Thirty years ago this week, a rising but not-yet-ubiquitous kids network by the name of Nickelodeon launched its first original animated series. Introduced on August 11, 1991, under the brand of “Nicktoons,” Doug, Rugrats, and The Ren & Stimpy Show would quickly become hits and change the course of animation, television, and popular culture at large. To mark the anniversary, The Ringer is looking back at Nick’s best-ever characters and the legacy of the network as a whole. Throughout the week, we’ll be publishing essays, features, and interviews to get at the heart of what made Nick so dang fun—and now so nostalgic.
“See this button? Don’t touch it. It’s the History Eraser Button, you fool!” What we got here is a shrieking, abusive Chihuahua named Ren Höek berating a doofy Manx cat named Stimpson J. Cat. They’re best friends whose wacky, violent escapades comprise The Ren & Stimpy Show, which debuted on Nickelodeon on August 11, 1991, alongside Rugrats and Doug in a cataclysmic 90-minute block that ushered in the Nicktoons era and changed North American animation as we know it. What an explosive cocktail Rugrats, Doug, and The Ren & Stimpy Show turned out to be. Orange juice, Sprite, and flaming gasoline.
“So what’ll happen?” Stimpy mewls, intimidated and yet mesmerized by the History Eraser Button. Any given episode of this belligerently surrealist series might find our heroes playing nature-show hosts, or rubber-nipple salesmen, or cheese miners, or hitchhikers terrorized by circus performers, or dalmatian-painted firemen, or Canadian weiner farmers. This is Season 1, the third of six episodes, wherein Ren and Stimpy are intrepid interstellar explorers in a fan-favorite segment entitled “Space Madness,” to which Ren has succumbed. (He refers to a bar of soap as “my beloved ice cream bar” and gnaws on it at great, visceral length.) Now he’s making Stimpy guard the History Eraser Button in the hopes that he—and maybe you—will go mad, too.
What does happen if you push that button, though? “That’s just it!” Ren shrieks, gleeful, taunting. “We don’t know! Maaaaybe something bad! Maaaaybe something good! I guess we’ll never know! Because you’re going to guard it! You won’t touch it, will you?” First thing to know about The Ren & Stimpy Show is that the voice acting is phenomenal. For the first two seasons, Ren (who despite the Dutch last name shrieks in a hybrid Mexican German accent, so the line comes out “That’s just eeeet!”) is voiced by Quebec-born (and now-disgraced) series creator John Kricfalusi. Whereas Stimpy (a stentorian and lovably dunderheaded Phil Hartman type) is handled by voice-actor megastar Billy West, who also did Doug on Doug, Fry on Futurama, and Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in the original Space Jam. Ren and Stimpy, above all, are stupendous, indelible voices. Plus, Kricfalusi left the show during Season 2, so West handled both Stimpy and Ren for the last three seasons, and probably thousands of impressionable kids watching Nick at home never even noticed. I sure didn’t.
“Oh, how long can trusty cadet Stimpy hold out?!” We’ve got an old-school boxing-announcer type bellowing now. “How can he possibly resist the diabolical urge to push the button that could erase his very existence?” The Ren & Stimpy Show is set in the repressed-cornball ’50s and ungroovy ’60s, late in animation’s fabled Golden Age, and serves as both a loving tribute to and vicious parody of various cartoon classics, from Looney Tunes to early Disney to the Hanna-Barbera empire (Yogi Bear and the Jetsons aesthetic especially) to live-action slapstick kings like the Three Stooges, all filtered through 50 years or so of howling suburban repression and the blackest, bleakest Gen X humor that Nickelodeon could bear.
“Will his tortured mind give in to its uncontrollable desires?” The old-school announcer is now on-screen and terrorizing our beleaguered cadet directly: The shot where he’s pummeling Stimpy with his butt cheeks, Stimpy’s blue nose bouncing just inches from the History Eraser Button, is a very Ren & Stimpy visual construction. Maybe you had to be there. Maybe it’s better in the long run if you weren’t.
