Bimbo’s Initiation and the weird history of fraternal orders

Bimbo’s Initiation is a cartoon from the Fleischer studio, released in 1931. Bimbo accidentally falls down a manhole into an underground lair where a group of masked characters invite him to join their “mystic order.” Even though he declines, they then put him through a series of frightening experiences to initiate him in. It might appear they are an evil cult, but really it was a representation of “fraternal orders” that were popular at the time.

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, and so it was a popular theme for live action film and cartoons. It’s been done by Laurel and Hardy, The Honeymooners, The Three Stooges, The Little Rascals, The Flintstones, Spongebob Squarepants, and more. I have put some examples towards the end of this post. The story lines in these old shows are often built around the wives disapproval of the men attending the conventions.  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 news when the stunts go tragically wrong. Personally, I went through an initiation event in the US Navy when my ship crossed the equator. I am officially a “shellback.”

We have one great resource to understand what these old initiations were like when Bimbo’s Initiation was produced. 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.   This 160 page version of the catalog is from 1930, the year before Bimbo’s Initiation was released. As scary as they look, you can imagine how they could inspire some physical comedy.

Yes, they had a human centipede.

I swear this next one looks like water boarding.

Here are a few animated examples. First, here is Bimbo’s Initiation.

The Simpsons had The Stonecutters lodge:

Spongebob had an episode dedicated to the concept of lodge initiations.

Sub-verbal Characters – Updated

See update below.

I’m not sure if there is a proper word for these characters, so I’m calling them “sub-verbal” which means any character who speaks in gibberish.  The Tasmanian Devil is probably the most well known cartoon character to sound this way.  He was occasionally able to get out some English, but is generally known for his animal sounds.

Another of the great sub-verbal characters is the Muppet, “Swedish Chef”.  Throughout his faux-swedish, he would pepper in some understandable English.   I believe he now works as a writer for Ikea catalogs.

But one sub-verbal character that is on his way to being forgotten is “White Fang” from the Soupy Sales show.  White Fang and Black Tooth were both supposed to be dogs, but all you see are their “arms” which reach into the scene.  White Fang is very argumentative, and very entertaining.

And this gem featuring Alice Cooper.

UPDATE: I have recently learned term “grammelot” which wikipedia describes so:

Grammelot is a term for a style of language in satirical theatre, a gibberish with macaronic and onomatopoeic elements, used in association with pantomime and mimicry.
The format dates back to the 16th century Commedia dell’arte, and some claim Grammelot to be a specific universal language (akin to Lingua franca) devised to give performers safety from censorship and appeal whatever the dialect of the audience.

(Macaronic, btw, refers to text spoken or written using a mixture of languages)

Here is the video that introduced me to grammelot.

Here are selections of the Three Stooges:

Beginning, End, Middle

It is an often repeated mantra in animation that story is king.  I have read the book Story by Robert McKee, and if I were to write a feature screenplay I would probably refer to it often.   But it’s hard to imagine Chuck Jones or Nick Park using it for a funny animated short.  That’s because we don’t really want comedy to follow the rules.

If you are a student looking to create a short, funny film, here is a valuable clue on how to proceed. In some of Buster Keaton’s interviews, he describes his method of developing the stories for his movies. First of all, they didn’t start with a script.

“Well, we didn’t need a script. I knew in my mind what we were going to do, because with our way of working, there was always the unexpected happening. Well, anytime something unexpected happened and we liked it, we were liable to spend days shooting in and around that.”

Of course, everything really started with a character. In this case, Buster is bringing his personal character and style, and everything will be built around that. He and his gag men would work on devising a start, a scenario, a situation for him to be in. Generally it would be some sort of challenge, for Buster his manhood was often in question.  But the process from there is important to understand.

“…The main thing with laying out a story is, it’s easy to get a start, the finish is always the tough thing. So the minute somebody had an idea – we said what is it going to lead to? We don’t go to the middle of the story; we jump right to the finish. So the finish – this would be the natural finish- says now does that give us any opportunity for gags? Make it exciting, fast action sometimes, and a couple of outstanding gags.”

I have to point out that Buster’s method is exactly the same as that done in the Commedia Dell’arte.  The Dell’arte players would begin with a scenario, and have an agreed upon ending.  But all the action in the middle was created on the fly.

You see, in a comedy, there is an implied promise of a happy ending.  That is the “natural finish” Buster refers to.   The boy will get the girl, the fortune will be restored, the bad guy will be put out.  But the journey there needs to be full of surprises and uncertainty.  It’s all the business in the middle where the work happens.

 

Comedy Teams – The Penguins of Madagascar

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.

Presto gags and animatics

Here are some great videos of preproduction work for Pixar’s short film Presto. I found these videos through the character design blog.

This first video is a collection of various gag ideas. I didn’t realize this is how ideas are pitched. They even add sound effects to sell it.

Here is the animatic. Look at how well worked out all the timing is.

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