Ernie Kovacs – The mad genius of TV

I mentioned earlier how Chaplin took on a new technology and carried beyond what anyone had otherwise imagined.  Ernie Kovacs did the same thing in television.

When television was a new medium, local tv stations had airtime to fill.  A Philidelphia station manager found Ernie Kovacs on the local radio, and offered him some time on the TV.  He was given practically no budget and his only expectation was to be entertaining and find an audience.  The bit below may be his most famous, and it looks like it cost about $9.75 to produce.

This is also a good example of surrealism in film.   The imitation mechanical movement is quite intriguing.

Kovacs had very cartoon sensibilities. Like this:

This next video has some great narration by Kovacs, as he both explains, and makes fun of film making. He opens with this line:

There’s a standard formula for success in the entertainment medium, and that is beat it to death if it succeeds.

Today’s lesson: Butt acting with Yahoo Serious

Most student animators have been tasked with making a character lift a heavy object. Here is something similar done by an actor, the Australian comedian Yahoo Serious, in his film “Mr. Accident” from the year 2000.  He finds a hubcap embedded in a wall, and puts a lot of work into pulling it free.  The horizontal nature of the effort, and the gyrations of his butt, (nicely emphasized by some grunts) add up to fresh piece of visual comedy.

Blackout gags

Blackout gags have been a staple of physical comedy for at least a century.  Though use has fallen off in recent years, you can find them in many of your favorite cartoons.  Think of Coyote and RoadRunner.  Whenever you see the Coyote set up an elaborate trap, then it backfires and he’s turned into a spring or a pancake, the scene ends and it goes to black. That can be called a blackout gag.  The moment ends, the joke is over. In the next shot, Coyote is regenerated and ready to try again.  The previous event has no narrative influence on what happens later.  Though occasionally, you might get a “callback” to a previous gag when some element left over from before comes into play again.

Many great slapstick cartoons use this method. Tom & Jerry, Tweety & Sylvester.  Chase comedy between predator and prey work well with blackout gags. We enjoy seeing fun characters do their schtick over and over again, as long as enough variations happen to keep it interesting.  

Historical perspective from Wikipedia:

A blackout gag is a term mainly used in broad, rapid-fire, slapstick comedy to describe a manner in which a gag or joke is executed. The term is derived from burlesque and vaudeville, when the lights were quickly turned off after the punchline of a joke to accentuate it and/or allow for audience laughter. It may use a shock value to define the joke, and may not be initially noticeable to all viewers if it is a very fast joke.
This should not be confused with an iris shot, frequently used in the silent film era, where a black circle closes to end a scene.

The term “blackout gag” can also apply to fast paced TV or film comedy, such as Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, where there may not literally be a blackout, but a quick cut to the next gag.

Here is a blackout gag example from Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy.

To do a series of blackout gags it is common to build them around a theme. That helps keep the audience from getting fatigued trying to grasp the new situation. Jerry Lewis made a feature film based on events at a fancy hotel in Florida. The Bellboy was the first film Lewis directed and it was hugely successful. It is nearly all blackout gags.  Here is a cartoon of blackout gags based on animals in prison. It uses a variety of ways to transition between gags.

DePatie Freleng made a compilation of Pink Pather gags from various short films, and called it “Pink Outs”

And here is an example from Ernie Kovacs:

When Animation Technique is Funny

I knew nothing about the feature animated film A Town Called Panic when I first saw it in a movie theater, years ago. As soon as it began I was immediately in love with their technique. If you haven’t seen it, it is stop motion animation, but limited, like super low budget television animation. The characters are replicas of childrens toy figures, but they are not articulated. They either move in place, or use replacement animation, giving a strong pose to pose effect that I very much enjoy. Here is a sample, which also introduces the story of how Cowboy and Indian need bricks to build their friend Horse a BBQ.

This technique gives the effect of a child playing with his or her toys. The method of animation, and the story as well, have a light-hearted exuberance that does not take itself seriously. Anything can happen. I was laughing from the first minute. If the technique itself is funny, you are off to a running start, and that is always a good thing.

