I really like Scott Dikkers’ taxonomy of humour categories. Today I’m taking a closer look at why the new Nancy cartoons by the pseudonymous Olivia Jaimes work so well for so many. In short, why are these minimalist snapshots funny?
The strip, about a rambunctious little girl, her buxom aunt, and her tough-talking best friend, was a study in comedy’s bare essentials, using a handful of panels to tell exquisitely crafted jokes, many of which played with the format of the comic strip itself. It began in 1938, as a spinoff of an earlier strip, Fritzi Ritz, about Nancy’s aunt who gradually became a supporting character in her own strip. And it was so ambitiously simple that it inspired a famous work of comics criticism, the 1988 essay (and later book) “How to Read Nancy.”
(I haven’t read How To Read Nancy, but I’d like to.)
Some points from the book and from enthusiasts:
To dismiss ‘Nancy’ as a simple strip about a simple slot-nosed kid is to miss the gag completely. ‘Nancy’ appears to be simple only at a simple glance.
Every element in a “Nancy” panel adheres not to a comic strip but rather to “the blueprint of a comic strip.
In comics, all action is composition.
In ‘Nancy,’ Ernie Bushmiller created his own reality, where everything is wholly his and the world as we know it has been reduced to its essentials — there’s a Zen-like mastery of form.
Unlike a justly venerated classic like ‘Peanuts,’ ‘Nancy’ doesn’t tell us much about what it’s like to be a kid. Instead, ‘Nancy’ tells us what it’s like to be a comic strip.
There’s an emotional sort of flatness of the stories
The gags aren’t side-splittingly funny but they are always visually satisfying.
The following strip is considered classic Bushmiller at his peak:
Notice how Nancy is a trickster, observing a situation then getting her own back, with extra on top. (Her opponent uses a water pistol; she is about to make use of an infinite stream of hose water.) The Battle is kept off the strip because we know exactly what’s going to happen.
Before writing a comedy series, especially one with a wacky world, the writer must be clear about the rules of that storyworld. These rules subsequently seem intuitive to the audience. It’s easy to forget the amount of work writers have to do to create them in the first place. Even if these rules are not written down, they at least exist inside the creator’s head.
Not everyone shares so much of their creative process, but we have access to a good case study in Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner, the Warner Brothers cartoon which first aired in 1949, in a post war era. (Which may explain all the acme and use of airspace.)
STORYWORLD RULES FOR ROAD RUNNER
Mental Floss describes the rules of Road Runneras ‘a fascinating testament to the need for clearly defined systems within a wacky creative process’.
The Road Runner cannot harm the Coyote except by going “meep, meep.”
No outside force can harm the Coyote — only his own ineptitude or the failure of Acme products. Trains and trucks were the exception from time to time.
The Coyote could stop anytime — if he were not a fanatic.
No dialogue ever, except “meep, meep” and yowling in pain.
The Road Runner must stay on the road — for no other reason than that he’s a roadrunner.
All action must be confined to the natural environment of the two characters — the southwest American desert.
All tools, weapons, or mechanical conveniences must be obtained from the Acme Corporation.
Whenever possible, make gravity the Coyote’s greatest enemy.
The Coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures.
The audience’s sympathy must remain with the Coyote.
The Coyote is not allowed to catch or eat the Road Runner.
I have previously taken a close look at another favourite cartoon, Courage The Cowardly Dog from the late 1990s. Today I’ll use Courage as a case study to recreate the rules of that particular story world.
Episodes begin with Courage alerting Muriel and Eustace to an opponent from outside. Occasionally we’ll mix it up by beginning with the opponent in their lair.
No outside force can harm Courage, but they often harm Eustace. Eustace bounces back to his grumpy but healthy self between episodes.
Any damage sustained to the Bagge house is repaired by the next episode. Each episode ‘resets’ the storyworld. No one has any memory of what dangers have come before, except Courage, who has good reason to be scared of intruders.
Courage is always the first to spot danger. He morphs into the shape of the intruder when trying to communicate.
Muriel and Eustace never listen to Courage when Courage alerts them to danger.
Muriel is always loving towards Courage.
Eustace is always mean to Courage and also to Muriel.
Courage doesn’t talk, except for a few catch phrases. “The things I do for love!”
Courage can break the fourth wall and directly address the audience but none of the other characters can.
