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.
4 thoughts on “Loser comedy”
I think the problem with loser cartoons isn’t the loser… It’s the victor character. When the victor is a smug little ass like Jerry mouse or completely impervious to any attack like the roadrunner, it isn’t a fair fight. It’s OK for the world to come crashing down on you- Oliver Hardy did that the best- but you’ve got to have a fair chance.
The hardest thing to balance is bully humor. The Three Stooges succeeded because they all took their share of knocks and bounced right back to working together on the task at hand. But Abbott and Costello irritate me no end with the unrelenting meanness bouncing off unrelenting obliviousness. The best Abbott & Costello is the first season of the TV show because of Joe Besser, Bingo the Chimp and all the other surreal side characters. It’s amazing that they chose to throw away all the best things about the show for the second season.
By the way, speaking of the smart clown / stupid clown archetypes, have you ever written on the black burlesque routines that spawned the Moran and Mack and Amos and Andy teams? I know it’s a politically correct hot potato, but I’ve become interested in the roots of this kind of humor and it seems that by the time the white performers popularized it on records and the radio, it was already a rich tradition in entertainment made by blacks for blacks. I’m wondering if it’s the comedy equivalent of Pat Boone singing “Tutti Fruitie” and if there are black exponents of this style that we just don’t know about because they weren’t committed to film.
I’ve seen some kinescopes of Showtime at the Apollo and a filmed minstrel show that included great blackface routines by black performers like Scatman Crothers… And of course the broken down jalopy scene in Stormy Weather. Modern audiences squirm at this stuff because of the obvious surface characteristics, but I’m wondering if there might be a rich tradition under the surface that we aren’t considering.
One quick example… I always read academic studies talking about the “racism” of the stereotyping of the crows in “Dumbo”, but the skiffle band that plays on the steamboat in “Stormy Weather” is virtually identical. If the animators on “Dumbo” weren’t basing the crows directly on that band, they were certainly referencing another one that was very similar.
The performance of the band in “Stormy Weather” is enthusiastic, skillful and clearly honed on hundreds, if not thousands of previous live performances… Most likely in black vaudeville. Yet I never hear academics mention this. They act as if the Disney animators made it all up from white stereotypes about black people.