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In Sundance Doc, "Ren And Stimpy" Saluted; Its Creator Is Scorned For History Of Sex Abuse

The Sundance documentary “Happy, Happy, Joy Joy” turns out to be two different stories.   One is a fond look back at the ground-breaking animated series “Ren and Stimpy.” 

But the other half of the film looks at the revelations of sexual abuse by the show’s creator.

The film-makers say they themselves were surprised by the twist.

In a Q and A after the premiere of the film this week, co-director Ron Cicero said they had completed a version of the film that was a nostalgic celebration of the early-90’s Nickelodeon series, which fans say has been an influence on just about every animated show since then.

Then in early 2018, Buzzfeed reported the accusations of two women that the show’s temperamental creator, John Kricfalusi, or ‘John K” had groomed and lured them into sexually abusive relationships when they were underage.   

Cicero said they  re-tooled the film to include the new information, with remarks especially from one accuser, Robyn Byrd.     The film also reported stories of him mistreating his employees and the conflicts with Nickelodeon, which ultimately got him fired from the show.

Cicero told the audience they just wanted to present the evidence on a story that had many different perspectives.       

“You’re gonna talk to so many different people, and they’re gonna be so many different perspectives.  And everybody from their perspective is right on John, on the show.  And what made this so incredibly complex is that you have people that suffered, like Robyn, at the very one end of the extreme, to people that worked with John who suffered, to fans.  We interviewed a lot of fans, not all of them made it up on film of course, but would say, “Look, the last time I saw my mom smile was when we were watching “Ren and Stimpy” just before she died of cancer.   This is a show that hit people very deeply.  It’s heartbreaking to see them conflicted.”

He said the film considers the question, “ How is the art affected by the artist?”   Cicero said they’re not telling the audience how to answer.     

“Both in entertainment and in wider society, how do you—It’s not just art vs. artist.   How do you balance the trauma of a few against the needs of millions.”

He said hopefully the film starts a discussion of how to prevent this kind of abuse.

Co-director Kimo Easterwood  said that Kricfalusi refused to talk to them until the abuse reports surfaced.     He said that despite his easy-going façade before the camera, he was an evasive, volatile character who would just walk away when they sometimes got into sensitive areas.

Cicero said when they pressed him to apologize to Robyn Byrd, they were amazed by his response.       

“You look at his body language and how he makes that apology.  And I think if you had any empathy as a human being, you look at that guy, going ‘Wow”  It’s just, still to this day, it just has not computed.  “Hey Robyn”  And this was a critical decision, we felt, in the editing room.   We could have edited very easily before he said, “Hey Robyn, why don’t you gimme a call?”  But to us, that was just such a key into his psyche.   It’s just like, I couldn’t even imagine.”

During the discussion, an audience member stood up and said she too was a victim of John K. in the Nineties.      

“I just wanna say, you could have ignored us survivors when the news first broke, taken your already-finished film and ran with it for some safe, comfortable nostalgia piece.   But you didn’t.   “This is your story too” you said to us.  And you listened to us after so many years of so many adults failing us.  So from the bottom of this non-binary person’s heart, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you for putting in the work to give us a voice in this story.”

The film ends with Kricfalusi’s comments, but Cicero said they followed that with a cartoon sketch—and a caption—that conveys their judgment on the animator.

Nevertheless, Vanessa Coffey, the “Ren and Stimpy” producer featured extensively in the film, stood up in the Sundance audience and scolded the film-makers for the ending.      

“After watching the film and even before, I have no empathy for John K.   None.  He was brutal to everybody.  And the question I have for you as film-makers, and knowing he’s an abusive guy/pedophile, why did you give him the last word?  Why?  Why? (Cicero) That’s a great question.  And I think the last image says, “You monster’ I don’t know if you saw that on screen.  But that’s how we handled it.  We didn’t think that there was any more powerful way, than literally writing on screen that he’s a monster.”

In the end, Robyn Byrd, also in the audience, got in a brief comment of her own.    

“When you said that, I just wanted to say, don’t worry, I’m not gonna call him.”  

Robyn Byrd, featured in the Sundance documentary “Happy Happy, Joy, Joy.”

Known for getting all the facts right, as well as his distinctive sign-off, Rick covered Summit County meetings and issues for 35 years on KPCW. He now heads the Friday Film Review team.
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