Dr. Toon explores the parasocial role of the ensemble in animation.
Every year hopeful animation independents and studios prepare to pitch shows to networks. All of them believe that they have a certain unique angle, style, or twist (be it art design or narrative) that will produce an immortal series, or at least one that lasts more than 52 episodes. Indeed, some of these concepts are quite imaginative novel in nature; just as some of them are so derivative and poorly executed that they are doomed right out of the software program. Some fall in between these extremes but tend to have little network longevity. The animation graveyards are full of Squirrel Boys, Juniper Lees, Kryptos, X's, El Tigres and of late, Mighty Bs.
All of these series were no doubt the products of considerable imagination, time, expense, and gigabytes, but in the end these series (and many others like them) are now extinct. Is there a secret that virtually guarantees success? A key to lasting fame, hordes of dedicated fans, scores of adoring websites and millions of dollars in licensing and merchandising? After a careful current and historical study of this crucial question, your Doctor Toon has reached the solid conclusion that there is. It's simple, it's obvious and it's probably not what you think.
In the formative days of animation (indeed, throughout the early 1960s) fame was based on a sort of star system. A single character was presented, rose to popularity, and was generally the star of its featured short. The only other characters were usually antagonists, foils, or a romantic interest. Mickey Mouse existed in this manner throughout his first decade (although team-ups with Goofy and Donald Duck were in vogue for a spell). Speaking of Goofy and Donald, they most frequently went solo. Felix the Cat was a loner, as was Mighty Mouse, Droopy, and Woody Woodpecker. Popeye was an exception, but recall that he was a comic strip character with a pre-existing background that the Fleischer's could call upon.
The Warner characters seemed to be aware of each other's existence (as in You Ought to Be in Pictures, 1940), but at times appeared to have only vague relationships. In the 1943 short Porky Pig's Feat, Porky refers to Bugs Bunny as someone he once admired in a Leon Schlesinger cartoon. Porky and Daffy sometimes co-starred during the late thirties and early forties, but until Chuck Jones began to use the Warner characters as an ensemble in the 1950s, cartoons such as the ones mentioned were the exception. At MGM Tom and Jerry were inseparable co-stars, but they seemed to live in a sparsely populated universe; even their battlegrounds were largely devoid of continuing characters, human or otherwise.
Later cartoons made for TV, especially those of Hanna and Barbera, operated by the "Hero and Sidekick" formula, with no one else in the shorts except the antagonist. It took some time for HB to feature an ensemble cast with The Flintstones, which was in turn adapted from popular live-action sitcom formats. However, The Flintstones proved to be HB's signature animated series for decades to come.
Audiences seem to love ensemble casts, where quirky main and peripheral characters share the script, the action, and the laughs. Consider some of the TV shows that are judged to be among the most popular, critically acclaimed, and beloved in the history of broadcasting. The first example may have been The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966). The show centered around the efforts of three comedy writers who labored on a series called "The Alan Brady Show," and the ensemble cast of Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke), "Buddy" Sorrell (Morey Amsterdam), Sally Rogers (Rose Marie), and Mel Cooley (Richard Deacon) turned in energetic performances based as much on the interactions of their personalities than on any scripted material. There were actually two ensemble casts, since many episodes focused on the home life of Rob Petrie and his wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) and son Ritchie (Larry Matthews).
The lessons of ensemble casting were not lost on Ms. Moore, who starred in her own highly successful and much-endeared show from 1970-1977, garnering 29 Emmys along the way. There's no need to elaborate on the great cast which featured Moore, Ted Knight, Betty White, Gavin McCloud, Cloris Leachman, as well as Ed Asner and Valerie Harper, both of whom starred in spin-off series.
M*A*S*H (1972-83) featured a cast with diverse backgrounds, attitudes, and morals all trying to survive the ordeals of the Korean War. Their interactions and influences on each other and at times on the military system they labored under provided opportunities for rich character development. Terrific performances by Alan Alda, Jamie Farr, Loretta Swit and several others made this show one of the most admired - and watched - in television history.
Is there any other bar in America where everybody knows your name? The ensemble comedy Cheers (1982-93) launched so many careers and produced so many memorable episodes that to this day the Bull & Finch Pub in Boston is akin to a national shrine and remains a can't –miss attraction to tourists in my beloved Beantown. Remember Taxi (1978-83) and its 18 Emmy awards? How about WKRP in Cincinnati (1978-82)?
My description of these shows and their stars is progressively shorter, since we want to talk about animation and animated series. The point is, shows with sizeable ensemble casts have been some of the most famous, critically acclaimed, and best-loved in television history. Guess what, readers? The same is absolutely true for animated television series as well. A large cast of recurring, memorable characters has typically led to a high probability of success. Let's check it out.
