The Dreamworks animated film “Madagascar” was about a group of animals who escape from a metropolitan zoo in an effort to return to the wilderness. Like many animated films, it included secondary characters who have no purpose beyond comic relief. Such characters do not have the complex development arc to follow, so they can just be funny. Those are the kinds of characters I really like. In Madagascar, the secondary characters were a team of penguins following their own plan to escape from the same zoo. As entertaining characters the penguins were successful enough that Dreamworks spun them off into their own television show, which is produced by Nickelodeon.
The four penguins are Rico, Skipper, Private and Kowalski. Skipper is the leader, and speaks with a speedy patter reminiscent of hardboiled detective movies. Kolwalski is the smart one. He’s a genius who reportedly is unable to read. I like his name because it was also a character in the old TV show “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”. Tossing a Polish name into the mix used to be standard material in combat related stories. Rico is a supposedly a “weapons and explosives” expert. He is a sub verbal character who is able to regurgitate any thing they might need. Private is the omega in the group, but he provides a simplicity that helps group from becoming too weird. Why he has an English accent I don’t know.
When the show first aired, I watched an episode. But I was disappointed. It just didn’t work then, and I didn’t follow up. But recently my nine year old was watching it, and I joined him. I found it much funnier now. I was continuously entertained, and at a brisk pace too. It is an excellent cartoon, and the show also got me thinking about comedy teams.
I realized that comedy teams create their own reality. Such teams are blissfully out of touch with what other people are thinking. They develop a small society, reinforcing each others beliefs. They understand each other where outsiders would be confused. They develop language to suit their purposes, and their verbal stylings become a humor of their own. The penguins all share the same delusions about their situation. It’s like an improv comedy group where saying no stops the momentum. They are a team, in the sense of a sports team who play together to win. None of them would stop and say their plan is foolish, unless they had an even more foolish plan in mind.
Teams tend to have a leader, or at least a star. Groucho was the most functional of the Marx Brothers, he could actually catch a woman or become president of a country. Skipper is the alpha of the penguins, and he is somewhat paranoid. He tends to get very dramatic about their situation, and the rest of them follow orders. His over-reaction is often what drives the comedy. The para-military theme of their operation allows for lots of action.
Another characteristic of great comedy teams is their energy. Like the Marx Brothers or the Three Stooges, the shear speed and determination of the penguins overwhelms the rest of the zoo society. The “normal” world doesn’t have a chance. The comedians also have strange talents that allow them to achieve things others can’t.
Also, comedy team members each have distinct and interesting styles. They can break off individually, or into subgroups, and the dynamic changes and allows for fresh direction. The variety adds depth to the individual personalities, and broadens the range of comedy.
Even though the penguins are funny, they are serious about what they do. To balance the energy they are often interacting with the lighthearted disco dancing lemurs who also came from the first movie. The lemurs form a team of their own, and the two teams in relation form a kind of comedy duo. Serious team in contrast with silly team.
The Penguins of Madagascar were created by Eric McGrath and Eric Darnell. The show is directed by Brett Haaland and Nick Filippi.