If you’re anything like me you can’t stand anything on the Cartoon Network for too long. A lot of those shows seem like ill-conceived, overly chatty, highly-polished but vapid productions designed to sell toys. Courage The Cowardly Dog is an exception. My daughter saw this on Netflix and persuaded me to watch it ‘because I know you’d love it!’ and she was right. Courage is now a family favourite. Courage is a product of Cartoon Network Studios, also responsible for Cow and Chicken, Johnny Bravo and more recently — also a hit with my daughter — Adventure Time, which is a high rating on IMDb so much also be popular with adult men.
Four series of Courage were made between the years of 1999 and 2002. I’m guessing Courage was influenced by Ren and Stimpy, which ran between 1991 and 1996.
Courage The Cowardly Dog was created/written/directed by John R. Dilworth, who previously wrote for Sesame Street. We first see Courage in the short cartoon The Chicken From Outer Space.
This chicken makes a cameo in the pilot of the spin-off series, floating in Muriel’s bath.
Done well, this is a highly successful blend. Horror and comedy have a lot in common when you look closely at story structure. The line between the two is also very fine, and the advantage of writing a horror comedy is that you don’t need to worry about accidentally tipping over into comedy territory — you can indulge fully in the ridiculousness of horror and have fun with it.
Horror is a highly symbolic genre with a vast library of tropes and established storylines. Each of the Courage stories explores one of the main horror tropes. This affords the show a dual audience, as adult viewers will recognise a lot of them from well-known horror films and novels.
In this pilot episode the writer makes use of the trope of the Hotel California. (You can never leave…) At TV Tropes it’s referred to as The Inn Of No Return.
In horror, the spooky hotel has a long history. For example:
- Joseph Conrad‘s story “The Inn of the Two Witches”
- William Hope Hodgson wrote a story titled “The Inn of the Black Crow”
- Stanley Ellin’s short story “The Specialty of the House”
- “Rattle of Bones”, one of the Solomon Kane short stories
- Roald Dahl‘s story “The Landlady”
- the H.P. Lovecraft short story “The Shadow Over Innsmouth“
There are three main characters plus a variety of baddies. Some of the baddies are recurring. The viewer doesn’t have to have seen earlier episodes in order to understand subsequent ones, because the storyworld is summed up succinctly in the intro of each episode:
Narrator: We interrupt this program to bring you… Courage the Cowardly Dog Show, starring Courage, the cowardly dog! Abandoned as a pup, he was found by Muriel, who lives in the middle of Nowhere with her husband, Eustace Bagge! But creepy stuff happens in Nowhere. It’s up to Courage to save his new home!
Eustace: (turns off TV) Stupid dog! You made me look bad! (pulls out mask) BOOGA BOOGA BOOGA!
The story appears to be set in the mid 20th Century, with similar technologies (except when it suits…)
I came across a theory about the storyworld of Courage The Cowardly Dog. Eustace and Muriel live in a place called ‘Nowhere’. It is literally one house in the middle of a plain. This makes it all the more hilarious that so many evil characters come by their place. (All bad, no goodies!) Someone said that the town of Nowhere is simply a representation of how Courage sees his world, not how it actually is. Because his owners are too old to take him for walks, all Courage knows is his immediate environment. To him the rest of the world is completely unknown and might just as well not exist. Each baddie who comes into the vicinity — be it the milkman or the postman or the guy delivering a new mattress — is simply perceived by Courage as the baddie, because he is a poorly trained, anxious dog.
I like this theory very much, as the human companion of an anxious dog. I’m going with it.
Hilariously, even though Muriel and Eustace seem to be the only human inhabitants of Nowhere, the town gets its own newspaper. This is read by Eustace, who is oblivious to huge headlines which will say something about an evil chicken coming to town, or whoever the opponent happens to be for that episode. Eustace never notices these headlines.
An argument against this theory is that Muriel and Eustace really are country farmers. Muriel wears black gumboots. They drive a pick-up truck. The music has a country twang and their house is a ranch style building. The good thing about this setting — storytelling wise — is that it allows for the full complement of Western tropes, too — another highly symbolic genre.
