Random Top Five: Attempts at Explaining What Is Funny Through the Cartoon “What Is Funny?”

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014
Of course, another way to word this question could be, "Funny, what is?"

I’ve been turning this question over in my head…

Back in the late 1990s, Nickelodeon had a neat cartoon show called Oh Yeah! Cartoons that I loved to watch.  It was an ambitious project in which a large group of animation directors and other personalities, young and old, worked on a series of almost one hundred shorts featuring a wide variety of new characters (fifty-four characters all told; for some strange reason, I want to see all of these guys in a group shot on a T-shirt).  These shorts acted as what is known in the television industry as “backdoor pilots,” meaning that any shorts that got a particularly great reaction from Nick’s executives or the viewing audience (maybe even both if the short was really good) could be turned into a new cartoon series for Nick.  This was how we got such shows as The Fairly OddparentsChalkZone, and My Life As a Teenage Robot (the original short was called My Neighbor Was a Teenage Robot; not much of a difference, I’d say).

All of these cartoons are quite memorable to me, but there is one particular short that stuck in my mind long after I first viewed it.  The short What Is Funny?, directed by Will Burnett and Vincent Waller, features a dog named Slap T. Pooch (Anyone wanna bet the T stands for “The?”) who is always asking the question posed in the short’s title while being caught in increasingly bizarre and presumably funny circumstances.  There’s all kinds of humor demonstrated in this cartoon, and in a neat way, it has made me think deeply about what I find funny and why certain things make me laugh.  I’ve wanted to talk about this kind of thing for a long time, and I feel that now is a good opportunity to do so.  The following are five observations I have made regarding What is Funny (Mind if I not use the question mark for the rest of this blog post?  Thanks, it saves me a lot of headache!), what I find funny about it, and why.

1. Funny is simple yet full of detail.

The premise of What is Funny is pretty bare-bones (pun unintended, all apologies to Slap the dog).  Slap wants to find out what funny is and is willing to go to any absurd length to get a good answer (and in just under seven minutes, no less!).  This premise probably sounds very mundane on paper, but that’s the beauty of it in my view.  A lot of cartoons have amazingly simplistic plots: Elmer Fudd, a hunter wants to blast Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck to smithereens (I wefuse to type that as “smitherweeens,” bwast it!).  Wile E. Coyote wants to catch the Road Runner.  SpongeBob Squarepants just wants to work at his dream job and enjoy life in his off time. 

What makes these premises funny is that the way they are achieved is so gosh-darned strange.  Elmer has to deal with a Brookwyn-accented wabbit and a screwball duck who compwains of “pronoun trouble.”  (See what I did there?  I’ll stop now for sanity’s sake.)  The coyote, instead of using his own natural reflexes, relies almost entirely on mail-order products to get his fast-moving dinner (not that he ever gets it, mind you).  SpongeBob works as a fry cook, but he flips his patties in a colorful underwater cartoon fun-land, and the rest of his adventures are certainly not boring by any stretch of the imagination.  It’s the same with What is Funny.  Slap’s exploration of humor is bizarre and takes a lot of unexpected turns.  The question may be simple, but the details encountered in answering that question give this cartoon a strange life of its own that I find fun to explore.

2. Funny could be gross (especially if you’re on Nick in the ’90s.)

One of the first things in What is Funny that had me chuckling was Slap contorting his face into various unexpected shapes, some of which looked really strange (the bit where he had his lips wrapped around his whole head with just his teeth showing and he was singing “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy” was a laugh riot for me).  This kind of sophmoric “gross-out” humor was quite common in Nickelodeon cartoons during the ’90s, so I wasn’t too surprised when I found it here as well.  Not to mention that Vincent Waller, the director and one of the co-creators of this short, was also a prominent member of the creative team behind Ren and Stimpy, the unofficial king of gross during Nick’s early days; go figure.  To viewers who prefer more sophisticated humor, such visual (and visceral!) material is likely excruciating to take in (or block out). 

Personally, I like this sort of stuff.  I grew up watching it a lot on Nick and Cartoon Network, of course,  but characters squirming and stretching around in bizarre bits of anatomical madness is something that just appeals to me on a base level.  It seems to me that it has always been a part of cartoon culture, too; Daffy Duck was moving his body in all sorts of weird ways from the first moment he “Woo-hoo”ed onto the silver screen, and his signature squirms in The Great Piggy Bank Robbery remain among some of my favorite cartoon visuals.  That traditon is alive and well in What is Funny, and you can still see it in plenty of cartoons today.  Good enough in my book!

