What kids think is funny

On the topic of creating comedy “for kids” I want to offer up this. Children have their own culture and they do find some things funny that adults just might not “get.” Maybe adults forgot what they liked as kids, and may have, in a way, unlearned it.

I saw this years ago when it was on TV. Below I explain what I found so special in Martin’s act.

What I find so funny is Martin’s dives are all the stuff we did as kids. And when I was a lifeguard years later, I saw new kids still doing the same gags. Martin probably did them too and built an act around his memories. It’s an unusual bit of comedy, with a simple source of inspiration; memories. Children have a world of their own that gets passed down on the playground and is ultimately left behind. Staying in touch with our childlike nature is not encouraged. It gets pushed aside for “grown-up” concerns.

At its heart, Martin’s act is just plain silliness. When creating stories there often isn’t room for the digression into silliness. There are some fantastic silly characters though, such as Pixar’s Dory, and Forky. They each have a specific kind of childlike foolishness. Also, like children, they require the attention of others. They have the potential to go off course and get in trouble. They need some guidance. It’s not an adult relationship. Modern schools of storytelling assume everyone is an adult. So there is the lesson, a funny character might just be immature in some way that allows him or her to behave differently.

And it’s true, kids laugh at fart jokes. And crotch shots.

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Booksmart Drug Trip Animation

Checking out her new doll body in Booksmart animation.

While I was in our living room, my wife put on the live-action movie Booksmart, directed by Olivia Wilde. It is a film about two high school seniors, Amy and Molly, on the night before graduation. They are straight-A good girls, and they desperately want to have a crazy night out before heading to their Ivy League colleges. It was entertaining enough to keep me watching. In the middle of the film, the two young women learn that they had been dosed with an entheogenic drug. This is what happens when the drugs take effect…

This was a sudden change of direction in the movie, and I love it when studios let directors go off this way. Why hadn’t I read anything about this elsewhere? This scene hasn’t gotten much attention in the animation community, and it deserves more. The stop motion animation was done at Shadowmachine, in Portland, Oregon. I found one good behind the scenes article on Vulture.

This is a great entry in the long history of drug trips in movies This scene, in fact, was inspired by the one in The Big Lebowski. Such work demands some kind of effects, and animation is quite well suited. In one of the most memorable episodes of The Simpsons, Homer went on a peyote trip. At the end of season 12 of Trailer Park Boys, all the main characters swallow drugs to hide them from the police and wind up turning into cartoons while in jail.

In this case, though, there is also a relevant cultural message. There have been innumerable commentaries written about the outrageous proportions of Barbie dolls, but this animation may be the last take we ever need. The two actresses are normal women, and their characters are ambitious feminists. This moment of experiencing sudden transformation into an extreme version of female beauty standards gives us a totally new perspective on the discussion. For more from the director on this, including details on the animation that was cut, here is a good article.

Rubbery = Funny

When I saw Ice Age 4: Continental Drift, and also Madagascar 3, I noticed significant advances in how soft and flexible characters had become. They flop and wiggle and swish and squash all over the place. Sid the Sloth was always the most flexible of the characters, and in this film, his grandmother, shaky with age, added in lots of saggy skin jiggling. During one of the Scrat cutaways, he’s deep undersea and gets squeezed by the pressure into the most remarkably skinny and floppy condition ever. The rigs must have some interesting capabilities, but I’m sure some of the effect comes from various simulations added on top. It’s fantastic work.

In Ice Age 4, the pirates who harass the heroes were also quite loose in their movement. The badger could turn himself into a flag, the rabbit was quicksilver fast, the sea elephant was a blob of jelly, and they are led by this ape:

The ape, voiced by Peter Dinklage, had a very mobile face with big lips that could take on extreme shapes. His body could also twist quite beyond what a muscular ape should be able to do. And it bothered me. While I appreciated the effect in most of the other characters, in him I didn’t like it. And I figure it’s because he’s the villain. The title of this post is “Rubbery = funny.” Therefore, the rubbery motion was working at funny, while his lines were working at evil. The animation was working against him. His character isn’t meant to be funny, like the chimps in Madagascar 3.

Consider Diego, the sabertooth. He’s not rubbery, he’s strong and solid, and was originally part of the pack of bad guys. In the trio of stars, he’s the straight man. He’s not supposed to be that funny. It’s good to have that contrast in characters and motion.

