Tag Archives: Ren & Stimpy

The Seedy Adult Underworld of 80s Family Entertainment

I know every generation says this about the decades when they came of age, but growing up in the 80s was seriously a whole different world; like living on another planet at times.  There was a lot more going on when it came to entertainment aimed at kids in terms of adult themes and material that surely went over the head of most of the viewing audience.  Looking back I love this and really appreciate that the creators and writers didn’t dumb down the content, even if some of it might stray a little further towards “adult” than many people might realize. You definitely saw this in a cartoon like Ren & Stimpy (which granted was the early 90s, but was the culmination of the freedom the previous decade expressed), which constantly toed the line of what was considered decent for a kid’s show.  Heck, I’ve mentioned before that I think John Kricfalusi is very probably the guy responsible for animating anthropomorphic penis aliens into the background sequences in the Saturday morning cartoon Galaxy High (particularly in the first and second episodes)…

Galaxy High penis creature 2

I was having a conversation with a co-worker the other day about catching up with some 80s flicks that they hadn’t seen in over 20 years, in particular Ghostbusters and the Goonies.  The topic turned to the awkward dream sequence featuring a sex scene between Dan Aykroyd’s Ray Stanz and spectral “presence”.  I guess you could call it oral innuendo, but the background behind that sequence is pretty plain.  Ray banged a ghost.  It’s one of the interesting aspects of reading the original Richard Mueller novelization

Ghostbusters Novelization

In the book (which is based on the Aykroyd/Ramis screenplay) we learn that, that dream sequence was actually from a real sequence planned for later in the film.  Right after Ray and Winston are driving through the city talking about the end of the world, when the two go to Fort Detmerring looking for a spook. They split up and Ray stumbles upon a room that is a replica of a revolutionary war officer’s barracks. He finds a uniform and puts it on, lays on a bed and promptly falls asleep. When he wakes, the ghost they were looking for is about to go to town on his junk. Apparently this sequence was largely cut, but I’m betting none of them wanted to ditch the blowjob joke, so they sandwiched it into the montage (and it also explains the old war uniform Ray is wearing beyond the fact that they morphed the scene into a dream.)  What’s even weirder is that this is actually the culmination of a plot thread in the book where Ray is both lonely and changing his feelings about catching the ghosts. Since Peter is courting Dana and (in the book) Egon and Janine are becoming an item, Ray is looking to blow off some steam, and the experience with the ghost is just what he was looking for. Also, there’s a bit with Ray thinking about how it might be wrong to catch these ghosts just to jail them in the containment unit, and when he awakes to his spectral date-night he wonders if maybe some ghosts are good.

The author, Mueller, actually expands the sexuality in the novel here and there. For instance, everyone thinks about sex to one degree or another, but if I’m used to dealing with a character where this is never brought up, say the Librarian in the opening sequence of Ghostbusters, then when she starts “thinking” about how she feels guilty for seeking out all kinds of ancient kinky woodcuts featuring taboo sexual practices in the library’s non-public collection, well, I get a little weirded out. As far as I can tell, the librarian character in the script is slightly different; she’s written to be rotund and in her mid to late twenties, but for all intents and purposes the scene in the script is almost shot for shot what we’ve come to know and love in the final film. Mueller, though, felt the need to paint her as a bit more sad and depraved, which for an incidental character is pretty weird. This sort of thing pops up here and there in the novel, including in the scene where we’re first introduced to Dana as she gets out of a cab and goes into her building. The narrative is fractured into a bunch of perspectives as a handful of people on the street take notice of her and give their two cents. One of these includes an elderly man walking his dog who glances at her and thinks, “…how long (has) it been since it’s been long…

This is actually a trend in 80s era novelizations, and for some movies that might be surprising, like say, the Goonies book

Goonies Novelization

Now you may be asking what could possibly be sexualized in the Goonies, I mean it’s not like there’s a secret love scene between Chunk and Sloth right?!?  Well, Sloth love Chunk, but that’s actually (and thankfully) not explored in the novel, but that didn’t stop author James Kahn from evoking electricity-induced orgasms.  Say what?!  Um yeah.  So in the wishing well sequence, at the end, after Andy has sent up the bucket empty, all the kids realize that they’re covered in leeches. Data has a bright idea and end up strapping two wires to a 20-volt battery. He sticks the wires in the water by his feet sending a light electrical charge through his body that’s lethal enough to kill the leeches. He does this for the rest of them, and afterwards, James Kahn tags on a small scene that is, well, almost obscene. After getting the shock, Andy and Stef are standing off to the side, and Kahn describes them as having “…limp smile(s) and small sigh(s)…” Then Stef says to Andy, “I got all tingly – just my luck, I’m in love with a pond!” After which the following passage appears: ‘It annoyed Andy, for some reason, I don’t know, like someone had made her feel good and she didn’t want to…’ Then Andy hauls off and slaps Data saying “Don’t-you-ever-try-that-again-with-me-Buster!” What the hell! Did Kahn actually suggest that Andy and Stef had orgasms from the electric shock!?!  Yeah, yeas he did.

