Vanessa Coffey presided over some of the most iconic animated series to come out of Nickelodeon during the ‘90s heyday of Nicktoons.
In that period she served as executive producer on Rugrats, Rocko’s Modern Life and Doug, having earned her stripes in the 1980s on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Animated Series.
Yet for all the impressive credits on her IMDB page, few quite compare to her stint overseeing a series about an emotionally unstable Chihuahua and his dim-witted feline friend.
The Ren & Stimpy Show was the brainchild of writer and animator John Kricfalusi and remains a show unlike any other seen before or since, following the absurd and often violent adventure of this unlikely pairing.
With the market for adult-orientated animation at an all-time peak, loaded decided to speak to Coffey about a show that trod a fine line between hilarity, absurdity and controversy.
loaded: Just how influential was The Ren & Stimpy Show?
Coffey: For it’s time, in terms of both style and content, Ren & Stimpy was totally ground-breaking. We didn’t do the typical 22-minute format that was the norm for animation back then. We were doing 11 minutes and breaking it into shorts with things like fake commercials for logs. No one did anything like that back then.
loaded: How did the show get started?
Coffey:I actually helped develop the show with John Kricfalusi [the creator]. Originally Ren and Stimpy were two characters from another show he was pitching to Nickelodeon called “Your Gang”.
I was working as a consultant for them at the time and suggested developing something around Ren and Stimpy, who were the pets in Your Gang. That’s where the love affair between Nickelodeon and Ren & Stimpy began. It was the best time for a long time.
loaded: Did Nickelodeon ever object to some of the content on the show?
Coffey: Oh yes. It was my job to fight for both the artists and the network at the same. I was Vice President of animation at the time and because Nickelodeon didn’t really have much of a standards and practices department not too many people were looking at the shows being produced, so I was kind of allowed to run with what we wanted. I probably crossed the line a few times with what I allowed through.
loaded: Some of the characters are pretty “interesting” to say the least – do you ever look back and wonder how you were able to get away with some of them?
Coffey: Yes. Powdered Toast Man was a favourite of mine but he wasn’t that extreme. We did some interesting things with a character called Mr Horse as I recall. One particular scene involving him, some rubber gloves and a Walrus certainly sticks in the mind. [The scene alludes to some pretty adult themes, as the clip below demonstrates]
There’s also the whole situation with Old Man Hunger in the episode “The Great Outdoors” where he goes skinny dipping with Ren and Stimpy while wearing a chicken drumstick on his head and a band aid on his butt. That was pretty extreme.
I don’t know who came up with that one but I’m still shocked I let it through. It was probably a little too perverted and over-the-top but then it was funny.
[The character was often seen naked and whenever on screen in this particular episode Peer Grynt’s ‘In The Hall Of the Mountain King’ accompanied him in what was a subtle a reference to the film ‘M’ which focused on a child serial killer. The episode was later changed]
loaded: You guys weren’t afraid to poke fun and religion or politics either, were you?
Coffey: We just had fun with it. There were some interesting moments there. I remember a scene Herb Scannell [head of BBC America] wasn’t happy with scene which involved the Pope flying on Powdered Toast Man’s buttocks [laughs] but that was just part of the fun. [Censors later removed the cross from the Pope’s hat while the character’s name was changed to ‘the man with the pointy hat’ in the credits]
loaded: When did things begin to turn sour between John and Nickelodeon?
Coffey: Probably the episode that created such controversy and led to John and Nickelodeon parting ways was “Man’s Best Friend.” [John Kricfalusi was fired as a result of the episode with the show continuing without him before eventually moving over to Spike and a more adult audience]
It wasn’t just that Nickelodeon weren’t happy about the fact it was delivered and over budget but also that the finished scenes were extremely violent and some of the dialogue was disturbing to me.
[The episode saw Ren and Stimpy adopted by the character George Liquor who begins to ‘train’ them. After a series of increasingly disturbing interactions, Ren takes his revenge by savagely beating his new master with an oar. He is then praised and the episode finishes with them dancing and enjoying cigars.]
loaded: What concerned you most about that particular episode?
Coffey: There was this line that still sticks out in my mind that George Liquor kept saying “discipline begets love.” It was just too much. Then you have this whole situation with that same character as a kind of father figure to Ren and Stimpy.
There were scenes of them doing things that were scary and just not appropriate for kids. The animation may have been what made Ren and Stimpy great but they could convey great fear and sadness in ways that could upset kids. [See below]
That final encounter was supposed to be based on some fighting movie but it was just blisteringly violent with Ren hitting George with this big paddle. It was just too much. But I blame myserlf for letting certain pieces of that go in the story board.
Part of the problem was that I didn’t get the episode back in time to make changes and on the appropriate budget so it became a problem.
[This Pencil Test footage highlights some of the concerns surrounding the episode’s content]
loaded: Was that something of a turning point for the show?
Coffey:I think so. It wasn’t delivered on time, the budget had gone completely out of control and there was the content itself which we simply could not broadcast on a kid’s channel.
John ultimately wanted to move it into a more adult direction though. It was very popular with young adults, college students, at the time. But it wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing and it wasn’t what he was supposed to be doing either.
We carried on without him. We ended up doing 52 episodes continuing with people like Bob Camp [who came up with the popular ‘logs’ ads] and a lot of the same writers and directors. We probably could have done even more if the Adult Party show hadn’t started on Spike [in 2003]. It changed the brand from a kids one to an adult one.
loaded: Were you aware there might be a stoner following? The animation is quite trippy in places…
Coffey: I wasn’t personally conscious of that as I don’t do drugs but I think there might have been a component to that. I never heard of it happening though.
I think they were just really creative animators and directors. Animators think differently. They are very introverted and have a lot of interesting thoughts and they usually manifest themselves in their art and it can feel trippy but I think it’s just who they are.
loaded: What those rumours Ren and Stimpy are bisexual? Was that a deliberate move?
Coffey: Whenever I’ve been asked that question I’ve said what they do on their own time is their own business [laughs] when they are off the clock they have their own lives doing what they want to do.
loaded: When you look at the success of shows on Adult Swim, do you ever think there could be potential for a Ren & Stimpy revival?
Coffey: A lot of it would depend on Nickelodeon and Viacom, who own the property. I would hope so as there is definitely a place for it. The show is not just about John either. Don’t get me wrong, I have the upmost respect for him – he has a brilliant mind and a creative genius but it wasn’t just him. It was a collaboration. It takes a village to create a show like that.
loaded: If the show had continued, what would Ren and Stimpy be doing now? Would Ren have killed Stimpy?
Coffey: [Laughs]I think they would still be happily living together though Ren may have tried to kill Stimpy. He would never go through with it though. He loved Stimpy. He’s probably be in anger management classes. They would stay together though – they are lifelong friends.
loaded: Thanks for speaking to us today Vanessa
The Ren & Stimpy Show 25th Anniversary edition is available to purchase on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon now.