Before Tim Burton, Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton made the jump from animation to live action, there was Frank Tashlin, Looney Tunes director. Here is an interesting compilation of shots from both his cartoons and movies that illustrate his appreciation of women’s legs.
Over the years I have heard the term “shaggy dog” story and I decided it was time to really understand what that means. After doing some internet research I learned that a shaggy dog story is basically a long-winded joke with an anti-climactic ending. It involves an extensive build-up, featuring many details and challenges to the subject of the story. But the punchline doesn’t resolve anything. It actually renders everything that occurred prior to having been pointless.
The origin of the name “shaggy dog” is up for debate. It first appeared in the 1930s. After reading various examples, I have created a brief version that works for my purpose.
A wealthy Englishman loses his beloved dog, which happens to be quite shaggy. As he is a man of means, he puts out a worldwide notice offering a fabulous reward for the return of the dog. In America a fellow finds a shaggy dog wandering about his hometown. He feels certain this must be THE dog. He puts all his available funds into transporting himself and the dog across the Atlantic. After many trials and tribulations, he finally arrives at the estate of the dog owner. He knocks at the door.
The butler answers the door, and the man presents the dog. The butler simply says, “He’s not that shaggy” and closes the door in his face.
The ending of the story may be an anti-climax, but it is definitely an ending. And a good ending can leave an impression on the audience. It really helps if the audience never sees it coming. Comedy is often about revealing human folly, and a shaggy dog story will do that. The more energy a character puts into a pointless endeavor, the more foolish he looks in the end.
This type of story construction works very well for animation. I could have described the man’s journey with the dog in a series of comical misadventures. The dog could have a personality that makes everything more difficult. Anything could happen because, in the end, it’s irrelevant.
In the western-themed Tex Avery short Deputy Droopy, two crooks try to steal a safe from the sheriff’s office while the sheriff is asleep. While they try to be absolutely quiet, Droopy pulls painful pranks on them that cause them to run to the hills to scream. There seem to be infinite variations on how they suffer. In the end, they quit trying and willingly enter the jail, only to learn the sheriff’s hearing aid had dead batteries and he wouldn’t have heard them anyway.
There is a great example in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Roger is goofing around and he handcuffs himself to the detective Eddie Valiant. Eddie does not have the key for the handcuffs. This causes lots of problems for the two of them, and finally, they get to a secret room at the bar where Eddie struggles to hacksaw off the handcuffs. Here is a video of how it finally ends…
Roger’s response is my favorite line from that movie. I said before that the punchline makes what came before pointless, but in this situation, there was a purpose for this whole story event. The handcuffs motivate the two of them to move from Eddie’s apartment to the bar where Eddie believes he can get them out of it, so it actually does serve a purpose, but in a funny way. Had Eddie simply sawed off the cuffs, it wouldn’t be funny, right? The right punchline makes it all work. STORY ARTISTS AND WRITERS TAKE NOTE OF THAT.
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For more examples of shaggy dog stories in animation, visit THIS PAGE at tvtropes.com
I created a part two because the term “running gag” has developed a somewhat broad usage. Originally, I wanted to create a post about comedians reusing old material. Physical comedy is much more “repeatable” than verbal comedy. If you hear a verbal joke once, it’s funny. The second time it is not. But physical comedy has the capacity to get laughs more than once. I found some YouTube videos that suited my purpose, but they referred to their subject as running gags. I didn’t want to confuse the subject, so I broke it into two parts.
Comedy can be funny because it’s surprising and shocking. However, most popular comedy is built on making the audience relax and feel comfortable enough to laugh. We like Bugs Bunny because we have a good idea what he’s going to get up to and we look forward to it. Running gags are one way to maintain a character’s style.
Here is a video of a gag from Looney Tunes that was used four times. You must have seen it more than once, and I’m wagering you laughed every one of those times. Ending with an explosion usually makes for a funny bit.
I want to point out something about the piano gag. The tune gets played at least twice, and the second time the bad guy who wants to demonstrate how it’s supposed to go plays through it much faster. As with the sidecar gag from the Marx Brothers clip in part one, the audience has already sat through the set up once. They can see the joke coming, and accelerating it helps keep it funny.
Reusing a major comic event in its entirety, like the piano act above, is a rare occurrence. Typically, it won’t be so similar to what came before. There have been comedians who became lazy and started reusing old material with little or no changes, and the audience knew it. Reviewers would call the material stale and cliche. Smart comedians will find ways to revitalize old material for new productions. They rework and refresh it.
One team that did that a lot was the Three Stooges. They produced 190 short films, and just think how many of them used eye pokes and head bonks. But it goes beyond those signature gags. I found a YouTube channel that specializes in gathering Three Stooges scenes based on similar ideas. HERE IS THE LINK to that channel. Below is one of the 34 videos from that channel. This one involves a stooge getting a large spring stuck to his ass. Note that each time, they add new variations. Reusing successful comedy can be a way to maintain your style.
Finally, there are specialty acts. Vaudeville was built on specialty acts. Larry Griswold did a drunk springboard diving routine in the ’50s. Basically, this is a circus act, like trapeze or trick horseback riding. Here is a video from The Frank Sinatra TV show.
Below you will see the same act done by a different performer 30 years later. A whole new generation will have come to see it, and older people may have fond memories. Even in such a similar act, there are ways to create new variations. It’s a very clownish display of physical skill.
Running gags are bits of comedy that get repeated throughout a show or series, and derive some of their power from audience familiarity. To qualify as a running gag, it needs to be played out at least three times. Running gags are very common. For thirty years The Simpsons TV show has started every episode with two running gags; what Bart writes on the blackboard and how the family ends up on the couch. Monster’s Inc. has a running gag where Mike Wazowki’s face gets covered up in print. It has even found its way into the real world. The TV Tropes page for running gags in western animation has an enormous number of entries. Let’s see what we can learn from some animated and live productions.
Here is a good example of a running gag in the movie Inside Out.
The Tripledent jingle is introduced quite innocently, but every appearance after that it’s an unexpected surprise. It’s funny to watch the characters also be surprised and react to the song.
One of my favorite running gags is in the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup. I edited together the three uses of the sidecar gag and will discuss it below.
This is a perfect example of a pattern variation type of gag. The first two times the gag happens, it’s exactly the same thing. Having it happen twice causes the audience to begin to see a pattern. That creates an expectation that the pattern will continue. Groucho sees the same thing. So when he comes to Harpo on the bike the third time, he attempts to thwart the gag. That’s when the trickster Harpo completely reverses it.
I also want to point out something about the timing. The first time it happens, they run through it carefully. There is some build-up, Groucho throws in some jokes. They milk what they can out it. The second time, they get to and through the gag quickly. The audience as seen it, so speeding it up actually helps keep it funny. This speed-up of the second presentation will come up again in part two of this post.
Next is a compilation of telephone gags from the Muppet Show. Kermit the Frog turns to the audience and explicitly calls it a running gag. Each occurrence of the joke follows a formula. Phone rings, Fozzy answers, physical gag, punchline.
This type of running gag has the potential to be an animation exercise. You could set up a recurring situation similar to the telephone ringing. Then create multiple takes for how to get comedy out of it. It would demonstrate your comic creativity.
Next is a video titled “Tex Avery’s Strangest Running Gag.” It may be strange now, but it probably wasn’t back in Tex’s day. Remember I said audience familiarity is a part of the comedy? In the 40’s audiences still remembered vaudeville and burlesque acts. This “sexy girl animal” dance is an obvious indicator that cartoons were not necessarily aimed at kids.
Tomorrow I will broaden the concept of running gags to cover even more visual comedy.