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Q&A with Spumco’s John Kricfalusi

Jimmy the Idiot Boy has a future on the big screen, says John Kricfalusi, creator of Jimmy, Ren and Stimpy and mourner of the lost art of cartooning. Kricfalusi can’t talk about his newest projects without screaming his way through a storyboard at his Hollywood studio. He enthusiastically acts out the roles of the goofy yet lovable Jimmy, his girlfriend Sody, and her muscle-bound, loudmouthed father, ranting, raving, puckering up and crash-boom-banging his way through every scene.

Kricfalusi is banking on the comeback of the theatrical cartoon. He figures theater owners have to give customers more for their money, filmgoers are tired of paying $ 7 to see commercials, and little has been done to keep alive the format Looney Tunes started 50 years ago.

At his Spumco production company, Kricfalusi is working on a number of side projects: a comic book, a story book, a TV show starring He-Hog the Atomic Pig and a paint-by-numbers kit. He has a prototype of a Jimmy the Idiot Boy doll that he says girls are nuts about. The plan is to produce a series of six six- to 10-minute cartoons that can open for feature attractions.

Kricfalusi talked with special reports editor Phil Gallo about the history of animation, how he creates his art and what the future holds for the man dubbed “animation’s bad boy.”

Daily Variety: Your characters are a very modern twist on classic characters, and the storyboard approach is also considered “classic.” You seem to say the “old way” is the “right way” to do things, that that’s the way Spumco works.

John Kricfalusi: There are two kinds of cartoons: Timeless cartons and Saturday morning cartoons. What we’re trying to do is classic cartoons — ones that stand the test of time. The ones that do that appeal to a wide group of people.

You have to make cartoons work on different levels. We try to work on slapstick for kids, which adults like, too, and we also put in more adult themes. The kind of cartoons that have lasted 50 or 60 years weren’t made for kids. They were made for people. It was an open-minded creative system that is gone from animation today. That system, or a variation on it, is what we use today.

Too many cartoons try to figure out what is happening for these five seconds and what you get is “The Critic.” They’re not aiming at broad entertainment. It doesn’t seem to me that there’s really a secret. The only secret is, let cartoonists do it. All the timeless cartoons stem from cartoonists having freedom and having time to develop. And they all played in the theaters.

DV: You have two Jimmy the Idiot Boy storyboards and a number of other characters. What’s the next step?

JK: We’re producing him on our own, looking for a distributor. Whether it’s a movie theater chain or a movie studio, it doesn’t matter to me. I just want to get it in front of the audience.

The reason we’re producing is because I’m totally convinced that if you do something that people want, somebody is going to figure out that it’s worth money. When everybody else is doing things that people don’t want — like stealing money and showing commercials in the movie theaters — the first person who gives people what they want is gonna make money. The shorts market is going to come back. There’s no way around it. It’s just who’s going to be the first one.

DV: Initially, how will you introduce characters?

JK: The first recognizable Bugs Bunny cartoon, a Tex Avery cartoon called “Wild Hare,” totally established the stock Bugs Bunny-Elmer Fudd situation. It’s kind of a boring cartoon — at least in hindsight.

Once that was set, who these personalities were, they started to experiment with it — putting them in space and caveman stories. Thus, we have “Jimmy’s Impossible Accidents,” which establishes Jimmy’s character. Once we know who Jimmy is, we start to introduce other characters, like his girlfriend, Sody, and her dad, and George Liquor, American.Then you are gradually building a stable of characters.

There has to be continuity. … You learn a little more in each episode. There is no such thing as a single episode in a series. It doesn’t exist on its own — it evolves. If you do look at it that way and you do it well, you’ll end up with something that lasts a long time. If you nail every thing down in the first episode, then why do you ever need to see another cartoon with those characters?

You need a few (shorts) to firmly establish (characters) in the public’s hearts. Warners offered us one short. They wanted to market-test one short — that makes no sense. You can’t do it. You have to get people used to this stuff. Anything new takes a while to get used to. With six cartoons — a series — then you’re going to be much more assured of success.

DV: You’ve got other projects involving these characters.

JK: We’re doing things backwards. We’re introducing characters in other mediums that I’m less interested in than animation — toys, comic books — so that people will see the characters. Profits we get back from that, we put into the cartoons. Kind of what Walt Disney was doing but we don’t have the cartoons yet. We’re financing them that way at the moment.

DV: Marketing plays such a major role in any animated project these days. While you’re busy doing things so much in the old Warners style, is it tough to accept this new reality?

JK: To me there’s nothing wrong with having toys. Cartoons and toys go together as far as I’m concerned. So does cereal. I loved it when I was a kid and watched the Huckleberry Hound show and he would tell me what to eat. If a cartoon character doesn’t tell you what to eat, how is a kid supposed to know? I think that’s cool.

“Ren & Stimpy” is a great example of a bad marketing plan. The strength of the characters sold the toys and the books and the T-shirts for awhile. But they’re not selling anymore because the strength of the characters is gone.

DV: You often refer back to Warner Bros. cartoons, which had great music. Does music play much of a role in these shorts?

JK: I want to do a series of musical shorts. Like Disney in the ’30s — where the music dictated the story. I want to do the same thing. Some of the music will be stuff we write, some will be classic rock ‘n’ roll, some Elvis, whatever , and plug our characters into it. Music and cartoons is a great marriage.

Cartoons introduced me to classical music. When Warners used music they didn’t let it hold them back — they said, “Hey, let’s make fun of it.” They did great scores and it was well done.

DV: When shorts were first done, no one was concerned with profits. Now there don’t seem to be many people supporting cartooning for the sake of cartooning, particularly shorts.

JK: There isn’t a TV cartoon that’s anywhere near as successful as the theatrical cartoons. The closest one, “The Flintstones,” was created by theatrical cartoonists.

Not every Warner Bros. cartoon was a success. They had to make a few Sniffles cartoons before they came up with Bugs Bunny. You have to be able to make mistakes. Shorts are a smart way to make mistakes. Features are a stupid way — an expensive way — to make mistakes. When you make a “Tom & Jerry” movie, how much money are you saving?

Reality is different now. Cartoons are more expensive to produce, (and) people aren’t that interested in funding training except for Disney. Disney would never have been able to make “Snow White” if they didn’t have animators getting better and better practicing on the shorts. You can’t just come up off the street and make “Snow White,” no matter how talented you are.

However, with all the money going into producing animation, if you look at it from how many people fund animation and how many bombs do they make before they make a nickel, how many “Simpsons” are there really? How many bombs do you have to make before you get to “The Simpsons”? Take that money and put it into training. In fact, you wouldn’t have to spend that much ultimately because you’d have people who are really good, and the better they are, the more hits you’ll have. That’s just logic.

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