Earlier this week Viacom’s ongoing obsession with nostalgia reached its nadir when the company announced that it would be reviving the Nicktoon original The Ren & Stimpy Show for Comedy Central. It’s just the latest example of a new trend from the multimedia giant, who are clearly fixated on bringing back to life every animated property it owns that might still have some bit of name value.
Since June Viacom has announced four different remakes or spinoffs to cartoons from the ‘90s and early ‘00s, including a new Beavis and Butt-Head series, the return of the short-lived cult favorite Clone High, and a Daria spinoff called Jodie. At least three of them are earmarked for its comedy network. There’s nothing inherently wrong with revisiting a popular show from the past, or an overlooked classic whose life was cut short, but the sheer volume of old cartoons coming back from the dead through one media company is a little ridiculous. It highlights how frightened the entertainment industry is of new ideas, and how name recognition apparently trumps all over virtues for a project. Still, three of these four shows make some degree of creative sense, beyond the obvious business reasons to dredge up old hits. Trying to relaunch Ren & Stimpy in 2020, though, should be a total non-starter. Here’s why this cartoon, which helped jumpstart the entire notion of original cartoons for cable channels almost 30 years ago, is so different from Viacom’s other three revivals, and such a bad idea to bring back at this time.
Let’s start with the most glaring reason: it’s creator is an accused sexual predator. Ren & Stimpy will be returning without the creator whose vision defined the show, and who had already been fired from the show at the height of its original popularity. John Kricfalusi already had a turbulent relationship with his creation before it was revealed in 2018 that he had had a sexual relationship with an underaged partner when he was in his 40s. He was also accused of grooming and sexually harassing another underaged victim who eventually started working for his studio after she turned 18. One of his alleged victims, as well as an ex-girlfriend, told Buzzfeed that they had seen pornographic images of prepubescent girls on his computer. Kricfalusi acknowledged he had a relationship with a teenager in the late ‘90s, but denied the other allegations, and police weren’t able to investigate these claims due to the statute of limitations. These allegations have understandably torpedoed Kricfalusi’s career, though, and Viacom announced that he would have nothing to do with and would not profit in any way from the new Ren & Stimpy show.
You can’t have Ren & Stimpy today with Kricfalusi, but the problem is you also can’t really have it without him—at least the Ren & Stimpy that people might be nostalgic for. The first two seasons of its original run were the episodes that built its reputation, and they all bear Kricfalusi’s trademark absurdity and love for the grotesque. The series ran for three more seasons after he was fired in 1993, but they weren’t well-received at the time and aren’t fondly remembered today. Kricfalusi himself had an opportunity to return to his show in the early ‘00s, but even with the original creator on board the Ren & Stimpy: Adult Party Cartoon revival was a notorious disaster that was cancelled after only three episodes aired. So here’s a show that’s heavily dependent on the vision of a creator who’s now completely toxic and already proved almost 20 years ago that his creative tank for new Ren & Stimpy episodes was utterly dry.
Compare that to Viacom’s other animated revivals. A revamp of MTV smash Beavis and Butt-Head was revealed at the start of July, with creator Mike Judge returning to oversee the new show. There are a number of reasons to give this remake the benefit of the doubt. First off, Judge isn’t a one-hit wonder; he’s had numerous successful projects since Beavis and Butt-Head, from King of the Hill to Office Space to Silicon Valley. He’s had his professional missteps, but he’s proven to be a reliable creator of good comedy, and it’s safe to assume that if he’s returning to his first show (for the second time—there was also a revival in 2011 that was almost as good as the original show) it’s because he actually wants to. Somebody with his stature and track record could probably continue to create and sell new concepts to networks, and if he’s revisiting his past like this it’s probably because he has a specific vision in mind. Also, despite Beavis and Butt-Head’s title characters being intentionally shallow caricatures of a standard teen culture archetype from the ‘80s and ‘90s, Judge’s talent for creating finely observed realistic worlds was already evident in the original series. And with the reboot supposedly looking to modernize the setting—potentially moving away from the music video framing device and onto something more timely, like, say, YouTube or social media—it could actually result in a successful return for Judge and the boys.
Clone High, meanwhile, also makes creative sense, despite not being nearly as successful or beloved as Beavis and Butt-Head. The original aired for only one season on MTV in 2002 and 2003, at a time when the network had already transitioned almost completely from scripted content and music videos to reality TV. It was created by a couple of then-unknowns, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, in conjunction with veteran sitcom writer Bill Lawrence, who had just launched Scrubs on NBC the previous year. It didn’t fit in at all with the MTV of 2002, which is a major reason why the people who would’ve probably liked it the most—fans of weird and alternative comedy—never discovered it. Its silly mash-up of science fiction, history and high school comedy was pretty much destined to be a niche product, but at the right time or on the right station it could have flourished. Since that one failed season Lord and Miller have gone on to be some of the most successful comedy filmmakers in Hollywood; they’re responsible for The Lego Movie, the 21 Jump Street films, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse, and also created the brilliant Fox sitcom The Last Man on Earth with their Clone High star Will Forte. That’s why Clone High’s revival is drastically different than Ren & Stimpy’s: it’ll be powered by its creators, who are far more famous and successful than they were when the show originally existed, and it was, at best, a barely remembered cult classic with a small but devoted fan base. There’s a good chance many potential viewers won’t even know it’s a revival, something that would be very unlikely with a show that was as popular as Ren & Stimpy.
Finally, Jodie represents something altogether different from these other scenarios: it’s not a remake or reboot, but a brand new show springing forth from the embers of an older one. Jodie’s a spinoff of MTV’s Daria, itself a spinoff from Beavis and Butt-Head, and a show that has remained popular among those who grew up watching it in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. Jodie promises a new vision from its creator Grace Edwards, though, who didn’t work on Daria but has written for some of the funniest shows of the last decade, including Broad City, Inside Amy Schumer and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. It also stars the always excellent Tracee Ellis Ross as the voice of Jodie Landon, who, in the original series, was one of the few Black students at Lawndale High. Although it’s banking on the popularity of Daria to attract viewers, Jodie promises to be a different show from a different creator and with a different viewpoint than the original. And given how much culture and the lives of teenagers have changed since the late ‘90s, there’d be ample opportunity to make a new show in the extended Daria universe (I hated typing that as much as you hated reading it) stand out from the original even if it was still focusing on the same lead character.
You can see how all these other Viacom reboots have clear creative angles to them that a new Ren & Stimpy lacks. There’s one more crucial difference that has to be considered, too, and that’s that even the once-popular and supposedly good episodes of The Ren & Stimpy Show absolutely do not stand up today. Kricfalusi’s vision might’ve turned the show into a phenomenon at the time, but today it mostly feels like empty shock value. It’s gross for the sake of being gross, and its characters are little more than loose collections of obnoxious traits that exist solely to set up jokes. Kricfalusi was inspired by the old irreverent shorts of Bob Clampett, and it shows; Ren & Stimpy lacks the character development and commitment to storytelling that cartoons have cultivated from the ‘90s on, which wouldn’t be a problem if its jokes were funny enough. They aren’t. The Ren & Stimpy Show is a great example of a short-lived fad that doesn’t really work outside of its specific moment in time.
Does that mean a new Ren & Stimpy is destined to fail? Not at all. Perhaps a genuinely talented and creative mind will be put in charge of the revival, and recalibrate it into something that somehow fits the current culture without completely disregarding the spirit of the original. Still, of all of these nostalgic remakes coming to Viacom networks in the upcoming months, this is the one that makes the least amount of sense—and one that, in turn, makes the other ones lose a bit of their luster.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, music, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.