Early in the second season of Ren & Stimpy, there appeared a rollicking and utterly disrespectful segment called “Powdered Toast Man.” 1992. The character of Powdered Toast Man unified the clueless and self-important silliness of The Tick with the tendency to wreak havoc of, say, Inspector Clouseau or Maxwell Smart. Voiced by the incomparable Gary Owens—and you might not know the name, but if you’ve ever seen Laugh-In or Space Ghost, you sure as hell know his voice—Powdered Toast Man was the spokesman for, obviously, a product called Powdered Toast, which was billed as tasting “just like sawdust!” According to Wikipedia, he was based on the character of Studebacher Hoch, from the epic song “Billy The Mountain” of off the Mothers of Invention’s 1972 album Just Another Band from L.A. I frankly don’t quite see the connection, but anything’s possible.
It’s kind of amazing just how dark and subversive the Powdered Toast bit is. The anti-advertising message is just the start of it. Tasked with saving a kitten from being run over by a truck, Powdered Toast Man causes a passing jetliner to crash into the truck, thus saving the kitten at the expense of who knows how many lives (the injured survivors cheer him on anyway). A few moments later, Powdered Toast Man thoughtlessly tosses the kitten out of frame, where he is apparently run over by a truck, to judge from the sound effects. Later on, he uses the Bill of Rights for kindling. He induces projectiles to emerge from his armpits by doing that “fart noise” maneuver, he uses his own tongue as a telephone…....... actually, you really need to see the video to believe it. The satire of the prevailing superhero ethos really couldn’t be more savage—or more entertaining.
The Pope, “clinging tenaciously” to Powdered Toast Man’s buttocks
Appropriately enough, the role of the Pope was voiced by Frank Zappa. According to IMDB.com, it was the last time he would ever portray a fictional character (granted, he didn’t do this all that often). How did this come to pass? As often happens in showbiz, Zappa had expressed some admiration for the early Ren & Stimpy episodes, and ... one thing led to another. John Kricfalusi tells the story on the commentary track for the episode:
Yeah, Frank Zappa was a fan of the show, and I was a huge Frank Zappa fan growing up. I had all his records. and when I found out he was a fan, our mixer, one of the sound engineers, was also mixing some Frank Zappa records, and he ... handed the phone to me one day and it was Frank on the line. So Frank invited me to his house that weekend. ... and I went with Elinor Blake and Frank and his family and I, Moon Unit and Dweezil. We all sat around watching Ren & Stimpy cartoons all afternoon. He was laughing all through them, and after it was over I asked: “Hey Frank, you want to BE in a cartoon?” and he said: “Yeah, that’d be great” and I said: “You want to be the pope?” and he said: “Yeah, I always wanted to be the pope.”
(Note: Elinor Blake has had a successful musical career in her own right: After working as an animator on Ren & Stimpy, she released several albums under the name April March.) As it happens, Zappa has hardly any lines, but that’s all right.
Another interesting link between Zappa and the show: There was a recurring Ren & Stimpy segment called “Ask Dr. Stupid” in which Stimpy would respond to letters in an incredibly stupid way. Turns out, Zappa recorded a track called “Ask Dr. Stupid” all the way back in 1979.
The episode is available in full on The Ren & Stimpy Show: The First and Second Season (Uncut)
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Ren & Stimpy creator John K animates The Simpsons
‘Make Me Laugh’: Frank Zappa and Gallagher on bad 70s game show