Dr. Toon: The Evolution of Animated Comedy
Horatian satire is somewhat more genteel and takes a wider frame of view. Think of The Simpsons. To begin with the basics, the series is set in Springfield. There is a "Springfield" in every state in America, so we know that the setting is a generalized spoof on our culture. Nothing truly outrageous about this, but a point is made; Springfield is us (or, U.S.). Although characters on the show misbehave, notably Homer and son, this is rarely done in a vulgar or obscene fashion. Often, their behaviors are reactions to social, economic, religious, or political mores.
Again, with a series that has run for more than twenty years, examples are too numerous to mention, but the rules of the show are clear: mock what you will, but in a gentle, even at times loving way. One good example occurred when Bart, stating, "I didn't do it" in response to a misdeed, becomes nationally famous by dint of the catchphrase. The immediacy of fame and fad in America, followed by its rapid fade in favor of the nest trend, is humorously presented in this episode.
Bob Clampett's animated Beany and Cecil series and Jay Ward's Rocky and Bullwinkle are nearly perfect early examples of Horatian humor, as well as marking milestones in the evolution of animated comedy. Horatian satire is perhaps more sophisticated than the Juvenalian form, but lacks its nastier bite. Neither is superior to the other; it depends on which viewpoint the user wishes to take. It could be argued that Seth McFarlane's Family Guy occupies a space between the two.
Referencing is a form of advanced humor also known as the "in-joke". Its effectiveness relies on the observer's ability to catch a very specific (at times hidden) reference to source material outside of a given presentation. Referencing has been a component of animated humor for some time. The title of first sound Mickey Mouse cartoon, Steamboat Willie (1928), is a reference to Steamboat Bill Jr.; a Buster Keaton silent comedy produced that same year. The cartoon, of course, can be enjoyed without knowing the reference, but for those who "get it" there is an extra smile.
Referencing can be verbal or visual. The short-lived Adult Swim superhero series Minoriteam (2006) visually referenced the artistic style of comic book giant Jack Kirby. The most constant source of referencing in animation these days seems to come from live-action features and the performers that star in them. There was, to cite an example, an occasional member of The Fairy Oddparents cast named Catman (a reference to Batman) and whom Adam West (who, of course, portrayed Batman) voiced. This is a multilayered example of the in-joke. Shrek 2 was an extended in-joke in which sharp observers vied to catch references to the Hollywood/L.A. culture. When you see a slow motion, 360-degree fight scene, you know that you are watching a reference to The Matrix.
Unless, of course, you never saw the film. The weakness of referencing is that some in-jokes can be so obscure that nearly everyone but a privileged few will miss them. It is a safe bet to say that most people who were not animation insiders recognized animated cameos by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas in The Incredibles (2004). Bob Clampett wrote an episode of his Beany and Cecil series called The 7th Voyage of Singood (itself an in-joke) in which there are lightning-quick references to psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung; most adults likely missed them, let alone kids.
Animated humor continues to evolve from its primitive roots, coming to resemble contemporary forms of humor found in live-action features and television. Most of the examples cited in this column are from the most popular animated series yet devised. We can only look forward to more great laughs as the years go on as animation continues to mature as a form of mass entertainment.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.