The Sad and Funny Character

When thinking of a funny animated character, sadness is probably not one of the characteristics that comes to mind first.  But there is a long history of combining sadness with humor.

Sadness is a fundamental human emotion and it can be the secret ingredient to creating a truly memorable character.  Characters who are sad have a couple of advantages.  Often, they are up against a difficult situation, and their obvious vulnerability plays to human empathy.  Sadness makes a character feel real and relatable.  Sadness is a truly honest emotion. A character who is obviously sad is not putting up a fake front, so we know they are truthful to themselves, and we tend to believe in truthful characters.  Sadness is an understandable emotion when it is caused by loneliness.  We don’t care about people who are sad because they aren’t rich, or aren’t beautiful.  Loneliness is the driver of romance, and romance is one of the great motivators of story.  The sad character has room to grow.  If it is a comedy, we know it will have a happy ending, and seeing how someone goes from sad to happy is a fundamental story arc.

Combining that with humorous behavior provides a powerful contrast.  Sad funny characters are always awkward. Theres is the comedy of foolishness.

In feature film animation, where the story is a usually completed, the star usually finds romance.  But still, beginning with a character who is admittedly sad, can be a great way to get the audience on their side.

In Pixar’s Ratatouille, when we meet the young chef wannabe, Alfredo Linguini, the very first thing we learn about him is that his mother has died.  He is an awkward young man in need of a job.  He is clearly worthy of our sympathy.

Alfredo Linguini from Pixars Ratatouille.

During that first scene Skinner, the head chef, pushes him and falls into Collette’s arms, and she literally tosses him aside. At that point, she has no attraction to him at all and becomes a firm instructor of kitchen skills.  The audience know there is potential there for him to find something more.

Wall-E is a diligent robot who continues to work hard at his job, even though he is the only one left to clean up an entire planet. He is the definition of dedicated. But he is lonely, and he has been discovering items in the trash that make him wonder about the world that used to be.  While watching an old musical, he sees human beings holdng hands, and wonders what it is like.  Just watch these two gifs.

When the reconnaissance robot Eve arrives, Wall-E is both irresistably curious, and terribly frightened.  When Eve suspects something moving in the area, she unleashes a powerful energy weapon in his direction.

You should note that in both of these examples, the love interest does NOT make things easy.  It has to appear challenging, if not impossible. The experience of falling in love is one the most intense experiences in life, and it makes for great storytelling opportunities.  Both Wall-E and Linguini behave like adolescent boys fumbling in their romantic endeavors.  But they succeed in the end.

The relationship doesn’t have be romantic.  One of the greatest animated sad characters was Dumbo, who was separated from his mother. I chose the image at the top because it shows Dumbo in some of his clown outfit. Notice the frilled collar.  While performing in the circus, Dumbo has his face painted white.

The frilled collar, and white painted face are both associated with one of the archetypes of clown, the Pierrot.  It is a very specific style of clown.  He is the sad clown.  The Pierrot evolved from the Commedia Dell’arte’s Pedrolino.  While his character has been around for centuries, it still lives on in our culture.

From Wikipedia:

 His character in contemporary popular culture—in poetry, fiction, and the visual arts, as well as works for the stage, screen, and concert hall—is that of the sad clown, pining for love of Columbine, who usually breaks his heart and leaves him for Harlequin. Performing unmasked, with a whitened face, he wears a loose white blouse with large buttons and wide white pantaloons. Sometimes he appears with a frilled collaret and a hat.

File source:

Perhaps some of you have seen the videos of Puddles the singing clown.  He usually sings torch songs, songs of loneliness and rejection. His on stage persona is a Pierrot.

Pierrot is the pure form of this character. In the end, he doesn’t get the girl.  You might think of the Simpsons character Milhous as a Pierrot. He loves Lisa Simpson, but will never be loved by her in return. Every episode he has to start over again as just himself.

While he makes us laugh, we also know that often this is how life is. In fact, while Lisa ultimately rejects Milhous, she herself has often been rejected, and is always moving forward with her own story.

