Saturday, January 8, 2011

An Overly Detailed Analysis of Cartoon Humor

Yesterday I was watching disk 3 of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume Three with the family. The disk focuses on pigs in general and Porky Pig in particular, with many of the cartoons coming from the mid- to late-1930s. It's unfortunate that many people will avoid older movies or cartoons, especially if they're in black and white. In fact, many of the lower ratings found on for the Golden Collection sets are from people who don't like the older cartoons. Through these cartoons and movies like The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Them! I've been trying to show my kids that some of the best stuff was made when their grandparents and even their great-grandparents were young.

The difference between the sensibilities of the '30s and what's considered acceptable today was best illustrated by the 1937 short Porky's Romance. In this cartoon Porky proposes marriage to his chocolate-loving girlfriend, Petunia Pig. She laughs at him, which drives him to attempt suicide(!). However, the branch from which he tries to hang himself breaks and hits him on the head, causing him to dream about married life with Petunia. As "time munches on", Petunia becomes fat and abusive towards Porky while he does all the cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing. When he wakes up to find Petunia saying that she'll marry him after all, Porky runs off.

When was the last time you saw a cartoon character attempt suicide?

Unlike most of today's entertainment, Porky's Romance derives humor from speech impediments (Porky's stuttering), the failed suicide of the cartoon's protagonist (Porky tries to hang himself), obesity (Petunia's post-wedding consumption of chocolate makes her fat), spousal abuse (Petunia hits Porky over the head with a rolling pin while their piglets shout "hit him again, momma!"), and animal abuse (Porky kicks Petunia's annoying dog). The mere fact that such things are no longer acceptable in children's entertainment makes the cartoon even funnier. When I asked my daughters which of the shorts we watched that day was their favorite, my oldest said it was this one.

Although I love cartoons from the '30s, '40s, and '50s, I've recently been impressed by how funny modern cartoons have become. While the cartoons made from the '60s to the '80s seem to represent the nadir of animation, the '90s and '00s gave us great shows like Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain, Phineas & Ferb, and a host of others. It's notable that the current crop of cartoons are funny for different reasons than those from the Golden Age of animation.

As a long time amateur history enthusiast, I'm fascinated by the shift in what Americans think is funny or culturally acceptable. This can be seen in the the enormous differences between a 1930s Porky Pig cartoon and a 2010 episode of Phineas & Ferb. The early cartoons relied mostly on violence and broad stereotypes for their humor; Wile E. Coyote got most of his laughs from explosives and anvils while some of the funniest Bugs Bunny cartoons ever showed Daffy Duck being blasted repeatedly with a shotgun. When this became socially unacceptable in the '60s, the offending elements were stripped out without anything to take their place. The resulting cartoons were dull and perfunctory (can anyone honestly say that The Smurfs or The Snorks are funny?). In the 1990s cartoons began to reintroduce some of what made the Golden Age cartoons so funny by including limited violence (I would credit Tiny Toon Adventures for this). At the same time they began to rely more on wordplay, character interaction, and farce. The end results were cartoons that are funny but are very different from the cartoons of more than 50 years ago.

No comments:

Post a Comment


Related Posts with Thumbnails