The Sad and Funny Character

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.

Alfredo Linguini from Pixars Ratatouille.

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.

From Wikipedia:

 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.

File source:

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.


New Mickey Mouse short: O Sole Minnie

The Walt Disney company is creating new Mickey Mouse shorts. Considering how terribly protective Disney is about it’s classic characters, it’s a bit surprising. The shorts have a fresh visual style which I mostly enjoy.

However, I find the new shorts unsatisfying. Here is the latest release on youtube:

The problem I am having with these new shorts is that Mickey is hapless and ineffectual. In the above short, he wants to impress Minnie, so he goes through some spectacular efforts, and fails. His exertions allow him to travel through impressive layout design, but achieve nothing. If it weren’t for Minnie showing up at the end, on her own, it would just be loser comedy.

I have had the same feelings about the other shorts I have seen.

Since it’s almost halloween, here is another one, “Ghoul Friend”. First, I was a little confused with the title. It’s a play on the term “girl friend”. So I was expecting to have a female in the story. But the ghoul, while being a funny zombie version of Goofy, isn’t a girl. It’s a small issue, but it threw me off a little, and you don’t want to do that to your audience. Especially when your short is under 4 minutes long.

While I enjoyed the several funny run cycles they put together for these two characters, that’s pretty much all I enjoyed about it. Mickey can’t fix his car without the zombie Goofy’s help. If Mickey just yanked a bone out of Goofy’s arm, fixed his car, and then escaped, I would have found him more of a comic hero.

This not the kind of character that people come to love. They sort of feel sorry for him.

Excerpts from Too Funny for Words, part 3

This is the final installment of excerpts from the book Too Funny for Words by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas.   The second half of the book is virtually all pictures.  These remaining quotes all stand on their own with no explanation needed.

Walt was always intrigued by a performance that had carefully displayed gestures and expressions or was enriched by the use of perfect timing that gave texture and excitement to the movements. He particularly appreciated actions that were comic in themselves and the extended routines based on a single idea.
Those elements were all evident in the vaudeville acts he had seen – acts like “Willie, West, and McGinty” where three serious carpenters work on a house, and saw hammer , paint, and move materials about in a beautifully choreographed routine of split-second timing and improbable events. The act was based on expectations and surprises, with disasters miraculously avoided time and again, then suddenly striking when least expected.
The audience gasped in disbelief, rose in their seats in anticipation, and were convulsed with uncontrollable laughter. The carpenters were neither dumb nor inept and seemed to be unaware of the potential calamities surrounding them. This of course, added to the humor. Anytime the audiences understand a situation better than the characters on the stage, they either become terribly bored, or terribly involved, developing in the latter case a concern that insures and emotional response as the story unfolds. Producing this involvement is the first and most important step the actor must master if he is to succeed. The second step probably should be the elimination of that possibility for boredom.
… If Walt had not had vaudeville as a model, had not seen these examples, had not been aware of the possibilities, he would have settled for less without ever knowing such a potential existed.

There is always a still-better way to show the situation and the characters, and the artist will keep searching for it.

If it is funny, stay with it. Add more gags, stretch out the humor, squeeze every last ounce of entertainment out of the predicament before leaving it.

There are several ways a gag can be inappropriate. It might be something a certain personality should never do, or it might slow the progress of the story by being too long or over developed. It could also be misleading or confusing, or even repulsive to certain segments of the audience. A pie thrown in the face was excellent for Donald Duck or for any other officious unfeeling character, but it would not have been right for Cinderella.

Once a storyman showed an ability to create his funniest gags for one of these stars, he was pegged the same way.  In time, each of our famous characters had his own gag writers,  just like the live comedians of the day, and a complete team from director to animator developed material to insure that the star would remain popular.

Dave Hand, our supervising director, warned us that an audience could be easiliy confused and that we should go to any length to prepare them for the gag we were going to use. This was called “anticipation.” Aways be sure that what you are doing is perfectly clear to everybody then prepare them for what is going to happen next. It is also called “Ssetting up a gag.” Young animators, often too eager, are apt to give away the gag before anyone is ready, thereby creating a bit of action that is neither funny nor clear.

Walt helped us to observe by demonstrating in his own acting the mannerisms that reveal personality, the little movements that show a person is feeling, the special reactions that make an individual sympathetic, belligerent or even humorous. He gave examples from famous comedians and pointed out what circus clowns do to hold the crowd’s interest and to make them laugh. An important part of the act is the performers slow, blank, helpless look at the audience, sharing his inner feelings with them.

Norm, “Fergy” Ferguson had grown up watching the best vaudeville in New York and knew how a look at the audience should be animated. When he drew the scenes of Pluto entangled in the flypaper (Playful Pluto, 1934) the hapless dog revealed his whole range of emotions through looks, simple expressions, and strong acting. The audience understood and responded with sustained laughs. The character did not have to make a funny face when his sincere reaction to a situation was so strongly communicated.

Walt enjoyed this spirit of rivalry and often cast story men of opposing viewpoints to work on the same assignment. He felt that they would each try harder to prove that their version of the material was the better.   As he often said, “If I have two men who agree all the time, I only need one of them.”

If the build-up to a gag or special scene goes on too long or is too heavy handed, the humor will lose it’s freshness and fail to deliver the expected laugh.   The intrusion of actions that do not really fit the situation will make the whole continuity lag and seem tedious. Too many gags in a row, no matter how funny, can spoil the pacing of a well planned sequence.