What I’m really curious about is how much of this was in the original shooting script.  I know the leech sequence was in the script (as it made it’s way into both version of the book, including the leaner kid’s version) and was shot and deleted (and has sadly been lost to time), but how much of the subtly was in the actual film versus something that Kahn added for the book.  On the one hand, looking back this is so weird and out of place in the story, yet I have to remind myself that I was reading about pre-teen and teen orgasms in Judy Blume books when I was 7 years old!

There had to be flicks that were completely pure and free from blowjobs and sexual innuendo though right?  I mean you’d never see any of that in E.T. The Extra Terrestrial right?!  Wrong.  Again, taking a look at the novelization by William Kotzwinkle we get a much darker depiction of the story than what would eventually end up on film (well, I’m assuming the following sequences weren’t shot…)

ET Novelization

There’s a sequence in the novel where Elliot, Steve and Gertie’s mother Mary (played by an exasperated Dee Wallace in the film) is so lonely and lost in her own mind that she fantasizes about disappearing from life and, believe it or not, masturbation. (See page 17; the innuendo is there.) She’s also simultaneously dreading the world her children have to face, wondering if they’ll succumb to overdosing on drugs, all while listening in on them playing a campaign of Dungeons and Dragons in the kitchen.  There’s also portions of the book where E.T. becomes weirdly stalker-ish and longs to bond with Mary, starring at her from the closet, thinking about how he could fulfill her needs.  E.T. even gets pretty downright creepy in the sequel novel, E.T. The Book of the Green Planet, where he reaches out to his long lost friend from Earth, melding with the now older Elliot’s mind from across the cosmos.  It comes across very peeping Tom-like, and sort of disturbing.  Experiencing love and yearning “through” Elliot.

ET sequel

All in all, though all of this adult stuff might seem really questionable on the surface of things, again, I’m really glad that these authors and creators took the chance to expose kids to the real world.  Some of it is for the sake of comedy, some of it is important info that awkward pre-teens probably need, and some of it is just exploring deeper adult themes.  Weird, interesting and kind of neat…

Getting Slimed by the Oral History of Nickelodeon…

Sometimes it’s really hard to find the balance between being a fan of something and being, well, fanatical. I’m not making a judgment call on one being better or worse, it’s more of a perspective thing; how often times I have a hard time knowing where the line is between wading out far enough into the pop culture sea to swim and where it begins to get so deep that I’m constantly worried about drowning in useless knowledge. I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot while reading the recently published book, Slimed!: An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age by Mathew Klickstein. When I saw the book on Amazon I immediately put it on my wish list as I’m a huge fan of Nick, particularly the stuff that aired between ’81-’95 or so. I grew up on the fledgling channel’s syndicated content like Pinwheel, Mr. Wizard’s World, Out of Control, Danger Mouse, Count Duckula, Paddington Bear, and You Can’t Do That on Television, and loved the shift into original programming in the mid to late 80s through the 90s with stuff like Double Dare, Nick Arcade, Hey Dude, Welcome Freshman, Salute Your Shorts, The Adventures of Pete & Pete, and Clarissa Explains It All, not to mention their groundbreaking foray into animation with shows like Rugrats, Ren & Stimpy, Doug, and Rocko’s Modern Life. I was lucky to be one of the kids with access to cable in the early 80s and had a chance to watch the network blossom from a very independent-minded kids channel into the juggernaut of a brand that it is today.

Slimed

I was super stoked when my parents sent me the book for Christmas and immediately tore into it looking for the story behind the network and shows I loved so much as a kid. But after only a few pages I noticed something that really started to bug me, specifically with the format the author chose to deliver the history of Nickelodeon, the “oral history”. For those unfamiliar, oral histories utilize firsthand accounts on a subject via interviews with those who were intimately involved. Whether it’s using vintage print or video interviews, or new ones with pointed questions to document a specific period of time or event, the idea is to capture the thoughts and feelings unfiltered by a single person’s perspective (outside of editing of course.) Though information gathered in this manner is still biased from interviewee to interviewee, a balance forms as more and more subjects are brought in to speak on a particular subject. Though the technique is far from new, there have been a bunch of books utilizing this format to tackle sprawling subjects like the birth and rise of punk rock (Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me), the Post Punk music landscape (Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life), or the history of Saturday Night Live (Tom Shale’s Live From New York.) These books range from brilliant (Please Kill Me) to brilliant train wrecks (Live From New York), with much of the praise or problems falling squarely on how well organized the information is presented. You see these books are largely if not completely a collection of attributed quotes; page after page of snippets strung together by theme or timeline (or both), with little to no summation by the author/editor. In the case of Please Kill Me, McNeil and McCain exhaustively separate the interview snippets in bite-size four-year chunks, sub-categorized by theme (or band.) Though there is an appendix listing every participating interviewee and how they fit into the story of punk, the way they’re presented you get to know these contributors and the need to flip to the end of the book to figure out who is speaking is rare. On the other end of the spectrum you have Live From New York, which flits from topic to topic with little to no connective tissues between interview blurbs.