The first great ensemble cartoon show was undoubtedly Rocky and his Friends (1959-61). A poor ratings draw in its day, the series is today recognized as one of the most sophisticated and satirical shows in animation history. There are perhaps more fans of the show today than in its era. It helped to have a large, funny cast of recurring characters: Rocket J. Squirrel, Bullwinkle Moose, Boris Badenov, Natasha Fatale, Fearless Leader, Gidney and Cloyd the Moon Men, Wrong Way Peachfuzz, Mr. Big and fervid narrator Bill Conrad (who was an unseen character forever shattering the "fourth wall") were an entertaining, hammy bunch who remain memorable today.
As the fallow 1970s and '80s wore on, audiences in the U.S. were discovering the zippy charm of anime (then called "Japanimation"). Some of the first to make their way into the ranks of popularity were series such as Urusai Matsura (1981), various incarnations of Dragon Ball (beginning in 1986) and Tenchi Muyo! (1992). Not coincidentally, these series had numerous and diversified ensemble casts that appeared in most of the episodes. There were few ensemble animated comedies in America during those years, but not to worry; they would return with a vengeance.
1989: the most popular animated ensemble comedy of all time appeared on the FOX network. Nobody at the time expected that The Simpsonswould span two decades, but the saffron superstars achieved the feat. Could it be that one of the reasons why is because the Simpson family is augmented by a city full of recurring, familiar characters? Krusty the Clown. Apu. Sideshow Bob. Ned Flanders. Moe the Bartender. The Comic Book Guy. Mr. Burns and Smithers. Nelson. Chief Wiggums and dozens more. Some of these characters have been strong enough to carry entire episodes, and more than a couple could probably prosper in spinoffs. To know the Simpsons is to know Springfield, and to know Springfield is to belong. And belonging, dear reader, explains quite a bit.
Belongingness theory is a relatively new concept: the landmark paper The Need to Belong by R.F. Baumeister and M.R. Leary dates to 1995. The initial groundwork, however, was laid in 1956 by researchers Donald Horton and Richard Wohl, who posited that television viewers form "parasocial relationships" with personalities and actors observed on television. Simply put, we become part of their family and relate to them as if we are on familiar terms with them. We know their mannerisms, catchphrases and in-jokes of their circle, and thus we belong to it by extension.
What Baumeister and Leary did was transpose the concept of parasocial relationships to evolutionary psychology; the need to belong has vital, biological roots that ensure survival of both individual and species due to the simple fact that people survived better in groups than alone. The final step in the evolutionary process is an actual physical desire for social interaction and inclusion.
Some psychologists, such as Dr. Jaak Panksepp, take it even further, claiming that close social relationships actually produce opiate-like neurochemical reactions in the brain itself. In some cases parasocial relationships are so powerful that soap opera actors have received hate mail and threats from viewers for breaking up marriages that in fact exist only in scripts. The larger and more diversified the "family" (read ensemble cast) the more opportunities to join and belong. This may well be what Cheers and The Simpsons have most in common.
I won't rest my argument on one animated series. Has anyone noticed how large the cast of SpongeBob SquarePants is? Besides the great quartet of SpongeBob, Partick, Squidward and Mr. Krabs, there's Sandy Cheeks, Mrs. Puffer, Pearl, Larry the Weightlifting Lobster, and many other oft-seen denizens of Bikini Bottom. The show is also one of the most popular ever to be developed for a cable network and has as many adult fans as child fans. How about South Park? I defy anyone to look at the large, recurring cast and not define this show as an ensemble comedy. Has it been long-running and popular? You bet your cheesy poofs. King of the Hill? Same idea. Futuramawas so popular that is was brought back from the dead to entertain a new wave of fans. And let's not forget one of the very best efforts to come out of Adult Swim: The Venture Bros., with its multitudinous cast of screwed-up heroes and villains was more than just a cult hit.
Anime, meanwhile, perfected the art of ensemble casts extended over long series of episodes and keeps the ball rolling with such international hits as Fullmetal Alchemist(2003), Cowboy Bebop (1998), and Death Note(2006). This may well suggest that Belongingness Theory and the concept of parasocial relationships have transcultural implications, strengthening the possibility that an evolutionary artifact is truly at work here.
I therefore suggest that every hopeful animator with an idea to pitch consider the following: Take the number of characters in your proposal and double them. Get a large cast of supporting characters and use them frequently. Make them offbeat and likeable Think in terms of a large family and you may have a pitch that gets you the coveted 26 x 13. Go for it: if Baumeister and Leary are anywhere near right, you have a couple million years of evolution on your side.
Dr. Toon regrets to announce the passing of Gabe the Word-Processing Yorkshire terrier this past December. Gabe was 13-years-old. His proficiency at the keyboard and superior editing skills saved this column (and thus my butt) many times over the years.