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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A Kevin Wollenweber "Two-Fer"

"Kid Stuff?"

While we're on the track of Seussian stories and children's versus adult animation, perhaps you remember the story of HORTON HEARS A WHO. I sometimes feel like Horton The Elephant (some might suggest a physical resemblance as well, but they'd better not to my face), or perhaps even the tiny Whos, trying to convince a stone-deaf world of the existence of something outside their limited experience. That classic animation, even that of Disney, was never intended for children alone. It was adults who made "Who's Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf?" an anthem of the Depression, adults who made the phrase "What? No Mickey Mouse?" a national catchphrase (and a popular song). Adults made Bugs Bunny an honorary member of the Marine Corps in WWII, and painted his image on the nose of fighter planes. And most importantly, adults made the films, as much for their own amusement as any child's. I'm hoping to be the voice, that one tiny "YOP," that sends this message to the outside world.

Kevin, of course, feels the same way, and yesterday's essay stimulated a great deal of discussion between us--and as usual, we veered off into strange territory. With that in mind, I'm presenting two of our discussions here. As always, his comments are in italics...

On the subject of children's animation, Kevin has this to say:

> Oh yes, yes, yes, I have been saying the same thing for so long, too long!! According to Jerry Beck's blog, so many more than we actually realize agree with us, but you're absolutely right in your puzzlement as to how we can work to change the mindset that allows for MR. MAGOO cartoons to be slipped in with the kid stuff merely because it is an animated cartoon.
> I guess what is unsettling to those in and out of the business is that, now, with parental watchdog groups, there are cartoons specially designed for kids and cartoons specially designed for adults, whereas before, there were cartoons that could nicely appeal to both, even though the kids might be puzzled as to why Mom and Dad are laughing hysterically at the same cartoon that Junior is watching.

Kevin raises a good point, which time and space considerations prevented me from mentioning. Indeed, the "cartoons are for kids" attitude, along with the practice of "niche marketing", has created a strange schizophrenia in the animation industry over the last few decades. There are now cartoons for kids (DORA THE EXPLORER, ARTHUR, and any one of countless Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon creations) and cartoons ostensibly for adults (THE SIMPSONS, FAMILY GUY, SOUTH PARK). Even the wildly funny REN AND STIMPY creator John Kricfalusi jumped on the bandwagon, retooling his classic series Spike TV with off-color gags intact.

But there's a problem. The supposed "adult" cartoons (with the possible exception of the first few years of THE SIMPSONS) are every bit as juvenile as their preteen-targeted counterparts on Nick and Cartoon Network, replacing sacchrine storylines with snickering preadolescent sexual and "potty" humor. A storyline involving a gigantic turd becoming the symbol of the holiday season (the "Mr. Hanky" segments of SOUTH PARK) is funny on a very base level, but adult? Hardly.

Instead of catering to eight-year-olds, these cartoons cater to adults with the minds of eight-year-olds (ten-year-olds at best). So in reality, nothing's changed. The attitude has merely evolved from "cartoons are for kids" to "cartoons are for kids, and adults who think like them." As Kevin says,

> In this age when there are now cartoons specially designed with the age group in mind, we are realizing just how much kids are talked down to and also just how juvenile adult cartoons could be! While I've felt that "SOUTH PARK" can have that occasional brilliantly written episode that truly pokes fun at society in a way we all can understand, even if we are not white bread and Republican, you are also aware of just how stupid we all have become that our comedy is dumbed down to this. I mean, I was watching an episode of this show created by the same folks who gave us "FAMILY GUY" and it is amazing how easily everyone is categorized or stereotyped. Somehow, in those grand old days of animation, we saw stereotypes, but most of us knew that the pokes were at literature or Hollywood movies of the then present age, not individuals, although those bigoted among us could use characters to assault those of a specific race or disability, and this is how such characters as Bosko and Mr. Magoo have become objects of disgust to those of the present age. Yet, while watching the show in question, I thought about how gay people could easily get a bit miffed at being summed up as a very bad Paul Lynde caricature. I never saw the humor in Lynde's performances (and I, by the way, never had any idea of his sexuality at the time), but it seems as if, now, whenever homosexuality is mocked, there is his likeness in animated form!!

