Many years ago I used to visit a corporate restaurant in Virginia. It was called “Carlos Murphy’s”. It was a hybrid of an Irish pub and a Mexican cantina. Just inside the front door, there was a large glass case with a sculpture inside. It was Wile E. Coyote with his arm out stretched, and in his clenched fist was the throat of a dead roadrunner.
There is a common style of animated comedy I call “loser comedy”. Loser comedy is built around a character who struggles mightily to achieve a goal, and ultimately fails, with many body and soul crushing moments along his fruitless journey. The greatest loser character of all was Wile E. Coyote. First, let me admit, I often laugh at these cartoons.
I also laugh at Scrat, the loser squirrel/rat who appears in the Blue Sky Studios Ice Age films. Try as he might he can’t quite reach the nut. I think his shorts are very well done. He gets situations that are spectacularly bad, and creating those situations is where it becomes art. What these characters do is survive, and survival is a form of victory.
But these are not the kind of characters I would choose to create. I find them disheartening in some way. It’s clear to me that I’m laughing at these characters, not with them. It’s the comedy found in “fail” videos. Ultimately, I don’t feel good about them. I think that is why someone created the statue of the victorious Coyote. Because they think he deserves to win.
In classic clown comedy, teams of comedians were often paired as smart clown/stupid clown. The stupid clown would take the brunt of the comedy, for a while. But when the moment came that the stupid clown put one over on the smart clown, that’s when the biggest laughs came. Over the years, there was a kind of evolution, with the stupid bumpkin becoming the audience pleasing trickster.
The greatest comedy teams, like Laurel & Hardy, and the Marx Brothers, have an equality that allows them to continuously interplay. This is why I like the pair of Bart and Lisa Simpson. Their relationship is not always one sided. And sometimes they share together in kid things, without being at odds.
It is common to see independent or student films that have some pathetic character getting the worst of some situation. It’s a way to end with an easy laugh, by closing out on the final humiliation. I think this sort of comedy has reached saturation, and I hope we can start seeing clever, fun characters who manage to beat the odds and win.