So the opposite would be generally true as well: Rigid = scary. Some examples of that.

Rigidity could possibly be funny, but in general, life is soft and flexible.

The Out of Step Character

Denny Willes and the Hunting Quartet

If one thing defines the comedic character, it is their inability to fit in with expected behavior. One of the oldest ways to make a character funny is to put them with a group who are all moving in unison and have the comedic character not fit in. In the examples below, you’ll see ways to develop the fundamental idea.

There are two basic situations where this is commonly found. Dancing, and marching. And the comic character can be out of sync in three different ways. Wrong timing, wrong action, and wrong speed. It’s important too note how much they use each of them. Having them do every thing wrong is not necessarily funnier.

In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Dopey is clearly the funny one. He never speaks, but from the very beginning, we know he’s the odd man out when he can’t keep in step during the dwarfs’ march home. This is a very simple example.

Seven Dwarfs marching gif

In the Fantasia mushroom dance, the littlest mushroom is often, but not always, moving in the wrong direction or at the wrong speed. They don’t overplay it by having it be continuously wrong.

In Lilo and Stitch, Lilo has no problem doing the hula in time with the other dancers. It’s a lovely bit of animation, and they wisely didn’t ruin it with an old gag. However, she arrives a little late, and that’s enough to say something about her character. The fact that she can immediately fall in step, and her expression showing her satisfaction with herself, is very appealing.

Lilo hula dance gif

This next video, sent to me by Stephen Worth, is of a single act that is not part of a larger narrative, and it’s a full-on slapstick act built around the out of step character. This is also a good example of English Music Hall comedy.

There have been many comedies about the military, and problems with marching is an old trope. Here are two clips of Charlie Chaplin working the material in his own style. In this first one, he is in time with the others, but is doing the wrong thing. is

The soldier who can’t stay in step is an old gag, so when a new act wants to use it, they must develop some new angle on it. In this clip from Laurel & Hardy’s Bonnie Scotland, Laurel cannot stay in step with the company. So what does he do? He makes the rest of the company change to match him.

This next video is impressive for its sheer scale. Comic actor Bill Irwin is the drum major for a very large marching band. It’s unusual because he is supposed to be the leader of the group. He’s out of sync, but they keep going. I love the moment where he appears to redirect the entire band by pulling one flag bearer in a new direction.

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International Cartoon Comedy

Animated shows based on visual comedy have one great advantage over those built on scripted dialog: the international market. Cartoons not based on verbal story telling and jokes can be appreciated by everyone. It’s why Charlie Chaplin was able to achieve world wide stardom.

It’s also the kind of comedy I love. In this post I have collected a handful of examples of fun animated programs that rely on physical comedy. ALL of them are produced outside of the U.S. American studios don’t seem to have the drive to make this sort of stuff. I imagine U.S. executives like the system of reading scripts too much.

If you know of more PLEASE leave a comment here or on Facebook.

Minuscule – France

Minuscule is a french production that puts CG insects into live action environments. They have completed six seasons, and two feature films. You can read more about the first feature HERE. The second film was recently in theaters in France, and I hope to see it soon. Here is a sample from the program.

Cracked – Canada

Cracked is a series of shorts about a fatherly bird, anxious Ed, and the brood of eggs he looks after. The comedy is similar to Blue Sky’s Scrat shorts, with Ed suffering extreme bad luck and physical abuse. The first episodes are directed by Patrick Beaulieu and Edouard Tremblay for Productions Squeeze.

Lamput – India

From Wikipedia:

Lamput is an Indian series of shorts created by Vaibhav Kumaresh and produced by Vaibhav Studios, consisting of 15 seconds micro shorts that were extended to 2 minutes for the second season.

Animated Mr. Bean – England

Rowan Atkinson has said that his Mr. Bean character has the maturity of an 11 year old boy. He has retired from playing him because it becomes odd for an older man to behave like a kid. Animation is the perfect solution for this. Atkinson is closely involved in creating the series, to make sure his character stays true to what he knows the audience expects. All of his experience is more valuable than any team of writers.

Shaun the Sheep – England

From the great Aardman Animation comes the stop motion television program Shaun the Sheep. It’s one of my personal favorites. Shaun’s second feature film is about to be released. The show has one of the best theme songs ever.

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