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: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Leo_Rauth_Bal_Masque.jpg

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.

 

Funny short: This Way Up

I can’t believe I haven’t seen this before now.  It’s exactly what I like. It’s a non verbal comedy packed with great gags.   This Way Up was released in 2008, and was nominated for an Academy Award.  It was created by the directing team of Smith & Foulkes at Nexus in London.  The story features a pair of undertakers retrieving a body for burial.  It’s a grave situation (pardon the pun) and that allows for humor that is both dark and slapstick. Like my Floyd the Android character, these two don’t give up until they complete the job.

Except for the poster image below, the two almost never smile.  Undertakers by nature are quite serious and respectful. The straight faces give the impression of them being a pair of Buster Keatons.  (Buster Keaton as an undertaker may have been a missed opportunity.)  The film is 9 minutes long, but moves along so efficiently it feels shorter.  The bizarre ending features a truly death defying stunt that is very Keatonesque.

Book review, FUNNY!: Twenty-Five Years of Laughter from the Pixar Story Room

 

Cover

While most of the animation world is clamoring for Andreas Deja’s new book, The Nine Old Men, I have been waiting to get my copy of FUNNY!: Twenty-Five Years of Laughter from the Pixar Story Room.  This hardcover book is a nice collection of gags drawn by Pixar story artists for all of their feature films up through and including The Good Dinosaur.   A few of the drawings are the original concepts that made it into the films, but most are not.  Huge numbers of ideas are generated in the making of feature animated films, and the vast majority of them are tossed to make room for those that work the best.  Still, many of the rejects are quite funny as well, and I find them all very interesting.  I particularly liked this unused gag by Matthew Luhn from Monsters Inc.  It is a slightly twisted reminder of a famous scene from Lady and the Tramp.

pixar-pasta-small

There is quite a range in the quality of the drawings. Some are pleasantly rendered, and others are crude doodles.  What matters is whether it gets the idea across.   One of the real insights in the book are the drawings that include content outside what is typically acceptable in a Disney-Pixar film. Meaning, not everything is “G” rated.  Such ideas show they will push their boundaries.  Imposing too much self censoring is not conducive to creative thinking.

The book doesn’t name an individual author, since the bulk of it is a collection of drawings created by numerous artists.  It has a foreword by John Lasseter, and an introduction by Jason Katz, who is one of the Pixar story artists who has been with the company since the first Toy Story.  It has a few paragraphs explaining some of their working process.  For my purposes, I would love to have had much more of that.  Here is one quote from Teddy Newton I found informative:

The secret to a great story gag has less to do with it’s novelty and more to do with the truth it possesses.  The me, the funniest moments in The Incredibles are not the outrageous bits of spectacle, but the banal moments we recognize from our own lives.

Ultimately, the book is more entertaining than educational.  It is not a large coffee table book, and I went through in about an hour.  If you are a big Pixar fan, or an aspiring story artist, I would say it is worth the reasonable price.

 

The Eight Comic Plots

This has easily been the most popular post on this blog.  The eight comic plots are those Gerald Mast chose to include in his book.  I have a chapter in my book about story and, of course, I recommend that as further reading. Click the link to the right to see the book on Amazon.

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Here is a little more from The Comic Mind by Gerald Mast. He describes 8 basic structures of comic stories for movies.  Here are brief quotes from the book with some animated examples I could think of.

1.” The first is the familiar plot of New Comedy – the young lovers finally wed despite the obstacles ( Either within themselves or external ) to their union”

Gnomeo and Juliet, of course.  The Little Mermaid.

2. Parody, “The film’s structure can be an intentional parody or burlesque of some other film or genre of film.”

An example of this in animation is Allegro Non Tropo, which is a parody of Fantasia.

3 “Reductio ad absurdum is a third kind of comic plot. A simple human mistake or social question is magnified, reducing the action to chaos, and the social question to absurdity..

…The Laurel and Hardy two reelers are the perfect example of the reductio ad absurdum as pure fun – a single mistake in the opening minutes lead inexorably to the final chaos.”

Reductio ad absurdum seems like a great way to build a cartoon.

4. “This structure might be described as an investigation of the workings of a particular society, comparing the responses of one social group to those of another. . . Such plots are usually multileveled, containing two, three, or even more parallel lines of action. The most obvious examples of such plots are Shakespeare’s comedies, in which love (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) deceptive appearences (Much Ado About Nothing), or the interrelation of human conduct and social environments ( As You Like It ) is examined from several social and human perspectives.”

“Robots” sort of fits the description.  Rich robots threatening the poor robots.  But it’s certainly not as multilayered as Shakespeare.

5. “The fifth comic-film structure is familiar in narrative fiction, but very uncommon on the stage. It is unified by the central figure of the film’s action. The film follows him around examining his responses and reactions to the various situations. . . The most outstanding film picaro is, of course, Chaplin. Significantly, he begins to use the picaresque structure as he begins to mature with the Essanay films of 1915. . . The other major film picaro is Jacques Tati.”

Another word for a picaro is a rogue, which seems like a good character for animation.  Pepe LePew is the first one who comes to mind.  With Pepe, it’s all about his responses to the female.  I can’t say I would call Jacques Tati a rogue, but his reactions to the world are critical.

6.  “The next comic plot is one that would seem to have no analogue in any other fictional form.  The structure might best be described with a musical term – “riffing”  But it could easily be called “goofing,” or “miscellaneous bits,” or “improvised and anomalous gaggery.”  This was the structure of most of Chaplin’s Keystones,  simply because it was one of the two major Sennett structures (parody was the other).

Some of Tex Avery’s later films were very much this way.  “TV of Tomorrow” and “Farm of Tomorrow” were sequences of gags based on a theme.

7. “The central character either chooses to perform or is forced to accept a difficult task. .   Comic versions of this plot include The General, The Navigator, (indeed most of Keaton),  The Kid Brother, The Mollycoddle, The Lavender Hill Mob.”

Many animated features could be described this way.  Kung Fu Panda, Flushed Away, Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs.

8.   “… the final plot form of comic films – the story of the central figure who eventually discovers an error he has been comitting in the course of his life… In films, the plot serves comically in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Freshman, Sullivan’s Travels, Hail the Conquering Hero.

I would say “Cars” is this kind of story.  Lightning McQueen discovers the error of his self-aggrandizement.

Buy the book to learn more!
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