Lotte Reiniger (1899 – 1981) was a German animator who should be more widely remembered for her influence on art and animation. Reiniger was a pioneer of silhouette animation. She made over sixty films. Eleven are considered lost and fifty have survived.
I believe in the truth of fairy-tales more than I believe the truth of the newspaper.
Well, fast forward a few years and Australian kids now have their own cartoon series reminiscent of Peppa Pig. Bluey is made at Ludo Studio in Brisbane. There are currently about 60 people working on the show.
I no longer have a little kid in the house, but we both checked out Bluey on ABC iView, because a Twitter friend recommended it thusly:
Bluey is getting a 9.5/10 rating on IMDb and was nominated for an Emmy. Bluey is marvellous.
First, why does Bluey remind me of Peppa Pig? The nuclear family set-up is similar. Instead of pigs the family are dogs. Bluey is an Australian blue heeler, making this a specifically Australian show, but not so Australian that the series won’t garner an international audience. (Bluey could be any dog, because she is first and foremost a kid… a human child in an animal’s body.)
The art style is similar. Look at how both shows deal with aerial perspective (hint: It’s in the colour of the outlines.)
But the colour palette of Bluey is more appealing than that of Peppa Pig, and I wonder if Luke Pearson’s Hilda has been an influence.
Bingo and Bluey are 4 and 6 years old, the ‘social emotional developmental phase’, as described by Joe Blumm. He really likes this age because the kids are learning not so egocentric anymore. They want to play imaginative games but that involves other kids also having their input. The games temper their egocentricity. They need persistence to stay in those roles. The show is for that age. There’s no reading or anything like that, aimed at a more abstract age.
Blumm does not believe that kids are little adults. He wanted to create a show specifically for 4-6 year olds. His interest in psychology has clearly influenced his character development.
Family Life Realism
Another comparison is Olivia the Pig, but Bluey leaves Olivia in the dust. Bluey is clearly the brain child of people who know parenting and know kids. Ian Falconer (who wrote the original Olivia picture books) is not a parent himself and this shows in stories such as Olivia and the Missing Toy, in which I want to break the fourth wall and slap the pig parents. The actions of Olivia’s parents make no sense regarding Olivia’s character arc. In Bluey, the influence of good parenting has a direct effect on the child characters. This is realism.
Although the TV adaptation of Olivia no doubt included many parents on staff, to me it never ever reached the level of parenting realism achieved in Bluey, because the source material was lacking. Or maybe my perception of the Olivia series is partly coloured by the fact I’m not a rich New York parent. Perhaps the very Australian-ness of Bluey makes it feel like a more realistic portrayal of parenting to me (currently modern parenting in Australia).
But it’s more than that. Joe Brumm has two daughters, and the producer’s got two daughters and both his brothers have got two daughters. If you’re asking, “Why is Bluey a girl?” there’s your answer. But does the question really need to be asked? Why is it still so unusual to see a girl character without a massive pink bow telegraphing her gender smacked on top of her head?
What else makes Bluey feel ‘real’? (Code for ‘relatable’)
Integration of technology into family life
When Bluey wants to talk to her grandmother she simply calls up on the tablet. Granny doesn’t live in the same house, but she is only a call away. When Bluey and her father get back from the vet, distraught after finding a dying budgie, the mother is right there in the driveway waiting to offer comfort. It is clear that the father has called in advance to tell the mother what’s happened. This is how families are using technology.
In some ways story craft has become more difficult because of technology. How to put your fictional kids in real peril when parents are one phone call away? These kids are still too young to realistically carry mobiles, so there’s that. But my point here is that technology has also made story craft easier in some ways. The writers don’t need to show a retelling of the story to the mother, and no one would ask how she already knows.
MODERN PARENT-CHILD INTERACTIONS
Compare this show to any show from 15 years ago and you won’t find parents as realistically active and involved as these ones are. The parents in Bluey exist on the same hierarchy as the kids, but not in a way that subverts, in a carnivalesque way.
There is a long, long history of dispatching with parents in children’s stories but for modern kids, this won’t ring true. About half of the Bluey episodes include parents in the puppies’ imaginative play. I believe these are the best episodes, and my 11-year-old agreed. By including parents in the play, the writers are able to model more adult-like emotional literacy, and this show is very much about emotional literacy.
How do you apologise to someone (after leaving them out of a game)? How do you cope with being factually incorrect (about Grannies and flossing)? The parents are there to nudge the kids in the right direction.
Like any modern kids’ story, the lessons in Bluey are not taught overtly by the adults. The child characters receive prompting after being allowed to experience hard feelings on their own. At no point are they told that their bad feelings aren’t okay. It’s okay to be in a funk for the entire session at preschool. It’s okay to run out on a game if you need some time alone.
I was initially a little disappointed that it seemed the father constantly having fun with the kids (Mother as Female Maturity Formula, Dad as Doofus Fun Guy). But a few episodes in, the mother is shown participating in one of the kids’ games. Moreover:
Both mother and father make the bed, together (even though the mother is gently admonishing the father for some housework matter that supposedly didn’t happen yesterday)
The mother isn’t busy cooking dinner and waiting on the family while the dad has fun, like we often see in older stories. In the pilot episode of Bluey the mother is out at a baby shower (supposedly a fun social outing for her) while the rest of the family stay home and have fun of their own.
THE KIDS FEEL LIKE REAL KIDS
Bluey’s puppy characters are voiced by children, and these kids don’t sound like they came out of London’s most expensive elocution school. I don’t know how they did it, but it sounds naturalistic.
That said, it’s more than voice acting that achieves the sense that these puppies are ‘real kids’.
On Northrop Frye’s scale of mimetic heroes, the puppies are low-mimetic. They’re not tricksters. For example, one morning Bluey wakes up her father one morning and mimics everything he says and does. Eventually the father says, “My name is Bluey and I smell like a monkey’s butt!” Bluey isn’t savvy enough to NOT fall for that one, and the father good-naturedly ‘wins’. Fathers do tend to win these sorts of games, because fathers have been around longer.
There’s plenty of language humour in Bluey, with words specific to the show. These examples of familect (I’m guessing from the creator himself) are likely to become part of the wider cultural lexicon, much like ‘Yoink!’ and ‘Eat my shorts!’ from The Simpsons.
A lot of the jokes on this show are funny because they are relatable family moments. Family moments might be given its own terminology e.g. ‘a tactical wee’. Giving something ordinary a name is funny in its own right.
In “Copycat”, Bluey’s father observes she has finally stopped copying everything he says. Ironically, Bluey has learned how to deal with grief over a dead budgie and has been channelling him exactly in her make-believe game in which her younger sister refuses to die like the budgie did.
This medium lets creators play with an unlimited amount of cartoon violence but Bluey is restrained in that regard. Instead we enjoy physical comedy such as slipping on a can of beans or watching grandparents attempt the flossing dance move, and failing.
In episode one, the father has been twisting his daughter in rope swings, about to release her. When she asks him how babies get into their mothers’ bellies, he releases her for the spin to avoid answering the question.
If you like Bluey…
… and you are an adult viewer, check out We Bare Bears. This show is more squarely for an older audience, though I’m sure younger kids would be intrigued by it. The pace of talking will be too face for the 4-6 age group.
Letter to Momo is a 2011 Japanese feature anime directed by Hiroyuki Okiura, also known for Ghost In The Shell. After the oceanographer father drowns in a disaster at sea, mother and daughter move from Tokyo to the small island village where the mother spent holidays once per year with her aunt and uncle to recuperate from her asthma as a child. Creatures from Japanese folklore appear to guide young Momo through the grieving process, in this story intimately connected to Japanese Buddhist and Shinto traditions.
SETTING OF LETTER TO MOMO
Japan is an archipelago of about 3000 islands — five main ones, of course. The director himself grew up on the coast of Hiroshima, which means the edge of the Seto Inland Sea.
Letter To Momo is set on a small island in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan — the body of water separating the islands of Shikoku, Honshu and Kyushu. The real island is called Osaki-Shimojima, whereas the fictional island is shortened and changed slightly to Shiojima.
Though the island is fictional, the landmarks and art are closely based on the real island. For example, Historical Nomieruoka Park is depicted in several scenes. The real island has an area of about 18 square kilometres and a population of about 3,000 people as of 2012. There is a Buddhist temple at its highest point (Mount Ippooji).
The Name Of Shiojima
The name of this island is Shiojima. The first character of Shiojima (汐島) means both ‘tide’ and ‘opportunity’. This is the sort of symbolism which doesn’t translate easily into Western narrative and is part of what makes Chinese characters so hard (and fascinating) to study. In Eastern Asia, the fact that the tide is connected to opportunity maps onto this story starring two characters who return to the sea for a second chance at a full life, even after great loss. And even after the great loss was due to the sea. The history of this connection is to do with Japan’s close historical connection to the sea, and their heavy reliance upon fishing. The difference between having enough to eat or not was all about judging the ebb and flow of the tides.
If you look up a Japanese-Japanese dictionary you’ll learn that 汐 refers specifically to the ebb of evening tide, and is associated with a beautiful view. This makes sense, since the character is made up of the radical for ‘water’ next to the character for ‘evening’. If you write some Japanese you can probably guess the character for morning tide. Yep, it’s 潮. Both words for tide are pronounced the same way — either ushio or shio. In everyday Japanese both are used and no mind is ordinarily given to whether the tide is an evening or a morning one. The character for morning tide seems to be more the default.
汐 is often used in girls’ names, which makes it worth knowing. The character conveys ‘softness’ and has relatively few strokes, making it convenient to write. The character itself, when written in calligraphy, is of a curved shape, which makes it feminine. You’ll find it in names such as Shiori (汐里、汐璃、汐莉), or in combinations pronounced Shiomi and Shione. In names, confusingly for foreigners, this character might alternatively be pronounced ‘Kiyo’. So you’ll find it in names like Kiyomi, Kiyora. When found in boys’ names it will always be pronounced Kiyo, occurring in names like Kiyoharu and Kiyohiro. When used in a boys’ name, ‘evening tide’ will be paired with a character with traditionally masculine virtues, presumably to offset the feminine associations with ocean tide.
Why has the character for evening tide been chosen for the name of this village, instead of the character for morning tide? It could have gone either way because Momo is young and is starting a new life, but if you stayed for the roll of credits you’ll have noticed the pillow shots of the slow, elderly nature of the island. This is a village which is dying, devoid of young people. It’s likely those children jumping off the bridge are the only children in the village. Will Momo build an entire life here? I doubt it. I imagine Momo returns to the mainland for her upper education. In fact, I just checked my watch and it’s already 2018, so she’s probably there now.
If you ask young Japanese people on the street about religion, you get something like this:
In Japan you can consider yourself Buddhist without any of the mystical beliefs of yore, just so long as you have a ‘butsudan’ (a Buddhist altar) in your house (or in your parents’ house, probably), and participate in the Bon Festival. You can see a Buddhist altar in this movie. Mother and daughter stand in front of it and think about the dead father. There’s a photo of him hanging there. My host father was the most interested in my host family’s altar — he’d take a small portion of food in there each night for his dead ancestors. The following night he’d bring out the crusty old rice and replace with new. The altar is basically a place where you go to think about loved ones — a convenient little grave right inside your own home. (It’s not where the actual dead bodies are kept.)
