Once upon a time, before The Powerpuff Girls and Pokémon, before South Park and Toy Story too, the cartoon universe was ruled by a big dumb cat who coughed hairballs and his little buddy, a space-mad Chihuahua with a Peter Lorre voice.
At that time, around 1991, it seemed like the subversive juggernaut of anarchic impropriety that was The Ren and Stimpy Show could not be stopped. But within a year, the powers that were at Nickelodeon labeled the cartoon's creator, visionary cartoonist John K. (Kricfalusi) "difficult" and a deadline-dodger. He was kicked off his own show. Instantly Ren and Stimpy, a show so outrageous that its emotional high-point featured a character's teary reunion with his own fart, began to really stink.
Fast-forward to fall, 1999. John K. returns to television for the first time in seven years with new installments of Yogi Bear on the Cartoon Network. "Boo Boo Runs Wild" and "A Day in the Life of Ranger Smith," which were produced for Hanna-Barbera by John K.'s studio Spumco, shatter numerous 'toon taboos.
Not only do the episodes feature the beloved bears Yogi and Boo Boo naked (without hats or ties), and the cute Boo Boo going back to nature (grunting and drooling on all fours), but there is also a knock-down-drag-out fight between Ranger Smith and Yogi. But if you missed the cartoons when they first aired in September, good luck finding them. The network rarely repeats them.
Surprised? John K. isn't. After all, he only did the project out of a long-standing love for the Hanna-Barbera characters. As for television, there is no love lost between the cartoonist and that medium. John K. has long known that the next place for 'toons to rule is the Internet.
In September 1997, Spumco created "The Goddamn George Liquor Program," the first cartoon produced exclusively for the Internet. And in the year 2000, John K. will be a principal player in the launch of RealCartoons.net, the Web's first all-cartoon network. In addition to playing original Spumco favorites like George Liquor and Jimmy the Idiot Boy, the network will showcase new Spumco cartoons that use classic Harvey Entertainment characters like Little Audrey, Little Dot, and Spooky.
GettingIt spoke with John K. about Yogi, Spumco, and the future of cartoons on the Internet.
GETTINGIT: In the new Yogi cartoons for Hanna-Barbera you seem to be sending these established icons into some pretty uncharted territory. First there's the fact that Yogi and the Ranger actually physically fight, and you also have Boo Boo acting like, of all things... an actual bear.
JOHN K: Well, I think Hanna-Barbera actually created a lot of characters that they didn't develop far enough. The whole Yogi/Ranger Smith thing has just a hilarious relationship potential. They had their funny moments in some of the early cartoons. But they never seemed to exaggerate it enough. They never pushed it far enough. Not like the Warner Brothers cartoons where they just went all out.
GI: Why did you decide to bring back the Ranger Smith character?
JK: I always thought he was a funny character because he's an authority figure who gets his rocks off making up arbitrary rules for the forest creatures. He's just some guy horning in on the bear's natural environment and telling him what to do. I think authority is funny. Arbitrary authority is funny. It's a bad thing, but it's also laughable.
GI: You have also returned these characters to their original park environment and their original relationships, which they strayed from over the years.
JK: Hanna-Barbera has a great history of making classic characters, and then taking out everything that made them successful in the first place. Saturday morning cartoons in general have that tendency. When the Saturday morning cartoons were invented, the network executives took over and that was like a complete reversal of all of cartoon history. In all of previous cartoon history all of the great cartoons were created by cartoonists.
[Network executives] used to revive all the old characters like Popeye and stuff. They made a million Popeye cartoons where he didn't fight. They'd have him where he's friends with Bluto and stuff. Which is insane! What's the point of doing it? What's Popeye doing? Why doesn't he kick ass? If you don't want to do that then you don't do the Popeye cartoon!
GI: It seems that the Cartoon Network hasn't been playing the Yogi Bear/Ranger Smith shows much. Did they break any promises to you in their plans to schedule the show?
JK: We were never involved in any of those plans. We just gave it to the Cartoon Network and they could put it on whenever they wanted.
GI: There's a place on your Spumco Web site where people can write to the network to try and persuade them to re-air it. Do you think there's a chance that fan pressure will get the shows back on?
JK: That network doesn't listen to the audience much. They actually make fun of the audience. One of the things that they do is they read these people's letters who complain about a lot of the shit they do. They read them on television and make fun of them. I can't even watch that network. It's got all my favorite cartoons on, and in between the cartoons they cut up all the old cartoons and put them together in a new order and then they add rap songs on top of it and then they slap their fuckin' giant logos all over everything. They have the classic Tex Avery cartoons and Chuck Jones. And you can't even watch them.
GI: As someone who's had difficulties with TV networks and censors, what do you see as the differences between programming on TV and on the Web?
JK: The Web is going to be different than television because the Web is theoretically an infinite amount of choices, and people are only going to go to sites that they actually like. People's psychology online is very different than when they're watching television. When they're watching television they're used to being passive and having no say in it. And then they don't really watch it -- they just flip the channels because nobody's giving them what they want.
Online people reveal their real personalities a lot more. They only go to the places that they actually enjoy. And if they don't like something -- when they post to a site or whatever -- people are just screaming! People are uninhibited online -- it's a more totally psychological environment than all previous media. The people that are going to be successful are the people that are going to give the audience what they want.
Television and movie business is structured to not give you what you want. It's just way too bureaucratic and too complicated, with too many things filtering in between the creator and the audience. Online that won't happen.
GI: What do people want?
JK: What people want is invention. I don't think they want a formula. They want constant surprise and to not be able to predict where the story's gonna go. One of the big surprises I had when I was at Ren and Stimpy was that I was always breaking the formula. People kept wanting me to create a formula for Ren and Stimpy and you couldn't do it. I'm just basically opposed to formula. Everytime I figure out how to do something, I don't want to do it any more.
Evan O'Sullivan is a freelance writer and video producer. He is best known for his alter ego, comedy performance artist Evan O'Television.