Anyway, Stimpy pushes the button. He and Ren both spontaneously combust. The segment ends. The whole History Eraser Button saga takes 90 seconds. I loved this show when I was 13. Hundreds of thousands of impressionable kids did. Thanks to relentless early-’90s reruns, it’s the six episodes of Season 1 especially that are forever burned into my brain: “Fire Dogs” is the best segment for the horse alone, though Ren thundering, “You bloated sack of protoplasm!” in “Space Madness” is another highlight, or at least that’s the funniest thing to yell across a crowded junior high lunchroom. But after Kricfalusi got fired—less for explicit content (including a banned Season 2 episode in which Ren beats a guy half to death with a boat oar) than logistical issues (he kept blowing his network deadlines)—The Ren & Stimpy Show managed just fine for three more seasons, grinding to a respectable halt in December 1995. Not a SpongeBob-caliber cultural phenomenon, per se, but hardly a catastrophe.
No, things didn’t go to shit until long after. First, in 2003, Kricfalusi returned to shepherd a truly disastrous reboot called Ren & Stimpy: “Adult Party Cartoon” for Spike TV that was supposed to go six episodes but got canceled after three. Then, in 2018, BuzzFeed published a harrowing exposé under the subhed “The Disturbing Secret Behind an Iconic Cartoon: Underage Sexual Abuse.” In the opening paragraphs of the piece, Robyn Byrd, a former artist at Spumco, Kricfalusi’s animation studio, describes how the animator first got in touch with Byrd when she was 13 and he was 39; they first had sex when Byrd was a high school junior, and she later moved in with Kricfalusi while she was still a teenager. Another Spumco employee, Katie Rice, recounts the continuous sexual harassment that began when she was 14 and Kricfalusi was 41. Through an attorney, Kricfalusi, who beyond a minor internet presence mostly dropped out of public view thereafter, provided BuzzFeed with a statement that began, “The 1990s were a time of mental and emotional fragility for Mr. Kricfalusi, especially after losing Ren and Stimpy, his most prized creation. For a brief time, 25 years ago, he had a 16-year-old girlfriend.”
The original Ren & Stimpy Show (well, most of it) is now streaming on Paramount+; another reboot is still going forward at Comedy Central, at least according to Billy West himself. Kricfalusi is reportedly not involved with the reboot and won’t profit from it. Byrd responded to the news with a Change.org petition entreating Viacom to reconsider. “John K. stands to re-enter the spotlight if his characters become famous again,” she wrote. “Despite his uninvolvement, he will likely receive creator credit, and his presence is easy to find online. This man used Ren & Stimpy to lure young people to his studio and into his confidence, only to abuse them, stunt their careers, and molest young girls. He WILL DO IT AGAIN. Not only that, but seeing his characters come back to life will re-traumatize many of his victims.”
So that’s the pocket history of my favorite cartoon when I was a kid. This show is a vital piece of Nickelodeon history, of ribald ’90s pop-culture history, of modern animation history. The question is whether any real-world equivalent of the History Eraser Button exists. The other question is whether Ren & Stimpy itself oughta press it.
Maybe you don’t have 90 seconds to watch that whole clip from “Space Madness.” Do you have 10 seconds, though? Here’s a fabulous encapsulation of the Ren & Stimpy vibe in 10 seconds.
That’s Ren. Obviously. In the early ’90s, this was a great comedy bit whenever you happened to pick up a remote: I’ll watch some TV. It’ll help me to RELAX. It is hard to remember a time when plain old television was the malevolent force that would one day demolish polite society, but a lot of cable TV back then genuinely did seem to radiate pure evil. Hell, just cartoons on cable TV seemed capable of triggering the apocalypse.
Ren and Stimpy had plenty of impolite company. The Simpsons premiered in December 1989 and soon found itself in a high-profile ratings war with (deep breath) The Cosby Show. (Meanwhile, Simpsons guru Matt Groening praised The Ren & Stimpy Show as “the funniest cartoon on TV.”) Beavis & Butt-Head got their own MTV show in 1993: It was another abusive relationship between toxic buddies, another gleeful pair of malcontents mercilessly clowning their own network’s other programming. (“She’s pinching a loaf.”) From Animaniacs to Tiny Toon Adventures to the occasionally animated Pee-wee’s Playhouse—a cheery Saturday-morning staple from 1986 to 1990, although darkened, in the public’s overactive imagination, by Pee-wee Herman’s 1991 porn-theater arrest—the best cartoons from this era vacillated between honoring the past and threatening to incinerate it.
And so, at 13, I had the vaguest sense that Ren & Stimpy was riffing, in part, on the stiff late-’50s and early-’60s sitcom The Donna Reed Show and other benign staples of Nickelodeon’s famed Nick at Nite block, an oldies outpost first unveiled in 1985. I had the vaguest sense these guys were an existential threat to everyone and everything, raging against their own network’s cuddly future-nostalgia machine. (“Space Madness,” if nothing else, flaunted the show’s willingness to kill/obliterate its main characters six years before South Park.) But mostly I just liked it when Ren called Stimpy an “eeeeee-diot.” It is objectively hilarious that Rugrats, Doug, and The Ren & Stimpy Show premiered on the same day and are forever enshrined as the Nicktoons empire’s big bang: Rugrats is a twee show about literal babies, Doug is an even twee-er show about endearingly awkward preteens, and Ren & Stimpy is sheer malign anarchy.
Rewatching this show in 2021 induces its own vicious strain of Space Madness. At the time, as a not-so-endearingly awkward preteen myself, the thing I liked most about Ren & Stimpy was that other, cooler kids liked it. My buddy Jason did a killer Ren impression, shrieking callous insults (“You fat, bloated eeee-diot!”) and evocative nonsense (“A plethora of exotic mandibles”) with the sort of clueless and treacherous zeal only a 13-year-old boy could manage. Were we sadists? Did our enjoyment of this Nickelodeon program mark us troubled, as dangerous? One time, we were watching the “Ren’s Toothache” episode during a sleepover and Jason’s dad walked in the room right as Ren was pulling the nerve endings out of his mouth with pliers (for the Nerve Ending Fairy), whereupon Jason’s dad said, “That’s not real—that would be incredibly painful” and walked right the fuck back out.
As a father now myself, I’m too squeamish to let my 10- and 8-year-old boys watch anything as relatively harmless as The Simpsons or SpongeBob SquarePants, even as I realize that I still remember all the words to “Happy Happy Joy Joy” or the Log song. I’ve gotten overprotective. I am overcompensating for all the weird, disturbing, outlandishly hostile chaos I more or less snorted right up my nose right off the top of my color TV. When I say that “Fire Dogs” is my favorite Ren & Stimpy segment “for the horse alone,” what I mean is that a lady throws a horse out the window of a burning skyscraper, and he plummets screaming to the ground and breaks his back legs, whereupon he crawls around moaning “Ohhhhh, ohhhhhhh, it hurts, I can’t stand it.” Funniest thing I’d ever seen in my life in 1991. How much more perverse is that than any classic Looney Tunes bit, though? Or is it just that Ren & Stimpy—from the dazzling art direction, to the top-shelf voice acting, to the singular nightmarish pandemonium—was the prettiest and gnarliest and bravest and looniest cartoon marketed to kids since?
I do not want to talk about Ren & Stimpy “Adult Party Cartoon,” a truly horrendous feast of vomit and ultraviolence and hapless mid-2000s Spike TV–ass edginess. Not linking to any of it. Nope. Arguably, it’s the rare failed reboot that legitimately tarnished the original cartoon’s legacy, or at least it sucked so bad that certainly nobody would ever attempt to remake this show again. Right? Right? Nope. But bringing Ren & Stimpy back now, in the wake of the revelations about Kricfalusi, struck many animators as its own heartless act of perversion. “Viacom (Nick especially) has passed on SO many great pitches from young people, POC, and womxn,” Byrd wrote in her petition to shutter the reboot. “Why recycle this material when there are so many of us with new ideas. Ideas that aren’t ugly, racist, and problematic. … This property is NOT WORTH the trauma it will create for so many.”
The fact of the matter is that I love The Ren & Stimpy Show dearly, and I am eternally grateful to it for being one of the only things that made sense to me in the seventh grade. Moreover, the original show should take it as a compliment, truly, that I can hardly bear to watch it now, 30 years later, and I in fact do not need to ever watch it again, nor do I want to deal with new, even edgelord-ier iterations of it. But forget me, and forget all that: The real-world trauma swirling around this show now is too much to bear. Let somebody else make something else. It’s the best thing for everybody; it’s the best thing for Ren and Stimpy themselves. No need to erase it, per se, but some history is history for a reason.