“Labourne and others at Nickelodeon were insistent that the channel would not develop programming just to sell products, as the broadcast networks were doing so successfully in the era of Reaganomics and deregulation. The shows on Nickelodeon, in other words, would not be about ‘toy-hawking’ but would rather be about establishing a place in television where kids could ‘just be kids.’” (pg56).
Ren and Stimpy was one of the first three original cartoons developed for Nickelodeon along with the groundbreaking, but far more gentle, Doug and Rugrats. When Kricfalusi first pitched the show to Nickelodeon, it was in a format similar to what networks had wanted in the 80’s. Originally, Ren and Stimpy were going to be owned by a diverse cast of multi-ethnic boys and girls. Nickelodeon wanted something different, the heart of Kricfalusi’s pitch, Ren and Stimpy themselves. The show became not only the most watched cartoons they aired, but one of the most watched shows they produced (Labourne Interview).
The first two seasons of Ren and Stimpy were wildly popular, both with children and adults. “The show did seem to be for everyone but children. But children loved it. Early market research indicated the Ren and Stimpy doubled Nickelodeon’s ratings among children aged two to eleven, increasing the total number o viewers to 1.2 million (pg. 170).”
Nickelodeon used this to help develop their brand. Ren and Stimpy also aired for a time on MTV in order to cross market the new channel and bring the teen and young twenties market back to Nicktoons. “The result was a near-doubling of viewers to 2.2 million households, with 45 percent of the audience being eighteen or over(pg. 171).”
Yet, as the series progressed Nickelodeon became more and more uneasy with the type of material that had come to define Ren and Stimpy and with the difficulty working with the finicky Kricfalusi. The second season became an ongoing battle with Kricfalusi about story content and deadlines, with the end result in him being fired.
In retrospect, it is almost shocking that a children’s show like Ren and Stimpy was made at all, considering the Care Bear fare of the eighties. But the nineties gave creative freedom back to the animators. As Sarah Banet-Weiser said: “The early years at Nickelodeon were characterized by a heady sense of freedom in the historically highly controlled children’s television industry (pg. 60).”
Because of its timing, Ren and Stimpy was allowed to revel in a level of both gross out and black comedy that would never slide passed Standards Departments of today. Kricfalusi took advantage of that, exploring how far he could push the medium without conforming to expectations of “child-friendly.” He actively critiqued the child genre and the kind of marketing to children that had become common in the eighties(pg. 196).
Ren and Stimpy is the kind of show that would have been an Adult Swim darling if such an animation block had existed at the time, but the Simpsons had only just begun airing a few years prior, adult targeting cartoons were few and far between. Ren and Stimpy was rated TV-Y7, and Nickelodeon feared it excluded that child market (as defined by the network, because clearly the show was popular with children).
As Banet-Weiser puts it, “Nickelodeon wants to be hip, but not that hip: while dedicated to “respecting” and empowering its audience, the channel defines respect and empowerment within the terms of the general market (pg. 198).”
Labourne had regrets about how the situation with Kricfalusi ended. Ren and Stimpy was symbolic of the creator driven animation movement Nickelodeon wanted to foster, and yet, as she said of the show, “in some ways it was a more adult property then we should have had on Nickelodeon.” Labourne felt that at a certain point Ren and Stimpy began to violate Nickelodeon’s basic standards for children. The network decided that “parting ways” with Kricfalusi was their only option.
Ren and Stimpy don’t exist in a linear reality. Kricfalusi was inspired by the 1940s animation traditions (and the male duo Gandy Goose and Sourpuss), he focused on strong personalities that could be put in any situation. While running gags show up from episode to episode, there is no overarching plot, and things that happen in one episode don’t have a lasting effect on the characters.
Ren and Stimpy was created at a time when out gay characters couldn’t have openly existed in a child-targeting cartoon, but it was also created at a unique point in animation history that helped define the creator-driven animation movement of the nineties. It’s targeting of adult audiences, gross-out humor, and refusal to tow the line of Nickelodeon standards paved the way for out gay characters. Including the title characters themselves.