It is amusing how they force the figures to do things. They adapt. We are accustomed to limited animation using multiple limbs to simulate fast motion. When it’s done with rigid models, it becomes fresh again. Here is cycling gif of Horse typing.

When they are not forcing the figures to adjust to the world, they will create new props that are adapted to the figures. Such as this example where the piano has the keys on the floor so Horse can more easily reach them.

It’s amazing how they don’t let the characters natural physiology stop them from making anything happen in the story. For instance, who would have a horse climbing a vertical cliff, then answer a cel phone while doing it? Watch.

I think that scene is amazing. I only used the French version because the dubs are not nearly as fun. The phone call is from a female horse he has a crush on, so it’s emotionally important to him. She’s a music teacher, and we get a shot of her other animal students practicing jazz. The scene has danger, emotion, absurdity and clumsy comedy all in one.

While this is “limited” animation, it opens up other ways of doing things that full animation would not do. For example, suppose a story called for a character to rush through breakfast. In a classic Disney animated style, I can easily imagine a scene where Goofy runs into a kitchen jumping while putting his second shoe on. Then he slides a coat on with one hand while eating toast with the other, then switching the other arm into the coat while drinking coffee with the other arm, all the while running around the kitchen table, then flying out the door. It would be beautiful. In ATCP, we get this…

I think they make many good creative choices throughout these films. Such as occasionally using full size props, such as the coffee pot and cup in the video above. They don’t overdo the use of these human sized props in the same way the don’t fill out toys everywhere. It feels like an imaginary universe that was built around the toys.

A Town Called Panic was created by Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar. The two are Belgian, and met in art school. They created a student film using the technique, and years later it became series of four minute animated shorts on TV. That led to the 2009 feature film I used for examples here. Since then they have also produced two half-hour specials. The specials and TV shorts were recently released on blu-ray disc, which I just watched. The duo also directed the wonderful feature Ernest and Celestine, which proves they are quite capable of beautiful traditional animation.

It is really an accomplishment to create a signature style of animation. Aubier and Patar have done what Terry Gilliam did with this Monty Python animations, or PEZ with his short animated films.

Some links for further reading.

NPR review with audio.

Filmmaker Magazine

Cineuropa interview

L.A. Times

Starting from the end? Safety Last

Ahh, early Hollywood, where filmmakers were just figuring out how to do things.  Where masterpieces could  be spun out in any way the director saw fit.  Previously I posted about how Buster Keaton would often build his stories beginning-end-middle.  Now I discovered this quote from Harold Lloyd.  It’s from an essay titled “The Serious Business of Being Funny”.

About using scripts.  In Safety Last, probably one of our most popular films, we did the final scenes of that clock climb first.  We didn’t know what we were going to have for the beginning of the film.  We hadn’t made up the opening.  After we found that we had, in our opinion, a very, very good thrill sequence, something that was going to be popular and bring in a few shekels, we went back and figured out what we would do for a beginning and worked on up.  We tried out the same thing in The Freshman.

In The Freshman we tried to shoot the football sequence first – it’s the best sequence, naturally – and we tried to do it first just as we had done the clock climb first in Safety Last.  We went out to the Rose Bowl where we did a great deal of the picture, and we worked for about a week and a half, but it didn’t come off.  It didn’t come off because we didn’t know the character at that time – we didn’t understand him well enough, and we were off with the wrong kind of material.  So we went back and did that story from the beginning, and the football game was shot at the last.

I can imagine conceiving a film this way.  Having a flash of an image or sequence that is so powerful, you could build a story around it.  For animation, that actually sounds quite acceptable.  But to actually start shooting that scene with no idea what came before, that would be considered crazy these days.

Here is one more significant quote from the same essay:

Look, all the comedians of my day had to be students of comedy.  You studied comedy, it just didn’t happen, believe me.

%d bloggers like this: