Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story

Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story

As an fan of Ren and Stimpy I was pretty interested in this documentary when it first popped up on my radar a few years ago. I don't have much faith in 99% of documentary filmmakers to do anything good, but I figured it'd probably be nice to see the interviews they got and old storyboards, etc. I remember seeing on one of their social media things that the film was basically complete and that they had, unfortunately, not landed an interview with John. Then the buzzfeed article dropped.

Now I've watched this thing and it's pretty apparent that the end product is an awkward attempt to salvage what was maybe an un-fixable existing film. The majority of the footage they apparently had is people talking about John and what a genius he is, and how his DNA is woven into the cartoon, and how the cartoon changed the game for American animation, and how none of that would have happened without John K. They do broach that he could be a bit of a slave driver, that the show "pushed boundaries" maybe a little bit "too far" sometimes but ultimately they all still seem to respect the guy and this is all fair for them to say because at the time of doing these interviews that was the whole picture for them. To present this footage now without giving the interviews proper context to explain that they were conducted prior to this guy getting outed as a pedophile is a pretty baffling oversight and ultimately greatly insulting to literally everyone they interviewed. Producer Vanessa Coffey is filmed with her arms around a Stimpy doll in her lap through half of her interviews, at one point Bob Camp laments the fact that he hasn't spoken to John since the studio disbanded. Are these things that these people would want to be seen doing or saying after learning that the guy is a pedophile?

There's an attempt to include the pedophile stuff as a strange sort of "ticking clock" story element to be presented at the end, but to myself as a viewer who already knew about it, it comes off tone deaf and makes the majority of the footage of people praising the show uncomfortable to watch. At some point in the re-shooting process John decided he actually would like to be interviewed, and stupidly, these people took him up on it. Actually a lot of his segments feel like he was baited into being filmed in the interest of perhaps clearing his name. None of the documentarians are ever shown on screen but somehow I could feel the strained awkward sweaty tension they must have felt interviewing this weird pedophile guy in his house full of children's toys. This was of course all only felt after I got over the initial mental hurdle that he wasn't being interviewed from a jail cell. I don't know if there's too much to be gained from having John be in this documentary. At one point the interviewer makes a highly cringe and pathetic White Knight attempt to get John to apologize to Robin Byrd and he clumsily does so. Is that what they were after? Was it worth it?

When it's all said and done I think that this documentary, through it's own sheer stupidity, actually does more to normalize pedophilia than it does condemn it. The majority of the runtime is oblivious praise for this guy. Normally I think documentaries with narration are a great sin, but I think perhaps a smarter approach to this would require one of these guys to explain what the hell happened in the production of this thing. Werner Herzog is maybe the only guy who can effectively insert himself into a documentary with any real consistent quality and it's because he actually has a voice. And I don't mean like his voice sounds spooky or whatever the dumb meme you're thinking about is, I mean it like he actually has something to say. That's kind of an important thing for filmmakers to have, turns out. Movies are not just collections of footage that you piece together to have them "make sense." These idiots. It's almost funny, in that ironic sort of way, that in this documentary that spends so much time lauding John for his insistence and tenacity regarding making quality art, that these very filmmakers fail to include something as simple as a directorial voice. It would almost be funny, but instead it's just aggravating and sickly depressing. One could argue I suppose that they're trying to present "both sides" of this story and the viewer can decide for themselves blah blah whatever, but when you have the mountain of evidence that Robin and Katie leveled at John, this approach becomes completely untenable. John himself never really even denies that any of it happened so what the hell are you even really doing anymore?