I learned in my college communication class years ago that stereotypes are a kind of mental "shorthand": the world is so complex, we can't resist the urge to pigeonhole and categorize things--and it's only a short hop from categorizing things to categorizing people. It's simply human nature. Cartoons, being a visual shorthand, borrow from these "categories" because they're instantly recognizable. Bugs Bunny is a stereotype--the Brooklynese "con man". Elmer Fudd is a stereotype: the childish simpleton, right down to his way of speaking ("Be vewwy vewwy quiet...") "Lenny" in the Screwy Squirrel cartoon LONESOME LENNY is a cartoon stereotype of a literary stereotype: the "mentally challenged" character in OF MICE AND MEN, a gentle and simpleminded hulk of a fellow who wasn't smart enough to know his own strength.

These stereotypes weren't deliberately malicious, but the people who created them knew audiences would understand them.

As Kevin already pointed out, stereotypes don't die--the target merely changes. And if there's one thing that separates the cartoon stereotypes of today from those of the past, it's the presence of malice. One gets a sense of deliberate mean-spiritedness in the stereotypes of AMERICAN DAD (the show to which I think you're referring) that wasn't there in the cartoons of the past. "Gays" or "gay-seeming" characters in that program, as you said, aren't just effeminate and flamboyant, they're nasty to boot--and completely unlikeable. The best example is probably the alien character, "Roger", who speaks with a vaguely Paul Lynde-ish voice, and is clearly meant to be a gay stereotype, even if it isn't explicity stated. But then, it doesn't have to be. By comparison, even the "sissy" stereotypes of the FLIP THE FROG cartoons come across as more "gentle kidding" than an out-and out attack.

Why did this happen? One simple reason: as a backlash against the oversensitivity and preachiness of cartoons of the seventies and eighties (and several of the more recent Disney films--POCAHONTAS, anybody?) We haven't gone forward, we've gone back.

Yet as Kevin says here, that's hardly the worst thing to happen to animation in recent years:

> Since we knew in the old days that kids might be watching the same cartoon while they were munching their pop corn (and I already discussed how much I miss the heyday of that), it seemed as if animators had to appeal to both and mostly succeeded. Thus, LOONEY TUNES characters are charming in their own way, while getting the best of obnoxious or childish hunters trying to prove their manhood. The comedy worked on so many different levels, even though that jabbing poke at social accepted norms were always there. Now, it seems that someone's blatant opinion is right in your face! The kids of "SOUTH PARK" always tell us "you know, we learned something today..." Okay, even that is a poke at many of those shows that were seemingly designed to teach us all a lesson, but now, even though that phrase is never used in the more recent episodes, there is still this subliminal hostility toward someone or some point of view.

Yes, in the pioneering days of TV animation, cartoon makers merely transferred to the small screen the approach that worked so well in theaters--appeal to everyone by making the humor work on multiple levels. Children got slapstick, while adults got clever wordplay--and in the BULLWINKLE cartoons, even political and social satire. Kids wouldn't laugh at the notion of the world economy collapsing from an influx of counterfeit box tops, but adults steeped in our material culture would.

There's a rule in writing: "show, don't tell." Cartoons like BULLWINKLE followed this to the letter. It didn't TELL us politicians were idiots, the Cold War was insane, bureaucrats were incompetent, admen were silly, and the military didn't know what it was doing. It SHOWED us, in the person of characters like Captain Peter Peachfuzz, Boris Badenov and tycoon Fiduciary Blurt.

In what's probably one of the funniest examples of what I mean, Rocky once ran for Congress representing a hillbilly district, promising each of two feuding families he'd get rid of the other one. He kept his promise by evacuating both families out of the state, where, as he said, they became some other state's problem. Bullwinkle responds, "You learn fast, Rock..."

Now imagine if he'd taken a SOUTH PARK approach:

ROCKY: Y'know, Bullwinkle, bureaucracy is really stupid, and it's time we stood up and took responsibility in electing leaders who know what they're doing. Bring back a little civic pride and...

(continues yammering for five minutes while Bullwinkle looks behind Rocky's back)

ROCKY: Whatcha doin', Bullwinkle?
BULLWINKLE: Lookin' for the lobbyist who's workin' your mouth...

> So how has animation evolved? I think not at all in many cases. Give me those grand old toons and leave the other stuff to whoever it was designed for!! I'll take something we can all laugh heartily at.
> And some of the best is still going unnoticed and rotting in vaults, sad to say.
> I guess I have no answer for all of this except to say that we are now a silent majority of sorts.

To that I can add nothing, so I'll be silent myself--for now.