Unfortunately Slimed! falls into the category of brilliant train wreck. How many of you recognize the laundry list of shows I mentioned in the opening paragraph? Okay, for all those that raised their hand, how many of you can name the actual actors, voice actors, animators, directors and producers on more than one of those shows? I’m betting a lot of those hands dropped. I hardly consider myself a Nick historian, but after a bunch of conversations with friends I’ve found that I’ve managed to remember way more stuff about the channel than I probably should know. But if my life depended on naming anyone in the cast of Clarissa Explains It All besides Melissa Joan Hart, well, let’s just say I’d be price-shopping for cheap cremations. This is the first place where this book falls down. Though there is a detailed alphabetically ordered list of interviewees at the back of the book, I found myself constantly flipping to the back to figure out who was talking. Though the author goes to pains to defend his formatting choices (specifically in response to any 1-3 star reviews on Amazon that mention the formatting issues) stating that he put a lot of thought into trying to make sure each person’s opening quote mentioned any pertinent shows they were involved in, I think he’s deluded himself into thinking that the readers are as versed in Nickelodeon as he’s become over conducting the numerous interviews and research to put the book together. Klickstein goes on to champion the “oral history” format by mentioning the thematic threads in the seven chapters of the book (target demographics, music & sound design, visual design, diversity in cast & crew, problems at the network, and the end of the pre-corporate era) and how they supposedly help to keep the reader engaged in the “story of Nickelodeon”, any tonal threads he attempts to weave are dashed by the reader consistently having to flip to the back to figure out who is talking, and about which show. The author/editor references McNeil and McCain’s Please Kill Me numerous times (in the acknowledgements and in responses to reviews on Amazon) as the gold standard and what he took inspiration from when formatting his Nick history. Unfortunately he seems to have missed the forest for the trees as he utilizes little to none of the clear organization of that book. PKM goes year by year, band by band, whereas Slimed! constantly jumps around throughout the 80s and 90s, and never stays on a show for more than a quote or two at a time. While he would like to think that the thematical separation addresses this, the first three chapters have a ton of overlap that makes the initial hundred pages annoying to try and follow.

The formatting issue is compounded by Klickstein’s reluctance to insert his presence into the book as the interviewer. With absolutely no summary or synopsis to lead the interviewee responses the reader is left with only the very general themed topics to try and figure out what the conversation is driving at during a good chunk of the book. There are things brought up that aren’t explained, like the failed Clarissa sequel series pilot called Clarissa Now or references to people who weren’t interviewed (and thus not given a bio in the book), which requires some time spent on Wikipedia to fill in the gaps that the book just does not even bother to try addressing. There are also frequent points in which the quotes reference the inferred questions Klickstein asked, which makes it awkward when you’re left guessing exactly what that question is.  I find it hard to believe that the idea of ordering the quotes by year or grouping them show by show (or at least adding a series annotation by each quote instead of just the name of the person speaking) would have hurt the narrative flow of the book that Klickstein is trying to establish.

For all my nit picking about format, I want to stress that this book is a “brilliant” train wreck. Just because it’s super annoying to try and sift through, doesn’t mean that it’s not well worth the time as it’s chock full of interesting facts and observations from the folks that brought Nickelodeon to life. There’s some great background on You Can’t Do That On Television that wasn’t covered in David Dillehunt’s documentary (You Can’t Do That On Film), as well as some amazing behind the scenes stories about that first wave of Nicktoons (particularly Doug which is a show that seems to get lost between the insanity of Ren & Stimpy and the popularity of Rugrats.) I loved reading about the thought put into the Double Dare obstacle course, how ahead of its time Nick Arcade was, finding out about the awkward teenage romance and breakups behind the scenes of shows like Hey Dude, Clarissa Explains It All and Welcome Freshman. Did you know Michael “Donkey Lips” Bower actually broke that fishing reel in the credits sequence of Salute Your Shorts (and ending up ad-libbing the line about it falling apart?) The book is a treasure trove of fun trivia and helps to pull the curtain back on the shows and a network that helped to define our collective childhoods. It’s just unfortunate that getting through it all is a lot like reading stereo instructions.

Though I wish the formatting had kept the reader in mind, and it would have been nice to get more information oon the ’79-’85 Nick lineup of series (it barely mentions stuff like Pinwheel, Out of Control, Mr. Wizard’s World or the slew of other early shows, and completely omits Turkey Television, Belle and Sebastian, The Mysterious Cities of Gold and The Little Prince), I’d have to recommend the book on the trivia alone.  If you’re a fan of the channel and don’t mind risking a case of carpel tunnel after flipping to the back of the book six billion times, check out Slimed!: An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age