At the height of summer, Japanese people have Obon.
Obon (お盆) or just Bon (盆) is a Japanese Buddhist custom to honour the spirits of one’s ancestors. This Buddhist-Confucian custom has evolved into a family reunion holiday during which people return to ancestral family places and visit and clean their ancestors’ graves, and when the spirits of ancestors are supposed to revisit the household altars. It has been celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years and traditionally includes a dance, known as Bon-Odori.
The lantern tradition is a great spectacle, and the only part of Obon depicted in Letter To Momo:
Tōrō nagashi (灯籠流し) is a Japanese ceremony in which participants float paper lanterns down a river; tōrō is a word for “lantern,” while nagashi means “cruise” or “flow.” This activity is traditionally performed on the final evening of the Bon Festival in the belief that it will help to guide the souls of the departed to the spirit world.
What must it be like, to really believe that your dead ancestors are visiting Earth again each year? In A Letter To Momo, the idea that the world is inhabited by a parallel realm of live creatures harks back to an earlier time where people really did believe in the supernatural. Dead souls were (are?) thought to hang about for a bit before going to ‘up there’, a belief which helps the grieving process.
Japanese Culture In Letter To Momo
You’ll notice some specifically Japanese body language in this anime. Here’s Momo in the middle of a big, exaggerated march. This is a girl on a mission. This is a particularly juvenile kind of walk, emphasising youth. I wonder if it comes from the fact that Japanese school children used to do a lot of marching. (There’s still ‘marching music’ played in many Japanese schools at cleaning time.)
Something the animators of this film do extremely well is the body language of Momo (and Mame). Momo doesn’t just sit on the tatami mats — she pushes herself around on them while lying down, propelled forward by her feet.
There are numerous other examples of a girl behaving how kids really behave when they’re not confined to a chair, and it’s not something I’ve seen a studio like Pixar do particularly well. The kids in Pixar films — compared to this one — behave like little adults. Is that because our Western way of making kids sit on chairs and sleep on raised beds prevents them from being kids? In any case, the childlike body language of Momo when she is bored and at home in her Japanese-style house is especially realistic. I believe any child would behave like this in the same setting.
Momo’s mother beckons to her in a typically Japanese way, calling her over to meet the elderly relatives. When I first got to Japan I thought my host-mother was shooing me away when she did this.
You’ll see Koichi the postman point at his face to mean ‘me’, whereas Westerners tend to point to our chests, as if our ‘selves’ reside in our hearts rather than in our heads.
Shoes are removed in the entrance nooks (genkan), and although it’s polite and ‘correct’ to turn your shoes around to face the door when you step out of them, most kids don’t. We see Yota step into his shoes backwards, shuffling backwards out the front door in a comic-realistic fashion. These are kids being kids, without the parental intervention.
Bicycles and mopeds are a great way of getting around narrow and winding roads such as these, because utility vehicles and cars would need to back up when meeting an oncoming vehicle.
Is there a rule that umbrellas make an appearance in every Japanese anime? I shouldn’t be surprised really, since umbrella culture is strong in Japan. With a heavy and predictable rainy season, in which rain is usually unaccompanied by wind, making them genuinely useful, there is usually a point in a Japanese film when rain is utilised as pathetic fallacy. Here, too, a rainstorm not only functions as an impediment to the characters getting what they want (a doctor for the mother), but also stands in for Momo’s emotions. Rain = tears, thunder and lightning = uncontrollable and strong feelings.
Japanese Folklore In A Letter To Momo
The ‘goblins’ who appear to Momo are known as ‘yookai’ (with the long ‘o’ sound) in Japanese. The class of yokai is much wider than the subtitles translation of ‘goblin’.
Yōkai (妖怪, ghost, phantom, strange apparition) are a class of supernatural monsters, spirits and demons in Japanese folklore. The word yōkai is made up of the kanji for “bewitching; attractive; calamity”; and “spectre; apparition; mystery; suspicious”.
Though historically yokai didn’t look like anything in particular, their forms started to solidify in the collective Japanese imagination once artists started sketching their own imaginings onto emaki (horizontal, illustrated narratives created during the 11th to 16th centuries).
The yokai featuring in A Letter To Momo:
Iwa no ke — Spirit of Rocks. This guy looks scary at first because he can’t close his massive mouth. But when he is revealed to be harmless, his permanently open maw makes him look easily duped and comical. Rocks are associated with masculinity in Japanese culture. Therefore he is depicted as big and strong. An evil version of this guy can bite your head off, as Kawa points out. Like Grizz of the We Bare Bears, Iwa is the guy who takes the lead, even when his ideas are terrible.
Kawa no ke — Spirit of Rivers. This guy is particularly grotesque, with stinky big farts being one of his superpowers. An evil version of Kawa can suck your soul out through your mouth, as he comically demonstrates on Kawa. Evil river spirts can also cause drowning. But in other traditional stories they just fart, for some reason. (You’d think this would be more heavily associated with wind, wouldn’t you?) Kawa hates anything that requires effort, and speaks with the dialect favoured by hoodlums who’d like to fancy themselves Yakuza.
Mame no ke — Spirit of Beans. This little guy is harmless and innocent, like a toddler. He is shown to be friendly with all the spirits on the island, which comes in handy later. Beans are associated with smallness in Japanese language, and ‘mame’ is also a homophone for honest, devoted, hardworking and active. Of the three yokai here, Mame is the airhead who does things at his own pace. He doesn’t always hang around with the other two, having his own friendly friends.
The idea that there’s a spirit in everything is a Shinto idea rather than a Buddhist one. (Is Shintoism a ‘religion’? A Japanese lecturer at university was a stickler about this — I got marked down in an essay for Shintoism a religion. I’m still bitter.)
Another film — one from Hayao Miyazaki — Princess Mononoke, is all about the spirit of things. In fact, that’s what mononoke means: the spirit of things. If you’ve already seen that anime you’ll recognise the nymphs of the forest. (Kodama)
STORY STRUCTURE OF A LETTER TO MOMO
This story spans the time between learning of the father’s death at sea and his final departure to the world of the dead, though the plot begins with Momo arriving at her new home, and flashes back to fill in the parts when they lived in Tokyo, including the two main parts relevant to her recovery:
The argument she had with her father
The phone call she overheard when her mother learned of his death
The argument is presented twice, once with a medium angle camera, the other view from further away. The first time we don’t know what the argument is about, so the exact details of it are used later as a reveal.
Whenever a plot begins with a child starting in a new place, there will be flashbacks. The story usually starts a bit earlier. There’s a reason why people move and in stories it’s often pretty grim.
When I really started to notice, I wasn’t alone. (Used in the poster below)
Dear Momo; An unfinished letter from her father is left behind.
A wonderful encounter.
They had a “mission”.
Are you telling your loved ones what truly matters?
Words that were never said.To save those you love.
Eleven-year-old Momo is the viewpoint character, the main part of the story, and also the character who undergoes the main character arc, making Momo unambiguously the main character. You’ve probably noticed that Japanese directors aren’t afraid to make feature films for everyone starring girls. There’s a reason for this which isn’t feminist in origin — these girl characters have flaws but are ultimately a version of the Female Maturity Formula. While Momo has her faults, the little mother in her makes her the voice of reason, persuading the male-gendered yokai characters to behave themselves, going to great lengths to stop them from stealing vegetables from the villagers. Upholding the moral fabric of a community is more often considered a feminine job. The yokai make stereotyped reference to ‘women’ numerous times in the dialogue, which is what genders them male in a more-than-symbolic way.
Momo’s ‘ghost‘ is that she has lost her father. We are not told this right away. As is usual, this ghost is withheld as a reveal.
Momo needs to move on from her father’s death and forgive herself.
The problem is, her father is dead, and the last time she saw him she told him to go away and never come back. Now she can’t take those words back.
Her shortcoming is that she can be ‘wagamama’, as Japanese people might put it. Selfish, inward looking. The mother is presented non-empathetically to the audience, but this is because we are seeing her through Momo’s eyes. Momo does not see her mother cry, and nor do we. We only see the mother leave each day for her nursing seminars, leaving her daughter with the basics but alone nonetheless, told to amuse herself with homework. Japanese children do get a lot of homework over summer, but Momo is between schools. She has little motivation to do it.
Momo’s main opponent is ultimately herself — her own conscience — she can’t forgive herself for those careless words she threw at her father. But in a narrative ‘oneself’ makes for a really boring story. Therefore, we have fully embodied opponents which represent the very things Momo doesn’t like about herself. In this supernatural tale them come to her in the form of the yokai.
These yokai are initially very scary, especially for young children. But as soon as Momo works out the nature of them they morph into comedic characters more reminiscent of ribald Japanese humour, resplendent with farts and nose-picking and hairy butt cheeks. They are quite grotesque. Momo, too, thinks of herself as grotesque after yelling at her dad. These yokai are self-absorbed, shown by their never-ending appetites and inability to give a damn about whose food they are stealing.
Momo’s human opponent is also her mother, standing in the way of just packing up and moving back to Tokyo.
At first the twelve-year-old boy looks like he may turn into a romantic opponent, and other directors would have made the most of this possibility but as it happens these kids are allowed to be kids. At eleven years old Momo is pre-adolescent, which is a less usual age for main characters. Main characters tend to be twelve. Twelve-year-olds are on the cusp of adulthood, but also in English language they are about to hit the ‘teen’ years. This makes me wonder for the first time — is there something about the Japanese way of counting which makes twelve-years-of-age not so special? When counting beyond ten in Japanese it goes ‘ten-one, ten-two, ten-three, ten-four…’. There’s no phonological change after twelve. The concept of ‘teenager’ comes from English, as does the Japanese loanword, ‘tiineejaa’. Is our Western concept of twelve as ‘the end of childhood’ down to the words we use for numbers?
Momo’s plan that sustains the middle part of the film is ‘To prevent the yokai from stealing the village vegetables’. This all changes when Ikuko has her asthma attack — now the plan is dire and simple — Momo must get medical help during a terrible storm in order to save her mother’s life, otherwise she’ll be left an orphan.
The big struggle phase of A Letter To Momo reminds me of the one in Hud, but only in one sense: A physical tousle is followed by a war of words. These lead into a ‘life or death’ struggle. In Hud, Hud tries to rape Alma. In A Letter To Momo, Momo’s mother almost dies of asthma.
By the way, my asthmatic husband says the depiction of asthma in this film is better than in most, though asthma attacks don’t tend to be accompanied by coughing. This massive asthma attack is foreshadowed by two events:
The old man is told not to smoke by his wife, because the old woman knows it sets off Ikuko’s asthma.
