John Kricfalusi moved to Los Angeles by way of Ottawa in his early 20s. As an artist and animator, he grew up admiring the work of Tex Avery and Bob Clampett, but in L.A., he was growing tired of the cartoons he was tasked with. “I worked on the worst stuff you’ve ever seen in your life,” he told the New York Times in 1992. “Have you ever seen the Filmation Tom and Jerrys? They ruined Tom and Jerry, they ruined Droopy, they ruined Mighty Mouse. I helped ruin all those characters.”
After working on The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse for CBS, Kricfalusi started his own production company, Spumco. One of the first ideas he pitched to the three networks was The Ren & Stimpy Show, a program about the misadventures of a temperamental chihuahua and an absent-minded cat. The networks passed on the show, but Vanessa Coffey — the executive producer of animation for Nickelodeon — was smitten with Kricfalusi’s pitch, and after another meeting with executives of Nickelodeon, Ren & Stimpy was given a green light.
The Ren & Stimpy Show was a huge hit for the kids’ cable channel, appealing to both kids and adults. Its initial 1991 season netted the show an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Animated Program. The show wasn’t without its detractors, though. Some deemed the show’s humor crude, and offensive to children. In a letter to the Parents Television Council, one viewer described the show as funny, but entirely inappropriate for the younger generation.
For example, I remember coming across Ren & Stimpy on Nickelodeon, and the episode in question had to do with the comparison of the smell of animal feces with two different brands of kitty litter. Now I would be less than honest if I did not say that I personally found this episode uproariously funny from an adult point of view. But I cannot see for the life of me why a network like Nickelodeon would ever allow content like this to be shown to children. Is this the kind of thing that we want our children to see? What were these people thinking?
For the premiere episode of Ren & Stimpy‘s second season, Kricfalusi and his team decided to push the envelope a little bit further. “In the Army/Powdered Toast Man” premiered in August 1992. The second half of the episode focused on Powdered Toast Man (voiced by Gary Owens), a pastor and government clerk by day who moonlights as a superhero. There are some dark moments in the cartoon that would likely not fly by today’s standards, as when he shoots down a passenger flight in order to save a kitten. (The injured survivors of the plane crash still cheer him on.)
It’s Powdered Toast Man’s second act of heroism that resulted in one of the more controversial segments in the series. Our obtuse hero is called upon to rescue the Pope (Frank Zappa), who is tied to a barrel of TNT by an evil fish with a top hat. He rescues the Pope from imminent death, and proceeds to fly away with him on his back. Fearing that fall off of Powdered Toast Man, the Pope grabs and then buries his face in the hero’s butt. Yes, the Pope put his face in the ass of a superhero. The segment ended with another controversial moment: Powdered Toast Man burns the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
In response to the backlash of the episode, further airings featured the Pope without the cross on his hat, and in the credits, his name was changed to “The Man with the Pointy Hat” to appease religious groups upset with the depiction of the Catholic figure. The episode wouldn’t be the last time Kricfalusi and the Spumco team got in hot water over their material. A later episode, “Man’s Best Friend,” featured a scene in which Ren almost beats a man named George Liquor to death. Nickelodeon banned the episode, and fired the entire Spumco team. That episode would finally air on Spike’s Adult Party Cartoon almost a decade later.
It’ll be interesting to see if Nickelodeon airs the Powdered Toast Man segment now that Ren & Stimpy is returning to the Splat block of programming, but just the plane crash scene alone will likely keep it from appearing on the channel again. As for the depiction of the Pope, it would be nice to think that during Pope Francis’ downtime here in the states, someone handed him a tablet with that episode loaded up.