Big Foot Courage The Cowardly Dog

In the “Big Foot” episode of Courage The Cowardly Dog we have a story which makes use of the legend of Big Foot.

big foot

The great thing about the horror comedy genre is that writers not only have access to a treasure trove of metaphors and symbols — they also have access to urban legends and conspiracy theories.

 

Bigfoot (also known as Sasquatch) is a mythological simian, ape, or hominid-like creature that is said to inhabit forests, mainly in the Pacific Northwest. In American folklore, Bigfoot is usually described as a large, hairy, bipedal humanoid. The term sasquatch is an Anglicized derivative of the Halkomelem word sásq’ets.

Wikipedia

(Here in Australia we have ‘Yowie’.)

This legend is combined with the classic movie Godzilla when Courage transmogrifies into a monster, stepping on cars and buildings. Presumably Courage has seen this film in the world of the story. It doesn’t matter if the child audience hasn’t. It still works.

allusion to Godzilla
allusion to Godzilla
Windmill Symbolism

windmill

At the risk of reading too much into the opening image, it’s worth asking why the animators chose to open with a medium shot of the windmill before showing us the entire scene.

The most famous windmill in literature is the one in Animal Farm, but I doubt this one has anything to do with that. If anything, I’d say that ‘change is on the wind’.

STORY STRUCTURE

Like the other Courage stories, Courage discovers a threat, fights against the threat and wins out in the end. The Bagge household will end happily ever after… until next time.

WEAKNESS/NEED

As in all of the stories in this series, Courage is the ‘everyman’ hero. Blake Snyder calls this kind of a hero ‘dude with a problem’. An ordinary guy finds himself in extraordinary circumstances. He is thrust into a circumstance he is ill-equipped to deal with. Other examples of the everyman hero are Bilbo Baggins (Lord of the Rings), Arthur Dent (Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy) and Edmund Pevensie (Chronicles of Narnia).

Hence, Courage is innocently fixing himself an archetypically American after dinner snack of milk and pie when he is scared by something outside.

pie-and-milk
Note the significance of the colour purple. The pie is purple, and so is the monster lured in by it. The very nightscape is purple.

He is not taken seriously by his owners. This is underscored in every episode, not least because it provides another opportunity for comedy.

"Oh Courage, it's just the raccoons!"
“Oh Courage, it’s just the raccoons!”
The Significance Of Windows

Often in stories, the first step of adventure, the longing for it, happens at the window. A character looks out through the eyes of the house, maybe even hears a train whistle calling, and dreams of going.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

The window is the ‘portal’ between the inside and outside of the safe, family house. We see it a lot in Courage stories set in and around the house. We see Courage looking out, we see him as an outsider ourselves. This dichotomy is tied to the fact that Courage has opponents both inside and outside the house.

courage-sees-something-out-window

binoculars-out-window

courage-and-the-shadow

courage-on-other-side-of-window

pie-cooling-windowsill

Muriel has left a pie to cool on the window sill. Courage sees it moving suspiciously — Muriel has unwittingly left it out as bait. In a calamitous action sequence involving mainly himself, he ends up covered in pie (a ‘pie in the face’ sequence) and also all over the wall. The pie in the face thing has been done so many times it’s a wonder it’s still funny. Actually, the main comedy here is that Muriel appears and says, in the midst of great mess, “Courage. Next time use a plate.” This is funny because it’s both unexpected but completely expected of Muriel.

This scene also foreshadows the food fight which will happen later.

I mention it here because finding himself covered in pie is emblematic of Courage’s weakness: He gets too anxious to think straight. He ends up looking silly and so even Muriel doesn’t take him seriously.

muriel-appears

pie-mess-foreshadowing

DESIRE

Courage wants to protect Muriel from this dark shadow.

OPPONENT

  • The monster is first revealed as a dark shadow.
  • Next we see reports of a Big Foot sighting on the nightly news.
  • Courage finds a massive footprint in the dust and imagines the worst.
  • Next, Big Foot is in the house.

The other opponent is, of course, Eustace. Having an opponent both inside and outside the house makes for a fuller, more satisfying narrative. A story doesn’t absolutely need both. In Roald Dahl’s The Twits, for instance, a husband and wife are the only opponents. That story feels slower in pace compared to this one. Because of the pace of a cartoon, more story is needed to fill a shorter amount of time.