Like the scenes out of Ren and Stimpy, there is a grimy feel to this cartoon. The backgrounds are an admixture of different textures and unattractive palettes (contrasting, say, with something like Sponge Bob Squarepants, which has an appealing palette of bright colours that one might use to decorate a baby’s bedroom.) The perspective is off-kilter, with rooms in the house appearing lopsided. The stories themselves are ‘off-kilter’ — before the action begins in each story Courage and the viewer realise that there’s something not quite right about this scenario.
There is something magical about this world. For instance, the sign to the Katz Motel is shorting, with the NO flashing on and off. This makes the sign look like it’s alive and is saying ‘No! Don’t stay here!’
They stay in room 666 and a half. This is a world in which the devil has influence. (666 is the devil’s number — the ‘half’ positions this setting somewhere between natural worlds.)
Much use is made of shadow, high and low angles and also framing.
For more on framing see Composition In Film and Picturebooks.
Muriel and Eustace are an old married couple who don’t seem to particularly like each other but have settled into homely familiarity. Not only are they oblivious to each other, they are oblivious to everything. A notable feature is that they both wear round spectacles which have no eyeballs. They go about their day-to-day routine not really noticing that they are in great peril.
Muriel is a Scottish woman whose accent underscores her basically reassuring and cosy attitude towards life. Nothing gets Muriel into a flap. This on its own provides for a lot of comedy because she regularly finds herself close to (ridiculous) death.
Muriel provides the comic juxtaposition between comfort and horror. Straight horrors do this too. You know if a movie opens with a character driving down a dark road at night singing joyfully to a song on the radio something bad is going to happen to them. Muriel, likewise, is inclined to sink into a hot tub, make a comment about how nice it is to finally relax, before facing a near death experience.
Muriel doesn’t have a catchy catch phrase as such, but she regularly comes out with platitudes such as suggestions for cups of tea and a lie down. She reminds me very much of the Mrs Scott character in the Disney miniseries adaptation of Little House On The Prairie.
Eustace is different altogether. He is the archetypal grumpy old man who enjoys playing tricks on Courage (who we understand belongs to Muriel). One of his favourite tricks is to put on a huge mask just to scare Courage.
Eustace has a catch phrase: “Stupid dog!”
He mutters a lot of things by way of complaint, and viewers understand that these obscured words are profanities.
Courage The Cowardly Dog
Courage, of course, is ironically named. He can talk, but only to the audience. He can’t talk to the other characters in the storyworld. In order to communicate with them — usually at the climax where the baddie is about to ruin everything — he has the ability to transmogrify into the baddie he is trying to describe. This is visually very effective comedy.
Another trick which allows Courage to succeed against evil so effectively: He is able to produce all manner of items from nowhere (from a pocket?). He is able to run off screen for a second and come back with a cannon, as he does in this episode.
Courage is the ‘everydog’ hero. He is regularly thrust into life-and-death situations but deep down would love nothing more than to stay at home with his beloved Muriel and live a quiet life. However, these characters come close to death in every episode.
Courage has catch phrases:
- “Oh nooo!”
- “…or my name is [Aloysius], and it’s not!”
- Courage also has the final words in each story, speaking to the camera.
Courage is a grandson to Muriel and an annoying little brother to Eustace.
There is a recurring young Chinese man (Japanese?) who drives a flash convertible and is very good with technology. He uses technology as weapons in Wiley Coyote fashion.
Other baddies are often animals — chickens, ducks etc. — and they’re often doing human jobs. In this story we have a cat managing a hotel.
Each episode is a precise 22:30 minutes give or take just a few seconds. Each episode is divided into two shorter complete and stand-alone stories, much like Cat Dog and other shows inspired by Looney Tunes. That makes each story about as long as a picture book.
This particular story has what I call a ‘circular’ ending, or at least the hint of one.
Because this is the pilot episode quite a few seconds are spent on setting up the most salient point about this dog: He is easily scared. The ‘camera’ lingers on him shaking as a lightning bolt flashes. He is huddled on an old woman’s lap in the car.
Despite being terribly afraid, Courage will need to save the day because he regularly notices things about the environment which laid back Muriel and self-absorbed Eustace are oblivious to.
