You know those highly detailed close-up shots in cartoons like Ren & Stimpy in which we see every hair, pore, imperfection, goo and ooze on a character’s face? That beloved style has a name. It’s called the “gross-up” close-up, and this grotesque animated oddity became a staple in the weird and wacky tapestry of 1980s and 90s cartoons.
But where did the “gross-up” come from?
Well, it sort of starts at…
Mighty Mouse Snorts Cocaine
Imagine an artist who not only colored outside the lines but gleefully set the coloring book on fire. That’s the enigma of maverick John Kricfalusi, who worked as an artist and animator on numerous 1980s Saturday morning cartoons such as The Smurfs, Snorks, The Jetsons, Ri¢hie Ri¢h, Mork & Mindy/Laverne & Shirley/Fonz Hour, and others.
John was agent of chaos in the animation world, with a desire to inject controversial and often shocking material into kid’s cartoons with projects that raised eyebrows and, more often than not, left executives sweating in their suits.
John served at Bakshi-Hyde Ventures as supervisor and sometimes director of the innovative 1987-1988 animated series Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures. The series paved the way for later creator-driven cartoons, and was one of the first Saturday morning cartoons broadcast on CBS in stereo.
It was also groundbreaking in the fact that it quickly snuck in several questionable moments, such as hinting at two male characters—Gandy Goose and Sourpuss—showering together, and a dream sequence in which Mighty Mouse’s girlfriend Pearl Pureheart has a lovechild with his bovine nemesis The Cow.
But the clincher came in an episode titled “The Littlest Tramp,” that aired on October 31, 1987 in which Mighty Mouse snorts a crushed up flower. Following concerns from Editor Tom Klein that the scene depicted cocaine use, Ralph Bakshi okayed the cutting the less-than-4-second scene.
Kricfalusi couldn’t believe it and insisted the scene should remain in. Bakshi conceded and the flower sniffing aired without controversy.
Until the following June, when 88, Donald Wildmon, head of the American Family Association, alleged that “The Littlest Tramp” depicted cocaine use. The media went crazy.
“This all smacks of burning books and the Third Reich. It smacks of McCarthyism,” Bakshi said. “I’m not going to get into who sniffs what. This is lunacy!”
Whether Mighty Mouse was sniffing flowers or cocaine, the controversy still served to pound the nails in the coffin of the successful series.
Not Suitable for Children
John left Bakshi and the canceled Mighty Mouse to work on The New Adventures of Beany and Cecil for ABC. He strived to push the boundaries with that series, and the more ABC pushed for a softer tone, the more shocking and offensive he made it.
ABC pulled the plug after just six episodes because they didn’t believe the humor was suitable for children.
Painting the Gross-Up
Undeterred, Kricfalusi and his partners founded the Spümcø studio, a haven for renegades of animation. This rebellious studio embraced the unconventional, turning controversy into creative fuel. With the establishment of Spümcø, Kricfalusi and his cohorts had a playground where they could let their imaginations run wild, unchecked by the stifling hand of network censorship.
After pitching several series ideas, they managed to sell a show about the misadventures of an emotionally unstable chihuahua and a simple-minded cat to Nickelodeon, who had no original animated programming of their own at the time.
Series co-creator Bob Camp, who painted the pilot episode’s close-ups in the style of Little Golden Books, coined the term “gross-up.”
“Most stuff in the world, if you look at it up close, it’s pretty disgusting,” Camp says of their reasoning for creating the look. “There was really no one around saying, ‘you can’t do that,’ so we did it.”
They later tapped comic book artist and cartoonist Bill Wray, known for his long-running Mad magazine comic Monroe, to help craft Ren & Stimpy’s look.
Wray became responsible for painting those revolting close-ups.
For his work, Wray drew inspiration from fellow Mad artist Basil Wolverton, a man with a “spaghetti and meatballs” style who remains known as the godfather of “gross-out” cartoonists.
Wolverton was “notorious for his unforgettable depictions of wacky, grotesque and ugly people.”
He described himself as a “producer of preposterous pictures of peculiar people who prowl this perplexing planet.”
Ren & Stimpy Banned Episodes
As bizarre as Ren & Stimpy was, not to mention that dirty feeling that just doesn’t want to scrub off after watching too much of it, John still managed to make it originally much worse than what was first aired. Scenes were cut, episodes were banned.
Most notably, the episode “Man’s Best Friend” from season 2 was supposed to air on August 22, 1992. Nickelodeon pulled it, and it never saw the light of day until it aired with a TV-MA rating on Spike TV in 2003 when it premiered on the adult-oriented revival known as Ren & Stimpy “Adult Party Cartoon.”
The episode features an abusive father figure named George Liquor who Ren violently beats with an oar, as well as a poop joke and tobacco references.
This led to Kricfalusi’s removal from the series.
Numerous sequences were banned throughout the series for dark, disturbing, or outright offensive subject matter, including a scene of a “family bath,” Powdered Toast Man burning the US Constitution and Bill of Rights, suicide, various violent threats and outbursts from Ren, the destruction of the World Trade Center, and talk of a butt plug, among many many others.
The “gross-up” has been used in numerous animated shows since, maybe most recognizably in Spongebob Squarepants.
But in the beginning, the “gross-up” was more than just a stylistic choice. It was a statement, a middle finger to the sanitized status quo of the network-driven animation overlords and conservative America. In many ways, we can thank these offensive children’s cartoons that dared to be gross and shocking for what came later in the 90s such as MTV’s Liquid Television and just about everything we’ve ever seen on Adult Swim.