Loser comedy

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.

Swedish comedian Gunnar Papphammar

Physical comedy transcends language, and can be found anywhere in the world.  Today I discovered Gunnar Papphammar from Sweden.  When I find a great physical comedian I’ve never seen before, it’s like a jewel I get to add to my treasure chest, and share with you. I wish I could tell you more about him, but nearly everything available is in Swedish.  He did both verbal and non verbal comedy, and I will share some great examples of his silent work.

This first video really had me laughing.  It’s pure awkwardness, but the important thing is that it goes on for a long time.  If it were just a few falls, it would be mildly amusing, but to keep struggling for a couple minutes allows the comedy to take hold and build.  Also, notice how stiff he is, the straight lines in his arms and legs.  If a cartoony animator added rubberiness to get a lot of arcs, it would lose that.  Real people have bones!

This next one also includes traveling on wheels, but it gets a little deeper into character.  I love how he is embarrassed to even have a skateboard when the cool kids are riding by.  We are all beginners at one time, and when we see it in him, we can relate.  We find it endearing.  That is the kind of thing animators could put to use in their work.

Det Ringer 1 is the first of a series.  It’s a long set up for a fast punchline.

This final clip comes off like a Monty Python skit, but it takes it one NSFW step further.

If it were directing that one, I probably would have had him cross the road differently.  I think he should have stopped the looking around while crossing. He could run across really fast, then come to a complete stop and look around again.  Or just walk across straight and casual, without any looking around.  It should be about getting it over with quickly.

Anyway, I hope to learn more about Papphammar, and perhaps get some more clips to share.


Gene Sheldon – Comedian

If you could make an animated character as funny as Gene Sheldon, you would be doing something great.  Sheldon was a baggy pants comedian, whose character was in the style of the childish man, similar to Harry Langdon.  In this entertaining compilation, note that he is an excellent banjo player.  The lesson is that foolish characters can endear themselves to audiences by showing great skill.

I also like how his loose clothing helps accentuate his motion. Some smart animator could make use of cloth simulation to get the same effect.

Funny Short: Mobile

Mobile is a great short film directed by Verena Fels.

It’s simple, short, and funny.  The characters are super appealing.  I am particularly fond of short stories that wrap up nicely.  Of course, I am attracted by the non verbal nature of the comedy.

Cartoon Comedy Duos

I’ve recently read a couple of posts on other blogs about 2 man comedy teams.

The first was Pretty Clown, Ugly Clown by Anthony Balducci. It is a look at some interesting combinations of actors in movies.

The second post, Odd Couples by John Towsen is about some lesser known comedy pairings from the stage.

For animators, the idea of a comedy duo usually starts with the simple idea of Fat Guy/Skinny Guy like Laurel and Hardy, and Abbot and Costello.   But really, the physical appearance won’t take the work very far.  There needs to that special chemistry that creates contrast.  Tex Avery is often remembered for his wacky wolf character.  But it was the second wolf who was smooth and debonair who completed the scene.

Tex also created the ever calm Droopy Dog, but Droopy always played against a high energy partner:

The dysfunctional friends Ren and Stimpy  had one of the more complex relationships in animation.  More like a classic comedy team. They were real partners, sharing in each other’s lives, but each had very different personalities, and were often at odds.

When Porky Pig and Daffy Duck worked together, they were somewhat similar to the classic team.  While they  weren’t enemies, they weren’t pals either.

Another classic way to put two characters together is the star/sidekick team, such as Yogi Bear and Boo Boo.   Wallace and Gromit, due to their owner/dog relationship can be considered an evolved example of this.  While the sidekick is often the smarter of the two, the star is the character who causes the action.  I’m thinking that Rocky & Bullwinkle fall into this category.

I suppose it’s possible to consider a pair of antagonists to be a comedy team.  In fact, it may be the most common kind found in cartoons.  You have your Roadrunner and Coyote, Tom and Jerry, Bugs and Elmer, Sylvestor and Tweety, Foghorn Leghorn and George P. Dog.  Those arrangements obviously have a predator/prey relationship with the predator usually getting the worst of the situation.  Still, each has unique characters that carry out their parts in their own style.

Comedy teams don’t always have to be in contrast with each other.  Animation has the unusual combination of two characters that are very similar, such as Chip n’ Dale, and Heckle and Jeckle.  These characters always work as a team to harrass a third character.

Mac and Tosh were a pair of gophers who premiered in the Bob Clampett short,  Goofy Gophers.  They played against a dog character.  Here is a bit of trivia from wikipedia:

The gophers’ mannerisms and speech were patterned after Frederick Burr Opper‘s comics characters Alphonse and Gaston, which in the early 1900s engendered a “good honest laugh”. The crux of each four-frame strip was the ridiculousness of the characters’ over-politeness preventing their ability to get on with the task at hand.

The pair’s dialogue is peppered with such over politeness as “Indubitably!”, “You first, my dear,” and “But, no, no, no. It must be you who goes first!” The two often also tend to use unnecessarily long words, for example, in Lumber Jerks, instead of “We gotta get our tree back”, they say “We must take vital steps to reclaim our property.” Clampett later stated that the gophers’ effeminate mannerisms were derived from character actors Franklin Pangborn and Edward Everett Horton.



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