Zachary Houle is a writer and Web content editor whose journalism has appeared in Spin magazine, The National Post (Canada), Shift, Canadian Business and many, many others. Also a fiction writer, his latest novelette, A Vacation In Loveless, will be published in Chicago's Pushcart Prize-nominated Midnight Mind magazine (www.midnightmind.com) in March 2003. Always on the lookout for new writing and editing gigs, he can be reached at email@example.com.
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John Kricfalusi is a man whose outspokenness and perfectionism has earned him as many enemies as admirers in Hollywood. But somewhere under that tough-as-nails exterior is a child at heart: a guy who'll comes into an interview with a bottle of Milk 2 Go and two bottles of Gatorade to tide him through the Q and A. In case you forgot, Kricfalusi (he also goes by the easier to pronounce John K.) created the early '90s hit Ren and Stimpy, which initially aired on Nickelodeon and later MTV. At its peak, the cat and Chihuahua show attracted 2.2 million viewers - half were over 18.
The series is usually cited as being one of the first modern-day TV cartoons, along with The Simpsons, that a grown up could watch without cringing or wanting to change the channel. But Kricfalusi couldn't resist sneaking the occasional underwear-sniffing joke or flaming fart gag. While its stuff that wouldn't bat an eye today thanks to South Park and Beavis and Butthead, this was strictly out-of-bounds material for a children's broadcaster in 1992. Nickelodeon even suppressed one 11-minute episode that saw George Liquor - a redneck who appears from time to time in John K.'s work - beat the stuffing out of Ren and Stimpy until Ren slaps Liquor around with an oar. Kricfalusi was eventually fired from his own show by Nickelodeon because he pushed the envelope one too many times and a perfectionist streak that often kept the show over budget and well past deadline.
After a decade doing no-glam jobs like TV commercials and Internet cartoons, Kricfalusi finally moved his studio, Spumco International, from Los Angeles to a 100-year-old Victorian farmhouse on the southern fringes of Ottawa, Canada. It was a homecoming for the flamboyant cartoonist: he lived in Ottawa from nine until he left for Toronto's Sheridan College to study animation about 10 years later. (He quickly dropped out and headed for Los Angeles, realizing that's where he'd really get his education. Smart guy.)
Kricfalusi took a break from his hard work on The New Ren and Stimpy Show, which is set to air in early 2003 on The New TNN in the U.S. He reminisced with TVparty about the shows he came of age watching in the city during the '60s and early '70s, and, surprisingly, a lot of his obvious influences - like Chuck Jones and Tex Avery - don't turn up.
"I used to watch Uncle Chichimus," he says. "That was great. Uncle Chichimus was this crazy looking puppet with a peanut head and two turds for hair. It was a puppet show with Champ Champagne, Ottawa's most famous musician at the time, and was created by John Conway. I think they ran cartoons."
Uncle Chichimus originally ran on the CBC, a public broadcaster, throughout the '50s, but wound up on Ottawa's private CJOH-TV by the early '60s. Kricfalusi's description fits the latter version.
"And there was a great show in Montreal (where Kricfalusi grew up prior to Ottawa) that I used to watch called Johnny Jellybean. It was this guy with a red and white striped suit and he used to talk to a duck. He was in this crappy little room that was just full of stuff, it had shelves or something in the back, it was all cluttered. There was this duck he talked to and you never saw the whole duck. That was a real weird show. I'd love to get a copy of that. Supposedly, those are all gone."
"Then I watched Uncle Willy & Floyd, with Bill Luxton and Les Lye (later of You Can't Do That On Television). I had lunch with Lye a few years ago, and asked him if any of the old shows were on tape and if I could get any copies of it. Supposedly nobody saved any of that stuff. It's all gone. All that history of early television in Canada is gone. That's so sad. Like, in the States, you can find tons of old TV shows - kinescopes of them - and old commercials and stuff. I collect all these tapes. There are a lot of Canadian commercials I would kill to have, like the old William Shatner Loblaws (supermarket) commercials. Remember those? Did you see those?"
No, but William Shatner was doing commercials before Priceline? Sweet Jesus. "Awww, they were great," continues John K. "It was right after Star Trek and I guess Shatner was hurting for awhile, so he came back to Canada and he was doing Loblaws commercials (in 1974). He was wearing a suit and he'd be walking down the produce aisle, and with his most sincere William Shatner face he'd look right at the camera and say, 'At Loblaws, more than the price is right.' Then he'd pick up a melon and caress it, then say, 'But, by Gosh, the price is right.' I was dying to get those. Somebody must have saved those (commercials) - they've got to be on tape somewhere. He's the most sincere guy you could work with, he was great. I wanted that melon so bad, (because of) the way he rubbed it."
"And then there were the Dominion commercials. Remember those? Remember the song? It's the best song ever in a commercial, for a supermarket especially. Why do more Canadians shop at Dominion, more than any other store? Well, it's mainly because of the meat, the meat, the meat, the meat. And then (it had) these dancing meats and stuff. It was so good. They made a million of those. A million of them. We used to sing all of the commercials.