3. Funny can be hazardous to one’s health (namely the cartoon star’s health), but it doesn’t seem to leave any lingering effects.

Daffy Duck gets his bill blown off numerous times during Rabbit Fire, but he just puts it back on and continues arguing with Bugs.  The dog in Tex Avery’s Bad Luck Blackie suffers all sorts of physical calamities after the black cat crosses his path, but he recovers by the time the screen fades out then back in for the next gag.  In What is Funny, Slap is grabbed by an eagle and dropped into a wooden tub full of “deadly” stockbrokers (they do work with bulls and bears after all) and suckerfish, which apparently change into thumbtacks and squirrels on Slap’s command (only in a cartoon, I guess).  Even though Slap clearly has a pained expression on his face and says he doesn’t find these objects particularly humorous, the results did elicit laughter from me.

Of course, pain is no laughing matter in real life, so why does it draw guffaws in cartoon form?  I think it’s because the pain in cartoons is usually of the exaggerated kind.  Rarely does one suffer real pain in such obviously outlandish ways.  Besides, it doesn’t seem to affect cartoon characters very much; all that happens is the camera fades away and then comes back to find the characters have fully recovered with no apparent scarring.  There’s also a handful of instances where characters have literally shrugged off the results of their pain and stripped away all the bandages and boo-boos, returning to their usual healthy selves faster than one can say “fountain of youth.”  It seems to me that pain has no real consequences in the cartoon universe other than drawing laughter out of the huge vacuum between fictional injuries and real life.

4. Funny likes terrible puns.  ‘Nuff said.

Come on, what else could I possibly say about a bunch of talking gingerbread men calling themselves “tough cookies?”  That’s just clever right there.  Not since Mr. Peabody has there been such a perfect use of lousy wordplay to great humorous effect.  That’s not just funny, that’s funtastic.

5. Funny never has to explain itself.

Okay, I know this last point probably doesn’t make much sense given the title of this blog post, but there is an element of What is Funny that works in just this way.  Throughout the short, a farmer, a chicken, and a pig keep popping into frame and singing “What is funny?” over and over.  Why they are doing this is never really explained.  It’s just a strange funny thing that is endlessly repeated to the weirdest cartoon music I have ever heard (though it is sort of awesome to me that it sounds almost like the X-Files theme).  There is one thing about it that kind of makes sense in retrospect (the TV Tropes website refers to this type of retroactive realization as “Fridge Logic“; the more you know).  At some point between the second-to-last and final appearances of this strange “Greek chorus,” the pig is turned into bacon and package-wrapped, yet still has a recognizable face and is still singing.  It’s pretty senseless, but I still think it’s neat.

What do you think is funny?  If you watched the What is Funny cartoon yourself, what did you find funny about it and why?  Do you think Slap T. Pooch could have been successful in his own series?  Let me know in the comments, and keep on laughing!  (Oh yeah, one more thing…  Oh Yeah! Cartoons had one of the best theme songs I’ve ever heard.  I thought it was a bit strange that it was always played over the closing credits rather than at the show’s beginning, but it was still one of the most memorable parts of the show for me.  Give it a listen (as well as this longer version) and tell me if it made you go “Oh Yeah” or “Oh No.”)

Growing Up with Saturday Morning Shows

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013
Life in a box.

Remember your favorite shows?

I have very fond memories of certain points in my life.  I remember waking up in my crib and, for the first time ever, being aware that I was in my room.  I recall being the ringmaster for a pretend circus in my preschool class, holding a portable microphone and announcing each new act.  I remember spending what felt like ages going through every book in my third-grade class’s computer reading program, astounded by the fact that some of my favorite stories were part of the offerings.  They play out in my mind as isolated incidents, feeling familiar yet distant from where I am today.  I can recall certain parts very clearly while the rest remains forever obscured from my memory.  

However, one area of my life which I remember with particular fondness and clarity is watching Saturday morning children’s television.  There were so many amazing moments which I laid witness to through this type of programming that it would be difficult for me to summarize the whole of it.  Instead, I have decided to address some of the more outstanding moments for me, what they have meant to me, and how they have shaped my life.