No matter how far afield some of our discussions go, we always seem to return to the same subject--stereotypes in animation. Even when discussing something as seemingly innocuous as Elmer Fudd. Hey, Friz Freleng might have thought he was an idiot, but it's hard for Kevin and me to really hate poor Elmer. He was such a perfect adversary, and his rivalry with Bugs became so well established, that Chuck Jones was able to twist it, parody it, and send it soaring in new directions. There had to be something there ol' Friz didn't see.

This started innocently enough, as a discussion of Arthur Q. Bryan's vocal talents. Kevin says:

You said: "It's kind of a shame that noone could get Elmer's vocal quality exactly right after Bryan's death, not even Mel. And Hal Smith's version sounds particuarly odd."

Yeah, most of 'em were just attempting to imitate Bryan's work but not embracing the character quite the way Arthur had done. If you recall the character in Bryan's prime was really an overgrown child. Over the weekend, I was watching "CONFEDERATE HONEY" in which Elmer Fudd is put in the unlikely role of Ned Cutler, the dashing(?) leading man (hewwo"), which is hysterical because one would *NEVER* see Fudd as someone that assertive. Boy, I could just imagine how an EGGHEAD TO ELMER disk might be now. The GOLDEN AGE OF LOONEY TUNES sets did a nice job of this on laserdisk, but now we've got more examples of ways in which the LOONEY TUNES directors played with the Elmer Fudd persona, even giving him his own newsreel in black and white. When we see Elmer Fudd in "OLD GRAY HARE", we realize that Elmer never did much growing between the time he was a "wittwe bitty baby" to when he suddenly was very old with this Buck Rogers Lightning-Quick Rabbit-Killer in his hands, so we knew that it was fun to play with this character a lot!! Arthur Q. Bryan seemed to inhabit that role as no one else after him could. You somehow needed little inflections that only Bryan could give him, but the character was so great that others give nice tries just to keep the character alive.

I'm no actor, obviously, but I've heard actors say more than once that a person has to become the character for it to seem real. If the voice artist doesn't believe it to be real, the public won't either. Hal Smith, therefore, could only give an approximation, the graveliness of Elmer's voice without the childlike, whining quality.

Chuck Jones once said that Elmer's statement "Be vewwy vewwy quiet...I'm hunting wabbits..." is almost a cry. He's afraid someone's going to try to stop him (and "someone"--namely Bugs--inevitably does). Smith didn't understand this, couldn't understand--he'd never "met" the character before, in a sense. Neither had Daws Butler, another Elmer stand-in who didn't quite make the cut.. Mel Blanc, who had at least worked with Bryan for decades, could at least bring enough of an understanding to the character to do a halfway-decent approximation of the voice. But even in his case, that's what it was--an approximation.

His "TINY TOONS" successor, Elmira, someone who liked instead to "love" her adversaries to death by squeezing the life out of them with emotional enthusiasm, was interesting but not quite the way I would see a decendent of the original Fudd legacy. Maybe this was partially because I found most of the "TINY TOONS" voices somewhat annoying while the original LOONEY TUNES characters had their charm, even at their most obnoxious.

I didn't see Elmyra as anything like Elmer either--indeed, it took me a while to realize the connection. Again, we have a problem of lack of understanding of the characters--and in the case of TINY TOONS, the writers and voice artists had the added complication of being separated by time from the people who had done the original work. They only knew the characters as fading images on a black-and-white screen growing up, much as we had. So their portrayal of Elmyra was not so much based on Elmer, but a fan's misperception of who Elmer really was.

With Babs and Buster, they did the unthinkable--they split Bugs Bunny in two, trying to make Buster the calm, Chuck Jones-ish Bugs while making Babs more like the manic, Clampett Bugs--and succeeding in neither case.

Oh, and I've said it once, but it demands being said again (and you can post these comments on the blog), "ALL THIS AND RABBIT STEW" is a cartoon that genuinely belongs on the GOLDEN COLLECTION sets, despite its political incorrectness. It features so much in the way of Avery-isms; even the soundtrack and sound effects are so close to what Avery would be doing at MGM. In scenes in which we watch the pint-sized hunter trudge through the forest looking for the rabbit with his rifle, we are aware of poses that only Tex Avery could devise, and Carl Stalling does a nice job here of giving this strutting its own individual soundtrack.

You know, another animation fan in his blog writes about the above cartoon at length, and I wish I had the link now, because it merits serious discussion. His primary objection was the lethargic, StepinFetchit-like portrayal of the black hunter--so lethargic he actually drags his rifle as he shuffles along. As usual, the writer misses one important point--that the character no more represented all black people than Elmer Fudd represents all whites. Essentially, he's a prototype Droopy (without Droopy's intelligence or magical ability to be everywhere at once), contrasted with the more energetic, wise-guy Bugs. The very idea is funny. Viewing this cartoon, I never saw the hunter as anything more than just another in a long line of moronic atagonists for Bugs--which is what I think Avery intended.

