Dr. Toon: The Evolution of Animated Comedy
If we examine animated shorts of the 1930s and 40s in order to discover what made them funny, we would find that conflict in the form of chases augmented by frequent gags drove the humor in these cartoons. When we examine some of the most popular and enduring shows extant today, we would come to entirely different conclusions.
This month's column concerns the evolution of comedy in animated series over the course of several decades. We shall discover that there have been distinct changes tied to specific animators, writers, and directors. We will further see a clear demarcation of periods in which animated comedy evolved. Finally, we will examine the reasons for these changes. Of course, not all animation is concerned with comedy; this was true even in the days of the theatrical short. There are marvelous animated projects that contain nary a snicker, but for the purposes of this column, we will consider the ones that do.
In the early days of animation, the emphasis fell upon broad, physical comedy. There was a good reason for this; cartoons were silent until the late 1920s, and the slapstick gag reigned supreme. Such gags were encased within a larger structure that involved a chase following an initial conflict. It was quickly discovered that audiences loved underdogs, and a surefire formula pitted the Big Guy (or animal) against the Little Guy. There could be variations, such as the hero against, say, a fire or other force of nature, but for the most part it was a clobber-vs.-don't get clobbered world. Slapstick humor, ethnic humor, and physical gags were prevalent. These were lower forms of comedy that perhaps befitted an art in its childhood.
Because this formula could get boring very fast, bizarre gags, such as those used by Dave Fleischer and animators at the Fleischer studio found their way into cartoons. Anthropomorphism was prevalent, and cars, planes, flowers, and even milk bottles could come to life. Surrealism was often used to hilarious effect. It was at the Disney studio, however, that the first step towards another form of animated comedy began to evolve. When characters began to develop unique, individual personalities, the options for comedy increased. Still, the full ramifications of this development would not be seen for several decades.
Even after the advent of sound, the chase remained the ne plus ultra of comedy. This situation began to alter during the rise in popularity of the Warner Bros. cartoons in the 1930s. The chases were certainly there, especially in the structure of "Hunter vs. Animal", but directors such as Bob Clampett and Tex Avery began bending the rules of reality, while Friz Freleng began to structure comedy to music. The innovations of Clampett and Avery represented a step in a different direction for the simple reason that they did not construct flowers that could come to life and sing: they created worlds in which such things could be perfectly acceptable.