The audience’s sympathy must remain with Courage and Muriel.
The Bagge family must return to Nowhere after their adventures, though they may leave their home to visit other places, inspired by horror and SF storyworld tropes.
Gravity rules are different and work more like a Looney Tunes show than real life.
SpongeBob Squarepants is a fast-paced children’s cartoon for a dual audience, written by a guy who is also a marine biologist. This is a highly successful and long-running show, with humour that broadly appeals.
This series has been running since 1999. Critics say the show has been declining in quality in the last few years, which is what critics also say of The Simpsons. What is the longest time a comedy series should run for? Are there any examples of comedy series lasting longer than a decade without a serious decline in quality? I can’t think of any myself.
Here I use Stephen Johnson’s 11 Categories Of Jokes to focus on the humour of SpongeBob. I’ve used so many SpongeBob examples in that original post that I’m ready to do an entire SpongeBob post. (If you feel that analysing jokes takes the joy out of comedy, this post is not for you!) Studying humour is a lot like doing tennis drills. Concentrate on form and process during deliberate training sessions, but once you’re playing a game (actually writing comedy) we need to put everything you know aside and get into a state of flow.
It’s also worth looking at other people’s comedy writing to hone your own sense of what’s funny and what’s not. While I find most of SpongeBob’s humour funny, I get annoyed with some of it, too. (Backed up by Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid sales as evidence, sexism sells.)
We Bare Bears is a Cartoon Network show for kids which has a very high rating on IMDb. This is a sure sign it also appeals heavily to the users of IMDb, i.e. youngish men. In short, We Bare Bears has achieved a dual audience, and is therefore in the same league as Spongebob Squarepants, Silver Fang, Gravity Falls and Adventure Time.
If you have trouble following Gilmore girls due to its fast-paced dialogue, steer clear of We Bare Bears. Though designed for an even younger audience, the fast-paced nature of this Cartoon Network series is testament to how much modern young viewers can cope with. Or perhaps they don’t. Perhaps the fast-paced jokes are fast precisely because they are designed for the show’s large cohort of adult fans. We Bare Bears is an animated off-shoot of the similarly named The Three Bare Bears* by Daniel Chong. I think this was a better name. For some reason I find it hard to remember We Bare Bears — I keep thinking it’s Three Bare Bears, even before I knew it originally was.
*I find once you know both titles, it’s even more difficult to remember either title. I wonder who came up with the title, or if anyone else finds it hard to remember?
CHARACTERS IN WE BARE BEARS
CHARACTER ENSEMBLE: THREE OUTCAST DUDES
The three guys who are outcasts is not a brand new idea. Take another kids’ cartoon series Ed, Edd and Eddy which aired from the late 1990s and notice the similarities:
Ed, Edd n Eddy follows the lives of “the Eds,” three preteen boys who all share variations of the name Ed, but differ greatly in their personalities: Ed is the strong, dull-witted dogsbody of the group; Edd, better known as Double D, is an inventor, neat freak, and the most intelligent of the Eds; and Eddy is a devious, quick-tempered, bitter con artist, and self-appointed leader of the Eds. The three devise plans to scam the cul-de-sac kids out of their money, which they want to use to buy jawbreakers. However, problems always ensue, and the Eds’ schemes usually end in failure and humiliation.
The cul-de-sac kids do not include the Eds as part of their group, making the trio outcasts.
“The Katz Motel” is the wonderful pilot episode of horror comedy for kids, Courage The Cowardly Dog.
If you’re anything like me you can’t stand anything on the Cartoon Network for too long. A lot of those shows seem like ill-conceived, overly chatty, highly-polished but vapid productions designed to sell toys. Courage The Cowardly Dog is an exception. My daughter saw this on Netflix and persuaded me to watch it ‘because I know you’d love it!’ and she was right. Courage is now a family favourite. Courage is a product of Cartoon Network Studios, also responsible for Cow and Chicken,Johnny Bravo and more recently — also a hit with my daughter — Adventure Time, which is a high rating on IMDb so much also be popular with adult men.
Four series of Courage were made between the years of 1999 and 2002. I’m guessing Courage was influenced by Ren and Stimpy, which ran between 1991 and 1996.
Courage The Cowardly Dog was created/written/directed by John R. Dilworth, who previously wrote for Sesame Street. We first see Courage in the short cartoon The Chicken From Outer Space.