Ikuko is drinking tea and it goes down the wrong way. This coughing and spluttering fit is probably why the animators thought it necessary to make Ikuko cough during the asthma attack.
Here’s what’s left off the screen: Ikuko’s getting the doctor. Instead there is a cut from the stormy scene with all the supernatural creatures banding together to save Momo’s mother, right to the next morning, with the mother lying in bed. From that high angle, at first it’s a possibility that she is dead. So that’s one good reason to cut. The other is that there would be no ironic potential in a doctor’s scene, and every scene needs some level of irony. At the doctor’s, Ikuko would be treated for her asthma. We don’t need to see that because it goes exactly as we expect it would.
As mentioned above, one of the taglines transliterated from ‘catch copy’ in Japanese is:
気がつけば、私、ひとりじゃなかった。 When I really started to notice, I wasn’t alone.
Momo’s big anagnorisis happens in between big struggle scenes. Before rushing out to cross the bridge Momo realises that her mother has been badly affected by her father’s death. This is prompted by the old woman saying that Ikuko’s suppression of emotion has contributed to her failing health. All this time Momo has been wallowing in her own pity. She is lonely all day and doesn’t want to be here where she has no friends, her mother won’t believe they’re surrounded by supernatural creatures that only she can see… Yet Ikuko has her own inner world that Momo cannot see — Ikuko has lost a husband just as much as Momo has lost a father.
At first the film makes us think that by ‘not alone’ Momo means the yokai. Which also works. But really, more deeply and more symbolically, Momo is not alone because she and her mother are going through the same grief. Hence, the deeper meaning of the catch copy.
The second part of the anagnorisis happens when Momo reads the letter from her dead father, sent back on the lantern boat. This is the mother’s anagnorisis, too. She’s had nothing to do with the yokai, but this time she allows herself to believe that her dead husband has a kind message from beyond the grave.
By the way, the English version of the catch copy asks us, “Are you telling your loved ones what really matters?” Which speaks to an interesting cultural difference. Westerners value “I love yous” and other grand gestures of love expressed towards those closest to us, but Japanese families are traditionally laconic in this regard, preferring to let gestures of love speak for themselves. This may be changing with globalisation.
Momo plucks up the courage to jump into the sea from the bridge — all so symbolic it almost hurts.
Mother and daughter will always have each other. As they stand together on the beach we know that their relationship will improve from now on. The yokai are no longer needed, so they have departed with the rest of the dead souls at Obon.
CHARACTERISATION OF MOMO
A number of reviewers have something like this to say about the character of Momo:
Momo’s displays of emotion belie an otherwise flat characterisation. Despite the amount of time spent with her, both in and out of flashbacks, she never becomes a truly compelling or inspiring protagonist, as nearly all of the Miyazaki heroines do. Considering that she is in some serious psychological pain, it’s not totally surprising that Momo spends at least half of the film with her shoulders slumped and head down; it’s just a bit disappointing that she rarely reveals herself to be more than what she appears on the surface, exhibiting a plot arc more than a full-fledged personality.
And I’m not sure why. Could it be that English-speaking reviewers can’t connect to an eleven-year-old Japanese girl? Now that I’ve analysed the structure it’s nothing to do with that. Momo’s inability to express her feelings may make her a little distant to a Western audience, but I suspect a native Japanese audience intuitively grasps what she would be feeling inside, and identify with her civic-mindedness regarding saving the community vegetables.
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 Scott Dikkers’ 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.)
First a note about the structure.
THE PLOT STRUCTURE OF SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS
A lot of the SpongeBob Squarepants episodes follow a very common plot structure for fast paced comedies of about 11 minutes long. (This is also about the length of a We Bare Bears episode — equally fast paced with a heavy joke density and surprisingly complex plots.)
The double thread plot is popular with SpongeBob writers.
The plot will begin either with SpongeBob or with his opponent.
SpongeBob gets into trouble.
The opponent also faces challenges.
These two threads come together during the Battle sequence, and the audience learns how the two separate threads are inextricably linked. One thread doesn’t fly without the other.
The characters who live in Bikini Bottom have their own web of opposition which provides the most layered and interesting conflict of each episode. However, there is usually a big, bad baddie who comes into town. In episode one it’s a hoard of hungry anchovies. In Bubblestand it’s a massive bubble which envelops Squidward’s house and carries him away, suddenly uniting the SpongeBob/Patrick team with Squidward — they (briefly) feel sorry for him.
SpongeBob’s gang is made up of his best friend Patrick, who is the stupider but kinder version of SpongeBob, much like the Greg Heffley and Rowley friendship in Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Then there’s Squidward making up the threesome, who is sort of part of their gang but not actually because he doesn’t find SpongeBob and Patrick funny. Squidward embodies the seven deadly sins and then some — depending on the episode, Squidward is everything we despise in people. He is haughty, has no sense of fun, sarcastic, selfish and so on.
The threesome/twosome friendship plus an oddball outsider is pretty common in comedy.
In Seinfeld we have Jerry, George and Elaine, plus the unfathomable quirk of Kramer across the hall.
As mentioned above, there’s the Wimpy Kid stars and then there’s Fregley, who would like to be one of the gang but is just too odd for even Greg and Rowley, who get up to plenty of odd stuff in their own right. That’s the raison d’etre of these super odd character of course — Fregley’s weirdness actually provides verisimilitude to whatever those other two get up to. It doesn’t matter how weird Greg’s life is, it’s never as weird as Fregley’s.
Although these characters spend a lot of time conflicting with each other, they do band together when a bigger, badder outsider comes along. This creates a double layer of opposition:
Opposition within the in-group
Opposition between the in-group and the outsider (the big, bad baddie who comes into town)
SpongeBob wants a job at the Krusty Krab as a cook. He is sent out on an impossible mission to find a super powerful spatula (which he ironically finds easily at the supermarket).
Meanwhile, back at the Krusty Krab, a whole lot of hungry anchovies turn up and create havoc for the restaurant owner and Squidward. (The anchovies are the big, bad outsiders.)
These two plot threads come together as soon as SpongeBob arrives back at the Krusty Krab with his super-powerful spatula, which just so happens to be exactly the unlikely implement needed to knock out meals at a super quick rate, feeding all the hungry anchovies and saving the day.
This is a quiet story, which is in line with the mesmerising activity of bubble blowing. SpongeBob sets up a bubble stand (like a lemonade stand) right outside Squidward’s house.
Inside his own home, Squidward tries to practise his clarinet, but the bubbles outside are creating an unlikely amount of trouble for him.
The threads come together when a bigger, badder opponent comes into town, suddenly putting these neighbours on the same side. (A massive bubble which carries Squidward away.)
This episode does not have the dual plot line going on. It is a simple parable with a clear message for its viewers: If you keep recycling a joke it stops being funny and starts irritating people. You will alienate your friends. This episode therefore has the single strand plot line, like a parable. The New Situation phase is actually a song, explaining the lesson in the way those old parables and Charles Perrault fairytales used to do in a paragraph.
This episode opens with the point-of-view of the opponent — the tiny Plankton, who wants SpongeBob to help him clean up the beach, as he himself is too small to make a difference. Plankton is not a formidable villain, but is still an opponent, because SpongeBob does not want to spend his days cleaning up the beach. SpongeBob’s goals are simply to have fun. Plankton is a fake ally opponent, instructing SpongeBob to be formidable, though SpongeBob obviously doesn’t have it in him, being nice when he’s meant to be assertive. SpongeBob eventually realises what the deal is and decides that if he can’t be aggressively mean, he can be aggressively nice. The entire story takes place on ‘the beach’, which is funny because there can’t be a ‘beach’ at the bottom of the ocean. The outtake shows him enjoying a game of volleyball, and the lesson is that it’s more fun to be nice than to be maniacal.
Notice that the ‘lessons’ in SpongeBob episodes are very obvious ones, and therefore very knowing. Though the youngest viewers might take these lessons to heart, older viewers know that these lessons exist only because SpongeBob is a parody of didacticism itself.
HUMOUR IN SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS
Even the music goes a long way towards setting a comical scene, with a tune by Tiny Tim in the pilot, and an outtake tune which sounds like slightly off-beat banjos. (Country music is easy to make fun of, just as it’s easy to make fun of country hicks.)
The entire series is ironic on every level. But let’s break it down just a little.
Irony is a ‘meaningful gap between expectation and outcome’.
In that pilot episode, we don’t expect SpongeBob to arrive back with a super powerful spatula, which we have been told doesn’t even exist. On a story level, we didn’t expect SpongeBob to secure his job at the Krusty Krab by saving his new boss from marauding hungry anchovies.
Irony might simply be the opposite reaction from the one expected. For instance, when selling door-to-door, Patrick’s eyeballs pop out of his head like worms and he gets them slammed in the door. Instead of saying “ouch” (the expected reaction) the eyeballs look around and Patrick says, from the other side of the door, “ nice place you got here!” This joke has several funny filters, the other one being he is so stupid he can’t feel pain.
2. CHARACTER HUMOUR
This is where it’s very easy to get mean about certain groups of people. But it’s also where a lot of excellent humour comes from.
GENDER, AGE AND POWER
Much humour derives from power flowing away a character, especially if that character generally has a powerful position in society. Mermaid Man, for instance is a parody on the superhero trope. Mermaid Man has no power at all really because:
He lives in an old people’s home
He dresses as a girl
Ageism is a slightly separate issue — we’re all going to get old at some point (if we’re lucky). Sexism, on the other hand, will never affect hetero cis boys in quite the same way so it’s worth taking a much closer look at that.
While Barnacle Boy is neutral and therefore unproblematic, the fact that his sidekick Mermaid Man wears the bikini of shells means that Mermaid Man is doubly disempowered: age and gender expression are against him. At first glance this may seem innocent humour, except that the joke doesn’t work if genders are reversed.
MEANNESS EXERCISE FOR COMEDY WRITERS: This is always a good yardstick to measure by. Does the joke still work if you reverse the genders? If not, it will stand out as horribly dated in a few decades’ time, and as horrible right now to many of your contemporary audience as well.
SpongeBob Squarepants the series gets a lot of mileage out of sexist jokes, which is what inevitably happens when the entire writing team is men — they inevitably write for a male audience.
Why is the town called Bikini Bottom? Because for boys there seems to be some discomfort around female clothing. And anything that causes mild discomfort is ripe for turning into comedy. Pants in general are also generally funny in children’s comedy, but if those pants are related to sexuality, now you’ve got a joke that spans two opportunities for discomfort: bum jokes AND sexual humour, otherwise known as ‘adolescent humour’.
Sandy Cheeks the squirrel is the female sexual opponent, meaning SpongeBob is sexually interested in this character, tries to impress her, and much of the humour derives from him failing as a man. This pokes fun at masculinity, at the same time as reinforcing it. No one is meant to learn from SpongeBob how to be a man, just as no one really takes the didacticism of SpongeBob straight. But this line of jokes remains problematic, not because of its explicit message, but because of the tacit ones. Anyone working in advertising will tell you, tacit messages are the more powerful.
