Professor of cartoony
John Kricfalusi put a frenzied, retro feel back in animation.

By Susan King, Times Staff Writer

For groundbreaking "Ren & Stimpy" creator John Kricfalusi, cartoons are magic.

"Anything you can think up you can draw," the Ottawa-based animator says. "If you can draw it, you should draw it. If it is something that could never happen in real life, draw it because in that medium you can do it better than in any other medium."

The American Cinematheque is celebrating the pioneering work of the animator with the tribute "What Makes a Cartoon Cartoony: An In-Person Tribute to John Kricfalusi" next Tuesday and Wednesday at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.

Though the artist's work has been for television, Cinematheque programmer Dennis Bartok says he scheduled the Kricfalusi program because he has had a major influence on modern cartooning and animation.

"I think there's a general consensus that he is the primary figure that kick-started the whole renaissance in animation," Bartok says.

"There are a number of different trends that you can trace to the original 'Ren & Stimpy Show,' " which began in 1991 on Nickelodeon, he adds. "One is the classic retro 1950s style of animation that you see all over the place in shows like 'Dexter's Laboratory,' and that really hyperactive, frenzied pacing and jokes that really push the envelope.... He is kind of a central figure in what has become the multibillion-dollar business with entire cable networks like Cartoon Network devoted to this style of cartooning."

The first evening of the tribute, "Ren & Stimpy, New & Old," features three adult cartoons starring the hyperactive Chihuahua with the Peter Lorre voice and his mentally challenged cat pal that Kricfalusi has done for Spike TV, plus an episode of the landmark 1987 CBS revival of "Mighty Mouse," which was produced by Ralph Bakshi; the original pilot for "Ren & Stimpy"; his Yogi Bear sendup, "Boo Boo Runs Wild"; and more. Kricfalusi will be on hand for a Q&A during the program.

The animator says he enjoys seeing his work on the big screen because of the audience's reaction. "You can watch as they scream and cheer," he says. "It's not as much fun to watch alone at home and scream and cheer by yourself."

On Wednesday evening, he'll present a series of classic cartoons that inspired him from such legendary animators as Bob Clampett, the Fleischers, Tex Avery and Chuck Jones. Their cartoons were produced originally to be shown in theaters with movies, and a new generation of admirers grew up with them on syndicated TV. And they weren't made just for kids; they were made to be funny and topical for moviegoers in the pre-TV era.

"The theme of that night is not just the golden age of cartoons, but the cartoony golden age cartoons," Kricfalusi says. "I took the cartoony [ones] to show what cartoonists can do when they are unleashed."

There is only one Disney cartoon in the group. "He made only one cartoony cartoon," Kricfalusi explains. "It's called 'Minnie's Yoo Hoo.' Walt was kind of an anti-cartoonist. He didn't really like cartoony stuff. He was always aiming somewhere for more what he thought of as realism. It wasn't real or cartoony."

Kricfalusi began his animation career in the 1980s working on such unimaginative Saturday morning shows as "The Smurfs" and a revival of "The Jetsons." It was frustrating, mundane work.

"All the classic cartoons were made by cartoonists. Then the wrong people got in charge of cartoons," he says.

Television animation, he adds, changed with the political times. "With the '60s as the hippies came in, they brought in sensitivity and stuff like that. All of a sudden you couldn't have violence in cartoons," Kricfalusi says. "They called it violence, but it used to be called slapstick. So there were too many rules. I don't know how you could not raise your kids on Bugs Bunny or the Three Stooges."

Fired by Nickelodeon on "Ren & Stimpy" after battles over production delays, creative control and script content, Kricfalusi resurrected the show last year on Spike TV, the first network that specifically targets men. Three of the shorts airing the first evening of the tribute are from "Ren & Stimpy Adult Party Cartoon."

"Naked Beach Frenzy" finds the two pals working as attendants in a girls shower at a topless and bottomless beach; in "Stimpy's Pregnant," Ren delivers Stimpy's child; and in "Altruists," his tribute to the Three Stooges, they help a poor widow and her loony son who live in a pit in the ground.

Kricfalusi says he pushed the envelope as far as Spike would let him. "They said, 'You have to do something to differentiate them from the Nickelodeon ones.' It is the first network for men, so what do you do to make something that all men want in a cartoon? 'Naked Beach Frenzy' was it. If the world could be the way men wanted it, that is what that cartoon is about."