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Josh Reviews Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story

February 18th, 2021

I vividly remember discovering The Ren & Stimpy Show, back when it first started airing on Nickelodeon in 1991.  I was already a huge animation fan, but this hilarious, disgusting, absolutely bonkers cartoon blew my mind.  I loved it immediately.  I watched those initial six episodes over and over again.   Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood’s documentary Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story is an insightful look back at the creation of this innovative series.  It’s also an exploration of what went wrong, and why the series burned so brightly but for so short a time.  The documentary also addresses the predatory behavior of Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi, a topic about which I was shocked to learn.

Even as a kid, I wondered how the heck this insane cartoon ever got on the air.  I was thrilled that this documentary finally told that story!  Through a multitude of interviews with many of the people involved in the creation and production of The Ren & Stimpy Show, this documentary carefully tracks the show’s development.  I was endlessly fascinated by this section of the documentary!  I love that this story was told through the voices of the men and women who were there, rather than relying on a narrated voice-over.  The documentary contains extensive interview footage with the series’ creator John Kricfalusi, as well as so many others: Bob Camp (whose name I also knew as a kid from The Ren & Stimpy Show’s credits), Lynn Naylor, many of the other animators and production staff-members at Spumco Studios, voice actor Billy West (who voiced Stimpy), Nickelodeon executive Vanessa Coffey, and more.  It’s endlessly interesting to hear from all of these different people!  The documentary is fun and funny; it’s fascinating and jauntily paced and edited so things never get boring even as we get to dive into the details of the very difficult production of Ren & Stimpy.

Just as I immediately recognized the brilliance of The Ren & Stimpy Show as a kid, I also was very soon after aware that something clearly wasn’t quite right behind the scenes.  After those first six episodes aired — and made such a huge splash — it was very strange that no new episodes came for almost an entire year!  (Even those first six episodes didn’t air weekly.  If I’m remembering correctly, there was a wait of about a month between episodes four and five, and then another wait of several months between episodes five and six!)  In between, Nickelodeon just kept re-running the episodes, over and over again.  I was happy to re-watch them endlessly, but also frustrated and confused as to why there weren’t more.  Happy Happy Joy Joy peels back the onion and presents a fascinating look at the production of this show and how and why things started to go off the rails almost immediately.

The documentary poses some interesting questions about the intersection of art and commerce, and about what actions and behavior can be defended in the pursuit of an artistic goal.  Was John Kricfalusi a genius, who made the right call in extending production on the cartoons far beyond the deadlines set by the studio, and torturing his staff, in pursuit of the levels of quality he insisted on?  Was he a brilliant innovator who should be praised for refusing to accept the “good enough” standards of others?  Or was he an irresponsible monster who abused the people who worked for him?  Does the quality of the finished product excuse his behavior?  According to pretty much everyone interviewed, Mr. Kricfalusi was extremely tough on his staff.  That’s putting it mildly.  Many feel he went way over the line of acceptable behavior.  We get to hear some pretty wild stories from the people involved with making Ren & Stimpy.  It’s interesting to also get to hear Mr. Kricfalusi sort-of own up to his behavior, while also mounting a defense of his actions.  The film allows the viewer to make their own judgment.

I’ve often wondered why Mr. Kricfalusi — who became a huge star with The Ren & Stimpy Show — hasn’t done much of anything significant in the years since he left (was fired) from the show.  The answer to this is connected with the topic that concerns much of the last half hour or so of the documentary — Mr. Kricfalusi’s disgusting behavior engaging in relationships with young girls.  We hear extensively from Robin Byrd, who was 16 when she moved in with Mr. Kricfalusi.  She’s apparently just one of the many underage girls with whom Mr. Kircfalusi has been in a relationship, over the years.  I had no idea about any of this; it was devastating to discover that the creator who I’d so looked up to as a kid turns out to be such a broken person.  I mentioned above that the documentary features extensive interviews with Mr. Kricfalusi.  Cicreo & Eastwood did not shy away from asking Mr. Kricfalusi to discuss the accusations against him, and discuss them he does.  It is fascinating and heartbreaking to listen to Mr. Kricfalusi discuss these events.  There is something deeply wrong with him.

Happy Happy Joy Joy is a celebration of The Ren & Stimpy Show.  At the same time, in addressing Mr. Kricfalusi’s predatory behavior, it also makes one wonder whether the show has been tainted forever.  I found it hard to think otherwise, although even Robin Byrd encouraged fans of the show to continue enjoying it, and to just forget about Mr. Kricfalusi.  That’s hard for me to do… but I also thoroughly enjoyed this deep dive into a show that I used to so dearly love.

For any Ren & Stimpy fans out there, I highly recommend this film.  (For a few bucks, you can watch it on Amazon right now!)

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