The final visual of this film is John alone at his animation desk, drawing Ren and Stimpy. The drawing he's doing, appropriately enough, is Stimpy screaming at Ren: "You monster!" It's a miraculously captured telling bit of archival footage now that we know what we know about John. We see from other archival footage that John sees himself more in Ren, who he also literally provided the voice for, so in turn we get this visual of a man doing this drawing where he's calling himself a "monster!" It says a lot about an artist's unconscious and private issues sneaking their way into their work. What does it mean when this work goes on to connect with so many people? A connection that this man would exploit in order to groom children and eventually fly them out to his house for sex. Where does "the separation of art from the artist" come in if you have overwhelming testimony from everybody who worked with the guy that John's DNA was in the show? And with that, what is to be said when that show goes on to have such a massive influence? This all seems like a more useful place to take your reworking of this movie, if it has to be done at all, if it could be done at all. I might even go as far as to say that "You Monster!" would have been a better title for the film. Why this shot wasn't put at the beginning of the film, and furthermore the linchpin of a new thematic focus in the redesigning of this documentary is a mystery to me. But I suspect two things; one is that perhaps the people who made this documentary just weren't very smart people. Only fools would be this blind to not see the gold inherent in this single bit of archival footage and utilize it properly. I'd bet that they just thought it was sort of an eerie "poignant" visual and put it at the end for those reasons alone. That isn't what filmmaking is about and throughout the film these people prove that they don't understand that. There's a part in this where they briefly include clips from the Adult Party Cartoon reboot of the show with spooky ambient music under it, seemingly as a means to get across that this iteration of the show was more disgusting and bad. But they've been showing disgusting things and people praising the disgusting things for over an hour at this point so it ends up just making the filmmakers look stupid, as I continue to suspect they are. Wouldn't a better way to do this be just how learning that this guy is a pedophile suddenly brings all of the disgusting stuff in his body of work into question? There's also a part near the end of this when it starts to finally get into the fact that this dude is a pedophile where they start inexplicably playing "In the Hall of Mountain King." What? What kind of planet do we live on where this is something you do as a filmmaker? You'd have to be stupid.

My second suspicion about all this is that these people simply didn't have enough new footage or the funds to make this movie any other way, and instead of making the difficult decision of throwing their footage in the trash, they yielded to the ultimate cowardice and kept it in. What filmmaker now is brave enough to abandon a film when such a problem arises? I mentioned Herzog earlier, there's a pretty infamous scene in his documentary Grizzly Man where he's seen listening to audio of Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend being eaten alive by a bear. Herzog was making a film about this guy and gained access to this audio and knew that him hearing the audio was an important part of his duty as a filmmaker who was making a film about this guy, and also ontop of that that it was his duty as that filmmaker to not include the actual audio in the final film. This proper handling of his subject, which should be simple common sense, has for me today become one of his most deft moves as a documentarian. As I now see that not everyone has the common sense to omit things that are distasteful.

I was a huge fan of Ren and Stimpy as a kid, and as a teenager I used to follow John's blog where he would post what were essentially animation and drawing lessons and lectures. As a budding animator myself these blog posts were a goldmine for me, it was the guy who made my favorite cartoon breaking down to a science how he made it. It was a blog I would check with semi-regularity for a few years. Eventually I saw a post, or a comment, that John made stating he had been forced to start censoring and vetting the comments on the blog because there was a female fan, possibly an ex-girlfriend, that was stalking him or something and posting odd things. I remember there being screenshots of emails in all caps. The blog is still up but I'm not going to sift through the hundreds of posts to find this, if it still exists at all. Basically I got my first whiff that something weird was going on but didn't read into it more than that. Also as a rational person you start to wonder why this clearly talented person is wallowing in obscurity on blogspot instead of making actual art. I had read stories and knew the general history of his struggle to get Ren & Stimpy made his way and all signs pointed to him being "an asshole." But it was not that big of a deal to me because I was learning that lots my favorite artists were assholes.

When Robin and Katie came forward in that article it really rocked me as a fan of this guy's work. There are lessons and techniques that I learned from John that are now seamlessly integrated into how I draw, the cartoon itself formed a large pillar at the foundation of my sense of humor and also how I think about animation as a craft. It represented something of an ideal for me and now I have to mentally figure out how to place John in my mind as both a monster and, not trying to be hyperbolic here, but somebody who lives on through how I work. He's baked into cake at this point. This documentary mostly sucks but I have to admit that it did give me time to sit and think about how it's on me to figure out what all this means. In this documentary we do of course see that Ren and Stimpy was the result of many great and talented individuals coming together, but we also learn finally, from the mouths of those very individuals, that the show also very much came from John. I haven't watched Ren and Stimpy since that buzzfeed article came out and don't know if I ever will again, I don't know if I have the right kind of mind to "separate the art from the artist." I know only that I will not be separating these filmmakers from their work. And I will tentatively say that despite my deep disgust for his actions, John K. is not only one thing to me, and that his work cannot always be something that comes solely from himself.

I would like to end this review simply by saying that I applaud Robin Byrd for being brave enough to be interviewed for this documentary and I applaud Katie Rice for being brave enough not to be in this documentary. And also to say that as big as a mental shock it can be to find out that your hero is a monster, I would never trade that for the the silence of a victim.

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