Dr. Toon: The Evolution of Animated Comedy
For both Clampett and Avery, a more sophisticated humor began to show up in the form of referencing the contemporary popular culture. More about this later. Interestingly, the 1940s were bookended by two series that recalled the early days of the silent chase cartoon; Tom and Jerry began walloping each other in 1940, and 1949 saw the first encounter between the Coyote and the Road Runner. With the advent of the 1950s, animated comedy took a more intellectual turn, mostly due to two influences; the first was the ascendancy of the UPA studio, which treated animation as a stylish exercise in adult humor. The second influence arose when Chuck Jones and Michael Maltese began turning out witty, urbane cartoons at Warner Brothers.
At UPA, animators and directors such as John Hubley, "Bobe" Cannon, Steve Busustow and Pete Burness produced understated cartoon shorts that emphasized graphic design over laughs. They were seemingly made for a well-educated audience that frequented art museums and would rather focus on the stills than the moving frames. These handsome cartoons, flawless in their uses of composition and color, had little use for realism or even dimensionality. As a result, they could be confusing to audiences used to sticks of dynamite and oversized mallets. Steve Bosustow ruefully remembers audiences laughing at the premiere of The Tell-Tale Heart (1953), an animated short that had nary a smile intended. Still, the ambience of the UPA cartoons helped prepare audiences for a more mature type of humor.
The Warner shorts that Jones and Maltese produced made personal foibles and personality flaws the point of humor. Slapstick was rare, and characters tended to be their own worst enemies rather than having antagonists opposing them. Pepe Le Pew dealt with his romantic grandiosity, Daffy Duck with his narcissism. Jones admired Mark Twain and Dorothy Parker more than he did the Three Stooges, and his use of irony and wit was masterful. Friz Freleng stayed longer with the traditional form of comedy, pitting Bugs Bunny against Yosemite Sam and other brutes, while Sylvester and Tweety performed more in the mold of Tom and Jerry. These were very good cartoons overall, but retained the strong stamp of earlier chase cartoons. Freleng was by no means a dead branch in the evolution of animated comedy, but Chuck Jones readied audiences for modern cartoon humor.
The rise of the dialogue-heavy television sitcom also influenced animation, which was forced by the death of the theatrical market to share the small screen with live-action offerings. Therefore, animated comedy began to adapt itself to a new medium using the influences described above: The graphic minimalism of UPA (due to budgetary constraints), the use of wit rather than chase/conflict, and character's personality foibles superseding their abilities to give or take a beating. Under these conditions, humor in animation gradually began to assume the form in which we predominantly see it today: Parody, satire, and referencing. Each is more complex than chases and physical humor tends to be, and depends far more on audience recognition of content.