When the general public thinks of any cherished holiday television special, classics such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas are at the top of the heap. Some—though others might disagree—might concur that Son of Stimpy (or Stimpy’s First Fart) should be ranked with the finest holiday TV specials.
As production on the second season of The Ren and Stimpy Show began in November 1991, Nickelodeon demanded a series of 20 episodes, after its first season called for six half-hour shows. New artists were either promoted or hired in order to meet this heavy production schedule. For instance, storyboard artist Peter Avanzino was new to the show, while production assistant Richard Pursel was promoted as a writer, contributing two episode: Powdered Toast Man and Dog Show. Evidently, John Kricfalusi felt Nickelodeon continually tampered with his vision of the show, particularly the “extreme” episodes, which often blended slapstick and strong character acting, influenced more by classic film and television than other animated films.
During a meeting with Vanessa Coffey, executive producer of Nickelodeon, John offered a compromise to deliver something different from other episodes of Ren and Stimpy. Coffey and manager Geraldine Laybourne “both knew that Spumco wasn’t Disney,” as Pursel explained, and requested a heartwarming story for the show. In response, Pursel wrote an outline about Stimpy having his first fart, but he is unable to locate it and searches for it in the city, as if it were his lost offspring. John Kricfalusi loved it, and Nickelodeon felt the same way. “It was one of the rare times that I heard him repeatedly laughing out loud while reading my story,” Pursel said. “Read the original outline here and you might laugh, too!”
John Kricfalusi’s firm hold on the show bordered on perfectionism, more so than its previous season. By July 1992, only one half-hour episode was completed. Many of the episodes in production were still in their layout and storyboard stages by September.
Son of Stimpy remained in the layout stage for 15 weeks, as Kricfalusi continually revised layout drawings during nights and weekends. After he was fired from Nickelodeon, Games Animation gave the episode to Carbunkle in different sections, due to the production delays brought upon by Spumco.
The underlying pathos affecting the loving relationship between Ren and Stimpy in this episode warranted special attention in its emotion and acting. “There was definitely a caricatured melodrama to that episode that was pushed more than other episodes, so you would empathize with the characters,” animator Chris Sauve stated. Son of Stimpy was an important episode for me personally because it proved you could animate meaningful acting and deep performance in a very cartoony style.” Animator Ron Crown spoke of the camaraderie between his fellow colleagues at Carbunkle, working in an office with Chris, Jamie Oliff and Ron Zorman: “There was always feedback while animating, and watching the dailies inspired everyone to push harder to make your peers laugh. Everyone wanted to make the best show we could, there was no sense of just get it done.”
The strongest acting in Son of Stimpy, which needed a most delicate hand, occurs in scenes 81 and 81B, as Ren tries to coax a dejected Stimpy back into the house, and pointing to mistletoe nailed above them, as a way to restore their friendship. Story editor Will McRobb objected to the homosexual overtones in this sequence, but was later re-instated by Vanessa Coffey, after Kricfalusi heard a gay Spumco employee’s despair over the censorship. John spent the last month at the studio handling the sequence, but was forced to ship them to Carbunkle. “I’m glad that it stayed in. It packs an emotional punch that is really needed for the story to play out the way it does,” said Rich Pursel.
“We had animator Bob Bennett doing the snow effects, then at some point producer Jim Ballantine said they’d handle the effects in post-production at Games. Any scenes of the city credited to Bob would have originally had hand drawn effects until I had him stop. Some of his snow animation exists only in pencil-test form and some of his snow swirls made it into the broadcast version.
The snow effects for scene 82 blot out most of Stimpy’s animation. In the pre-FX version, he takes a couple of steps before the scene cut, and in the broadcast version, he takes a step, but most of him is obscured by effects. It’s a shame – I thought Dick Zondag did a great job and his effort was wasted. Definite overkill in the effects department.
Kelly [Armstrong]’s scene 84 animation [of Ren sobbing] ranks as one of my favorite bits. Ren’s head is not easy to animate – and it’s hard to move with subtlety in 3 dimensions. Animators usually have to use cheats to get his design to work in motion. Not Kelly – she masterfully moved Ren with great draftsmanship and delivered a touching performance.”
Here is the pre-FX version of scene 82, presented here:
As Son of Stimpy‘s delays continued in the second season’s production schedule, Kricfalusi became obsessed with the overall mood of the episode. He wanted to have the background painters, namely Scott Wills and Glenn Barr, make the episode feel much like a Frank Capra film, compared to the show’s typical stylized look, which Bill Wray said to be influenced by Golden Books—particularly those of Mary Blair, Aurelius Battaglia and Mel Crawford—and early Hanna-Barbera television productions.Kricfalusi often gave Bill Wray painting lessons during production of the show—though John didn’t paint well, he knew in his mind how it should appear. Wray commented: “He would often just find a photo in a magazine—could be a fashion magazine, it could be a National Geographic, it could be whatever. I’d actually look very hard in this photography section of bookstores, and find basically really good nature photographs, where the color harmonies were really beautiful and kind of obvious to that kind of mood and expression. We would have those out on our desks all the time to try to get the right colors going, so it kind of went from being the extreme stylization of Golden Books to real photography of nature.”
Stephen DeStefano’s background designs, meant to illustrate a quaint holiday essence, for the episode, were met with John’s criticism. As Stephen paraphrased: “Look at that tree. It’s like you just had a pile of crap in your hands and chucked it at a Christmas tree. There’s no design, there’s just a load of crap. Whatever stuck to it you let stay that way. Is that how you decorate a tree?” Jim Smith led Stephen through his drawings and suggested how to improve them, lending him “general but profound drawing tips that I think about in my daily work to this day.”
There are slight differences between the “route sheets” for Son of Stimpy and the version seen on broadcast. For instance, Scott Mansz animates the second half of Ren trying to lure Stimpy back into the house, though it credits Kelly Armstrong in the documentation. Animator Ron Crown’s demo reel of his scenes from Sven Hoek and this episode reveal his animation of scene 171, when “Stinky” pushes his father away, explaining they need to be apart. The route sheets credit Chris Damboise for the scene—it’s probable that Chris was intended to animate the scene, then was passed to Ron, and the name was never corrected. The artist credited as “Sheldon” left during the production of Son of Stimpy, so Bob Jaques had to re-animate the scenes himself, including a costumed Santa Claus being goosed by Stimpy. (Stephen DeStephano remembered hearing “Chris Reccardi, from the office next door, continuously and spontaneously mimicking Billy West’s reading of Santa’s line, ‘Ho-ho-HOOO!’ He’d do that at five to ten minute intervals pretty much all day long.”)
Though Kricfalusi had no control over the final edit of the episode after its move to Carbunkle, Vanessa Coffey prevented it from being edited, or worse yet, shelved. However, the network withheld the airtime for Son of Stimpy, premiering a week after Christmas on MTV, on January 14, 1993. The “uncut” DVD box set of the first and second season episodes, taken from Spike TV masters, omits two sequences—the first portion of the montage of Stimpy fully awake in bed, and a crestfallen Ren putting a Christmas present next to a photo of his missing friend. These scenes are now re-instated in the breakdown video.
I hope you have yourself a steenky Happy Holiday, dear readers! (Part two of Marty Taras’ comic book work will resume next week…)
(Thanks to Thad Komorowski, Bob Jaques, Jerry Beck, Rich Pursel, Bill Wray, Chris Sauve, Stephen DeStefano, Vincent Waller, Jamie Sutton and Ron Crown for their help.)