We first meet Sandy in Tea At The Tree Dome. Sandy invites SpongeBob back to her dome where there is no water (because she is a squirrel). SpongeBob has told Sandy that he, too, likes water-free places. This is a joke aimed at the older portion of the audience — an example ‘reference humour’ based on the common phenomenon of trying to make out you like the same things as a sexual target even though you really don’t. It is always revealed over the course of a relationship that you really don’t like the things you pretended to like, which is a great example of transgression comedy, in which the ‘mask’ comes off and we laugh because it is both deserved and uncomfortable, and the reactions of the characters delight.
We next meet Sandy Cheeks at the beach, where Sandy continues to innocently think she and SpongeBob are just friends. She laughs wholeheartedly at SpongeBob’s jokes and SpongeBob thinks he’s well and truly on his way to persuading Sandy that he would make good boyfriend material. But then a big, strong manly crab turns up and Sandy decides to go with him to lift weights. SpongeBob is thoroughly humiliated when it turns out even Sandy can lift heavier weights than he can. Comedy comes from SpongeBob’s extreme shortcoming — even a stick with marshmallows on the ends sends him sinking into the sand. Viewers of all genders are familiar with the male tendency to show off for sexual gain. Everybody gets the reference humour of this dynamic. But it’s only one end of the gender spectrum who sees themselves time and again as the unwitting object of the desire in comedy. Spoiler alert: the femme coded genders.
This seems utterly innocent, until you take a look at SpongeBob’s utter persistence. He believes that so long as he persists, Sandy will eventually become his girlfriend. She’s simply too stupid to realise what he’s trying to achieve. In this super common (bog standard) comedy plot line, the ideology of persistence has a real and damaging effect on how boys are taught to see girls. The audience is taught to empathise heavily with the ‘loss’ of romance (though it was never achieved to begin with). That means we empathise with SpongeBob, but at no point empathise with Sandy. At the extreme real life version of this narrative, we get a boy shooting an ex-girlfriend in school, and the police describe the boy as ‘lovesick’. That’s because we are all taught time and again, from drama to comedy, to empathise with the plight of romantic failure, and not taught to empathise with the object’s wish to be friends, or to be left well alone.
Weirdly, we learn later in the Ripped Pants episode that SpongeBob has ‘lost his best friend’ (owing to bad jokes about ripped pants). Yet he interacts with this ‘friend’ like she’s a sexual target. This is why I don’t buy arguments that SpongeBob Squarepants the show can’t be a sexist show because SpongeBob the character is asexual.
Some of the episodes with Sandy Cheeks are downright weird. In the Texas episode, Sandy is sad. SpongeBob is the last to understand why (long after the viewers), hanging off that trope that men can’t understand women and women’s feelings. Eventually Sandy sings a heartfelt ballad about how much she misses Texas and SpongeBob finally understands her sadness. Sandy gets on a bus to leave Bikini Bottom forever, but SpongeBob and Patrick realise (by accident) that if they insult Texas she will hang around to defend her home state. Earlier, they stand by her bed and watch her sleep. Which, fine, but take all these behaviours together and the entire episode comprises creepy boundary crossing and negging. (Stephenie Meyer catches a lot of crap for the exact same storyline — a male character goes into a female character’s bedroom and watches her sleep.) Because of the (mock) didactic story structure of this series, Sandy learns at the end that home is where there are people who care about you. (Caring = insulting the things you love.)
Mrs Puff, because of her female gender, also becomes a romantic target even though she is initially presented as a middle-aged motherly teacher type. She becomes the romantic object for the older Mr Krabbe, who is so enamoured by her he bankrupts himself buying her gifts. Although the male characters are always presented as inept and slightly crazy for the lengths they will go to for love, the fact remains — if a female character appears in SpongeBob, she is eventually utilised as a romantic target. A female character’s sexuality is therefore her main characteristic.
The character of Squidward is basically an Incel archetype, before the Incel became a thing. At Slate, Christina Cauterucci uses Squidward as an example of a ‘millimeters of bone’ meme. If you’re not sure what that refers to, lucky you. Maybe stay well away.
Every comedy needs a stoopid character. SpongeBob Squarepants is pretty stoopid, but Patrick is even stoopider. The jokes get funnier once we realise this is their ‘thing’. Expectation makes humour work even better. It works best when the stoopid character comes up with something even stoopider than the audience themselves can imagine.
The stupidness of Patrick is surprisingly simple and effective. When Patrick announces something which is blatantly untrue, my nine-year-old finds this hilarious. This ironic distance between what the viewer can see versus how Patrick interprets the situation creates an ironic distance which young viewers find very appealing. For instance, Patrick blows a bubble which looks exactly like an elephant. “It’s a giraffe!” he exclaims, making my nine-year-old giggle. [Update: The erstwhile nine-year-old is now a tween and has told her father to shut the hell up with this category of jokes, in fact all jokes, thanks.]
SOCIAL CAPITAL JOKES
Squidward Tentacles is set up as the Loser character from the very first moment we meet him with this visual gag of him trying to remove some graffiti which won’t come off with rubbing:
Squidward’s nose has a phallic quality to it, drooping in disappointment or whenever his attempts to climb up the social hierarchy have failed.
Kids love making an unreasonably cranky character crankier. In Bubblestand there is a delight seeing the bubble elephant go inside Squidward’s house, disturbing his wind instrument practice. The audience is therefore reminded just how nasty Squidward is at the beginning of each episode. We are never trusted to remember, or rather, his nastiness gives us permission to laugh at him when he ends up in a full-body bandage or whatever. (The film Office Space uses the full-body bandage gag. Being live action, you’d think this’d be disturbing, except the guy who ends up completely incapacitated is wildly happy about it due to receiving compensation — an ironic reaction, hence the joke.)
There is literally no such thing as too many reminders that horrible character is horrible. Even when Squidward isn’t there, SpongeBob is making fun of him to impress Sandy Cheeks (in Ripped Pants). In Jellyfishing, Squidward is horribly sarcastic about not wanting to go jellyfishing with SpongeBob and Patrick. He suffers an accident on his bike and ends up in full body bandages. Patrick’s efforts to look after him end up with further injury to Squidward because of Patrick’s stupidity. Eventually Squidward is stung by an enormous jellyfish. Patrick and SpongeBob are stung by a smaller one so don’t get off scott free. I wonder if the writers thought dishing out all the bodily harm to Squidward and none to SpongeBob and Patrick was too much. I think they made the right choice. In the predictable and conservative sense of justice we all have as audience, SpongeBob’s naivety and Patrick’s stupidity did need punishing, just a little bit.
But because we’ve seen Squidward looking down on our empathetic characters, the writers do their absolute worst. Just when we think Squidward can’t be put through any more pain, the following day Squidward is in a bed on wheels rather than in a wheelchair. Now the audience needs a small reminder that this is cartoon violence. So they show us Squidward chuckling as the big jellyfish turns up again, like a classic horror creature that just won’t quit.
So that’s a case study in how to get away with extreme violence:
Keep reminding the audience that the suffering creature deserves what they’re about to get
Punish every character, according to their exact crimes, even the sympathetic ones
Let the audience know that the terrible injury isn’t that bad.
3. REFERENCE HUMOUR
Reference humour refers to common experiences that the audience can relate to.
As mentioned above, a lot of the reference humour is specific to the heterosexual male experience.
On the other hand, NO ONE gets off scot free in this comedy — everyone is laughed at. But notice how Sandy doesn’t get to make her own jokes. Instead, she’s laughing her head off at SpongeBob. Only the male characters are allowed to be both funny and laughed-at. That kind of asymmetry for the girls — who are always the ‘straight guy’ yet just as often clueless — is what’s problematic here. This dynamic is closely related to the Female Maturity Principle of Storytelling.
There are jokes in SpongeBob which appeal to a mature audience but which safely pass over a child’s head. For instance, one episode opens with SpongeBob intently peering at some sort of tentacled sponge on his TV. When his snail cat walks by Spongebob declares that he wasn’t really watching that, he was only switching between channels.
4. SHOCK HUMOUR
In Ripped Pants, SpongeBob is trying to lift ‘weights’ (marshmallows on a stick) when he rips his pants in front of a much entertained audience. This is both reference humour and slightly shocking, in that it exposes a part of the body not normally exposed.
5. PARODY HUMOUR
The beginning of the Jellyfishing episode features a heist movie parody. Patrick and SpongeBob slide daringly down a rope but have to pause for a long moment to blow on their hands, which are burning in pain — something that never happens to ‘real’ cat burglars.
In the Something Smells episode SpongeBob eats a lot of onion and scares others away. He concludes he is too ugly to exist, at which point Patrick finds him in a dark place playing moodily on a grand piano, reminiscent of The Phantom of the Opera (even though I have never seen that).
In Plankton, a crabby patty pretends to be friends with SpongeBob in order to learn the secret recipe for crabby patties. The plankton baddie makes use of various technology to achieve his aim, including a mind-control device and another machine which tells him exactly what something is made of. He also has a gramophone, which he pulls into the scene whenever he needs some melodramatic music. This is meta humour, and the humour comes from the fact that extradiegetic sound effects are now diegetic. Not something the audience would ever put into words, but we realise the plankton thinks he is in some kind of crime movie, and is loving it.
Superheroes often have a getaway vehicle with some amazing power in its own right, be it a magic carpet, turbo rocket or whatever. In the final episode of the season one, Barnacle Boy and Mermaid Man also have a vehicle with superpowers, but that superpower turns out to be a hindrance rather than a help: it is totally invisible. This means they can’t find it when they want it. They walk into it, walk around feeling for it, and one of them is always getting burnt to a crisp because he accidentally stands behind the exhaust pipe. This ‘burnt to a crisp’ scene happens twice. The first time we see how he gets burnt — the second time he walks onto the stage already crispified, and we feel a little smart knowing how he got that way.
EXERCISE: Can you think of something that is sometimes a help to your characters but is also, more often a disadvantage, getting them into trouble? List all the ways in which they can get into trouble then take two or three and repeat.
The entire Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy episode is about underwhelming jobs for two superheroes, providing one long juxtaposition. At another point in the episode, they are called upon to open a jar for SpongeBob, who has previously been established as a comically weak character.
Everything is over the top. So, SpongeBob doesn’t want to be late for his job interview? He’s set up a mechanical Wallace and Gromit type contraption to get himself ready in seconds. It even changes him out of his pants. SpongeBob is scared about the interview? He literally tries to run away as soon as he gets to the place. This is a blend of hyperbole and reference humour, because we all know how we’d like to run away whenever we feel scared.
SpongeBob doesn’t simply trip on a nail sticking out of the floorboards and fall over — he bounces and flips and enters into a never-ending series of smacks, where gravity doesn’t exist (unless it’s required for the scene).
Squidward doesn’t just get a minor injury catching jellyfish — his body is entirely covered in bandages and he wheels around on a gurney.
