John K. Joins Hoytyboy

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For practically anyone reared in 90's pop culture, the name Ren & Stimpy is instantly recognizable. The iconic, quirky and bold cat & dog cartoon made a name for its creator, John Kricfalusi, but truth be told the man has stamped his name on several other animated projects, many of which have translated to the commercial world.

With fans in big agencies like Wieden + Kennedy and Goodby, John K. as he's widely known has leveraged his sketching skills in a series of recent adverts for brands including Old Navy (below), Comcast and Nike. Now, the formerly independent, Canadian-born artist has joined Steve Williams' Hoytyboy commercial production outfit for exclusive worldwide representation. In doing so, he dishes the process of the move and his love of doing commercials that recall the TV days of yore.

How did the move to Hoytyboy come about?

It just happened as an odd fluke. [Talent agency] Endeavor introduced me. It was a little convoluted but I had worked with Endeavor on and off for ten years or so on different projects. I put up a blog with all my commercials on it because I wanted to get some more commercial work. I sent it off to Endeavor, and they called me back and were all excited about it. They said they need to get me a commercial rep. Within a day, and it might've been the same day. And they said, don't you know [Hoytyboy director] Steve Williams. They said I would be a good fit with his company. Steve called me, and it all happened within a day. We reconnected and I found out they didn't have a 2D animator in their roster and it was a perfect fit. We're big fans of each other's work and we had a lot of the same ideas.

I was going to build my own little demo site, but it's taking me a long time because I'm not that good at HTML or any of that stuff. But they just did it in a week. They put the whole thing up and got me talking to you within a few weeks.

How was the transition going from iconic cartoons to the commercial world?

If you remember Ren & Stimpy, it was filled with fake commercials like "Log" and "Powdered Toast." The interesting thing is after those fake commercials came out, kids went to the stores looking for powdered toast and logs. They merchandised it years later and made Log toys and they made a Log cereal even. But how this all came about, I'm a big fan of classic TV and radio like The Jack Benny Show, The Honeymooners, The Beverly Hillbillies, Huckleberry Hound, The Flintstones and all that stuff. In those days, all the shows had direct sponsors. It wasn't just a bunch of random commercials within that half-hour. Huckleberry Hound sold Kellogg's cereal everyday on that show. Fred Flintstone had a few sponsors. He had One-a-Day vitamins and Winston cigarettes. The stars of the show used to do their own commercials. Those were so entertaining and there was no way you would fast-forward through them, not that you could back then. If you were able to, you still wouldn't have because they had the writers work with the ad agencies and make the commercials as entertaining as the show itself. I always loved that.

So when I started Ren & Stimpy with Nickelodeon, I suggested to them, why don't we go out and get McDonald's and Kellogg's, people who would normally buy ads on the show, and tell them we'll have Ren and Stimpy pitch their products. They said you can't do that, the FCC won't let us. Supposedly, there are all these regulations that you can't have characters in their own show sell products—even though those same characters could be in somebody else's show and sell products. They didn't sell Cocoa Pebbles on the Flintstone Kids, but they could sell them on The Smurfs. I'm like what's the difference. I like the format of having commercials be tied in with the show. I always wanted to do that.

Then, when the internet came along, I started doing direct sponsorships online ten years ago. I'd have the [Kricfalusi-created] "George Liquor" program do plugs for Tower Records. In the meantime, I was getting real commercials for television. Ad agencies would just call me, like Wieden + Kennedy. Old Navy (image below) called me directly without even an ad agency, and they wanted me to create a bunch of characters for them to use as mascots to sell all their latest jeans and jackets.

I always loved doing commercials. I've been lucky because in most of the commercials I've done, the agencies will allow me to have some creative role in it and not animate something that was already written. They asked me for some of my ideas, and they were generally fans of Ren & Stimpy and liked the Log commercials and stuff. Ever since then, I've been trying to figure out how to get this all to be one medium—maybe online, maybe direct-to-video—and work directly with sponsors and ad agencies to make people not want to fast-forward through commercials. My whole thing is that commercials should be just as entertaining as the show, and they should sell the product. I really believe in hard sell, which is the old way. When you watched the Kellogg's Corn Flakes commercials in the '60s, you knew that you were supposed to go out and buy Kellogg's Corn Flakes. There are a lot of commercials today where I couldn't tell you what they were selling. I can't tell one car commercial from another. They look beautiful and super-art-directed, but at the end of the commercial, it's like what kind of car do I get and why? But anyways, I'm just happy that I hooked up with somebody who does commercials all the time.

What made you want to be a part of Hoytyboy?

All the commercials I got before was from somebody at an ad agency who happened to be a fan of Ren & Stimpy and said we have to get John to direct this. Then, they'd have to find me. I've never really been represented exclusively by anybody, so now I am. Hopefully, now everybody will know that I am available to do commercials and that I actually like doing commercials. I like selling products, I'm a pure capitalist.

Are there plans to go back and do feature-length cartoons like Ren & Stimpy?

What I'd love to do is hook up with a sponsor to produce a show. We could do it online, and then in turn sell it on DVDs and have the sponsors sell their products right on the show with characters that I create with them. Whatever I've been reading about the problems in the business today, it sounds like it's very hard to get people to watch commercials nowadays.

With the advent of TiVO of course...

Well, I've got the solution for that. It's direct sponsorship or really entertaining commercials where you remember the product and you have a good feeling about it.

It seems like most people basically pay attention to spots just during the Super Bowl.

I did some commercials for the Super Bowl a couple of years ago. But I get the feeling they might get lost in the Super Bowl, but I don't know and I'm not an expert in this business. I just know that I like to make commercials and I like them to be effective. When we did the Old Navy commercials, they were so happy and they called me up and said you sold 500% as many jeans as we normally sell. That's what I want to do is make sure that the sponsor's happy and make sure the audience is happy and they're not mad that we put this commercial in front of them.

In fact, we used to get kids writing me. They would see the Old Navy commercials and they'd ask me, where's the rest of the show. They thought it was a show and at the same time, they went to Old Navy and bought the jeans. I just want to make people happy, the money people and the audience. I think you can do both at the same time.

Are there any commercial projects as of late that have caught your eye?

Well, I see a lot of commercials that are art-directed beautifully, but like I said, I don't always remember the product is. I'm probably not looking at it from the right point-of-view. I'm looking at it from a creative point-of-view instead of the consumer's point-of-view.

What would you be doing if you weren't creating cartoons?

I would be some kind of entertainer, dancer, singer or something like that.

So you want to be in the spotlight?

Sure, doesn't everybody? That's why there are shows like American Idol and Dancing with the Stars.

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