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Dr. Toon: The Evolution of Animated Comedy

Dr. Toon examines decades of evolutionary changes in what makes shorts funny.

Joe Barbera drawing Tom and

Jerry. Image courtesy of Warner
Bros. Animation.

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.

Beany and Cecil © 1999 Bob Clampett

Productions LLC. All rights reserved,
including the right to reproduce in any

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.

Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends. Image copyrighted by

Ward Productions Inc. Under license to Bullwinkle
Studios, LLC. All rights reserved.

Parody is a form of comedy in which a specific entity or situation is the target of humor. The humor can range from fondness to acerbic commentary, but the form of parody always follows the form of the target. Corky Quakenbush gave us an excellent example with his parodies of Rankin-Bass Animation when he produced violent, subversive shorts featuring Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer for MAD TV. The shorts, none longer than five minutes, utilize the stop-motion animation style used by Rankin-Bass, and contain recognizable versions of the 1964 characters.

Situations that would have been unspeakable in the Rankin-Bass cartoons are cheerfully presented in shorts such as Raging Rudolph, Rudolph's Bloody New Year, and Santa Claus Smuggles Cocaine. Quakenbush takes it for granted that his audience is familiar with the original animated special(s). His parodies exist for laughs, not out of contempt for Rankin-Bass animation. Another notable example is Christopher McCulloch's extended parody of Hanna-Barbera's Jonny Quest. When McCulloch (a.k.a Jackson Publick) unveiled The Venture Brothers in 2003, animation fans knew exactly where he was aiming his death rays. Again, when the characters in Family Guy are represented as the cast of Star Wars, we know we are seeing parody.

Satire is a more general but also more complicated form of humor in which sport is made of social customs, foibles, or institutions. There are two forms of satire extant, both dating back to antiquity. Juvenalian satire tends to be more outrageous, shocking, and contemptuous of its targets. Horatian satire makes light of culture and society with gentler pokes, taking more care to expose the hypocrisies and ironies of life.

South Park's Kenny, Stan and Kyle. © Comedy

Partners, Inc. All rights reserved.

South Park is probably the closest familiar example of Juvenalian satire: Crude, abrasive, obscene, and mercurial, the characters play endless rifts on what it is like to grow up in American culture circa right now. The examples are endless, but I'll call up an immediate one:  When the boys watch Terrance and Philip, children's programming and its supposed influence on young minds is satirized. Of course, the show in question is a vulgar fartfest.

Creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker take this theme further in the episode "Clubhouses" (1998) in which Kyle's mother makes Kyle switch from watching Terrance and Philip in favor of The Fat Abbot Show, which is supposedly more wholesome. Fat Abbot and friends, as it turns out, command an obscene vocabulary that makes Terrance and Philip seem like pipsqueaks in comparison. The point is, children cannot fail to encounter such influences in today's society, no matter which of 800 channels they turn to. There is nothing sacred in the world of South Park, including the presentation of its social, religious, and political material.

The Simpsons' influence is felt far and

wide in the pop culture universe.
Everyone knows Homer, Marge and
their kids. Image ™ and © 2007
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. All
rights reserved.

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.