Eustace’s plan suits him because he is a one-sidedly evil character. He is only interested in fame and fortune — the common denominator when it comes to cartoon baddies. Every now and then you also get a sadistic one (Eustace himself is often sadistic, especially when Courage is already scared and he pulls out his mask), or one with an insatiable appetite (e.g. Katz of the Katz motel, the fox who kidnapped Muriel for his Cajun stew).

PLAN

Courage pulls out a pair of gigantic binoculars. The comedy here is that in order to find a Big Foot you need big binoculars. In other words, Courage doesn’t understand commonsense science.

courage-big-binoculars

He goes in search of the footprint he and Eustace saw on the television. He uses an oversize magnifying glass.

big-microscope

big-foot
It doesn’t matter that we’ll later find out this footprint is far too big to match the creature who turns up. We accept exaggeration and discontinuities in this form. It’s all symbolism and gags.
Speech bubbles are used to show the audience what Courage is thinking.
Speech bubbles are used to show the audience what Courage is thinking.

Meanwhile, Eustace has a plan of his own. He wants to catch the Big Foot for financial gain. Comedy is derived from the fact that the reward for catching such a formiddable creature is a paltry $25 plus a lifetime subscription (to I’m not sure what). A similar gag is used in an episode of Seinfeld, in which Kramer jumps the gun in his coffee scalding lawsuit and ruins his chance of winning $50k compensation due the company first offering him a lifetime supply of free coffee.

In this episode, it is Eustace who stars in the bulk of the ‘plan’ segment. We see him lay out all sorts of hunting equipment across the table. What on earth he’s going to do with a fishing rod and a tennis racket we can only guess. Comedy comes from the juxtaposition between the size of a hypothetical Big Foot and the ridiculousness of the weaponry.

eustace-comes-up-with-a-plan
Eustace formulates his plan
eustace-and-his-weapons
Eustace lays out his weaponry

BATTLE

Courage throws some food at the Big Foot when he sees it in the kitchen. This starts a food fight. All the while, Muriel enjoys a ‘wee cup of tea’ in her kitchen rocking chair, oblivious to all of this in Mr Magoo tradition.

big-foot-in-kitchen

food-fight

muriel-wee-cup-of-tea

The battle inside the house is followed by an assault from outsiders — the faceless crowd (masterfully depicted as a single black mass) who try to knock the door down, hoping to run the monster out of town.

the-faceless-crowd

crowd-tries-to-enter-the-house

SELF-REVELATION

It’s clear by now that in this comedy series there is no ‘self’ revelation. Comedic characters never grow. They start in the exact same place they were last time at the beginning of the next episode.

The revelation happens with the Big Foot starts dancing like a Hawaiian. He is not a scary monster after all. He is cute and fluffy. This is the story structure of many picturebooks featuring monsters. Publishers like them because of our tradition of reading stories to children before bed. These stories have squeezed out the more truly horrifying stories, which are less likely to be published.

fruit-dance
The fact that pineapples feature so heavily in this trope is down to the Dole company, who planted many pineapple trees in Hawaii.

The key challenge for the storytellers here was in the switch between the end of the food fight and the beginning of the dance.

The audience has been helped along somewhat with the foreshadowing (kept from Muriel) that a little old woman has come to the door looking for her lost son. The audience knows to wonder if this woman is legitimate. In stories such as Snow White we’ve seen little old ladies who are actually witches underneath.

big-foot-mother

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Big Foot’s mother comes out of the crowd. Mother and son (daughter?) are reunited.

big-foot-mother-reunite

Evil Eustace tries to steal the child Big Foot back for his own selfish gains but Muriel orders him to “take the cuff off the child”. Since Eustace is a psychological child himself, he does.

The story ends with a long shot of the house, and a crescent moon behind it.

closing-scene

Contrast this with the establishing shot:

opening-shot

And a transition shot:

huge-moon

It’s clear that the moon in Courage The Cowardly Dog is a magical entity which can wax and wane over the course of a single day.

Courage The Cowardly Dog: Doctor Le Quack

All of the Courage The Cowardly Dog episodes including Doctor Le Quack are set in a place called Nowhere. “Be quiet, Eustace,” says Muriel one morning, “you’ll wake the neighbours!”

doctor le quack amnesia specialist

 

eustace on the roof doctor le quack

This setting is perfect for western spoofs. Many of the Courage stories are horror spoofs but in Dr Le Quack we have the cartoon, child-friendly version of a wild western caper film.

GENRE OF DOCTOR LE QUACK

A caper story is a story in which the main characters pull off some kind of heist. (Also called a heist story.) A caper is a comic crime story. So, caper = crime + comedy.

