Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story

Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story ★★★★

Dear Letterboxd Family,

This film will probably never see the light of day, and the reasons for that are problematic and understandable. I'm highly conflicted myself but also engrossed by what this doc does, which leads me to ask: Can we openly and critically talk about cancel culture for a moment? It's a difficult topic, I know. It's also tied to a sacred cow of mine, the art vs. the artist. It’s a topic that assumes a lot of the cultural discourse we already share across varying aesthetic boundaries, including, but not limited to, film, music, literature, comedy and other creative fronts. HAPPY HAPPY JOY JOY feels like a perfect specimen to unpack the arguments and see their relationship to the explosive fandom of Ren & Stimpy, its abusive creator, and the sadistic creative process that gave rise to one of the weirdest cartoons ever made.

Let me start by saying I love Ren & Stimpy. Pure and simple. Always have and always will. The Nickelodeon premise of a dog and cat living "on the precipice of insanity and death" will always bring a weird, twisted smile to my face. At the same time, I also think John K. leveraged his standing in the cartoon world to do some manipulative, inexcusable pedophile shit that won't be forgiven any time soon, if at all. So, what am I to do with John the man, and John the artist? Can great art and shitty people coexist?

Let's place these questions in the context of culture. The public excommunication of people who are morally out of bounds, or insufficiently "woke," is part of what cultures do, strive to do, even when failing to do so. It's important to call out bigotry, hold people accountable for shitty actions, and for shitty people to take responsibility for their shitty behavior. Culture cancels its enemies in the attempt to uphold moral norms, to bring justice and cohesion to the social community as a whole. But is there a threshold for all this canceling and dismissal? Is there a point at which we're not just wanting to cancel the person, but in fact erase his or her entire existence, including any objects or art they might have created?

This is where I personally draw a line. In the case of Ren & Stimpy (like practically every animation, and film for that matter) you have to remind yourself that it was a collaborative effort first and foremost. John K. was the brains behind the concept, and yes, the ultimate authority behind execution, but animators and storyboarders like Bob Camp, Lynne Naylor, Vanessa Coffey and Chris Reccardi were also at the fore adding their own unique charm to the show, making it something more army-driven than creator-driven.

Auteur theory, unfortunately, has really jacked up how we think about the creative process, and has made it easy to throw the artistic baby out with the artistic bath water when it comes to authorial scandal. The doc highlights, however, the fact that there were many people involved with Ren & Stimpy, and that many of them now have to reconcile their incredibly freaky show with something that's "covered in shit paint."

If you walked in blind having no clue that John K. was courting a 15-year-old girl when he was 41 in the mid-90s, you'd be totally grossed out and blind-sighted by those last 20min because the majority of the doc isn't even about any of that. It's largely about the guy's sadistic genius and creative process, and his increasingly abusive and dysfunctional behavior that got warped into a grotesque cartoon that led to its final downfall in the late 90s. Unlike LEAVING NEVERLAND which incriminates MJ for hours and lends a voice to his victims-turned-survivors, HAPPY HAPPY JOY JOY places John K., the abuser himself, front and center, which not only was the most surprising but also the most disturbing element of the doc. 

In the filmmaker's defense, they had shot and nearly completed the doc almost two weeks prior to when the BuzzFeed bombshell dropped in March 2018, which caused a riptide in direction to the story they were trying to tell but were forced to reexamine. Giving the amount of screen time to John K. is problematic itself, but the doc does illustrate his toxic personality, his monstrosity and tyranny over others, even while doing a shoddy job at deep-dive exploring his most destructive parts. He's painted as a madman more than a pedophile, but it never feels glorifying as it does head-scratching. For example, how much of his perversions bled into Ren & Stimpy itself? The show is filled with innuendo and gross-out body humor, it's hard not to see the overlapping connection. What does that do to the show's legacy? Can we separate the art from the artist here? 