Sometimes a character gives the wrong (overblown) response to a situation:
“Make him feel good.” “I love you.”
Sometimes, hyperbole means layering:
“I’m so old I’ve got hairs growing out of the wrinkles on my liver spots.”
SpongeBob Squarepants itself is a wonderfully wacky name, as is Squidward Tentacles. Notice, however, that not all the characters have wacky names. Sandy Cheeks is kinda sexual. Patrick is aggressively ordinary. So is Gary. It’s this tension between weird names and normal ones that creates the humour — the difference draws attention to the wacky ones. These names also give us a clue about the character’s personality: While Patrick is often funny because he is stupid, he is always well-intentioned. In some ways he plays the ‘straight guy’, starting from the first time we see him, in which he gives SpongeBob a pep talk about how SpongeBob needs to go to his interview even though he’s terrified.
Sometimes wordplay involves drawing attention to language in a way that we may not have noticed before:
“The finest eating establishment ever established for eating!”
“Do you smell it? What’s the smell? A kind of smelly smell that smells… smelly!”
I have no idea why we find phrasal repetition hilarious, but it also explains Boaty McBoatface and all the subsequent snowclones.
“This is my lab!” (Viewer expects to see a science lab but sees a dog) “And THIS is my laboratory!”
EMPHASIS ON NAMES OVER SUBSTANCE
When the recipe-stealing plankton throws seaweed into his ‘ingredients machine’, the machine tells him seaweed is made up of fifty percent sea, fifty per cent weed. This useless information, derived from the name of the product rather than the chemistry, foreshadows how useless the machine will be when trying to decipher what’s in a krabby patty.
EMPHASIS ON THE LITERAL MEANING OF PHRASES
“What? You’re off your rocker!” ‘Camera’ pans out to show an empty rocking chair beside the character. Character sits in rocker and says the same thing again.
Old man (Mermaid Man) buys ice cream from truck. “A double scoop of prune with bran sprinkles,” he says, which is character humour to emphasis his oldness. Next, “Goes right through me!” he exclaims. (The food shoots an actual hole through his middle.)
CHARACTERS MISUNDERSTAND WORDS
These work like puns but have no obvious antecedent.
SpongeBob: “We need to become entrepreneurs.”
Patrick: “Is that gonna hurt?”
Juxtaposition is evident all over the setting, starting from the pet snail that meows like a cat. Another word for this is ‘surprise’. Yet we are not surprised at all, because in the real world, people tend to keep cats, not snails. A lot of the humour in this series comes from the writers and storyboarders pasting modern American life onto marine life — an awkward and funny endeavour.
I put any kind of ‘flip’ joke into this category.
Squidward is a more serious and adult character who occasionally reveals his childlike side by engaging in childish things like blowing bubbles when he thinks no one is looking. The juxtaposition between Squidward’s posing and his inner child provides plenty of humour. In this respect he’s like the Dwight Schrute character of the American version of The Office.
In the pilot, Squidward tells the boss SpongeBob is definitely not right for the position, but instead of a flat no, SpongeBob is sent on an impossible mission to find a thing that obviously doesn’t exist. (Obvious to the viewer, not to SpongeBob himself.) This is the restaurant owner being a trickster. Note that because this is the pilot episode, the audience doesn’t know that this particular spatula doesn’t exist. That’s why we see Squidward and the restaurant owner chuckling about its non-existence after SpongeBob has gone.
Takeaway point for writers: Don’t worry about being too obvious. Joke density allows an audience to accept over-explanations, on-the-nose narration and a host of other storytelling techniques eschewed by other genres.
But soon we’ll see that SpongeBob himself is a trickster, as he finds a way to fulfil his mission. He goes to the supermarket and, believe it or not, they only have one in stock. (Audiences of comedy will also happily accept this kind of deus ex machina solution to a problem.)
Audiences love tricksters, and we don’t mind who the trickster is. In this series, everyone has their turn outwitting each other with tricks, plans and wily scams.
SpongeBob doesn’t simply place meat patties onto the grill — he pings them out with his eye sockets. That’s just one example of many.
He regularly kills himself only to pop back up again. e.g. Slicing himself into thirds then immediately reforming into his character. He is literally indestructible.
His body morphs according to his emotions. Like Courage the Cowardly Dog, he can mould his spongey body into any shape that he likes. Whereas Courage does this once per episode, SpongeBob does it frequently, as the story sees fit.
DELIBERATELY ON-THE-NOSE NARRATION
SpongeBob Squarepants as a series makes heavy use of what I’ll call ‘on-the-nose narration’. In a straight (non-comedic) story, having a character announce to no one in particular all about the scene and backstory is a definite no-no, but here it is totally accepted. This is almost a kind of parody on stories in general. The writers are asking, “Why are we even telling you all this stuff? Why are you even watching this made-up crap?” The answer, of course, is you’re watching it PURELY for the jokes. There is no higher reason for these stories to exist — no moral, nothing.
As an example, take the pilot episode. SpongeBob stands outside a restaurant and embarks upon a monologue all about the Crabby Patties, telling us that help is wanted and letting us know his reason for going in. (To get a job.)
Throughout the series, each episode is introduced by an ambiguously foreign-sounding narrator who invites us to remember that this is just a silly story and not to be taken seriously.
SATIRE OF HEIST/SPY STORIES
In one episode SpongeBob wears a disguise which is no such thing. Characters within the setting are fooled by his giant Afro wig and headband from the seventies, which is also so big it includes the filter of madcap.
SATIRE OF GET SMART/INSPECTOR GADGET ETC.
One episode features super spy equipment which is a pen that also turns into a pencil.
SPONGEBOB’S DIFFERENT VOICES
Related to this is one of SpongeBob’s character traits: While he has a ‘SpongeBob’ voice which we all recognise immediately, he regularly breaks out in a completely different voice (though voiced by the same actor). When he uses this voice he is usually parodying some other genre.
“I’ve been training my whole life for the day I could join the Krusty crew!” he says, flinging open the doors of the restaurant where he wants to get a job. Visually, this is like an old Western. In terms of dialogue, he is parodying any sort of ‘hero’s journey’ character arc, in which a boy (most often a boy) dreams of being something important and then achieves his wishes, but not without trials and tribulations.
11. MISPLACED FOCUS
Barnacle Boy and Mermaid Man are keeping watch on top of a tower, telling each other how they must always be prepared for when disaster strikes. Importantly, their dialogue comprises a list of cliches about being alert. But when SpongeBob turns up unexpectedly they fall off the tower in fright. That’s when we learn SpongeBob has only brought them donuts.
In Your Shoe’s Untied, the big reveal at the end of the story is that SpongeBob’s cat-snail has feet with shoes on, which we can only see if he lifts up his slimy body. We saw Gary the snail wander into the living room at the very beginning of the episode, so the story feels circular and complete at the end, when it is revealed that Gary is the only creature in Bikini Bottom who is able to tie shoes. Yet we never thought to look.
SPONGEBOB AND AUTISM
I hear so much from parents of autistic kids and caretakers of autistic kids, and this happens so much and comes up so often that somebody should write a term paper on it, that SpongeBob in particular is something that speaks to them. It’s the thing that they laugh at, the thing they obsess at, the thing they talk about and know every line of every episode […] And I don’t know what there is in that show that talks to kids that are on the spectrum, I don’t know, but more than other cartoons, that one … maybe because SpongeBob as a character is a little autistic. Obsessed with his job, very hardworking, gets really really deep into something.
Can SpongeBob be coded as autistic? Tom Kenny describes a stereotype of autism above. (Not all autistic people are obsessed with their jobs, for instance.) While Patrick is the ‘optimistic-happy-stoopid’ archetype, SpongeBob’s comic ‘stupidity’ takes a different form. When it suits the storyline, SpongeBob’s shortcoming looks more like social naivety/obliviousness. This is a gag utilised in the Netflix series Atypical (which I’m not recommending, for various reasons).
This social naivety stands out in the Graveyard Shift episode.
SpongeBob doesn’t understand that Squidward is making up a scary story on the spot in order to scare him. There are plenty of clues for the audience, putting us in ‘audience superior’ position, a form of dramatic irony which is really enjoyable for kids, especially. Namely, Squidward has to ask SpongeBob what day it is today (Tuesday) before declaring that the spatula handed monster will be turning up today. Squidward is forced to admit he’s joking after SpongeBob won’t stop a lengthy bout of crying. But when SpongeBob learns he’s supposed to laugh, he laughs longer and harder than is natural or comfortable. As a consequence, Squidward is forced to be mean again to stop SpongeBob from laughing. It appears from this scene that SpongeBob behaves in a way that he feels he should, getting it slightly wrong he also fails to pick up he cues that Squidward is joking and needs to be told. This behaviour is known as ‘masking‘ among autists and perhaps explains why some of SpongeBob’s behaviours feel familiar, leading to an extra layer of reference humour for many viewers on the autistic spectrum.
The following gang of three ‘boys’ is pretty common in drama/comedy:
One is neurotypical but an outcast for some reason (e.g. late puberty for Sam in Freaks and Geeks). This is the guy the audience identifies with. SpongeBob’s extreme shortcoming is the equivalent to Sam’s short stature.
One is an over-confident but misguided skeeve. (That’d be Neal in Freaks and Geeks.)
One could be coded as autistic due to his naivety and loveable innocence. (That’d be Bill from Freaks and Geeks.)
EXERCISE: We can paste this triad onto many shows. Try it for The I.T. Crowd or for Seinfeld. Or for kids’ books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid. It’s pretty obvious, right?
It’s admittedly a stretch to identify parallels between Star Trek and SpongeBob, but the affinity is stronger than it might first seem. The cartoon’s core emotional triad contains powerful echoes of the anxiety-ridden three-way that gave Star Trek its homoerotic frisson.
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.
We Bare Bears is similar to Spongebob Squarepants in form and audience, though completely new in tone. Think Bob’s Burgers but for kids.
These are not child characters, after all. These are three young men living together as close friends — ‘brothers’ according to them — in what is basically a flatmate situation. These men are also child stand-ins:
Grizz is the self-designated oldest brother who instigates a lot of the action by dint of his enthusastic, often hare-brained plans. Grizz is the extrovert of the group.
Panda, nick-named Pan-Pan, is unintentionally adorable (he wants to be a Manly Man), interested in dating women — the others are full of dating advice but apparently asexual — has lots of allergies and is prone to anxiety.
Ice Bear defies typecasting because although he’s the silent, manly type who is a whizz at martial arts and building gadgetry, he is also soft-hearted and kind, nurturing and maternal. Ice Bear also speaks of himself in third person, like one of the characters in a Seinfeld episode. I think this character has autistic tendencies: One of his favourite things to do is sit alone in the freezer. He’s mostly non-verbal but also highly empathetic though sometimes fails to put his feelings into words, and has many hidden skills which he’s obviously picked up from his own studies. (My autistic daughter thinks this about Ice Bear too.)
