The conventional screen writing books will tell you that bad luck can get a character into trouble, but good luck can never get him out. That’s cheating. The character has to devise the solution and make it happen.
But when Jack Sparrow sails into port on the top of the mast of a sinking ship, stepping onto the dock as gracefully as you please, luck has brought him in that way. While Jack is a skilled and clever fellow, luck serves him very well through all his adventures. He has charmed the gods.
Buster Keaton’s character was also a lucky guy. When, in Steamboat Bill Jr., the house wall gets blown down on top of him, and he fits neatly through the window, it was pure chance that saved him.
What brought me to think of this was my re-watching of the original cut of The Thief and the Cobbler. Way back in the day, I had the chance to see the original cut of the film. I remember being blown away, especially by the war machine sequence of the climax. I just got around to watching the entire “recobbled cut” on youtube.
As I watched it seemed to me that the cobbler is very much a Charlie Chaplin style character. while the thief is Buster Keaton. In particular, his Keatonesque act is apparent during the war machine sequence of the climax. It is a must see sequence for anyone in animation. It is absolutely spectacular, and NOT included on the horrible “Arabian Knights” video that was made from the parts.
His goal is to steal the three golden balls that are perched at the top of a massive war machine commanded by the evil “One Eye”. The Cobbler shoots a tack, which starts a chain reaction that destroys the preposterously huge war machine. As this world is exploding around him, the Thief manages to avoid obliteration many times over. He casually walks and flies through the conflagration of falling elephants, waves of arrows, and giant spiked balls. It is Buster Keaton on acid.
Here are the two vids that contain the part I’m talking of, but if you haven’t watched the whole thing, start from part 1 and make it full screen.
It’s good for animators to know about topics of comedy that aren’t in fashion, because they are ripe to be rediscovered, and refreshed for new audiences. Let’s take a look at the world of fraternal orders.
For those who don’t know, fraternal orders were/are men’s clubs, where guys could get away from home and act like “real men” for a while. According to movies and cartoons acting like real men involved wearing funny hats, drinking lots of alcohol, making sacred pledges, using secret handshakes, and going to conventions to do the same things with brothers from other lodges. It’s full of opportunities for men to make themselves look foolish. The story lines in these old shows are often built around the wives disapproval of the men attending the conventions. It’s been done by Laurel and Hardy, The Honeymooners, The Three Stooges, The Little Rascals, The Flintstones and many more. HERE is a list of famous fictional fraternities.
It is a big subject, so I am going to focus on the initiation ceremonies involved in joining these clubs. There are still initiations and hazing in pledging to fraternities and sports teams on campus. Sometimes we hear about them in the newspapers when the stunts go horribly wrong.
Making fun of Initiation rituals is part of the tradition of mocking serious things. Fraternal orders, while often good natured, are famous for having very solemn behavior during the ceremonies. To goof on it, you must push it as far as you can.
Here are a few animated examples. While this sort of comedy is less common, 2 of these are from shows that are still on the air. First, The Simpsons had The Stonecutters lodge:
In the Fleischer cartoon, Bimbo’s Initiation, Bimbo seems to be kidnapped to join a secret society.
Spongebob had an episode dedicated to the concept of lodge initiations.
Back in the hey day of fraternal orders, an entire business grew from supplying these clubs with costumes, props, and bizarre devices for running meetings and initiating the new members. Many of these involved electric shocks, firecrackers, and the whacking of butts. Great grandpa and his pals sure had a weird sense of humor. Check out some of these pages from the Demoulin Brothers catalog. As scary as they look, they could inspire some physical comedy.
When thinking of a funny animated character, sadness is probably not one of the characteristics that comes to mind first. But there is a long history of combining sadness with humor.
Sadness is a fundamental human emotion and it can be the secret ingredient to creating a truly memorable character. Characters who are sad have a couple of advantages. Often, they are up against a difficult situation, and their obvious vulnerability plays to human empathy. Sadness makes a character feel real and relatable. Sadness is a truly honest emotion. A character who is obviously sad is not putting up a fake front, so we know they are truthful to themselves, and we tend to believe in truthful characters. Sadness is an understandable emotion when it is caused by loneliness. We don’t care about people who are sad because they aren’t rich, or aren’t beautiful. Loneliness is the driver of romance, and romance is one of the great motivators of story. The sad character has room to grow. If it is a comedy, we know it will have a happy ending, and seeing how someone goes from sad to happy is a fundamental story arc.
Combining that with humorous behavior provides a powerful contrast. Sad funny characters are always awkward. Theres is the comedy of foolishness.
In feature film animation, where the story is a usually completed, the star usually finds romance. But still, beginning with a character who is admittedly sad, can be a great way to get the audience on their side.
In Pixar’s Ratatouille, when we meet the young chef wannabe, Alfredo Linguini, the very first thing we learn about him is that his mother has died. He is an awkward young man in need of a job. He is clearly worthy of our sympathy.