I wish more time was given to Robyn Byrd, the victim of the story. She's treated with respect throughout, but it's a shame she's not given more of a voice. The last 20 min are shoe-horned in (like a footnote) to wedge an uncomfortable truth about a monster who used his position of power unrighteously, and which should've been handled with more care. The fact that John K. is given a platform to speak will piss a lot of people off, and like I said at the beginning, I'll be shocked if this gets distribution especially in the age of #MeToo. And to that effect, John K. has set himself up to feel the weight of cancel culture, while viewers watching this doc will be forced into the cognitively dissonant space of rethinking not just his legacy, but what it means for Ren & Stimpy itself.

Personally, I believe the art/artist debate is a sticky one, but I lean on the side of punishing the person, not the art. There should be a sensible way to banish the person legally without erasing the art. We seem incapable of doing that at the moment. I worry about cancel culture for the same reasons I worry about censorship. I am STRONGLY against censorship in the realm of art. There's a long dark history of totalitarianism censoring artists, and it ain't pretty. The idea of banning books, banning films, and erasing them from historical memory simply because you detest what the artists do as people sets up an impossible moral standard for artists, and people generally, because pretty soon we start moving morality to meet whatever the current cultural zeitgeist is, which trends over time as people shed ideologies they've outgrown.

Yes, it's very easy to cancel rapists, pedophiles, Nazis and cannibalists and treat them as pariahs because these issues are transpartisan, meaning nearly everyone holds them as immoral regardless of their social or political opinions. But what about when we move beyond "I won't support artists who commit bad behavior" to "I won't support artists who have bad opinions"? 

What about when we learn that our favorite shoe manufacturer, or clothing line, or restaurant, or local grocer secretly exploits poor workers to make their products? It starts with saying we don't want art from pedophiles. Then it's we don't want art from racists, then homophobes, then adulterers, then liars, then tax-violaters, then whatever other sin you invent. Any human infraction and we scream “CANCEL HIM/HER!” It's a path towards fundamentalist thinking, which Twitter neo-liberals would have mobs calling them woke for saying, "Yes! Cancel all those mother-fuckers!" However, I'm quite confident that given enough time and unraveling you can dig up dirt on any artist or person which will make it questionable whether you should support them. People are complicated and flawed and shitty and messy and just because they suck at being human doesn't mean we censor their art. Today's liberalism censoring art is sadly looking more and more like what we used to call fascism, and it will be the death of art as we know it. 

I don't like pedophiles. I don't like rapists. But I'm not willing to censor their art and ban their books and erase them from historical memory simply because I detest what they do as people. I'm not saying you have to like them. I'm not saying you have to buy their music or read their books. By all means refuse to consume their art. But I am against the mob-like Twitter mentality that says let's ban together to erase these people in the name of fake virtue. Producing great art is very hard; being a shitty human is very easy. I’d hate to lose out on great art, which is rare, because the artist was a shitty human, which is common. No, producing great art does not give your reprehensible behavior a “pass”. It can and should be condemned, particularly if it was in violation of laws. But great art is a treasure of far greater value to human civilization than to make its worth dependent on the virtue of the creator.

I believe in what Keats called "negative capability," or the ability to have uncertainties, doubts and above all paradoxical contradictions without the need to resolve such inconsistencies of thought. Things can be both logical and illogical to me, both moral and immoral simultaneously coexisting. John K. the pedophile and Ren & Stimpy the work of art can live side by side. I don't need a unified and cohesive ethical entity of art and artist. Compartmentalizing John K. and Ren & Stimpy isn't to treat it lightly and it's not some escapism route. It’s simply to coexist with inherent contradictions. There seem to be a lot of contemporary millennials and gen-z who are unable to exist with this cognitive dissonance and demand a uniform cultural cohesion which I find absurd and impractical. As I said in my LEAVING NEVERLAND review, "I'm comfortable living with the uncomfortable cognitive dissonance that artistic paradox demands, and find that the most worthwhile cultural discussions will not ask me to choose either-or propositions, but instead will ask me to transcend them."

Watched at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival