This is a still from Happy Happy Joy Joy -- The Ren & Stimpy Story by Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Photo by Chris Gore/Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Jan. 28 (UPI) -- Directors Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood had finished a cut of their Ren & Stimpy documentary, Happy Happy Joy Joy, when sexual abuse allegations came out against show creator John Kricfalusi.
Ren & Stimpy, which ran from 1991 to 1996, starred a cat and a dog who engaged in a lot of scatological bodily function humor and sometimes adult innuendo. Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story profiles the Nickelodeon cartoon's creation and demise, including Kricfalusi's relationships with illustrators Robyn Byrd and Katie Rice when they were teenagers.
A Buzzfeed article, published in March 2018, recounted Kricfalusi's relationships with Byrd and Rice. Byrd wrote to Kricfalusi in 1994 when she was 13, hoping to pave the way for a career in animation. He responded, and by 1997, when she was 16 years old, she became his girlfriend. Rice wrote to him at 14 and alleged Kricfalusi had phone sex with her when she was no older than 15.
"It was done and it was a celebration of Ren & Stimpy, which now, of course, became outdated and potentially toxic once this news broke about the creator," Cicero told UPI before the Sundance Film Festival. "When the news broke, we then got John's interview and Robyn's interview and we completely restructured the movie."
Byrd contacted Cicero and Easterwood right before Buzzfeed published the article.
"Just before the news broke, Robyn actually reached out to me and said, 'Look, there's this whole other side of John that you're not aware of. I don't know where you're at with the documentary, but this story is going to break,'" Cicero said.
Byrd gave Cicero and Easterwood an interview. Rice already had declined an interview earlier when the directors saw a clip of her with Kricfalusi.
"We had seen that clip, which is in the movie, the DVD extra where John says, 'Hey, this is Katie Rice and she draws girl characters,'" Cicero said. "[We] reached out to her and she said, 'Look, I don't want to talk about John. It wasn't a great part of my life.'"
The directors didn't have to scrap the first cut. The story of Ren & Stimpy -- which explores Nickelodeon's foray into animation with executive Vanessa Coffey and animators who worked with Kricfalusi -- still proved relevant in examining the abuse for which Kricfalusi is accused.
"If we're going to understand John, we have to understand the show," Kricfalusi. "If you don't know the show, you have to understand the importance of the show to understand why we're even talking to John and why he's our lead character."
Cicero and Easterwood said it was complicated confronting Kricfalusi on camera.
"We feel that because we sat down with him off-camera for that length of time, we developed a sense of empathy for him," Cicero said. "By that, I don't mean a sense that we condone what he did or we're trying to be apologists for what he did. That's not what I'm saying at all."
Cicero hopes that by prompting Kricfalusi to take stock of his actions, Happy Happy Joy Joy can provide insight into what leads to such abuse.
"Unless you have that access and unless you have that trust and somebody's going to open up to you, you're never going to quite figure out the why," Cicero said. "I think both what John said and what he didn't say provided a window into that trauma and some broad answers."
Simply convincing people involved with Ren & Stimpy to discuss it proved challenging even before news about Kricfalusi broke. The documentary also addresses Kricfalusi's hostility toward collaborators and the show's struggle to even meet air dates.
"It was very difficult to get everybody because the show ended on such a bad note -- it was like a divorce," Cicero said. "So, when we called up the initial artists, they were like, 'Why are you wanting to dig up this divorce that happened in my creative family 25 years ago?'"
Cicero said Ren & Stimpy animators Bill Wray and Scott Wills were among the first to agree. They convinced other collaborators to talk to Cicero and Easterwood. At that point, they didn't have Kricfalusi to interview, so sought archival footage to represent him in the film. Some of that footage remains in the final cut.
"Nowadays, everyone's got a cell phone," Easterwood said. "At least 100 pictures a day are taken at someone's work, but back then, nobody was walking around with cameras. We had to scrape and beg and borrow and steal from a lot of the artists that maybe took some pictures at a birthday party one night."
The most helpful find was a collection of VHS tapes, including behind-the-scenes footage recorded at the animation studio while they were producing Ren & Stimpy.
"That really helped us out a lot because you got to see what the actual studio looked like back then," Easterwood said. "We really, really had to ask, beg and make people go into their garage and pull out boxes they haven't touched in 20 years."
Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story premieres Tuesday at the Sundance Film Festival.