"Oh, and (there was) the Smoothie and Crunchy commercials for Kraft peanut butter. Smoothie and Crunchy were the hosts, sort of, of The Bugs Bunny Show. They used to run Bugs Bunny in Canada, at least in Ottawa, at 5 o'clock on Saturday afternoons because it wasn't on Saturday mornings. In the afternoon, sometimes parents would watch it, dads would watch it, and we used to get our TV dinners and TV trays and sit down and watch Bugs Bunny with Smoothie and Crunchy. They had animated commercials for the peanut butter. It just seemed like that was part of the show. I don't know whatever happened to those commercials. I don't know who made them. I'd imagine it was a Canadian company. I'd love to see those again. They had a song too: Kraft peanut butter tastes fresher in the jar than peanuts in the shell."
"Another show I watched, an Ottawa show, was called Oogly Woogly. Oogly Woogly was a worm that lived in an apple up in a tree, and he went to school every day. Miss Helen was an artist and she had this big pad. She'd draw stories of Oogly Woogly as she went along and she'd flip the pages. I watched that everyday. I think there were mean characters, too, and good characters. I don't remember exactly. That's another one that's lost. Shame on all these TV stations for not saving that stuff! I have this idea to start up a mini-network up here just to run old things, old classic entertainment that no one gets to see any more. The stuff is super entertaining, has stood the test of time, is popular with every generation, but they (TV networks) just don't run it. It's not just cartoons. There are lots of old cool television shows and old movies. They're so hard to find - you go to the video store and they don't have anything."
Despite having such an obviously deep affection for old TV that he seems willing to set up his own network, he notes - not without some sarcasm - that Saturday mornings were a bit rough for him back in the day.
"Saturday mornings were hilarious in Ottawa because we didn't get Saturday morning cartoons until years after they were started in the States," he sighs. "So the poor kids growing up in Ottawa, man, you know what we got on Saturday mornings? We got Bowling For Dollars. We got The Bingo Show - there was a show about Bingo! You would watch people sitting at a table filling out Bingo cards, but it had the coolest title sequence. It had all these balls going down the video tubes, flying around everywhere. It was mesmerizing."
"I think the best show on Saturday morning was wrestling. It was the Canadian wrestling. It had the Vachon brothers from Quebec - Mad Dog Vachon and all that. (Edouard) Carpentier, the French guy who did all these flips and things. He was always teamed with a guy who later changed his name to Andre The Giant, but I think he was called something else. I don't remember who he was."
Actually, it's Jean Ferre, but John's got a good memory. Andre the Giant, as he would later be known, did indeed wrestle in Canada during the early '70s and was based out of Montreal. Wrestling would influence John K's latter work - he even plans to do a Ren and Stimpy Christmas special where Ren wants to watch the manly sport, but Stimpy won't let him.
"One time, I went to a wrestling match at Lansdowne Park (in Ottawa) and it was a tag team between two of the Vachon brothers and Carpentier and Andre The Giant," reminisces Kricfalusi. "And I'd just seen that same team-up a week before on TV and, move for move, it was the exact same fight. It was great. They really had it memorized as though it were an actual play they put on."
But wrestling wasn't the only sports programs Kricfalusi used to watch with his family and friends, either. "We used to watch the roller derby and watch the girls smash into each other. We liked that a lot."
But there had to be a show that Kricfalusi met and really didn't like, right? Well, there are two of them. He speaks of them in a way - absolute repulsion - that makes them seem like they're single-handedly responsible for the fall of Western culture.
"By the mid-to-late '60s, they started coming up with stuff like Scooby Doo and The Archies," says Kricfalusi. "That's when I first noticed there was something wrong with cartoons. I'd really looked forward to The Archies because I'd read the comics all the time and I was drawing dirty pictures of Betty and Veronica when I was a kid. But then the cartoon came on and something about it just felt sick. It was like Monkees music or something. That's the same feeling I get when I listen to the Monkees. I was watching this and I said, 'There's something wrong. How can you make a cartoon that's no fun?' And there it was."
"And then Scooby Doo came out. Now, I loved Hanna-Barbera. I loved Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, Quick Draw McGraw and The Flintstones. Those were limited budget cheap cartoons, but they all had this sense of fun. They were colourful, they had funny looking characters and great design. They were happy and had funny sound effects and everything. Then Scooby Doo came out and it was a cartoon imitating The Archies. It was Hanna-Barbera imitating Filmation. I was just sickened. I couldn't believe it! How could the same people who made Huckleberry Hound make this hideous, sickening piece of trash!"
"So I knew, even before I'd started working in animation, that animation had gone to hell. After Scooby Doo, that was it. After that was successful, they had a license to make complete, balls-out crap."
Thank God John K. helped save us.
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