Sunday, April 13, 2008

What makes a cartoon funny?

No pictures today. Just a simple question: What makes an animated cartoon genuinely funny, or NOT funny, for you? For your 10 year old kids? For you when you were a 10 year old kid? There is no right or wrong answer here, but try to be specific. Is there a particular film, TV show, character, scene, bit of acting or dialog or situation that actually made you laugh out loud? Do you have an example that is suppose to make you laugh but just insulted your sense of humor, or just made you angry? I don't care if you are 9 or 90, a grizzled animation veteran, just starting out, or not in the cartoon biz at all. Don't be bashful. This will be a topic that I will continue to cover on this blog. The future of humor in animated entertainment could depend on you!!!


Jason Miskimins said...

For me a cartoon must use its strengths - meaning it should do things that can't be done in real life (break the laws of physics, defy gravity, defy anatomy, etc).

Of course there are plenty of other good timing and good execution.

The Raging Gaijin said...

I find the character interaction and dialogue are what makes a cartoon funny. Recent examples are The Venture Brothers, with their cutting commentary, play on words, and jokes that take a bit to get a punchline. (For the last, check out 'Love Beihts' episode for Hank's response to his brother getting married.) As early as Ren and Stimpy though, the characters were outlandish, did human actions like farting in a bathtub and picking their nose, but the key thing was the dialogue. Dexter's Lab had the wrestler who quipped to the Samurai "I do not like your kicks so high. I do not like them, Sam-ar-aye." Nifty play on the Green Eggs and Ham book from our youth.
Even a poorly rendered cartoon can be humorous if the dialogue is well written; that's what brings me back to cartoons again and again. (Plus, if they have inside jokes adults will understand but children won't grasp, it's a bonus.)

Jeff Harter said...

Too many cartoons rely on a heavy amount of dialog that's supposed to be humorous but it doesn't necessarily work. I think maybe I'm missing something, but I notice my children aren't laughing either. Clever and genuinely funny dialog is an art.

Two scenes from Bugs Bunny make me laugh every time I see them. Both with Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam. First one: Yosemite challenges Bugs by throwing a can up in the air and shooting several holes in it. Bugs throws a can up in the air and waits for the can to line up right in front of Yosemite's face, then blasts Yosemite right in the face. Brilliant. I saw the same show where the edited out the blast in the face and replaced with Bugs shooting corks into the holes that Yosemite made. Lame. I understand WHY they did so, but frankly, that cartoon never made me want to go out and shoot somebody in the face. I understood it was a cartoon.

Second: Yosemite tries to get bugs to play a piano tune (can't remember the name of that tune). The last key is wired to a bomb. Bugs, of course, plays the last note off key. So Yosemite runs in and says "No you stupid rabbit, like THIS!" Plays it the right way, and BOOM! Brilliant. Again with the explosives. Gets me every time.

Tom and Jerry: Tom on skates chasing Jerry in an ice covered kitchen. Tom navigates around several objects, clasps his hands in the air (as if to say "Thank you everyone") then slams into an ironing board, body stretches out several feet. No dialog at all, but to me, the acting and timing is hilarious.

I want to see more brilliant pantomime and cartoonish slapstick in animation.

Paul M. said...

The piano booby trap gag was used in several Warner Bros cartoons including "Ballot Box Bunny" (example given)and "Show Biz Bugs" (with a xylophone).

The tune was "Those Endearing Young Charms".

shawnee said...

Timing. Sometimes the difference between funny and dumb is just a few seconds. I hate to admit it because its so lowbrow, but Family guy, especially the first season or so, made me laugh out loud. also, if someone else is giggling it usually makes me do so too.

Jeff Harter said...

Love Family Guy. What's wrong with low brow? :o)

Jeff Harter said...

Jason, I totally agree. Take advantage of animation's stregths. Timing is everything.

Raging gaijin, I need to check out the Venture Brothers. Love Dexter's Lab.

Thanks! I just realized I own The Loony Toons Golden Collection with Ballot Box Bunny, was just too lazy to look up the title. Fritz Freleng and Warren Foster were brilliant. (My wife's grandfather's name was Warren Foster... no relation though). But you will win the animation history award of brilliance if you can come up with the name of that other Bugs Bunny episode I mentioned!

SNL, Debbie Downer at Disney Land, with Horatio Sans and Jimmy Fallon trying desperately not to laugh. A perfect example that cracks me up. Some out takes are funny too. But only in live action because it's spontaneous and live. Neither example ever works in animation, for me anyway.

John T. Quinn 3rd said...

i saw a cartoon in which this big bear was hoarding all the snacks and all the other creatures in the forest would always find the snack basket empty and they'd say "hey, who the heck is eatin' all the snacks?" and then they'd hear music by Starship or Journey coming out of the bear's cave and the bear's breath would smell like baked lays and snickers and then something funny would happen and they'd all laugh.
i miss that show :-)

Paul M. said...

The tin can shoot out was from "Wild and Woolly Hare". (OK, I Googled it. No award for me...;)

Jeff Harter said...

John! Now THAT is funny!! You made me laugh out loud!!! And I know you did as you were writing it. Check it out... that bear still has a drawer full of snacks... almonds, pretzels, only this time he has to buy his own (except for the occasional pieces of chocolate that the bear finds laying around the employee kitchen counter.) Man, I miss that free basket o plenty. I mean, the bear misses it. :o)

Paul, you win the award anyway! I want that episode. (not the one with the corks!)

