The term "space madness" keeps coming up while I'm working on Sick day. It first appeared because, at 8 AM, I couldn't remember the phrase "cabin fever." And then I remembered the episode of Ren & Stimpy. And that's why I capitalized it.
I don't know how universal an experience Ren & Stimpy was. I remember vividly watching the first seasons as they aired, sometimes with groups other boys at a friend's house. I was 11 or 12. A few years later, they were off the air. People younger than I was may have missed them entirely.
Research, and the memory of a friend who was a few years older in 1991, and thus more savvy to how these things worked, reveals that Nickelodeon fired the creator John K after the second season. By coincidence, reviewing the episode summaries, I only recall episodes from seasons one and two, which are where all the classics reside. Anyone who saw seasons after those would've had a completely different, and completely inferior, experience with Ren & Stimpy.
Having gone back and watched the Space Madness episode, it's a bigger part of my subconscious than I suspected. Every line was crisply familiar, probably from having repeated it aloud relentlessly as a kid. And more importantly: it's almost a perfect template for the script I'm presently writing.
A duo are trapped in a closed environment. They are soon overwhelmed with free time and try to spend "quality time" together. But it leads to boredom, irritation, and rage. They see one another as hideous, and then they try to kill each other. It is . . . amazing.
Then, I watched the other episode I remembered, the one with "Don't Whiz on the Electric Fence." That one is called Sven Hoek, and it was even MORE familiar.
It's about Stimpy, and his new friend Sven, who is Ren's idiotic cousin. They sit at home, trapped by a rainy day, bored, getting into trouble. The patience and visual ridiculousness in this episode is absolutely perfect. Viewer discomfort rises steadily at the sheer weirdness of it all, broken by delightfully strange moments, such as Sven and Stimpy smashing their faces gleefully against a piece of glass.
Then, when Ren returns home to see what they've done to the house, he gives them the most hilariously tense and protracted series of threats I've ever seen. Here, we have Ren & Stimpy's perfectly encapsulated: a balance between real danger and childish glee.
It is an amazing work of comedy.
There's another episode where a man screams a joke, veins pulsing in his neck, his body huge and threatening. He says in a creepy, evil voice: "Why did they bury the fireman... behind... the hill...?" Long pause – then - screamed in an explosion of rage: "BECAUSE HE WAS DEAD!!!" This is followed by insane laughter, laughter that the listeners do not share. It is another perfect summation of the show's universe, carefully located between fear and ridiculousness.
In short, I returned to something that I loved when I was 11, and it held up perfectly. It was improved, in fact. Sure, it is full of juvenile jokes about boogers and farts, but so is the script I'm writing now, it turns out.
It's all about how it's handled, and in the early Ren & Stimpy, it's all handled with artful insanity, with perfect control of tone and delivery. Every moment is pure comedic style, full of surprises and risks, discovering new ways to create tension and then release it.
The series clearly shaped my idea of what makes for good comedy. Perhaps I should be embarrassed to realize this at the age 30, but I'm not. A big part of my sensibility about what makes for a risky, smart, original comedy - leads back to those greatest episodes of Ren & Stimpy.
Check them out on YouTube; several episodes are illegally available there in HD.
Seasons one and two are available on DVD as a boxed set, about $32.
Avoid the later seasons, which are basically rote copies of the earlier seasons, with much of the terror stripped out.
But also avoid John K's later "lost episodes," which add too much openly adult humor, robbing the show of its tense surrealism. The simple addition of naked breasts and curse-words push these episodes into the frat-boy arena, knocking it wholly off its nervous-energy-charged perch between violence and silliness.
A reminder: greatness is precarious. It's in the details.