A recurring character is the human Korean girl prodigy, Chloe. Another is some sort of hairy, big foot creature reminiscent of a Dr Seuss creation — Charlie. Charlie lives in the woods and is one of those friends who keeps dropping in uninvited, though why the bears (apart from optimistic Grizz) don’t want to hang out with Charlie isn’t entirely clear. I think he’s awesome. There’s also a regular looking woman who crops up everywhere, sort of like a recycled random person. You’ll see her going through the turnstile at the train station or something like that. Sometimes she says something.
Overall, We Bear Bears as a series is about our desire to fit in and be accepted. This has always been a human desire. As Hugh McKay says in his book What Makes Us Tick? we all wish to be taken seriously, most of all. This desire was probably never more true than now, in an age when two versions of each of us exists: The real world person, and the character we project onto our social media. Now we need both versions to be taken seriously, and we’re faced with the complication of recognising our true self amongst the pressure to look great and seem happy.
STORYWORLD OF WE BARE BEARS
A FAIRYTALE SETTING?
Like a good fairytale, this town (actually city — a shot of the bridge tells us it’s San Francisco even though San Francisco is never named) is set next to a vast expanse of woods. This is ostensibly the bears’ more natural habitat (well, Grizz’s natural habitat, at least, so of course he takes charge).
But these bears are tethered to technology. That’s what sets this series apart from earlier big hits from the late 90s and early 2000s (e.g. Courage The Cowardly Dog): this is for a generation of kids who are used to seeing people tethered to their smart screens. The Internet is front, right and centre.
A recurring opponent is a duplicitous Koala (not actually a bear, so doubly funny) who has a YouTube channel in which he pretends to be cute, but off-screen he’s a little bastard. He is also very rich. Technology also sends the bears Internet dating, dealing with accidentally posting something online and facing the backlash, anxiety that comes with getting too few likes on your post and other modern dilemmas unheard of just 20 years ago.
The bears are basically people, but their ‘bearness’ is used for comedy as the creatorssee fit. They live in a cave hybrid house, which in one episode is destroyed then recreated.
Within America, New York, Portland and San Fransisco are all thought to be hippie attractors.
There is a distinctly hipster vibe in We Bare Bears, and hipster mentality is both embraced and critiqued.
Chloe’s older classmates at what’s obviously meant to be Berkeley are inclusive types, if clueless about how to actually include a little genius kid. This inclusive vibe is evident throughout the series. In general I am annoyed when male characters are dressed up in overtly feminine attire, as it’s usually to make fun of those characters, but when these bears wear an apron or a girl’s pink, flowery cycle helmet, they somehow get away with it. That’s probably because no one within the world of the story is making fun of them. They face no negative consequences from being kind and feminine. This is highly unusual in a kids’ story, in which boys dressing as girls for punishment is a common gag. In most stories, boys in girl clothes are generally being punished, or at least getting into strife because of it. These hipster writers don’t use gender markers with transgression gags as their aim, though they’re not on entirely safe ground: if the audience finds a male character in female attire funny, where does the laughter come from?
Likewise, issues of race are never written to draw attention to themselves. Chloe happens to be Korean and the bears drink bubble tea, but the Korean aspects of this show do not exist to teach the audience to be inclusive. Story creator Daniel Chong is himself Korean American.
Hipsters may be inclusive in their attitudes, but the hipster wish to do Good has a flipside. In the TOTE LIFE episode the We Bare Bears are shamed for failing to take reusable fabric totes to a pretentious health food store. I find this highly relatable as this has also happened to me, at EcoMeats in Canberra. For the record, I didn’t take a plastic bag, but stumbled back out into the world clutching my meats precariously.
In this episode, the bears end up getting so into tote bags that they filltheir house with the things, which leads to the arrival of an environmental health officer. The messages in this episode are very specific in nature and also specific to this particular time in history when lots of us are worried about climate change, and are struggling to know what we as individuals can do to help the cause. The message here: Buying more stuff to seem environmentally friendly isn’t actually environmentally friendly. Also: Looking like you care for the environment is quite a different thing from actually being good for the environment. Without using the term ‘virtue signalling’, that’s what this episode is about. (Again, who knew the concept of virtue signalling 20 years ago, or even 10? ‘Virtue signalling’ was coined around 2009, but has really only been in common use since 2015, which is when this episode first aired.)
Hipsters, more than any other group, are thought to care about what others think of them. We see them lining up to buy ridiculously overpriced, over-hyped food at food trucks, wearing slouch hats and do yoga. A setting full of hipsters is the perfect setting for an exploration of themes of fitting in.
Comedy cartoon series need some sort of repeating visual gag. In We Bare Bears the stand-out example is that the bears get around by piling themselves on top of each other. The bottom bear walks while Grizz, at the top, gives orders and enjoys the view. This not only looks funny but says something about the social hierarchy. In one episode the bottom bears realise this isn’t fair, and their sense of injustice comprises the central psychological conflict. (Grizz ends up back on top after he ‘proves himself’ by defeating a pack of wolves.)
This visual gag is reminiscent of the stone age car in The Flintstones, in which Fred Flintstone ironically causes his family more effort by insisting on ‘driving’ a car, when they might as well just walk and do away with the car altogether.
Courage The Cowardly Dog repeats in each episode the dog’s transmogrification as he struggles to communicate danger to his underwhelmed owners. CatDog features their very body as a joke, and a house set up to accommodate a creature which is half cat, half dog. Another cartoon series with a number of recurring visual gags is of course The Simpsons. Any fan doesn’t need to be told what those are.
STORY STRUCTURE OF WE BARE BEARS
We Bare Bears makes use of a variety of different comedy structures to mix up the laughs. Not only that, some episodes are clearly designed to be more funny than others. The episodes which flash back to when the bears were abandoned orphans are full of pathos, and my daughter feels quite sad watching them. The first of these, in which we meet the bears in a cardboard box on the side of the road, even turns into a musical.
The pilot episode follows a commonly used story structure, borrowing tropes from the Mystery/Detective genre. Because this is the pilot episode, the writers are also charged with the task of setting up the rules of the world.
The first thing we’re shown about the bears is their obsession with their phones. A mid-shot on the bears’ hands show them putting their gadgets carefully into a shared backpack, talking about how important their phones are. Next they play basketball with a team of human teenagers, showing us that in this world we are to accept that it is ‘peopled’ with a mixture of human and animal characters and no one is to bat an eyelid. This is the bears’ ‘normal’ life (though later episodes show they’re not particular fans of basketball — this is just something they do when it suits).
The problem (inciting incident) is that after these bears played basketball they forgot their backpack with the phones. When they go back to the court, the bag — and the phones — are gone.
In typical children’s stories police are kind and omnipresent. Ironically in this show, the bears approach an uninterested police officer who turns out to be a parking warden. So asking the police for help doesn’t work out. In a nearby diner they come up with another plan. Panda draws highly rendered sketches of everyone he remembers on table mats. They are reprimanded for wasting table mats and for ordering nothing more than iced water.
They try to bribe the pigeons with stolen sachets of sugar because surely the pigeons saw which guy took their stuff. The audience learns that in this world, some animals are more anthropomorphised than others. (The bears are young men in animal bodies; the pigeons are naturalistic pigeons, but seem to be able to understand English, perhaps.) See also: Why so many talking animals in picture books?
The bears go on a journey to the library. “Why would the pigeon take us here?” “Because it lied to us!” The comedy comes from the fact that the pigeon is not anthropomorphised in the slightest and wasn’t ‘leading’ the bears anywhere.
At the library, the Internet is used to help solve the mystery — they can somehow track their phones’ whereabouts. Courage The Cowardly Dog was created when viewers were just started to make use of the Internet for research purposes. In Courage, the computer is personified, treated as a sage who dishes out ‘secrets’ and vital information which Courage couldn’t get any other way. Fast forward to 2015 and if a show is set in a world with the Internet, it makes zero sense if the characters don’t make use of it at every juncture, just like people do in real life. However, this still feels pretty new. Story creators are still choosing oftentimes to ignore the Internet, setting their stories in a world without it. If every modern storyteller had their characters tethered to their phones and computer stories would indeed get pretty boring, but because this doesn’t feel done before, the technology itself (here: GPS tracking, hidden recording capabilities, free library Internet) presents its own problems. Technology is almost a character, at times helpful, at other times leading them astray.
That night the bears go to ‘the place’. The audience needs no filling in: We are familiar with finding our phones using ‘Find My Phone’ apps and so on. The bears catch sight of a human guy wearing ‘their’ backpack. (Experienced story consumers know that this is probably not their backpack but an identical one.) To the tune of a Pink Panther-esque jazz soundtrack, the bears climb up the fire escape and are able to spy on this guy watching basketball on TV through his window. (In fiction, fire escapes are basically never used for escaping actual fires.) They will go into this guy’s house ‘ninja style’. (The audience may have noticed this at the very beginning of the episode when he put his nunchucks into the backpack, but Ice Bear is a ninja master.) Grizz is distracted by a packet of chips on the floor. Then they are distracted by the TV and reveal themselves. They manage to steal the backpack anyway, but don’t get far, stuck out on the ledge. This is the ‘near death’ sequence, which in a straight drama would be followed by a anagnorisis.
“Oh ho ho, that was close, fellas!” says Grizz, which is comical because they’re still at the height of danger, frozen in the spotlight, high off the ground.
They are magically surrounded by police choppers. It seems the writers are now making use of the children’s story trope in which the police are omnipresent and highly responsive. But ironically, it seems to be not in the bears’ favour.
Looking inside the backpack, they realise they’ve got the wrong bag. This contains a CD (anachronistically, unless of course, this guy is a hipster.)
The waitress down below complains that these bears only ordered ice-water and wasted all the table mats. They’re no good. The bears seem to have some sort of anagnorisis. “It looks like the real criminal might have been us and now we have to face the consequences,” says Grizz. Then, in a Thelma and Louise sort of ending, “Guys, if we go down, we do it all together.”
They are told not to jump all at once, but that’s exactly what they do (because they are a team). The safety trampoline coincidentally propels them into the lair of some sort of pigeon mafia. We accept this coincidence because this phase of the episode (the big struggle, anagnorisis, new situation) isn’t meant to take much time. In a way, these sequences have to happen — Grizz’s dialogue, in a self-aware way, takes the audience through the ‘motions of story’.
A policeman tells the bears they did them a huge favour stumbling onto the pigeon criminals. They’re one of the ‘most elusive of gangs’. The policeman hands the bears back their bag.
Grizz is again afforded comically on-the-nose dialogue: “Oh, so that pigeon at the park really was misleading us!” thereby answering a question the audience had. (To what extent are the pigeons anthropomorphised in this setting?)
The policeman offers yet another twist on the mystery: “Oh, this guy is actually working for us. He’s wearing a wire. Ain’t that the cutest thing? Nobody’s pressing charges, but don’t ever do that again!” The double ending is a spoof on noir thrillers, and is all the more funny because the twist comes so soon after the mystery is resolved. The writers seem to be saying, “We know this kind of story needs a twist, so here’s your ridiculous twist!”