The caper, also known as the heist film, is among the tightest and most focused of forms, built on a specific and high-speed desire line. That’s why caper stories are almost always very popular.

The caper is one of the most plot-heavy of all genres, right up there with detective stories and thrillers, and is designed to fool not only the opponent in the story but also the audience. The prime technique of the caper writer is trickery. Like a magician, you point the audience’s attention in one direction while the real action is happening somewhere else.

In heist stories (farce and caper), the mechanical plot is taken to such an extreme that the plots have the complexity and timing of a Swiss watch, and no character at all.

— John Truby

Breaking Bad makes use of caper elements e.g. At the beginning of season five when Walt and Jesse rig up an explosion to wipe out an incriminating laptop in police storage, and earlier in the seasons when they steal the chemicals from the factory wearing woollen hats with pompoms.

Western Symbolism In Doctor Le Quack

Western symbolism can be seen in many of the Courage stories. Here we have the story opening with the rising sun at dawn. While this is not specific to the western genre, the sun has symbolic meaning in a western. Though it has been used countless times in western movies and novels, readers never seem to tire of the age-old symbol of the sun setting on the cowboy riding or walking off into the sunset. Quite a few picturebooks end with characters walking off into the sunset, too. Here we have dawn breaking over the desolate plain. 

The sun can be a symbol of giving or taking life, depending on how it’s portrayed. The sun can break through and show brighter days, or it can be boiling hot and deadly if lost in the desert. Here, I don’t think it has any specific symbolic meaning. Along with the soundtrack and the big skies it is simply meant to convey the atmosphere of an old western film.

However, a rising sun in a story does indicate that this is going to be one eventful day, and that the events will conclude by the end of it.

dawn-nowhere

STORY STRUCTURE OF DOCTOR LE QUACK

WEAKNESS/NEED IN DOCTOR LE QUACK

Courage is cowardly. Nonetheless, he needs to save the day.

DESIRE IN DOCTOR LE QUACK

After Eustace accidentally hits Muriel on the head with a plank of wood Muriel loses her memory. Eustace takes this opportunity to get rid of the dog.

Amnesia comes easy in fiction. It is also conveniently specific. A taste of Applied Phlebotinum, a particularly shocking traumatic event, or even a simple Tap on the Head will be sufficient to make your character forget all about who or what they are.

— TV Tropes

He wants to get back into the house and do something for Muriel.

OPPONENT OF DOCTOR LE QUACK

Eustace is the first opponent but soon another comes along in the form of an evil French duck. As with the cajun fox last episode, this duck isn’t really French — he slaps on a French moustache which falls off later right before the main battle. I think the producers might do this because the same voice actor mimics a variety of different accents in parodic rather than realistic fashion.

First we see Le Duck’s lair. This is a Scrooge McDuck character, which of course comes from Dickens. His riches do not make him happy. He is collecting riches simply for the game of it, leaving bags of money just sitting around. He hasn’t even replaced his office chair, which looks as if it’s got a big bite out of it. This is a purely evil character motivated by power.

le-quacks-office

Then we see who is sitting on the other end of the computer.

le-quack-in-office

PLAN IN DOCTOR LE QUACK

Courage has already gotten back into the house by first trying to swing in Tarzan style from a tree, then with a pole vault.

courage-tries-to-pole-vault-inside

Eventually he gets in and via the Internet enlists the help of a doctor. Even the computer is anthropomorphised and has an evil personality of its own. These were the days when viewers were using the Internet for the first time and there was more mistrust than there is today.

internet-help

Plans change when it becomes apparent that the visiting doctor meant to help Muriel is actually a quack who wants to raid the silverware drawer.

The duck’s plan is to

  1. Knock Eustace on the head so he’s out for a while
  2. Torture Muriel until she reveals where her piggybank is. He can’t find any treasure in the house.

This is where the heist spoof comes in. The duck sets up a toy train track and binds Muriel up in rope reminiscent of a scene in which a beautiful young woman is tied to the train tracks. Instead of using this quite sexualised trope, the writers of this children’s story modify it quite a bit — Muriel sits on a chair nearby and the toy train throws pies in her face.

muriel-bound

le-quack-train-track

This familiar scenario [chained to a railway] first appeared in the 1867 short story “Captain Tom’s Fright, although a more rudimentary form of it was seen on stage in 1863 in the play The Engineer. However, it really entered the meme pool as a result of its inclusion in the 1867 play Under the Gaslight, by Augustin Daly. […] As bizarre (and horrible) as it may seem, this trope is Truth in Television. At least six people in the United States were killed between 1874 and 1910 as a result of being tied to railroad tracks.

