s depiction of Kricfalusi’s ascension to animation deity, it’s pretty easy to comprehend why.
Happy Happy Joy Joy is, in a basic sense, a chronological retelling of The Ren & Stimpy Show’s abbreviated lifespan. Yet in recounting how it came to revolutionize television animation, it also functions as a portrait of auteurism, in all its glory and terror. That’s because Ren, the psychotic chihuahua with a violent streak, and Stimpy, his “abject retard with a good heart” feline companion, were both born from Kricfalusi’s life, with Ren modeled after Kricfalusi himself and Stimpy based on his long-time girlfriend and partner Lynne Naylor. Having wanted to work in cartoons since childhood, Kricfalusi took his love of classic hand-drawn Looney Tunes and Disney efforts and melded them to an extreme, uninhibited, boundary-pushing style full of exaggerated expressions, physical bodies that reflected interior states, disgusting still-frame close-ups, abstract backgrounds, and narratives that zigged and zagged with whiplash, hallucinatory fury. When The Ren & Stimpy Show debuted on August 11, 1991, its episodes were like nothing seen before. They felt as if they were bursting forth from a singular demented mind.’
Happy Happy Joy Joy contends that they were, even as it makes clear that the genius of Kricfalusi was his ability to channel his personal angst and hang-ups into animated form, as well as to surround himself with stellar artists (Bob Camp, Chris Reccardi, Elinor Blake, and many more) who understood his madness and were dedicated to making it a reality. According to Easterwood and Cicero’s doc, the early days of Kricfalusi’s Spümcø Studio were a wild punk-rock ride of DIY invention, with everyone desperate to please the demanding Kricfalusi, and Kricfalusi becoming increasingly obsessive over—and protective of—his brainchild. Before long, what had once been a harmonious collaborative relationship with Nickelodeon executive producer Vanessa Coffey turned downright hostile, as Kricfalusi refused to provide acceptable episodes to the network, or any episodes at all, so crazily nitpicking every detail that a calamitous production bottleneck ensued, only to be solved by Kricfalusi’s ouster from the show.
Almost everyone involved in The Ren & Stimpy Show provides firsthand accounts of their experiences on the program, and Happy Happy Joy Joy shrewdly weds their commentary to copious clips from the cartoon. That structure results in all sorts of telling juxtapositions, as when Ren’s zaniness is set side-by-side with Kirk Douglas, one of the prime inspirations for his lunatic faces, or when an episode involving controversial abusive adult George Liquor is contextualized via Kricfalusi’s discussion of his domineering father. Easterwood and Cicero’s formal approach is highly in tune with their subject, right down to displaying much of their cartoon scenes with a drawing-board visual frame. The film reflects Kricfalusi (and his show’s) wacko energy, which walked a fine line between endearingly off-the-wall and scarily volatile—until, that is, it tipped over into outright unacceptable territory.
Kricfalusi’s twisted insecurities, bitterness and authoritarianism—some of it having to do with his relationship with his dad—both fueled The Ren & Stimpy Show’s creativity and led to its demise. Kricfalusi’s lingering bitterness about his dismissal is at once understandable and unwarranted, given that Happy Happy Joy Joy affirms that he has no one to blame for it but himself. The same goes for his pedophilic behavior toward Byrd (and others), which has torpedoed his career and also the lasting legacy of Ren & Stimpy—a show he eventually, disgustingly used to lure underage victims into his orbit. Kricfalusi’s Nickelodeon hit blazed a pioneering trail that allowed for a renaissance of more adult-skewing, risk-taking cartoon work (Beavis & Butt-Head, South Park, Rick and Morty). Yet as Easterwood and Cicero’s many speakers elucidate, its greatest contribution to its field was its resurrection of the “Created By” credit, firmly positioning it as the construct of a guiding vision—which, given Kricfalusi’s subsequent ignominious downfall, means that the series is now forever wedded to his out-in-the-open ugliness.
How one separates the artist from the art, especially when the two are this hopelessly intertwined, is a question neither Byrd nor Happy Happy Joy Joy quite know how to answer. Instead, Easterwood and Cicero’s doc simply recognizes the inescapable tragedy of this situation. What made Kricfalusi great was also what made him awful, and though he comes across as a candid and cartoonish figure in Happy Happy Joy Joy—still bursting with screwy, growly passion—what lingers longest is his admission that he wouldn’t change any significant aspect of the behavior that brought him down. Like all Shakespearean protagonists, he remains a larger-than-life figure doomed by fatal flaws.