Ren is a Chihuahua, and Stimpy is a cat. They live together in an Airstream trailer on the edge of town, and sleep in the same big bed. They read to each other at night, they eat and watch TV together, and when the money runs short, as it often does, they scavenge for food or work. They love and depend on each other.
Stimpy is a big, friendly-looking fellow who tends to walk around wide-eyed and wearing a goofy grin, but Ren is a nasty little piece of work. To begin with, he's ugly: his bones protrude from beneath his mangy skin, and he has droopy, dirty-pink ears, perpetually bloodshot eyes, and bad teeth; if you didn't know he was a dog, you might mistake him for a rat. When he speaks he sounds like an especially malevolent Peter Lorre. What's more, he's always on the make, and his schemes range from the merely disreputable to the truly psychopathic. Since Stimpy is sweet, trusting and more than a little bit dumb, he has a tendency to screw them up. Needless to say Ren slaps the hell out of him when he does.
A man named John Kricfalusi created Ren & Stimpy as a cartoon series for Nickelodeon, a children's cable network on American TV. It was a hit there, and after a while MTV started running it after midnight on Sundays. In time the show attracted a devoted, cultish following, which has grown over the past year or so; by now, just about everyone under the age of 30 knows about it, and everyone loves it. (I mean everyone: there's a biker bar in San Francisco that runs Ren & Stimpy Wednesdays. Virgin Airlines is showing them on trans-Atlantic flights. And just as I'd finished the first draft of this parenthetical remark, I took a break to watch The Simpsons on TV, only to find Bart sitting in front of his own cartoon TV, watching - I swear to God - Ren & Stimpy.) And already everyone is experiencing the shock of withdrawal: the original eight episodes or so were shown in seemingly endless repeats, and while more were rumoured to be on the way, Kricfalusi, who apparently works very, very slowly, had a falling out with Nickelodeon before they could be delivered. Since the latter owned the rights to the show, he was fired: the new episodes, overseen by someone else, have appeared at last, but they're simply not the same.
Of course, there's something about all this that rings a little bit false; one can't help but be aware of the contradictions inherent in the idea, increasingly common these days, of a hugely popular underground. But the fact remains that the original Ren & Stimpy episodes are extraordinary. Rendered in 50s-style lines and colours, they relay a constant stream of sight gags and strange shifts in perspective, all set to a soundtrack of elaborate musical cues and loopy effects. It's beautiful work. More importantly, Kricfalusi has a wild imagination, and the show is unexpectedly and utterly perverse.
As a rule, children's culture in the USA appeals to our less fettered instincts. In the marketplace, outside of government-funded public TV and elementary school curricula, nothing made for kids lasts if the kids don't want it. And what the kids want is random violence, lawlessness, and a visceral and unregulated sexuality. Ren & Stimpy, like most cartoons, appeals to all three, and adds to it a taste for the abject that even the bravest animators have never quite been able to bring themselves to indulge.
Ren, in particular, is a wonderfully repulsive creature. He eats garbage and goes into raptures over dirty socks; he farts in the bathtub; left alone by Stimpy - the cat wins a trip to Hollywood by writing a poem about his favourite brand of kitty litter - he turns their trailer into a filthy hovel. He slouches, he leers, he slobbers, and his eyes bug out grotesquely. And that's when he's healthy. When, in one early episode, he comes down with some unspecified malady, the display of his bodily decrepitude becomes truly impressive.
In fact, blissful degeneration of one form or another seems to be Kricfalusi's speciality: within the bounds of Ren & Stimpy every law, whether of physics, narrative sense, or good taste, is subject to change without notice. One week's show, for example, opens with the two as astronauts on a spaceship. No setup is given, and none is needed. In any case there's no time: our heroes are headed through a black hole, and they're too busy screaming to bother with anything as banal as an explanation of how they came by their new profession. Safely landed on the anti-world on the other side, things just get more ridiculous. For starters they're wearing their underwear on the outside of their pants. There are strange things - rocks? sheep? - floating in the sky above them. A nonplussed Stimpy picks his nose while he tries to figure out how to get back home, and when at Ren's order, he stops, his nose comes off on his finger. In time the two deteriorate into dissociated limbs and leaky orifices, and then recombine into increasingly unlikely and disgusting versions of themselves. I won't even bother to explain how they get out of it.
In the past few years only Matt Groening has tried to give mainstream television animation the same anarchic feel. But The Simpsons is essentially written for adults, and its mockery, like the mockery of newspaper editorial cartoons, takes place within the context of the world as adults know it. Homer and Marge live in a recognisable kind of town, and go about recognisable lives, and Bart wages his battles against institutions that have already made their way into his consciousness: school, family, the police, and so on.
The world of Ren & Stimpy refuses to admit the existence of anything quite so familiar and stable, and so it undermines much more of what we profess to know. It can't be bothered with references to current events, or self-conscious twists on media culture. It's not post-modern: it's pre-genital, a show without a superego - and as such it's truly subversive. If The Simpsons suggests what Barbara Kruger might do with a half hour of prime time and a sense of humour, then Ren & Stimpy is Roger Rabbit as drawn by Mike Kelley. And that, I think, is precisely what explains its popularity; in a culture over-saturated with knowing irony and sophisticated self-criticism, there's something loveable and liberating about an ugly and conniving little cartoon dog who does little more than mug and drool and drag his ass on children's TV.