Gross Comedy and the Origin of Slapstick

I was watching a few of my favorite episodes from Ren and Stimpy on DVD last night and I started thinking about comedy and taste.

Commedia dell’Arte is a form of improvisational comedy theater which flourished in Italy from the 16th to the 18th century. It consisted of stock plots, and characters, which were often adapted to fit the local audience. I was reading up on this subject for last Tuesday’s book club, The Innamorati by Midori Snyder. Commedia is one of the major themes in the novel.

During my research I stumbled upon the origin of the term ‘slapstick comedy’. Commedia was a very physical form of theater with a lot of tumbling and use of the battacchio, “a club-like object composed of two wooden slats which, when struck, produced a loud smacking noise; little force, however, is transferred from the object-called the ‘slap stick’ in English-to the person being struck, allowing actors to strike each other repeatedly with great audio effect while causing very little actual damage.”

When I think of modern slapstick comedy I think of the Three Stooges. And to tell you the truth I don’t much care for the Stooges. So what’s the difference between Ren and Stimpy and the Stooges?


A big part of it is animation. I like the visual capabilities of animation much more than real-life comedy acting. It will be interesting to see how the recent developments in CGI animation that have changed the comic book movie industry will be used by future comics. So far I don’t think anyone has really begun to tap this possibility. Adam Sandler or Jim Carey movies may be close. But animation can still go further, at least so far. You only have to look at some of the backgrounds used in Ren and Stimpy to see the potential.

Animation also abstracts the violence. I dislike America’s Home Videos even more than the Stooges because most of it is violence. There’s no sympathy involved. In a cartoon the violence is so absurd it becomes unreal. Think of the gravity defying flights of Wile E. Coyote, or Tom and Jerry. They’re inspired by slapstick but convert it into a different form.

When it comes to Ren and Stimpy in particular I have to praise the writing and the audio design as well. The stories are often full of allusions, to Macbeth’s wife, or Julius Caesar. I personally love “Stimpy’s Fan Club” when Ren starts talking about “These hands”

[plotting Stimpy’s death]

Ren: I was nice today. NICE to those STUPID people and their STUPID fan club. My hands… DIRTY! THE DIRT WON’T COME OFF!


Ren: President… Ha! What a joke. President of what? His fan club! How they love him! They think he’s a god, but I know he’s as mortal as we. The idol of millions is a fool! Lying there sleeping. sing-song Lying there sleeping. How easily I end all the madness… with these hands! AND WITH THESE HANDS I HOLD THE FATE OF MILLIONS! Just one squeeze… then it’s over.

[moving toward Stimpy]

Ren: Just… one… squeeze… AAAAH! MY BRAIN!

[falls unconscious]

And the musical cues, The Nutcracker Ballet and Night on Bald Mountain, remind me of Disney animation, not to mention being kick-ass pieces of music. And the screams, with their insane echo, are perfect.

I concluded my internet browsing last night by reading two reviews of the DVD edition. Both of them mention the groundbreaking style of Ren and Stimpy.

The importance of Ren & Stimpy, both in terms of animation and in terms of culture, cannot be overstated. The amount of variety there is in television animation today is often taken for granted; yet, had it not been for Ren & Stimpy, animation on TV would still be limited to dreck like The Smurfs and He-Man. In short, Ren & Stimpy made it acceptable for cartoons to be cartoony. The show has spawned a whole slew of imitators, many of which are very good, although most have the habit of taking only the gross and bizarre elements and ignoring all the subtext. This is unsurprising, since most viewers only seem to view Ren & Stimpy as a sick and wacky cartoon, without realising what goes on beneath the surface. The show has been described by more than a couple of critics as a statement about the rise of AIDS in the US, and it is no secret that Ren and Stimpy are a gay couple in a sadomasochistic relationship (Ren beats Stimpy, and Stimpy enjoys it). Such subtleties are, of course, lost on the average viewer, but it is a testament to the quality of the show that it can be enjoyed by people of all walks of life: the Rens as well as the Stimpys, so to speak.

Todd Suomela
Associate Director for Digital Pedagogy & Scholarship Department

My interests include digital scholarship, citizen science, leadership, and communications.