There is a strong humor in the laugh that comes as a release from tension, but the humor relies almost entirely on the build up of anxiety that precedes the sudden switch to unexpected gentleness. A gag can even come in the middle of a tense situation and seem funnier because of the overall excitement.

Too Funny for Words – excerpts, part 2

Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston break down Disney sight gags into 8 categories.   One good reason to buy the book is the large number of pictorial examples. Each type of gag gets it’s own chapter to further describe them.


1.  THE SPOT GAG:  The spot gag is the simplest and easiest to write.  It is the isolated, single joke, the funny visual event that is complete in itself.  It needs no introduction and no climax for an ending.  It fills a spot in the continuity, or the character’s performance, without effecting the story.

The illustrated example: A dachsund forming it’s body into steps for Mickey Mouse to board an airplane.

2. THE RUNNING GAG:  A running gag is one that occurs several times throughout a picture, becoming funnier through repetition rather than through any development.  3. The gag that builds.

The illustrated example: In “The Band Concert”  Donald Duck repeatedly pulls a fife out of a pocket, despite the other band members trying to stop his playing.

3. THE GAG THAT BUILDS.  In contrast to the isolated spot gag or the repetition in the running gag, the gag-that-builds is made up of a series of gags that increase in intensitiy.  Starting with a comic situation, individual gags relating to the  same circumstance are carefully added, each becoming wilder and funnier until a climactic event crowns a complete routine.

The illustrated example:  The Big Bad Wolf gets run through a “wolf pacifier” machine that ends with him being shot out of a cannon.

4.  THE ACTION GAG.  Unlike the spot gag, which focuses on a single event, the action gag is based on timing and the unique way a character moves.  An action gag … is concerned less with what the gag is, then how it is performed.  It requires entertaining actions and comic movements.

The illustrated example: Goofy trying to be a hurdler, and tripping over the hurdles.  Tripping over hurdles is not funny in itself, but how Goofy does it makes it ridiculous.

5. THE TABLEAU GAG is a held picture at the end of an action, in which the character is left with a ridiculous appearance due to some foreign substance or object having been placed on, around, over, or in his face or figure.

The illustrated example:  Donald Duck gets beard and hat that makes him look like a Russian cossack.

6.  THE INANIMATE CHARACTER GAG comes from the humor in giving an object or machine a personality that cleverly fits both it’s appearance and it’s function.  Walt felt that everything in the world might have a personality if only it could be brought to life in human terms.

The illustrated example: A steamshovel head becomes a momentary character with eyes and mouth.

7.  THE FUNNTY DRAWING is special to animation.  Perhaps it could be compared to the clown makeup of a live performer, or a ridiculous costume, or anything that gives someone a laughable appearance.  In animated films it is the drawing itself that makes the gag funnier.

The illlustrated example: In the Jungle Book, an elephant is using his trunk like a trumpet, another elephant squeezes it, causing him to inflate a little before it goes limp.

8.  SPECIALIZED GAGS.  The color gag, which was based on the accepted role of various hues in creating emotional responses, and the effects gag, which made fantasy available through the careful and precise rendering of everything from fire and smoke to a swarm of disgruntled hornets.   Finally there is the surprise gag, which many consider to contain the most important element of any gag, since interest and expectation are added to even the most mundane situations.  Actually, a fresh new method of performing any action has to be a surprise to the audience by definition, ad the gag that is presented with this element startles them into an impulsive laugh by introducing the unexpected.  In fact, preparing the audience for a more traditional occurrence is the best way of surprising them with the unforeseen gag.  It is so consistently used with the rewarding results that it could be listed here as the eighth primary source of humor in our films.

The illustrated example:  Pinocchio with finger on fire.


Too Funny For Words – excerpts, part 1

Back when I worked as an assistant animator at Kroyer Films, (Ferngulley the Last Rainforest.) we had a visit from two famous animators, Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas. I managed to get my copy of their great book Two Funny for Words; Disney’s Greatest Sight Gags signed before Bill Kroyer chased us kids away, as if we were bothering them.

The book is currently out of print, with used prices starting at about $15. That’s an incredible value.  I can’t recommend it enough as a great resource for understanding classic comedy techniques.  I have selected some excerpts from the book to share here.   It will seem a little random, but I’m sure you will be able to sort it out and learn a few things.

On the topic of classes held at the Disney studio:

In addition to presenting all aspects of drawing and composition, these classes included screenings of the classic comedies starring such talents as Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Laurel and Hardy.  Whenever a famous vaudeville act would come to town, Walt bought tickets for his top men to be sure they would see these fine performances and remember them.

On finding the unique personality in Walt’s characters.

Almost from the start, Walt thought of his cartoon characters as being definite personalities.  He knew instinctively that while some gags are funny in themselves, regardless of who is involved, most situations are funnier with one type of individual than with another.  As Marcel Marceau explains: “The personality of the victim of a gag determines whether it will be funny”

About growing from the simplicity of the early shorts to the more developed stories.

In these early pictures, he was looking for refreshing, intriguing, unexpected, related occurrences, that would increase the enjoyment of the film.

Walt began to discover his exceptional talent as a storyteller as he built these little dilemmas into a full plot.  These were not carefully organized story lines, because Walt was never interested in structure.  He knew what was funny and what would hold an audience, and he taught us never to load a picture up with logic.  Grab the audience’s interest first, and the best way to that is with laughter.

Whether we recognized it or not, the key to Disney humor had been found.  It was simply this:  the right gag in the right predicament, for the right personality.

I will transcribe more for tomorrow.


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