— TV Tropes

The same trope is also used in games such as Red Dead Redemption.

red-dead-screenshot

Courage blows him up. When opponents are destroyed by Courage in this series it’s common for the opponent to say something understated like, “How annoying.” That’s what happens here. This feels a little meta. Why would the duck panic about being blown up? He’s a cartoon character who will bounce back to life before the next scene.

courage-blows-up-duck

When this doesn’t work the duck disgusts her by holding a plate of smelly cheese right under her nose.

stinky-cheese

Next we see a huge, muscled rat with tats appear in the doorway. It first seems that he has been attracted by the cheese, but when Courage pays him off we see that this has been Courage’s plan all along. The common sequencing in this story is that something happens, we worry about Courage, then we see he planned it.

rat-cheese

BATTLE IN DOCTOR LE QUACK

The final battle involves a vacuum cleaner. The duck tries to suck Courage up. But instead he sucks up all the planks nailed across the doorway and the whole thing blows up in a huge explosion, reminiscent of the explosions often used in train heist stories to wreck parts of a railway line.

exploding-vacuum-cleaner

The policemen Courage has tried to summon turn up at this point and stomp all over Courage to get to the duck.

SELF-REVELATION IN DOCTOR LE QUACK

We learn that this duck is a wanted criminal.

img_5895

NEW EQUILIBRIUM IN DOCTOR LE QUACK

We think the duck is going to prison. “We’ve been looking for you!” say the policemen.

le-quack-in-back-of-prison-van

But the duck breaks free — we get a flash scene reminiscent of something out of No Country For Old Men — and says to the camera that we haven’t seen the last of him yet.

le-quack-breaks-free

The Shadow Of Courage, Courage The Cowardly Dog

At first I wondered if the title “The Shadow Of Courage” were a riff on The Red Badge Of Courage but no — apart from the grammatical structure and perhaps some of the themes (of bravery vs cowardice) this plot line borrows little from the classic American novel.

THE SHADOW OF COURAGE TITLE

Shadows who disentangle themselves from their bodies are a staple of horror, and especially, perhaps, of camp horror comedy.

STORYWORLD OF “SHADOW OF COURAGE”

The Moon

Continue reading “The Shadow Of Courage, Courage The Cowardly Dog”

Cajun Granny Stew Courage The Cowardly Dog

“Cajun Granny Stew” has influences from:

  • Shakespeare
  • Classic Fairytales
  • Road Runner
  • Mr Magoo

cajun granny stew

STORY STRUCTURE OF CAJUN GRANNY STEW

WEAKNESS/NEED

Courage is scared of birds. So how is going to possibly deal with a formidable opponent like a shady fox?

park-bench-courage-scared-1

"I don't like birds. They make fun of me!"
“I don’t like birds. They make fun of me!”

Quite often in a comic story there is a main opponent and then there are lesser evils. The birds are actually harmless, despite their… teeth.

DESIRE

When a fox abducts the sleeping Muriel for stew Courage wants to get her back.

OPPONENT

The fox. The fox has an evil plan of his own, which is to make himself a delicious Cajun stew. Although he has sourced all kinds of hard-to-get items he is in the middle of cooking it before realising with horror that it tastes disgusting and needs a granny as a major ingredient. We see right away that this fox, unlike other craftier foxes, doesn’t plan ahead. (This will be his downfall.)

cajun-stew

In this episode we see the opponent first. But we are introduced to him gradually, bit by bit. First we see the outside of his lair.

foxs-lair

Then we see him cooking a Macbeth type concoction. But we only see his skinny arms. His body is revealed slowly, and we wonder who is talking in this deep, smooth voice a la Isaac Hayes (the chef off South Park).

"One pair of elephant ankles..." Oddly specific body parts make for good comedy.
“One pair of elephant ankles…” Oddly specific body parts make for good comedy.

Much of the comedy of this character is that he is serenading the granny as if she is a love interest rather than a cut of meat.

Courage and this fox are evenly matched. Both have obstacles thrown into their paths. For example, the fox tries to get away with granny in a taxi but then gets a flat tyre.

fox-taxi-granny

Although the fox is making cajun stew, he himself is not Cajun: he is try-hard Cajun. We see this when he slaps a pair of cool sunglasses on before leaving his lair. Later we also hear him say ‘vinegar’ with a slight French drawl. The Cajun from Louisiana as a baddie is a common trope in fiction, so the audience knows immediately that this fox is a badass.