You see, while we like characters who make us laugh, we can love the characters who both make us laugh and cry.  It is not an easy thing to do.  Here is one of my favorite funny/sad performances.  This is Bob Maloogaloogaloogaloogalooga from the movie Big Man on Campus.  You can see more from this movie in my other post on it HERE.


Dancing so bad it’s funny

I am a big fan of eccentric dancing. Usually, eccentric dancing requires a high degree of skill.  But there are some great examples that are funny because of how bad it is.  I am talking here about professionals who dance to get laughs. This is bad dancing, not dancing badly. There are hours of real life bad dancers on Youtube, but those are just poor imitations of other dances.  I am looking for someone who created a specific style of dance so it will look ridiculous.

These dances have two things in common.  They look like they could be done by anybody, and they have tremendous enthusiasm. I would love to see someone animate a dance cycle that could make me laugh like these do.

We’ll let Julia Louis-Dreyfus get this bad dance party started.

Then there is Martin Short as Ed Grimley

Groucho Marx was primarily a verbal comedian, but he had some physical comedy chops for sure.  Particularly with dancing.

Here is a video with a selection of his creative moves.

Jim Carrey in a tutu was a famous one.

This is comedian Nathan Barnatt, also making use of the knees going in opposite directions.

Finally, the great Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean.

The Body Out of Control

People have a fascination with human movement that defies norms. Often it is the beautiful and extraordinary, such as dance or acrobatics, but it can also be the ungainly and strange. When we see someone moving oddly, we stop and try to comprehend what is going on.  Spasmodic, or erratic, motion has always had a certain use in comedy. The staggering drunk is probably the most common.  Jerry Lewis had an awkward running style that was one of his signature actions.  But lets focus on characters who really are not in control of their motor functions.

This music video for Fatboy Slim is both slapstick and really cool.  It was created by the Swedish firm Traktor. Plus it has cartoons in it!

Obviously their are wires yanking their bodies around and then the wires are removed in post production. But the effect is wild. It’s not unlike some moments in Ratatouille when Remy is manipulating Linquini.

Strange movement is one of the reasons zombies are so interesting to audiences.  I will confess, I have not seen the either of the Weekend at Bernie’s movies.  As far as I can tell, at some point the dead Bernie is re-animated through some sort of voodoo ritual. His odd motion became a dance craze.

And we must remember this modern classic. It has over 27 million views on YouTube for the very reason I am describing.

Paul Hunt – Comedy Gymnastics

Here is an idea for a challenging animation exercise.  Instead of the serious parkour actions that are so common, have a character do some gymnastics, but screw it up the way Paul Hunt does in these examples.

Thanks to Chris Michael at New Slapstick for his tweet that introduced me to Paul Hunt, comedy gymnast. From wikipedia:

Hunt was a competitive men’s gymnast at the University of Illinois in the early 1970s. He won the Big Ten Conference individual championship in the floor exercise in 1971, and had another win in the floor exercise in 1973. He was the 1972 US National Floor Exercise champion.
Hunt has been coaching gymnastics in Utah since 1974. While demonstrating a backflip for a female student, he realized the comic value of a man performing women’s gymnastics. He performs his routines during gymnastics competitions for comic relief, wearing a skirted leotard and often calling himself Paulina Huntesque, Pauletta Huntenova or some similar variation. Often he would sport his thick mustache.

Jerry Lewis with music

This is real sweet clip of Jerry Lewis from The Errand Boy.  Clearly it was plugged into the movie just for fun.  It does nothing to move the story forward, and I like that, because it’s all about character.  He has lot’s of strong expressions and hand poses.

It is powerful, brassy music which motivates Jerry to imitate a strong brassy character.  It’s also very interesting how certain instruments get interpreted into certain actions.  A Youtube commenter identifies the music as “Blues in Hoss’ Flat” performed by Count Basie.

This might make a great animation exercise, animating a character to interpret a musical track. Unless it comes out like this.

While I appreciate the fact that Family Guy is paying homage to Jerry, the limited animation gives us just a fraction of the fun.
Before animating, shoot reference, and judge the reference harshly.

There are much worse versions on youtube. The comparison is valuable to understand what Jerry is doing. He is a master.

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