Context for those who never saw it the first time: This is from one of the most famous episodes, where Stimpy has gotten tired of Ren being grouchy and forced a mind control helmet onto him which makes him happy against his will. Then the song comes along with “I don’t think you’re happy enough! That’s right! I’ll TEACH you to be happy! I’ll teach your grandmother to suck eggs!”
And here we thought we’d never get the occasion to post it.
Does Ren & Stimpy hold up today?
That’s the big question! It remains to be seen.
Ren & Stimpy, as it aired in the first place, was sort of innovative in that its core ideals hadn’t been on TV in a long time. It was a new wave of “cartoons for grownups,” with sophisticated satire, a cynical outlook, and a pitch-black sense of dark humor.
That essay is just our point here: In Ren & Stimpy‘s day, dark and cynical humor in cartoons hadn’t been done in awhile, so it was fresh again. It also came out at the beginning of the 1990s, a relentlessly positive time in the West, on Nickelodeon, which made it a little more shocking. Nick had grown up with its Generation X audience and decided we were ready to graduate from Inspector Gadget.
But the ’90s marched on to a cavalcade of other cartoons doing the same thing. In fact, that’s our whole purpose here is to borrow the spotlight off Ren & Stimpy for those of you looking for more animation in this vein. But because R&S was so influential, it might suffer now from reverse-impostor syndrome, where it lives in the shadow of the many, many shows it inspired. Add to that, R&S was watched most of all for its excellent writing.
That’s lightning in a bottle, hard to recapture two decades later even if you bring back the same writers. Which Comedy Central has avowed ain’t gonna happen, based on the now-notorious reputation of R&S creator John Kricfalusi. The man is a poop, OK? I said it.
Anyway, shows that a Ren & Stimpy fan will probably love:
USA Network followed suit the closest after Ren & Stimpy with Duckman, in 1994. This is probably the prime example of the student outshining the master. Ren & Stimpy had sophisticated humor but kids could still laugh at the gross-out gags. Duckman leaves no doubt that it’s for an all-adult audience because you need an adult attention span to follow Jason Alexander’s long-winded rants delivered at a near-auctioneer pace. For once, Nostalgia Critic nails it in declaring Duckman ahead of its time:
That retrospective also serves as a fantastic introduction to the show for the 90% of you hearing about it for the first time. Take my word for it, Duckman had a style all its own and production quality to burn, while looking ahead to tropes we’re still seeing in animated shows today. You could rerun Duckman right now and have every episode still be relevant and still feel ahead of its time. Even if it wasn’t wholly influenced by Ren & Stimpy, it was a better follow-up than the shows that came after, yet it was tragically forgotten on the niche USA Network that barely had any subscribers at the time.
If the Ren & Stimpy reboot doesn’t live up to your expectations, Duckman is my #1 recommendation to surpass them.
How to explain this show? More so than any other cartoon on this list, Sam & Max was about surreal humor. It was a parody of police procedural detective shows, which actually puts it in the league of the live-action show Police Squad. The humor is not for everybody! It’s mostly an exercise in deconstructing a world gone totally mad, a universe that makes zero sense, and the breezy and carefree way the main characters take it in stride. This was another show arguably ahead of its time.
While the first two shows we listed here were ahead of their time, The Critic belongs squarely in the mid-1990s, which is exactly when it aired. If it makes you think of a Simpsons spin-off, that’s almost what it was, since it was created by two former Simpsons writers.
This is another short-lived micro-series which brought the animated format to a grownup audience. In fact, it’s barely distinguishable from an adult sitcom. It also has a lot more in common with shows like Family Guy than with Ren & Stimpy. The character of the title critic was tailor-written for actor Jon Lovitz; like him, the character is an intellectual geek out of touch with his times. Being a movie critic just lets the show take free popshots at everything in pop culture. The Critic is a show aimed straight at the high-brow end of the audience. It’s worth checking out, but don’t expect many Ren & Stimpy vibes here.
Yeah! Now we’re talking adult animation! Archer takes “cartoons for adults” into sexually explicit territory and represents the spirit of Ren & Stimpy taken to a new level, while replacing the aesthetic with – I dunno, Dic’s G.I. Joe? The only reason we don’t focus on it more prominently here is because this show is still very popular and memed to death all over the web.
Archer is so far away from Ren & Stimpy though that it’s only tenuously related through the concept of “adult-oriented animation.” Let’s also face it: Archer is a very static show. It has its safe little College-Humor formula and never deviates from it. While the other cartoons on this post were endlessly inventive, Archer is like a pop band that releases a whole album of songs using the same three chords.
Side note: Beavis and Butthead?
Beavis and Butthead is arguably cut from the same cloth as Ren & Stimpy, but the two shows ran concurrently to the point where they nearly competed for time slots. Thus, neither of them are a successor to the other. For that matter, B&B is even lower-brow than R&S, although the spin-off show Daria is its own kind of beast for another post.
Honorable mention: South Park and Rick & Morty
Obviously, both South Park and Rick & Morty are the two most definitive shows standing on the shoulders of Ren & Stimpy. I just didn’t see the need to go into them in depth because, come on, who doesn’t know about these two shows? South Park is running long past its recommended retirement age, while Rick & Morty is still going strong.
South Park is one show that truly draws from the same well as Ren & Stimpy, particularly in the beginning seasons. The older the show gets, the harder it is to tell it apart from The Simpsons. Meanwhile Rick & Morty is basically “Post-Internet Duckman for sci-fi fans.” Think it over.
So now that we see the competition…
Does Ren & Stimpy hold up today? The original show did have a unique character and tone to it that flat out can’t be imitated. For one thing, it has this retro 1960s motif mixed into its satire. Now re-watch the original Log parody commercial (hint: the music comes from vintage Slinky commercials):
At the same time, the show had this abstract take on modern anxieties and headlines up to the minute. This gives it a timeless quality, but that is going to be the hardest part to replicate here in the 2020s. R&S came out in the peak of the animation renaissance. Animation today, like all kinds of media, is wrestled away from the studio system while the indie and homemade productions stand on equal footing. When R&S came out, part of its freshness was due to the culture having not much to go on at the time but cable TV. Heck, cable was still a novelty in some parts. The R&S reboot will have to stand up to something that never existed on its first run: social media criticism.
Be nice to the show, OK kids? It’s a venerated senior now. Without its influence, dozens of other cartoons wouldn’t be what they are today.