SpongeBob Squarepants is a fast-paced children’s cartoon for a dual audience, written by a guy who is also a marine biologist. This is a highly successful and long-running show, with humour that broadly appeals.
This series has been running since 1999. Critics say the show has been declining in quality in the last few years, which is what critics also say of The Simpsons. What is the longest time a comedy series should run for? Are there any examples of comedy series lasting longer than a decade without a serious decline in quality? I can’t think of any myself.
Here I use Stephen Johnson’s 11 Categories Of Jokes to focus on the humour of SpongeBob. I’ve used so many SpongeBob examples in that original post that I’m ready to do an entire SpongeBob post. (If you feel that analysing jokes takes the joy out of comedy, this post is not for you!) Studying humour is a lot like doing tennis drills. Concentrate on form and process during deliberate training sessions, but once you’re playing a game (actually writing comedy) we need to put everything you know aside and get into a state of flow.
It’s also worth looking at other people’s comedy writing to hone your own sense of what’s funny and what’s not. While I find most of SpongeBob’s humour funny, I get annoyed with some of it, too. (Backed up by Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid sales as evidence, sexism sells.)
We Bare Bears is a Cartoon Network show for kids which has a very high rating on IMDb. This is a sure sign it also appeals heavily to the users of IMDb, i.e. youngish men. In short, We Bare Bears has achieved a dual audience, and is therefore in the same league as Spongebob Squarepants, Silver Fang, Gravity Falls and Adventure Time.
If you have trouble following Gilmore girls due to its fast-paced dialogue, steer clear of We Bare Bears. Though designed for an even younger audience, the fast-paced nature of this Cartoon Network series is testament to how much modern young viewers can cope with. Or perhaps they don’t. Perhaps the fast-paced jokes are fast precisely because they are designed for the show’s large cohort of adult fans. We Bare Bears is an animated off-shoot of the similarly named The Three Bare Bears* by Daniel Chong. I think this was a better name. For some reason I find it hard to remember We Bare Bears — I keep thinking it’s Three Bare Bears, even before I knew it originally was.
*I find once you know both titles, it’s even more difficult to remember either title. I wonder who came up with the title, or if anyone else finds it hard to remember?
CHARACTERS IN WE BARE BEARS
CHARACTER ENSEMBLE: THREE OUTCAST DUDES
The three guys who are outcasts is not a brand new idea. Take another kids’ cartoon series Ed, Edd and Eddy which aired from the late 1990s and notice the similarities:
Ed, Edd n Eddy follows the lives of “the Eds,” three preteen boys who all share variations of the name Ed, but differ greatly in their personalities: Ed is the strong, dull-witted dogsbody of the group; Edd, better known as Double D, is an inventor, neat freak, and the most intelligent of the Eds; and Eddy is a devious, quick-tempered, bitter con artist, and self-appointed leader of the Eds. The three devise plans to scam the cul-de-sac kids out of their money, which they want to use to buy jawbreakers. However, problems always ensue, and the Eds’ schemes usually end in failure and humiliation.
The cul-de-sac kids do not include the Eds as part of their group, making the trio outcasts.
“The Katz Motel” is the wonderful pilot episode of horror comedy for kids, Courage The Cowardly Dog.
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.
GENRE BLEND OF COURAGE THE COWARDLY DOG
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:
This is a favourite from my own childhood, and now that my daughter loves it just as much, I appreciate its timelessness.
I only have the old version, published 1969 by Scholastic. The pictures by satirist Robert Osborn fit the story perfectly. (Osborn was a direct influence on the Dilbert cartoons.) It appears the book has been rewritten and reillustrated, and the later edition seems to include more modern fears. For example, the fear of a friend moving away, in a more mobile, modern world. This page doesn’t exist in the earlier edition:
The hamster page doesn’t exist in the original, either:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Florence Parry Heide (rhyming with tidy) sometimes wrote under the pen name of Alex B. Allen, when she collaborated with other authors. I’d love to sit down and ask her what was behind the choice of a male name — was it a response to industry sexism? (The same kind that made J.K. Rowling publish using initials rather than the ultra-feminine name of ‘Joanne’?)
She lived from 1919 until 2011, which confirms my theory that being a children’s author is almost a recipe for a long life. (Beverly Cleary, for instance, recently turned 100.) Florence started getting published at the age of 48, presumably after her children had become independent. (She had five all up.) I’m not sure how long she had been writing before getting published, but I guess she would have been quite busy running the household, so she may not have picked up the pen until she was in her late forties.
Over the course of her lifetime Florence wrote over 100 works, including poems and songs. She is best known for the Treehorn books, with Edward Gorey.
INSPIRATION FOR THE STORY
Florence Parry Heide wrote SOME THINGS ARE SCARY, a humorous look at childhood bugaboos, more than thirty years ago. “I had finished another book and was in the mood to write something else,” she says. “I decided to get some kindling from the garage, reached into the kindling box and–good grief!–grabbed something soft and mushy. I fled back to the house, scared to death.” A brave return visit to the kindling box revealed the object of terror to be nothing more than a discarded wet sponge, but the thought remained: some things are scary. As she recalls, “What scared me as a child was that I’d never learn how to be a real grownup–and the fact is, I never did find out how it goes.”
NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION
Here’s an example of what a great cartoonist can do in just a few lines:
In the older picture books colour was limited too, due to cost. The pages which make use of ‘stock scary’ are white crayon on black paper. (Witches, pirates, skeletons and this scary monster, who bookends the narrative.)
When colour is used it’s loose and sketchy, as if a child has coloured the line drawings themselves. In fact this copy of the book does have some kid’s scribbles in it, but this is the illustrator’s. The unintended benefit of this style of cartooning is that it encourages kids to try drawing and colouring for themselves — art looks doable! (Of course, once you try it, it’s very hard.)
NOTES ON THE WRITING
One way of eliciting a laugh is to juxtapose the ordinary with the ridiculous. This book does that perfectly: Receiving socks as a present does not compare to the level of fear you’d experience when being eaten by a huge reptile.
The author’s syntax has a distinctively childlike quality to it, and it comes from ditching simple sentences in favour of an extra clause:
Holding onto someone’s hand
that isn’t your mother’s
when you thought it was
is scary [italics from the original]
The following is the page that elicits the biggest laugh from my daughter:
The even more hilarious thing is that after reading this book she did find an apple with a ‘moustache’ — certain imperfections in winter fruit do actually look like moustaches. I’m left with no doubt the author also once ate an apple with a moustache. It takes a genius writer to save these observations and position it in just the right part of the story — after many equally ridiculous scenarios, but which form genuine fears. This one is a scary example the child reader won’t have encountered before (probably).
Keep an eye out for a moustache next time you eat an apple.