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.
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.
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.
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.