The more I sit through this cartoon, the more I really like it and would really love to see it restored. In fact, I wonder just what Avery's next cartoon direction was, because this almost seems as if it should have been the last film that Avery created before departing and going on to create "THE EARLY BIRD DOOD IT" and "THE BLITZ WOLF" for MGM. Think of how many agressive little men Avery created for that studio, including the little pilgrim in "JERKY TURKEY". So making the little hunter pint-sized had nothing to do with the race the character is. Avery just chose the Steppin Fetchit character as one to cartoonize as Bugs Bunny's protagonist. Otherwise, all other ideas are those that Avery may have duplicated in later hunting cartoons. "RABBIT STEW" could have been seen as "JERKY TURKEY" if this were created a few years later; in fact, I think a bear figured in *BOTH* cartoons.

Seeing ALL THIS AND RABBIT STEW for the first time years ago (I was lucky enough to get a ratty little "Censored Cartoons" from Blockbuster, I too got the impression that it was a prototype for Avery's MGM cartoons. A dividing line, if you will, between the Warner's era and MGM. The chase scenes are certainly faster than anything he'd done up to that point: I'm thinking in particular of one scene in which Bugs jumps in an out of a series of holes. If I'm not mistaken, there's a similar gag in a Screwy Squirrel cartoon, and it also resembles the "door" chase gags in LONESOME LENNY and LITTLE RURAL RUDING HOOD.

The wild take (with Bugs' limbs flying apart) looks more like an MGM-era gag as well. (As Kevin notes below). Avery's Warner's takes up to that point had been practically sedate, and he usually reserved that level of cartoon impossibility for a "goofy" character like Egghead. (You may remember the scene in CINDERELLA MEETS FELLA, in which Egghead tips his entire head to the audience rather than just his hat).

Think of one specific element--Bugs Bunny screaming and splitting, for a fraction of a second, into body parts vibrating in midair, this was something like an MGM reaction shot. If done at MGM, Bugs would not have his surprised scream done by Mel; he would have had a woman's scream there, like the wolf at one time in "NORTHWEST HOUNDED POLICE".

You're right--that womanish scream hightened the silliness of the take. Mel really couldn't manage that.

While I realize this cartoon was made in 1941 and Bugs was still in his formative stages at this point, the take (while surprising) doesn't work, at least for Bugs. Of course, I base this on the Bugs I'm familiar with, the calmer rabbit of the late forties and beyond. For the insane (and relatively one-dimensional) characters of Avery's MGM years, it would have been ideal.

I think that the dice-rolling bit works on a different level. One could just think of this little guy as a gambling fool, much like any of those addicted to it in "EARLY TO BET". The delivery of the last line the hunter speaks, "Well, call me Adam", could have been better, but it is unexpected, and I find it hilarious to see Bugs trudging through the forest with the gun and clothing that the hunter once owned, in the same exact pose with the same look on his face--it's pure Avery!!

Yes, that gag sets up much the same situation as the "haunted-house" premise of THE OLD HOUSE. If Bugs had "cleaned out" Elmer Fudd, the gag would be considered funny by most people. But because it plays into a black stereotype (blacks addicted to shooting craps) people can't look beyond the stereotype to see it's a really good bit. Even Bugs' mocking of the hunter, imitating his body language while dressed in his clothes, is seen as racist by some people, who fail to realize that's something he's liable to do with any antagonist--and has. Think of all the times he mocked Elmer Fudd's speech. (In the "Duck Season/Rabbit Season" trilogy, among others).

There are also a lot more quick Avery gags per minute here, including that bit in which the hunter first tries baiting Bugs with carrots and you hear Bugs take the carrots and individually eat them, spitting one back out, complete with sound effects lines in the rabbit hole as Bugs chews and spits! I forget what the sign says, but after spitting, Bugs pops out with a sign, perhaps apologizing to the audience. After Avery left, animators still played with the audience in the same way, but it wasn't as immediate and funny as Avery doing it. The man had a good sense of timing.

OK, you've got me curious. I'll have to find a copy of that cartoon to see that gag, since it escapes me at the moment.

To the readers--thanks for staying with me through this little Kevin W. "two-pack." For now, I have to go shopping.

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