Whenever I think of the words “Saturday morning,” I cannot help but recall the opening title sequence to ABC’s One Saturday Morning programming block.  This one was a real eye-opener when I first saw it in 1996-97, and I thought it was the best part of the whole day.  The opening sequence was arranged around a song describing the excruciating torture of working through the week to get to the most fun part of the week, the “five hours of summer, once a week” filled to the brim with great entertainment that, to me, felt like nothing else on TV other than the Fox Kids and Kids WB weekday afternoon schedules (more on those later).  I thought the opening sequence illustrated the idea of Saturday being the most fun day of the week in a very novel way.  The rest of the days of the week were depicted as drab gray buildings filled with homework and assembly lines, signifying how boring and humdrum the rest of the week could be to a kid.  After the camera finished panning past all of these buildings, it zoomed through a dark door and into a sunny meadow where a large colorful skyscraper shaped like a number “1 ” grew up out of a box and a roller coaster expanded and wrapped itself around the building.  The camera then swirled around the “1” and went in through the front door to reveal a gigantic CGI set full of kids bouncing around the place.  This virtual set played host to short skits  in between shows, but I wasn’t as wild about the skits as I was about the opening sequence.  This sequence greatly shaped my perceptions of Saturday morning as a time to forget about my tensions from the rest of the week and have fun for a few hours.  The shows that aired during the morning did not always live up to the expectations established by the opening sequence, but it was still the most memorable part of the morning for me.

I watched the shows on Fox Kids and Kids WB more often than I watched those on ABC.  This was partly because in addition to airing on the weekends, both of these TV lineups also aired on weekday afternoons, giving me an opportunity to watch them more often.  Quite a few of the shows I watched on Saturday mornings were the same ones I watched during weekdays; the Saturday morning airings would usually be new episodes.  There were two shows I watched in this way which I still remember very fondly.  One of them was Histeria, an entertaining and educational show from the creators of Animaniacs which taught history in funny and sometimes controversial ways.  I remember learning a lot from it, and I was disappointed to see it taken off the air after a short time. 

The other show was Digimon: Digital Monsters, a series similar to Pokemon about a group of children adventuring with powerful transforming creatures.  I thought the series had some great characterization and plenty of action and humor which had much appeal to my eight-to-ten year old self.  During my prime days of watching Saturday morning programming, Digimon aired its first three seasons.  Of the three, my favorite was the third, also known as Digimon Tamers.  A more mature take on the show’s premise, this season showed what children with all-powerful monsters might do if they had battles in the real world (surprisingly, a city would not be completely destroyed unless a gelatinous goop with the color and consistency of strawberry jelly invaded).  The first season comes in second for me; it came shortly after I had been watching Pokemon for about three years, turning the latter’s formula completely on its head with humor and action which I thought the other show couldn’t quite equal.   The second season is a distant third in my book; while it was nice to see how the first season’s characters were getting along, I got the sense that there wouldn’t be much else you could do with that particular setting without making some major changes.

As time went by, I started watching less and less Saturday morning television, partly because it didn’t appeal to me much anymore and partly because most of what I had liked I could now find on cable networks.  Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network provided Saturday morning-type programming 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, accessible at any time of day.  Both channels carried old cartoons like Looney Tunes and Alvin and the Chipmunks as well as new cartoons like Rugrats and Dexter’s Laboratory.  Each channel also had unique features which kept me watching, such as Nick with fun game shows such as Double Dare and Legends of the Hidden Temple, and Cartoon Network with the action-oriented Toonami lineup hosting shows like Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z.  There was something interesting to watch for seemingly every hour of the day. 

I was actually a pretty lucky kid.  I was able to get all of the major kids’ networks and both of the Saturday morning network lineups.  I watched the best of everything I could wrap my eyeballs around to the point that the way I watched television seemed like programming my own personal network.  In recent years, I have rediscovered many of the shows I enjoyed as a kid, and I have noticed new details and deeper themes in them which have made me appreciate them in a new light.  In a way, Saturday morning can happen for me any time of day now.  Regardless of what may change though, I will still remember when everything fun revolved around “five hours of summer, once a week.”