The three of them have just pulled into a Motel in the middle of nowhere and plan to stay for a night. Courage would love to sleep in the same bed as his beloved owner Muriel (we assume) but is not allowed.
Instead, he is tied up outside.
The evil master of this joint is a red cat called Katz. The viewer is left in no doubt as to his evilness.
- He speaks in received pronunciation, which to an American audience (and increasingly to a world audience) means evil and also smart.
- He is a cat. The audience needs no help to get the idea that a dog’s natural enemy is a cat. This makes Katz an excellent choice for the opponent in the pilot episode.
- His facial expressions are decidedly evil. The camera lingers on his face and he gives an unambiguous, over-the-top scowl to the audience.
Courage is tied up on the verandah. When Katz opens a box and a massive spider crawls out, heading straight for him, he pulls a variety of industrial tools from his ‘pocket’ and breaks free (ironically he is unable to break the leash with the tools but manages to do it with his own teeth).
He gets inside using a cannon ball.
He tries to wake up Eustace, who is a heavy sleeper.
Next, his plan is to save Eustace and Muriel from the evil spiders who are under the command of the evil cat. The spiders are entering the bedroom (where Eustace sleeps) and the bathroom (where Muriel bathes). They will bandage them up in webs and eat them.
Courage comes up with a variety of ways to defeat the spiders in an action sequence which ducks between scenes of Muriel in the bath and of Eustace in the bed. At one point he pulls a plank of wood off the wall, uses it to reach the web near the ceiling, then uses the same plank to whack the spider on the head.
Muriel, struggling with a huge spider in the bathtub tells Courage to find help.
All of these challenges with the massive spiders lead to the main battle, between Courage and Katz.
In a scene right out of a nightmare, Courage has gone to get help from management (Katz) but ends up being chased down a long corridor after accidentally stumbling upon a laboratory where Katz has been breeding these monstrous spiders. The corridor comes to an end. There’s no escape.
So, in pure comedic fashion, Katz suggests they settle this battle with a game of squash. It makes sense, in a dreamlike way, because the end of a corridor is basically great for playing squash against. This is the main battle.
The battle is comedic because Katz is excellent at squash whereas Courage ends up in a puddle of sweat. Katz is so good at squash that he can hit the ball with a nonchalant flick of the tail while reading a book on spiders or leaning against the sidewall sipping a cup of tea. (Remember he is English.)
Meanwhile, the battle continues for Muriel in the bath. She manages to throw her massive spider into the toilet and flush it away.
Then she dries herself (comically), puts on her black gumboots and in no-nonsense fashion sets out to find Courage.
Courage collapses onto the floor in exhaustion.
Good use is made of camera angles, which make Katz seem huge and Courage seem very small.
Suddenly Katz is captured by bringing his squash racket (which has appeared out of nowhere) down over his head. Muriel has saved the day, using a ridiculously benign weapon against this formidable character.
Muriel makes a dismissive comment about this being ‘a fine way to spend a holiday’ (a great example of understatement) and realises they should cut their holiday short.
The hierarchy is that Courage saves Eustace and Muriel saves Courage.
Muriel is driving them home in their utility vehicle. Eustace is snoring, still tied up with spider’s thread, unable to move but completely oblivious. Muriel says, “That’s a fancy blanket Grandpa has on. Maybe we should get you one!”
This is a trick used by many picturebook authors to encourage the reader to think about what might come next. With Muriel’s joke we can see the whole saga happening again. There’s no rest for Courage.
As mentioned above, horror and comedy have similar story structures. An example of an adult horror film which makes use of this circular ending is Dead Calm (1989) starring Nicole Kidman, Sam Neill and Billy Zane, whose acting style as a baddie often embraces the comedic. Another way in which a horror baddie is similar to a comedic baddie: They just keep on keeping on. In horror they’re like machines. They’ll crawl through a pool of their own blood with their legs missing to get you back. In comedy the opponent is just as irrepressibly annoying/oblivious/scheming. (Think Newman off Seinfeld, who never changes.)
However, we assume the trio gets home safely — we haven’t seen where home is yet — and that another perilous adventure awaits us in the next episode, even if it doesn’t involve spiders exactly.