During that first scene Skinner, the head chef, pushes him and falls into Collette’s arms, and she literally tosses him aside. At that point, she has no attraction to him at all and becomes a firm instructor of kitchen skills. The audience know there is potential there for him to find something more.
Wall-E is a diligent robot who continues to work hard at his job, even though he is the only one left to clean up an entire planet. He is the definition of dedicated. But he is lonely, and he has been discovering items in the trash that make him wonder about the world that used to be. While watching an old musical, he sees human beings holdng hands, and wonders what it is like. Just watch these two gifs.
When the reconnaissance robot Eve arrives, Wall-E is both irresistably curious, and terribly frightened. When Eve suspects something moving in the area, she unleashes a powerful energy weapon in his direction.
You should note that in both of these examples, the love interest does NOT make things easy. It has to appear challenging, if not impossible. The experience of falling in love is one the most intense experiences in life, and it makes for great storytelling opportunities. Both Wall-E and Linguini behave like adolescent boys fumbling in their romantic endeavors. But they succeed in the end.
The relationship doesn’t have be romantic. One of the greatest animated sad characters was Dumbo, who was separated from his mother. I chose the image at the top because it shows Dumbo in some of his clown outfit. Notice the frilled collar. While performing in the circus, Dumbo has his face painted white.
The frilled collar, and white painted face are both associated with one of the archetypes of clown, the Pierrot. It is a very specific style of clown. He is the sad clown. The Pierrot evolved from the Commedia Dell’arte’s Pedrolino. While his character has been around for centuries, it still lives on in our culture.
His character in contemporary popular culture—in poetry, fiction, and the visual arts, as well as works for the stage, screen, and concert hall—is that of the sad clown, pining for love of Columbine, who usually breaks his heart and leaves him for Harlequin. Performing unmasked, with a whitened face, he wears a loose white blouse with large buttons and wide white pantaloons. Sometimes he appears with a frilled collaret and a hat.
Perhaps some of you have seen the videos of Puddles the singing clown. He usually sings torch songs, songs of loneliness and rejection. His on stage persona is a Pierrot.
Pierrot is the pure form of this character. In the end, he doesn’t get the girl. You might think of the Simpsons character Milhous as a Pierrot. He loves Lisa Simpson, but will never be loved by her in return. Every episode he has to start over again as just himself.
While he makes us laugh, we also know that often this is how life is. In fact, while Lisa ultimately rejects Milhous, she herself has often been rejected, and is always moving forward with her own story.
You see, while we like characters who make us laugh, we can love the characters who both make us laugh and cry. It is not an easy thing to do. Here is one of my favorite funny/sad performances. This is Bob Maloogaloogaloogaloogalooga from the movie Big Man on Campus. You can see more from this movie in my other post on it HERE.
I am a big fan of eccentric dancing. Usually, eccentric dancing requires a high degree of skill. But there are some great examples of dancing that is funny because of how bad it is. I am talking here about professionals who dance to get laughs. This is bad dancing, not dancing badly. There are hours of real life bad dancers on Youtube, but those are just poor imitations of other dances. I am looking for someone who created a specific style of dancing so it will look ridiculous.
These dances have two things in common. They look like they could be done by anybody, and they have tremendous enthusiasm. I would love to see someone animate a dance cycle that could make me laugh like these do.
We’ll let Julia Louis-Dreyfus get this bad dance party started.
Then there is Martin Short as Ed Grimley
Groucho Marx was primarily a verbal comedian, but he had some physical comedy chops for sure. Particularly with dancing.
Here is a video with a selection of his creative moves.
Jim Carrey in a tutu was a famous one.
This is comedian Nathan Barnatt, also making use of the knees going in opposite directions.
People have a fascination with human movement that defies norms. Often it is the beautiful and extraordinary, such as dance or acrobatics, but it can also be the ungainly and strange. When we see someone moving oddly, we stop and try to comprehend what is going on. Spasmodic, or erratic, motion has always had a certain use in comedy. The staggering drunk is probably the most common. Jerry Lewis had an awkward running style that was one of his signature actions. But lets focus on characters who really are not in control of their motor functions.
This music video for Fatboy Slim is both slapstick and really cool. It was created by the Swedish firm Traktor. Plus it has cartoons in it!
Obviously their are wires yanking their bodies around and then the wires are removed in post production. But the effect is wild. It’s not unlike some moments in Ratatouille when Remy is manipulating Linquini.
Strange movement is one of the reasons zombies are so interesting to audiences. I will confess, I have not seen the either of the Weekend at Bernie’s movies. As far as I can tell, at some point the dead Bernie is re-animated through some sort of voodoo ritual. His odd motion became a dance craze.
And we must remember this modern classic. It has over 27 million views on YouTube for the very reason I am describing.