The Ren & Stimpy Show is one of those animated series that I look back on and wonder, how did my parents let me watch this? When it was released in 1991, I was the tender age of 8 and yet my Christian-loving folks found it quite alright for me to be consumed by the series. Though it’s been 25 years since the series has ended, Ren & Stimpy went on to completely change the landscape of animation. As much joy as the series has brought me, the creator, John Kricfalusi, went on to taint the legacy of the series with his harsh demands and unruly behavior. However, that was nothing compared to the allegations that surfaced in 2018 that accused John Kricfalusi of sexual misconduct and harassment towards two underage girls.
Now, in 2020, a documentary titled, HAPPY HAPPY JOY JOY: THE REN & STIMPY STORY, has been released which tells the story of one of the most successful animated series of all time. Co-directed by Kimo Easterwood and Ron Cicero, the documentary follows the rise and fall of Ren & Stimpy at the hands of John Kricfalusi, and the effects that the animated show had on pop-culture. During the Sundance Film Festival, I had the opportunity to chat with both Kimo and Ron about their feature film documentary where we discussed everything from the inspiration behind bringing the story to life, the challenges associated with getting the animators involved in the project, and the allegations against John Kricfalusi.
To start things off, how did the idea for this documentary come about?
Kimo Easterwood: A friend of mine named Todd White, who is in the documentary, had suggested it cause he was a friend of John Kricfalusi. I had been shooting short documentaries and he knew I was doing that stuff so he said, “Hey, this is a pretty good doc idea, you should do it on this guy John Kricfalusi who did Ren & Stimpy. He’s like this crazy guy and an amazing artist.” So that put the idea in my head. Ron was looking to do something more creative in his life from his job so he was in. He said, “Hey do you have any ideas for documentaries, let’s do something.” I said there was this one Ren & Stimpy thing, but that was all I had. We sort of just went about on our set ways and did some internet research for an hour or so and then we called each other and were like, we need to do this, this is an amazing story.
I was psyched to see so many influential animators from the animated series in the documentary. What was it like getting everyone together for this project?
Ron Cicero: It was really difficult because when the show broke up, meaning John K. left and Nickelodeon took over, there was a real chasm between the artists. Some went with Nickelodeon while others went with John, so it was like a professional divorce. Everybody had such high hopes for the show so it was that much more painful because the show was an immediate success. When we called these folks it was like calling a stranger up and saying, “Hey, will you talk about the most painful moment in your professional career on camera?”. You can imagine people weren’t clamoring to speak with us. Eventually, once we had a few artists that spoke with us and we got them on camera, word spread that this wasn’t a hit piece and we were there to support the artists and talk about what made the show so incredible, but it took some time. John K. was actually not in our original cut. We ended up doing a complete movie that we finished, prior to the allegations [that surfaced]. When the #MeToo allegations came out, we had to scrap that first cut, the first movie, not just the first cut. At that point, John K, who had previously refused to be interviewed came around but it still took us another few months to get him on camera.
When those allegations came out, I was gobsmacked to find out what John K. had been alleged of doing. When it came time to interview him for the documentary, what was that like?
Kimo Easterwood: We spent a lot of time with John K. before he sat down with us. We had a lot of weeks of watching UFC fights at his house and having lunch with him and even watching cartoons with him. We spent a lot of time with him to gain his trust. He was hesitant but we did three interviews with him over three separate days and by the third interview he was awesome. He was super comfortable and open.
I was so glad to see that you were able to get Robyn Byrd in the documentary so that she could tell her story, which my heart just broke for her and what she endured at such a young age.
Ron Cicero: Robyn is a really important piece to the documentary and that was something we wanted to make sure didn’t get overshadowed. Even though what happened between Robyn and John K. did not occur during the creation of Ren & Stimpy, she was incredibly open and generous given the fact that she also was talking about a very traumatic instance in her life. She didn’t know us and we didn’t have the opportunity to spend a ton of time with her but she is really a critical piece of the film. We feel very thankful that she let us into her life and shared those experiences as difficult as they were.
When it came to the presentation of the film, one of the aspects that I loved so much was how the footage from the series was used. Was there reasoning behind the way in which you framed certain shots – such as the storyboard element as well as matching up Ren and Stimpy to certain emotional cues?
Ron Cicero: Sean Jarrett, who is one of the editors on the film, had cut another Sundance picture called Hal, about Hal Ashby, and he, along with his director, did an amazing job using archival footage. Our original editor had moved on to directing and we were just blown away [by Sean]. If you are going to tell the story about an artist through his work, what better way to do it than using clips from the show to illustrate who this person is.
Kimo Easterwood: Sean was really familiar with Ren & Stimpy and was a huge fan who knew the episodes really well. The matching he did was phenomenal. He almost did too good of a job because, especially with Robyn, he presented us with a cut where you see a lot of the adult party cartoon illustrating what Robyn’s saying about John K. It was incredibly powerful and very emotional, but as directors, we looked at it and said: Well, is there a point where the audience is going to go, “You are telling this story about sexual abuse through cartoons” and is that going to be something that is going to take the audience out of it or is it going to be a piece that’s going to draw attention away from the message. We actually had to dial that back. As amazing as that cut was that was something we were very cognizant about in making sure we stayed true to Robyn and her message as well.
When it came to bringing this documentary to life, what were some of the challenges you faced, outside of the allegations coming forth?
Kimo Easterwood: Just getting people to sit down with us was tough in the beginning. It kind of snowballed after the first 7 or 8 interviews to where the word was getting around that we were looking to celebrate the show, so that was a little difficult. We also had a ton of artwork and drawings and just different things those guys did so trying to get that all organized in order to choose the best drawings to show. That was a little bit difficult because we ended up having a lot to choose from. Some of the fans actually had original layouts that they would scan and email to us.
Ron Cicero: It was our first feature documentary and it’s an incredibly overwhelming process, especially when you’re dealing with so much great artwork. I mean, just the cataloging of it and knowing where to find things and, as Kimo said, matching it to the emotion of the scene. That part was a little overwhelming because it was just Kimo and I. We didn’t have an assistant, we self-financed, so we were wearing many, many hats. I can tell you, though, that we are terrible assistant editors (laughs).
Last, but not least, what was your reaction upon learning that the documentary got into Sundance?
Kimo Easterwood: Incredible excitement and joy!
Ron Cicero: Elation! Getting that call – Kimo was in Japan at that time and I got the call and I called him. It was like 3 in the morning in Japan and then he calls me 2 hours later and I’m still staring at the ceiling, I couldn’t believe that we got in. It was extraordinary. The folks here at Sundance have been so supportive and amazing. When you have John Cooper, the head of the festival, saying it’s one of the top 20 films to see, that’s an extraordinary feeling.