by Colin Wheeler
Introduction by the Needy Animator
It is no secret to those close to me that other than being an avid browser of food-related content, I am also a hungry glutton of the animation selections on Netflix as well clicking on anything that mildly looks animated. We’re not talking just Disney classics to anime or famous features and series here but also lower budget straight-to-video selections and even pre-school animation with animated numbers and alphabets. So on more than one occasion, I have also watched more than a few episodes of a “not for kids” animated series only to be disappointed to be leaving with a sense of sadness that all I got out of my 2 hours of sit down session was derogatory content. Hey, I’m not naive and know to expect more than a fair share of raunchiness with the genre but while there are a lot of smart “adult animation” that peppers their show with raunchy content (personally I am a fan of Bo Jack Horseman and commend Archer on its up-to-date humor), it seems like there is also a great trend for the “adult animation” genre that heavily rely on being raunchy, rude, and uses crass slapstick and violence as a replacement of having real engaging storyline or character appeal. Sure, it might be totally subjective on my part but this article is a better musing by Colin Wheeler, our editor-in-chief with an MFA in Animation currently pursuing his PHD on this interesting phenomenon.
“I have a fine sense of the ridiculous, but no sense of humor.”
A situation only induces laughter when one never sees it coming. Humor can be said to be an appreciation of irony: a juxtaposition between what we expect to happen and what actually occurs. A man goes walking down the street and a banana peel lies plainly in his path. A view unfamiliar with the old banana slip gag might watch him fall and through this unexpected occurrence, laugh at his misfortune. Of on the other hand, the viewer already knows the significance of the banana peel, then he wouldn’t find the man falling especially funny. So then a man walks down the road and nearly slips on a banana peel only to have a blue whale crush him instantly. This is made even better by the fact that two scenes prior we watched a scene about a roof top aquarium and a faulty crane, but we put that out of our minds long enough to get a chuckle.
So if humor thrives on the unexpected, it makes sense that the animated medium in the western world has become primarily a medium for comedy. What better medium to capitalize on the physically impossible? Consider Emile Cohl’s Fantasmagorie (1908), which played on the unexpected and inventive in scene transitions, character movement, and scenery. One need only think of early Fleischer era cartoons to be reminded that animated comedies at their best were a space in which everything was alive and fecund with possibilities. Such pre-talkie humor did not rely on dialogue or gesture but the vividness of the morphic qualities of the characters themselves.
More recent examples such as FOX’s The Simpsons, King of the Hill and Comedy Central’s South Park operate differently. Instead they incorporate jokes and plot, stretching into 22 minutes with dialogue, plot twists and denouement ideally suited for television. This generation of animated situational comedies interweave jokes that are inherent to a story. Based on what is relevant to the narrative, their jokes can rarely be taken out of context or switched for something else mid story. This acts as an example of narrative taking dominance over comedy, in which good writing trumps the one offs and punch lines. But a new generation of comedy seems to be on the rise which places humor over plot once again. I speak of Family Guy, American Dad and a slew of others that seem to delight in placing a series of interchangeable gags one after the other. Indeed, Family Guy and many others have been accused of a “bubble gum” brand of comedy that caters to the most simple minded of audiences. This is an articulation of the well-known tension between “higher” forms of art and popular culture.
The family of Family Guy animation does pace itself differently and seem to value quick one offs over the slow build favored in older situational comedies. Perhaps this makes it prone to a higher degree of “potty humor”- jokes that focus explicitly on the body as a site of humor. Potty humor often gets cast as a lower form of comedy, being easily inserted into any situation and instantly understandable to even a small child. A well placed belch might startle and amuse but an excess of farting and barfing grows tired as any other form of humor. Since comedy requires surprise to be effective, bad comedy presents the expected. Worse, in the case of animation, it can forsake its own medium, abjuring the surreal and bizarre in favor of talking heads with static cameras. If genuinely unfunny shows have proliferated television today, who then shall we blame?
Certainly media industry models have had a tense relationship with comedy writing. From an investing perspective, television is insane. A massive amount of money must be sunk into a project in the hopes that it might return investment with advertising revenue. Advertisers put down their dollars not based on the quality of the show but whether they deem it likely to reach a broad audience in their demographic. Animators and comedy writers were never selling content but how many eyeballs they can glue to a screen. If a show fails to meet expectations, someone has to eat the cost, and during a global economic recession fewer and fewer people are willing to take such an economic risk. Investors want sure things, something with built in audiences that seem to promise a definite return. So shows that ape past successes become more likely to attract investors. This becomes fundamentally problematic for a medium that absolutely needs experimentation and freedom to fail in order to succeed. Certainly creators like Chuck Jones or Tex Avery had comedy refined down to a science but the
That being said, I wouldn’t describe the rise of bubblegum comedy and fart jokes as a rise at all. Every success brings with it its score of imitators. With shows like Family Guy making incredible profits, it’s likely that many other shows aping their success will get greenlit. With Family Guy an established favorite, the old “jokes over narrative” returns and well weathered jokes will get used over and over again. On the grander scale, however, these shows will be easily forgettable. Comedy favors the bold, and the few that manage to rise above the safety of mimicry and try something actually risky might start a new wave of comedy just like before.
One might even be able to trace the rise and fall of dollars, the Flinstone reboots and the Bob’s Burgers as a cosmic chain of breakaway successes followed by dwindling interests as audiences seek something new. The potty humor is going to stay though. It really has been. If you still feel jaded about the rise of bubblegum comedy on television, I recommend checking out animated shorts instead. These films tend to keep their costs low and rely on smaller teams, so they can afford to experiment in a way that FOX and Comedy Central cannot. Emil Cohl’s body surrealism is alive and well.
Who knows? You might find the start of the next comedy trend.