Manual labor vs office work

In the days of silent film comedy, directors and actors could choose from a broad array of scenarios involving manual labor. Piano moving, window washing, assembly lines, skyscraper construction, prisoners breaking rocks, masons building brick walls, laying railroad tracks, blacksmithing, boiler rooms and ice delivery. Every situation could create multiple possibilities for comedy involving comical body motion. A street scene could involve hoisting a safe to third floor window, or an elevator that rises through the sidewalk. Vehicles were not slick and comfortable. They were rattle trap open top cars, overstocked beer trucks, and the occasional motorcycle and sidecar. There were fire trucks with fireman dangling off the back and sides who arrived at the scene and got involved in handling unruly fire hoses.  Inventors had messy workshops with actual tools to build mechanical wonders.

Animators back in the early days also drew from the same well of material.   They took the action into that fabulous world of indestructible characters who could struggle with heavy objects, get crushed, and bounce right back.

A century ago, it was a different world.

I recently watched the umpteenth short animated film that featured a frustrated man in a tie at a desk in a cubicle.  I don’t want to pick on it, so I won’t name the short.  It was a good film, but not a great one.  Office workers are ALWAYS portrayed as miserable wretches.  Here is a tip: having your main character be a miserable wretch is not very appealing.

I’m guessing the young animation artists are expressing their disdain for what they perceive as the only alternative to their free and creative life. That’s not true of course, there are many awesome careers that don’t involve art or offices.  Maybe they aren’t trying to be funny, and just are attempting social commentary.  It’s not unlike the many short animated films that feature ranks of drab workers marching in time, until one suddenly breaks free and becomes all colorful and flies away to, well, somewhere else.  Young people spend so much time interacting with keyboards and touch screens, they don’t seem to know much else.  Manual labor has dropped out of public sight to such a degree that those kinds of jobs have become almost invisible to much of society.

This not to say that the office worker situation has no place in animation.  It just has to be used to good effect.

Oh, and by the way, to those who think office work sucks, most animation is done sitting at a desk in front of a keyboard.  You won’t have to wear at tie, but often there are cubicles.  There are bosses and deadlines.  And if the compositors insist, the lights will be low and they’ll complain if you get too noisy.

Please think outside the cubicle, and take a lesson from Nick Park and Aardman animation.  They haven’t lost touch with that world.  Wallace and Gromit wash windows and hunt rabbits (humanely, of course).  Shaun the Sheep lives on a farm, with tractors and sheep shearing.  These are worlds of substance and texture, bricks and mud.  And they are very appealing.

Advice from John Cleese

John Cleese gives a little bit of advice about situation comedy, which also applies to physical comedy.

Go and watch a few sitcoms that you really admire. The trick is go on watching them after you stop laughing. Because it’s when you are no longer laughing that you begin to see how it’s put together and how it’s done.

Roger Rabbit test films

Here is a very early test film for Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Roger is voiced by Paul Reubens (Pee-Wee Herman) It was not created by Richard Williams.

And here is Richard Williams test for the job.

The man who died laughing

The Goodies were a trio of English comedians who performed on TV in the seventies and early eighties. There is a unusual story associated with them:

From wikipedia:

On 24 March 1975 Alex Mitchell, a 50-year-old bricklayer from King’s Lynn, literally died laughing while watching an episode of The Goodies. According to his wife, who was a witness, Mitchell was unable to stop laughing whilst watching a sketch in the episode “Kung Fu Kapers” in which Tim Brooke-Taylor, dressed as a kilted Scotsman, used a set of bagpipes to defend himself from a black pudding-wielding Bill Oddie (master of the ancient Lancastrian martial art “Ecky-Thump”) in a demonstration of the Scottish martial art of “Hoots-Toot-ochaye.” After twenty-five minutes of continuous laughter Mitchell finally slumped on the settee and died from heart failure. His widow later sent the Goodies a letter thanking them for making Mitchell’s final moments so pleasant

Here is the opening of the “Ecky-Thump”, followed by the infamous final scene:

Don Knotts

Don Knotts probably would have been fairly far down my list of comedians to reference for this blog, but his name suddenly appeared before me in the book The Ballad of Rango. David Shannon is a writer and illustrator of children’s books, and a friend of Gore Verbinski. He was one of the 3 people to initiate the idea for Rango. In the book he says,

“I’m a big fan of Don Knotts, and we pictured [our chameleon] as that kind of character”

So here is little Don Knotts to remind those of us who know him, and introduce him to those who don’t.

For most of my life I only knew Don Knotts from The Andy Griffith Show, and a few of his kiddy movies. A few years ago I watched “The Love God?” and found it extremely funny for it’s nod and wink to adult entertainment, which is contrary to most of Don’s work. Here is a terrific short review of the movie, which points out how great Knotts was at playing the frightened character.

If you would care to know a lot more about him, there is a seven part interview on youtube. Here is part 1.

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