The audience is given the briefest sense of the bears’ new situation when Grizz says, “You guys wanna watch a movie?” which is a great line because it shows the bears have learned nothing. They’re just as likely to blunder into adventure in time for the next episode, and will never get any older or wiser.
The “VIDEO DATE” episode is a good example of what’s known as ‘Imposter Comedy’, though the writers only make use of the first few steps then through in a reversal.
I have previously written about this kind of comedy (also known as ‘transgression comedy’) in regards to The I.T. Crowd. Basically, here’s the structure:
Transgression with a mask (in which ‘mask’ is basically some sort of deception or disguise)
Transgression without a mask
Dealing with consequences
Growth without a mask
In episode 21, Panda sets up a webcam date with a French woman but is supremely nervous about it. After rehearsing the conversation with his bear brother flatmates, the conversation is not going well, so Grizz and Polar Bear step in to take his place after painting themselves up as pandas. In a Dirty Rotten Scoundrels sort of twist, when Panda’s mask comes off the romantic interest on the other side of the screen reveals that she is not actually French — she is from ‘Joisey’, and when the website accidentally had her down as from Paris she just ‘went with it’.
Discontent: Panda hasn’t got a girlfriend. (Of all the bears Panda is the only one who seems interested in dating, even though the other two are always full of dating advice.)
Transgression with a mask: The other bears step in, pretending to be Panda.
Notice that in this episode of We Bare Bears there is no real spiritual crisis or growth. The just desserts are that the bears not the only ones who can lie online. The viewer is reminded that ‘you never know who you’re talking to on the Internet.’
As a side note, I do find stories in which a group of young men gang up to dupe a single young woman for sexual gain inherently creepy. I’m sure I’m not the only woman who feels like this, and it is almost mandatory to create a female character as wily and duplicitous as the male characters if you’re going to write a story like this. (Please don’t.)
In Wallace and Gromit: A Matter Of Loaf Or Death, Wallace and his dog, Gromit, open a bakery and get tied up with a murder mystery. But, when Wallace falls in love Gromit is left to solve the case.
GENRE BLEND OF ‘A MATTER OF LOAF OR DEATH’
comedy, horror, romance >> cosy mystery
STORY WORLD OF ‘A MATTER OF LOAF OR DEATH’
The town’s milieu was inspired by thoughts of 1950s Wigan. It’s sort of like 1950s steampunk. Similar towns are seen in the live action Midsomer Murders series. It’s very English. As a consequence, Wallace comes out with very British idiomatic expressions pretty much every time he speaks. His life revolves around very English foods, especially cheese.
The films appeal to a dual audience partly by including a frequent scattering of allusions to pop culture. There are plenty of puns and nods of recognition in the intratext — Meat-a-bix written on Fluffles’ bed box instead of Weet-a-bix, for instance.
Wallace has a kindly nature, and is perhaps a little over-optimistic. This blinds his view on reality. In a Courage The Cowardly Dog sort of character combo, it’s up to Gromit to save the day while his owner goes blithely about his everyday business. Wallace is basically Muriel. While Wallace wants cheese and hot pots all the time, Muriel likes a nice cup of tea. (No coincidence that Muriel is from the British Isles, even in an American cartoon series.) Isn’t it a shame that Wallace never met Muriel? Now they would’ve made a happy couple.
This story has a romantic plot, so the romantic target is also the opponent in any romance. Here, the romantic opponent is also the villain.
Piella Bakewell is a hyper-feminized villain whose lipstick, elaborate hair-do and sausage-skin-tight dress work to tell us that she is not as she appears underneath. She is also a middle-aged woman who was thin in her youth, and has a vendetta against bakers because they bake all the delicious things which have made her fat.
I find this character and her storyline problematic. Femininity as artifice is a trope common throughout both fiction and real life. This is most clearly seen in stories (including reality TV shows and documentaries) featuring male-to-female transgender people. But it also applies to feminine cis-gendered women.
In our present system of gender, when drawing the lines between femininity and masculinity, we’ve positioned the latter as being the natural, stripped down, down-to-earth, nice and simple, no-frills, no-frivolity concept. We like to imagine that the masculine is just pragmatic and to the point, lacking in any unnecessary aesthetic considerations. We imagine it to be efficient and direct. Conversely, the feminine is believed to be artifice, an elaborate costume, all just poses and aesthetics and frivolous dalliance, wholly lacking in any pragmatic value. It’s an ornament, rather than a tool, and is anything but direct, instead regarded as endlessly complex, subtle, mysterious and intuitive. Full of uncanny, inscrutable excesses like feelings and beauty and style. The feminine is fey, precious, wild, unknowable. The masculine is rational, basic, objective, and ever so apparent.
While Wallace is stupid, any individual male character can be stupid, especially when it comes to love. This is not connected to hyper-masculinity. Wallace’s stupidity does say something about how men can be easily taken in when they fall in love, but this is provoked by the woman’s artifice. It started in the Garden of Eden.
As for the message about body shape, the whole story relies on the audience’s implicit knowledge that, for this middle-aged woman, putting on weight is one of the worst things that could happen. There is never any critique of this idea. Fatness is the joke. Specifically, female fatness. Wallace is allowed to glory in food to his heart’s content.
The thing is, this is a very clever story. The symbolism and the jokes work so well. It makes total sense that Piella would want to get rid of bakers — not only that, there’s a perfectly timed joke about getting a full ‘baker’s dozen’. The dough itself resembles doughy middle-aged people. Piella’s hyper-femininity works well as a ruse because pink, flowers and 1950s housewives are popularly considered the antidote to the masculinity of big struggles which take place in the outside world. Because this is all so clever, it’s can all be explained away. But a story is never just a story. This particular story relies heavily on worn-out sexist tropes.
On a less annoying note, Piella Bakewell has a little dog — a female who is a poodle. The poodle is a victim — a mute cute — and does what she can to help Gromit defeat their mutual opponent. I am grateful to the writers that Gromit and Fluffles do not end up an item, a la Milo and Otis and many other stories, where it seems the only truly happy ending for a boy character involves falling in love with a pretty girl character, even when the personalities are animalised children.
It’s up to Gromit to save the day. Realising Piella’s evil plan, he is unable to talk owing to his being a mute dog, so he is left with no other choice but to research how to build a security machine. He frisks Piella at the door to their house with an airport security type thing. He confiscates her ladle. He has already locked away all the knives in the house.
This is foiled with Piella cracks on Gromit bit her. Gromit is muzzled with a bread basket and chained to the sink.
Fortunately he has already set up a Rube Goldberg type machine to send her flying with a sack of flour on a string.
For a while it looks like the story is over, but we sense it’s not. How does the audience know that, after Wallace and Piella have first split up, that the story isn’t finished? What exactly is it that we’re sensing? If the story had ended there, there would have been insufficient build-up. A big struggle is a big struggle sequence. Sending Piella flying with one small sack of flour does not match the formidableness of the villain.
Piella arrives for a forced reunion and has bought a ‘cake’, which viewers know to be some sort of trap — is it poisoned? Is there a punching machine inside? We soon find out there’s a cartoon bomb — the big round ball with a single lit fuse.
There is an extensive action scene in which the bomb is caught inside Wallace’s trousers. Gromit saves him by filling his trousers with dough.Jokes involving trousers and the exposure of bums are particularly funny to a middle grade audience. The bomb blows up but Wallace is saved. This is the exaggerated, comical final big struggle that viewers expect from a comedy which has already opened with masterful action sequences (the cycling downhill and the near death experience falling into the alligator pit).
Wallace seems to have a anagnorisis after the break up, sitting at the table drinking tea with Gromit, the Only Sane Dog in the room. There is no true anagnorisis because these are plot driven stories and we can’t have Wallace coming to his senses or there would be no more adventures to be had. When Wallace turns his attention back to food this is funny precisely because he has zero anagnorisis.
Piella is thrown into the alligator pit, the one we saw earlier, which just so happens to exist nearby. Her vanity is her downfall. She has insisted on riding the advertising blimp despite being too heavy for it. The murder conveniently takes place off screen, down the well and out of view, but we know she’s been killed because the alligator burps.
As in every Wallace and Gromit story, Wallace soon turns his mind to food, the clock which runs his day.
Often in stories with a very small character there is some metaphorical/thematic reason for it, but in this case Muriel’s regression to the body and mind of a 3 and a half year old is pure fun. In other words, this is a carnivalesque story.
In his attempt to be helpful and kind Courage sometimes screws up. He has accidentally glued Muriel to her rocking chair thinking it was quick drying paint. And a storm is coming.
The story requires for Muriel to be stuck to the chair, but also for the chair to be stuck to the floor. She needs to be trapped. They get around this by showing Eustace in the basement fixing the basement ceiling — a long nail pokes right through and nails the chair to the living room floor.
The writers also get rid of Eustace by having him knock himself out cold.
Courage ties a piece of string between a rock and a tree and ‘trips’ the hurricane up. The hurricane throws Muriel onto the top of a high, pointy rock.
After returning home with little Muriel the computer tells him that the only way to bring Muriel back is to drop her into the eye of a hurricane going in the opposite direction, which can be found in the Southern Hemisphere. This is a reference to the Coriolis effect (not actually observable in sinks and toilets as many believe).
I don’t get the feeling the writers really know children. Muriel as a three and a half year old has one tooth. This is an age when children (temporarily) have a full set of teeth.
I also don’t buy that Muriel would have been such a bratty three and a half year old, but that is not the point. (Show me the child at three and I’ll show you the woman.) The point is to have fun. I can believe the hurricane results in some kind of personality change.
It’s interesting what I find believable and unbelievable, because this show is full of unbelievable things. We accept that Courage magically finds a tricycle and a kite as he’s chasing after Muriel. It’s funny that he can ‘trip’ up a hurricane. If the writers wanted to, they could have had the house magically rebuilt when Courage returns. We often see the house decimated at the end of an episode, only to see it just the same as it ever was at the beginning of the next. But no — that’s the thing about the rules of story — the writers must wait until the end of this episode before rebuilding the house.
The carnivalesque antics must therefore take place in a house with no roof.
And this is the main big struggle — pleasing Muriel who demands very specific food and then refuses to eat it and keeping her safe.
When Muriel makes a nuisance of herself on the plane to the Southern Hemisphere even the pilot jumps out with a parachute, unable to stand it anymore. He wishes Courage good luck and hands him a plane flying manual.
Most of the Courage episodes are set in the Bagge family home in the middle of Nowhere but by this point in the series the writers must be looking around for ways to shake it up. This episode opens with a familiar picture of Eustace to the right and Muriel to the left of the screen, but instead of sitting on their rocking chairs at home they are inside an igloo.
Via Eustace’s complaining we immediately learn why they are there: Muriel booked a holiday at a resort without checking first that the resort was at the North Pole.