John T. Quinn 3rd said...

i have to admit, i was laughing. it was way past my bedtime so, maybe i was feeling dopey. i saw Chantel's comment and started thinking about the old days and just started laughing.

anyway, i think it goes to your question. the content can be funny no matter the medium. movies and tv are funny if the story, situation, characters are funny and animation adds the possibility of funny drawing as well. i honestly don't know if i can think of a classic animated cartoon that made me laugh because of the drawing. i'm too nerdy and fascinated by the skill and execution so, i find myself more in awe than humored.

SpongeBob always has funny drawings. The "takes" on that show are brilliant. I can write a long list of Bugs Bunny dialogue which cracks me up every time but, i think many could work in live action as well.

Beanstalk Bunny, "You are Jack and you know that you are because it is a fact."

The Raging Gaijin said...

In response to Jeff Harter: (By the way, thank you for a profound and indepth discussion!)
In my studies, (I am pursuing a degree in 3D Animation at the Academy of Art University), we are often told to not rely on the overt/slapstick for a laugh. Especially in this day and age where computer animation doesn't allow for the static holds that look unnatural in 3D, we are expected to animate characters as if they were live actors. So our reactions tend to not be as rubbery as the early Looney Tunes or Tex Avery cartoons.
Now having said that, the cartoons you describe are fantastic as they don't rely on exaggeration, they rely (as another person stated) on timing. That is key for anything humorous. Even the old Laurel and Hardy movies relied on timing to ensure the gag was fulfilled. And I've seen personally how something I thought funny, by having a hold at 15 frames, isn't as funny (only evoking a giggle) at 10-12 frames.
Great discussion, Jeff! Please keep it up!

Jeff Harter said...

Yep, timing, delivery, funny dialog, great acting, great set up, situations that aren't expected, that sneak up on you or provide a twist... all key.

Another is the voice acting. A voice can make or break a character. I find Emperors New Groove to be pretty funny because of the voices of David Spade and Patrick Warburton. Both, btw, are in the show Rules of Engagement. If you haven't seen it yet, check it out, it's pretty funny.

The Zany Bishojo Evalana said...

For me, a lot of what really makes me laugh depends on the voice acting. Even a line that isn't necessarily supposed to be funny can work with the right voicing (for example, Tara Strong's inflection in an episode of Sushi Pack turned a simple "I disagree with you" into one of my favorite lines).
I can forgive a lot of things, a lackluster story, bad animation, etc. as long as the voice acting is up to par or better.

Jeff Harter said...

Was watching "My Gym Partner's a Monkey a lot lately. I love that show. Everything works. Even non funny dialog is funny because of the delivery, timing and acting (expressions).

John K - "...certain stand up comics might have material that's not very funny, but their delivery is so funny that it doesn't matter. If a comedian's timing and expressions are funny, that makes his story ten times funnier. "

Esme said...

The jokes that you have to think about. Such as this one thing me and my brother and sisters acted out freestyle:

Person one: Here, lemme dye your hair silver!

Person two: Wait-- What?! No.

Person one: Aw, c'mon! *starts approaching with hair dye tube*

Person two: *Grabs the hair dye and throws it out the window*


Late on...

*Person one throws person two out the window in some sort of fit of rage*

Person two: *out of sight in pain* Remember when you wanted to dye my hair silver?

Person one: Yeah?

Person two: The deed's been done.

We all got out of character to laugh.

Also it's walking that make us laugh. Junny ways people can walk, legs moving and un-moving bodies. Such as Snake from The Powerpuff Girls. He walks movingn only his legs to keep his S formation, that had me and my sister cracking up~!

I got over people getting hurt a looong time ago and I don't find it funny anymore but painful to see. Such as, PPG reference again, Snake from the Gangreen Gang getting punched alot, at least in the episode Buttercrush. I'm known for not liking that character, but I didn't find that funny at all. And a ton of stunts in The Simpsons I see as painful and not funny.


Jeff Harter said...

Great comments, everyone! Hey Esme, Humor from "pain:" There is something funny about experiencing a life threatening situation and living to tell about it, both in life and in cartoons. Not talking about laughing about someone's genuine pain. That's not funny at all, I agree. Now, if someone does a spectacular fall (pratfall) and doesn't get hurt, it's funny, no? My wife was telling me about a woman who backed up into hr suit case, tripped, tried desperately to maintain her balance, spun around and fell on her stomach so hard that her legs flew up in the air her body was like a rocking horse! She was o.k. after all of that. Pretty darn funny (to me). Another example, a friend of mine was spraying some insulation next to his furnace. Obviously not thinking. The air around him went up in flames. He burned off half of his head and arm hair. He was unharmed. When I heard that story, I LAUGHED, because it was unbelievable that he didn't get REALLY hurt, blow up his house, etc. He cheated death, in a way. That's funny (to me, anyway). This happens in the movies all the time.

Jeff Harter said...

...being funny without looking like you are trying to be funny. There is something about telling a joke, then waiting for the laughter because YOU KNOW (or think you know) it's funny. Not the "Look at me everyone, I just said something REALLY funny" person. I love dry wit and deadpan. These are a few of my favorite comedians that can pull this off brilliantly: Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Steve Martin...Will Ferrell is great. Interestingly, all of these comedians are from Saturday Night Live. While I'm on the topic of SNL, Kristen Wiig and Molly Shannon are hilarious. I also LOVE it when I see someone trying to be deadpan but it's SO funny that they can't help laughing. Jimmy Fallon and Horatio Sans were THE BEST. Can't forget about Dana Carvey and Mike Meyers. Chris Farley and David Spade for the same reason. So many great comedians came from SNL!

Jeff Harter said...

So basically, we also laugh at things in real life that are A) not trying so hard as to look like you are setting up a joke or gag and B) unexpected and unplanned. The challenge then is, how can you translate the energy, spontaneity and hilarity from real life into our animated comedies, where everything is so planned? Not impossible. What are some good examples of this in today's cartoons?