This chicken makes a cameo in the pilot of the spin-off series, floating in Muriel’s bath.
GENRE BLEND OF COURAGE THE COWARDLY DOG
Done well, this is a highly successful blend. Horror and comedy have a lot in common when you look closely at story structure. The line between the two is also very fine, and the advantage of writing a horror comedy is that you don’t need to worry about accidentally tipping over into comedy territory — you can indulge fully in the ridiculousness of horror and have fun with it.
Horror is a highly symbolic genre with a vast library of tropes and established storylines. Each of the Courage stories explores one of the main horror tropes. This affords the show a dual audience, as adult viewers will recognise a lot of them from well-known horror films and novels.
In this pilot episode the writer makes use of the trope of the Hotel California. (You can never leave…) At TV Tropes it’s referred to as The Inn Of No Return.
In horror, the spooky hotel has a long history. For example:
This is a favourite from my own childhood, and now that my daughter loves it just as much, I appreciate its timelessness.
I only have the old version, published 1969 by Scholastic. The pictures by satirist Robert Osborn fit the story perfectly. (Osborn was a direct influence on the Dilbert cartoons.) It appears the book has been rewritten and reillustrated, and the later edition seems to include more modern fears. For example, the fear of a friend moving away, in a more mobile, modern world. This page doesn’t exist in the earlier edition:
The hamster page doesn’t exist in the original, either:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Florence Parry Heide (rhyming with tidy) sometimes wrote under the pen name of Alex B. Allen, when she collaborated with other authors. I’d love to sit down and ask her what was behind the choice of a male name — was it a response to industry sexism? (The same kind that made J.K. Rowling publish using initials rather than the ultra-feminine name of ‘Joanne’?)
She lived from 1919 until 2011, which confirms my theory that being a children’s author is almost a recipe for a long life. (Beverly Cleary, for instance, recently turned 100.) Florence started getting published at the age of 48, presumably after her children had become independent. (She had five all up.) I’m not sure how long she had been writing before getting published, but I guess she would have been quite busy running the household, so she may not have picked up the pen until she was in her late forties.
Over the course of her lifetime Florence wrote over 100 works, including poems and songs. She is best known for the Treehorn books, with Edward Gorey.
INSPIRATION FOR THE STORY
Florence Parry Heide wrote SOME THINGS ARE SCARY, a humorous look at childhood bugaboos, more than thirty years ago. “I had finished another book and was in the mood to write something else,” she says. “I decided to get some kindling from the garage, reached into the kindling box and–good grief!–grabbed something soft and mushy. I fled back to the house, scared to death.” A brave return visit to the kindling box revealed the object of terror to be nothing more than a discarded wet sponge, but the thought remained: some things are scary. As she recalls, “What scared me as a child was that I’d never learn how to be a real grownup–and the fact is, I never did find out how it goes.”
NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION
Here’s an example of what a great cartoonist can do in just a few lines:
In the older picture books colour was limited too, due to cost. The pages which make use of ‘stock scary’ are white crayon on black paper. (Witches, pirates, skeletons and this scary monster, who bookends the narrative.)
When colour is used it’s loose and sketchy, as if a child has coloured the line drawings themselves. In fact this copy of the book does have some kid’s scribbles in it, but this is the illustrator’s. The unintended benefit of this style of cartooning is that it encourages kids to try drawing and colouring for themselves — art looks doable! (Of course, once you try it, it’s very hard.)
NOTES ON THE WRITING
One way of eliciting a laugh is to juxtapose the ordinary with the ridiculous. This book does that perfectly: Receiving socks as a present does not compare to the level of fear you’d experience when being eaten by a huge reptile.
The author’s syntax has a distinctively childlike quality to it, and it comes from ditching simple sentences in favour of an extra clause:
Holding onto someone’s hand
that isn’t your mother’s
when you thought it was
is scary [italics from the original]
The following is the page that elicits the biggest laugh from my daughter:
The even more hilarious thing is that after reading this book she did find an apple with a ‘moustache’ — certain imperfections in winter fruit do actually look like moustaches. I’m left with no doubt the author also once ate an apple with a moustache. It takes a genius writer to save these observations and position it in just the right part of the story — after many equally ridiculous scenarios, but which form genuine fears. This one is a scary example the child reader won’t have encountered before (probably).
Keep an eye out for a moustache next time you eat an apple.