The takeaway storytelling lesson here: Exaggeration, exaggeration. There are plenty of stories about characters who book a nice holiday and then everything goes wrong. Typically, first of all, the weather is bad. There’s an example of this in one of the Diary Of A Wimpy Kid movies — the father takes everyone on a fishing holiday and it rains the entire time. The mother is grumpy on the way home. (One enthusiastic parent, one interminably grumpy parent is a common duo.) Here we have a holiday which is not only ‘a bit too cold’ but ridiculous. There is no place colder than the North Pole.
When writing a comical story, exaggerate a bit, then plonk on another 20 per cent. Whatever exaggeration you’ve chosen, linger on it. It is so cold inside this igloo that the soup refreezes in their bowls.
Outside in the cold, the camera pans and we see nothing but flat snow. But there is one thing: a snowman, and the snowman has wooden sticks for arms. Courage takes one of the arms and is alarmed to hear it talk to him. He also mentions that it wasn’t here before.
This is an interesting choice because it’s a commonly employed trick in this series — things just appear (in the yard, from behind backs) and we are not encouraged to wonder how they just popped up. It’s interesting, therefore, that the writers can happily decide when they would like this sudden appearance of things to be a wonder.
The snowman looks ominously through the window. Courage is frantically trying to alert Eustace and Muriel.
Of course, when they go outside to look for themselves the snowman is gone. So far, just like most of the other Courage episodes.
Next we switch to scenes featuring the Snowman. He lives in a castle made of snow, lined with famous snow creatures. He wants to become immortal.
Courage sets out to find this Snowman and keep an eye on him. With Courage watching on, the Snowman delivers a dramatic monologue which — to any writer’s ear — would sound ridiculously on the nose were it not a comedy.
We learn from this monologue exactly what the Snowman’s intentions are: He is determined not to melt despite the warming temperatures, and he has formulated a plan to tap the two humans (Eustace and Muriel) of the genes which allow them not to melt.
This is where it gets interesting: How is this visually represented? With taps — two actual faucets that you’d buy from a hardware store.
The writers/animators obviously realised that it’s so difficult to portray this storyline accurately that they might as well go to the opposite extreme and instead of the usual spiral image most of us know to represent ‘genes’, the genes on this show are a syrupy green goop which can be tapped out of someone by plugging a faucet into their head. All you need are a few test tubes with which to catch the solution.
This is worth pointing out because it’s a huge advantage of comedy — there is really no need to be scientifically accurate. However, there may well be an uncomfortable inbetween space, wherein mimetically minded audiences will criticise a sequence which is sort of like science but not really. See for example The Very Hungry Caterpillar Lied To You As A Child. The criticism there is that a caterpillar transforms inside a chyrsalis, not a cocoon. I wonder if the publishers/writers believed chrysalis to be too difficult for the target lexile rating — I have the distinct memory of struggling with that word as a six or seven year old when it was on my spelling list. The problem is that a lot of adults don’t know the difference between a cocoon and a chrysalis (I didn’t notice the error until it was pointed out), so perhaps the rules of thumb are:
If you are able to use the correct words use them
If you’re going to get science wrong get it really, really wrong
Unless you’re willing to get the science exactly right, avoid that middle ground in which the story appears to be pedagogical.
When Courage comes back to the igloo after his reconnaisance trip he finds Muriel’s apron. Both Muriel and Eustace are gone. It is up to Courage to save them.
The big struggle sequence looks a bit like the beginning of the first Ice Age movie, making use of all the possible natural features of the North Pole as it exists inside our imaginations: Sliding down steep, snowy hills, falling into holes in the ice, re-emerging in ice-blocks.
For variation we see Courage in very high places and also very low — including under the water. In an exaggerated story, make the most of the natural features of your chosen landscape. Go high, go low — go big, go small, and everything in between.
Single-scene challenges must be overcome by Courage using nothing but his wits. Here he sucks his way out of a prison made of ice bars.
Courage saves the day by ramming a jug onto the Snowman’s head. Despite being made of snow, the Snowman can’t get it off.
The revelation is simply that they’re going to be all right after all, having escaped the Snowman. But notice where this revelation occurs — in front of a huge evening sun, on the Arctic equivalent of a ‘tropical’ island. Revelations often take place either in high locations (a la the Bible) or in places of natural beauty.
Like any non-tragic sea movie, a ship appears to save them.
Eustace, unfortunately, has melted. His genes have been tapped. Courage mops him up.
At home, the camera lingers upon Muriel and Courage just long enough for us to wonder what’s happened to Eustace.
The great thing about this recurring series in which characters never change — Eustace can end as a jug of water in this episode and be miraculously back to his human old self by the very next episode. And we never wonder how that happens. This is basically all the alternative universes of a couple — in one universe Eustace melts into a jug, in another he is propelled into space, in another he is mummified. And so on and so forth.
This episode is one of the later ones from season one, and by now the audience is well conditioned: We know that an opponent will appear and that it’s up to Courage to save the day. Even if we’ve never seen any Courage episodes before in our lives, the intro sequence tells us exactly that: “…and it’s up to Courage to save the day!” The problem to be overcome by the writers is now how to keep the stories feeling fresh?
This is the first episode in which the opponent is not a genuine opponent. Both the audience and Courage are fooled into thinking the pig is evil and plans to eat them after luring them out the back.
The pig chef is called Jean Bon — “I’m not French but my name sounds French don’t you think?” (Is this a dig at American singer Jon Bon Jovi?)
The diner itself is first seen from a ‘security camera’ angle. This in itself suggests things aren’t quite right.
Seeing the other customer disappear through a door (the lavatory?), and that the pig is suspiciously minding his briefcase and hat, Courage bravely decides to go through the same door and investigate. Of course he alerts Eustace first, but Eustace is busy enjoying his Very Cheap Burger.
The big struggle sequence involves Courage falling down the stairs into the basement, ominous shadows on the walls, and a chase scene in which Jon Bon chases after Courage in a way that seems he wants to eat him.
The best line is saved for the wife, who declares that Courage is so sweet she could just eat him up. She then chases him. Being quite large and unwieldy, Courage manages to get away and runs (wee wee wee) all the way home.
The psychological phenomenon wherein you want to squeeze or eat really cute things is called ‘cute aggression’. No one is sure why this is, but it might be simply that high levels of positive emotion may need a physical outworking, similar to crying when something really good happens to us.
This part of the story actually comes before the revelation in this tale. (We are left wondering until the final scene what has happened to Eustace. Eustace often cops punishment for being such a horrible person but on this occasion he’s having a good old time.)
Courage makes it home, leaving Eustace at the diner. Sitting with Muriel in front of the TV, Muriel assures us all that Eustace will come home eventually. We know that Muriel won’t ever get the scone she asked for. But I have to admit, at the beginning of the story I was half expecting a circular plot in which Eustace stops off to get the scone and encounters a sequel of whatever he got at the burger joint.
“The Hunchback of Nowhere” is an episode from the first season of Courage The Cowardly Dog. As ever, this modern re-visioning takes inspiration from a wide history of storytelling, including from The Bible.
Any adult viewer will know immediately that this is inspired at least partly by The Hunchback of Notre Dame, though the writers can’t expect a young audience to know this. Instead, they have to come up with a story which is complete in its own right while also nodding to the earlier story. A lot of viewers may have seen the 1996 film, however, which was only a few years old when this episode of Courage came out in 1999. The Hunchbackof Notre Dame was having another moment.
Hunched postures are associated with congenital conditions as well as poor nutrition, probably due to poverty. In The Secret Garden, Colin has an irrational fear of becoming a hunchback. This is probably because he’d been spending his time in bed reading, and he was reading Gothic literature. The character with the hunched back is a stock figure of Gothic horror.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE HUNCHBACK OF NOWHERE
Taking a break from the hero’s journey and Robinsonnade structures of previous episodes, this is a carnivalesque story as seen in many picture books. There is no big struggle sequence in a carnivalesque story. Instead we have a whole lot of fun, though it can look precarious in parts. There is no real opponent in this story either, apart from Eustace who we already know to be his own worst enemy.
This story opens with a shot of the rain pelting down.
We’ve had thunder storms a plenty in Nowhere but we haven’t seen much rain. Once again the story opens at night time, with a cute but ugly character going from door to door hoping for some shelter.
Rain is often used in comedy (and in genre fiction) as pathetic fallacy, in which rain equals sadness, sunshine equals happiness, and so on.
As Elizabeth Lyon says in her book Manuscript Makeover, readers are like ducklings; we fall in love with the first character we ‘see’. The same is true for the screen. (It’s clear the writers of Courage know this really well — a later episode features a duckling falling madly in love with the otherwise unloveable Eustace.)
The writers of Courage have opened with an opponent before, for example with the fox who wants to make Cajun Granny Stew, and this makes the opponent less scary for a young audience. Here we need genuine affection for the Hunchback in order for the rest of the story to work. So we see him as an outsider. He is recast as a modern hobo.
Instead of a big struggle sequence there is a play sequence in the barn. The barn is the Nowhere equivalent of the Notre Dame Cathedral because it allows for great contrast between high and low places — the highest point of the barn is really quite high, and we are reminded of this fact numerous times via high angle and low angle contrasting shots.
We find lots of high-low juxtaposition in stories about social inequality, which is very much what we have in the Hunchback story.
In this carnivalesque story we have scenes right out of an actual carnival/circus, with Courage and his new friend swinging like circus performers and playing tunes with the set of bells the Hunchback has brought with him.
The play scene includes plenty of tension because of the risk of falling from the high swing and also because Eustace comes into the barn demanding to know why Courage still hasn’t retrieved his raincoat as he was asked.
There is a comical game of shadow puppetry using a torch, in which Courage and the Hunchback make all sorts of improbable shapes using only their hands (even funnier because Courage has three stubby fingers.)
The play scene isn’t quite enough to make a complete story, however, and the writers know this. There is a big struggle of wits at the breakfast table the next morning after Muriel invites the Hunchback for a pancake breakfast. “Any friend of Courage is a friend of mine.”
Eustace doesn’t want this and insults the Hunchback. Pleased to have a ‘voice’ at last, Courage writes notes to the Hunchback, who gets at Eustace’s most self-conscious feature — his baldness. Eustace stamps out in a huff.
The third part of the big struggle happens on the barn roof, in which the roof is a domestic stand-in for a cliff in the natural world. Courage and the Hunchback are up there playing a concert to the appreciative Muriel, who is perfectly happy to listen to them under the cover of her umbrella below.
Eustace has a anagnorisis (which won’t last, naturally) when the Hunchback pranks him. Eustace has been pranking Courage all along with his scary tricks, especially throughout this episode. Noticing this, the Hunchback gives Eustace a taste of his own medicine. Anyone watching realises immediately that Eustace can give it but he can’t take it.
When the Hunchback says goodbye he pulls out a huge bell. Why does he do this, apart from the laugh? Throughout this story the Hunchback has been a more powerful version of Courage due to his being able to talk and also outwit Eustace by scaring him with his very own face. The Hunchback is saying he has won on behalf of Courage, with his identical but much smaller bell. (The bell = voice.)