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:

2 thoughts on “Blackout gags”

  1. Friz Freleng said that his cartoons didn’t have stories, just a setup, blackout gags and a payoff. They’re the variations on a theme in the middle of short cartoons.


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