Cajun people are originally from Canada.

Cajuns are originally from Canada. They trekked down to Louisiana by several routes after the French and Indian War resulted in the transfer of Canada to British rule. As a result, the Cajuns have a Southern U.S. culture with French-Canadian roots, and are an ethnic group mainly living in southwestern Louisiana

— TV Tropes

The cuisine is noteworthy and since many Cajuns were farmers and not especially wealthy, they were known for not wasting any part of a butchered animal. It makes sense that these animal parts were made into stew. Likewise, the fox in this story does not waste a single part of his meat, including her overcoat, gumboots and spectacles.

Original Cajun stew uses sausage, which explains why Courage tries to swap Muriel for one of those.

PLAN

Courage is forced to change his plan when each one is foiled. Because Courage is a sympathetic character he first tries to do the right one. He steals a salami from the butcher and offers the salami to fox in exchange for the granny back.

butchers

When this doesn’t work he slaps the fox over the head with it.

He persuades the Fox to have a game of pokies. When he wins with three (ironic) hearts the fox gets punched in the face.

When the fox loses Muriel altogether he floats with a single helium balloon over the landscape and uses a pair of binoculars to scout her out.

balloon-binocular

And so on.

BATTLE

This is a Road Runner type battle involving roadblocks, cliffs, drops into rivers, smashing against cliffs and cartoon bombs.

bomb
a cartoon bomb
bottom of a cliff
bottom of a cliff

Although this is a country area, props appear out of nowhere — e.g. the pokie machine which punches the fox in the face, the telephone booth to call the police.

As also tends to happen in picturebooks (see Walter The Farting Dog and A Fish Out Of Water) the police turn up right away when called.

A lot of this episode takes place high in the air, which feels as if the stakes are raised even though cartoon characters can fall to the ground at any time and get right back up again.

When Muriel puts her own life in danger Courage and the fox unite to save her from plummeting to her death. As they stand together counterbalancing the plane we see for ourselves just how similarly matched these foes are.

Muriel sleepwalks across the wings of a plane
Muriel sleepwalks across the wings of a plane

Muriel wakes in midair but assumes she’s just having “one of those floating dreams.”

muriel-sleep-floating

As in every episode of this series, someone comes very close to death.

Here Muriel is ready to be eaten, but after seasoning her the fox decides to roll her in flour.

muriel-on-a-plate

This ghostly colour makes her look even closer to death.

img_5825-1

SELF-REVELATION

There is no self-revelation. Courage falls into the fox’s lair by pure accident, through a chimney hole in the roof.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Like the ending of (non-sanitised) Three Little Pigs and similar classic tales, the evil canid ends up in the stew himself. Granny wakes up and smells ‘fox stew’. (We don’t see the fox go into the pot.) From inside the pot the fox says, “Cajun stew is not for you!”

Muriel suggests they eat and Courages says, “No thanks, I’ve had enough Cajun for one day!”

fox-stew

At The Katz Motel (Pilot) Courage The Cowardly Dog: A Night

“The Katz Motel” is the wonderful pilot episode of horror comedy for kids, Courage The Cowardly Dog.

a night at the katz motel

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.

chicken-bathtub

GENRE BLEND OF COURAGE THE COWARDLY DOG

Horror comedy

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:

Short stories which rely on the reader’s familiarity with this trope, so , indirectly:

STORY WORLD OF COURAGE THE COWARDLY DOG

Continue reading “At The Katz Motel (Pilot) Courage The Cowardly Dog: A Night”

Big Mouse And Little Hare by Janosch

“Big Mouse and Little Hare” is a very short story from a collection out of Germany in the early 1980s. Janosch (that’s a pen name) was an influential author in Germany, mainly for his prolific contribution to school journals. (Sometimes the ‘big name’ authors aren’t actually the most widely read. That was certainly the case in 1980s New Zealand when I was growing up.)

The point I’d like to make here is that even micro fiction follows the seven steps of story.

big-mouse-and-little-hare janosch

 

STORY STRUCTURE OF BIG MOUSE, LITTLE HARE

WEAKNESS/NEED

The hare is so weak and thin that he can’t attract a same-species mate.

DESIRE

He wants to get married.

OPPONENT

The illustration shows us that the opponent is the big fat mouse.

BATTLE

‘he caught’

Off the page we have the scene where the small hare overcomes the big mouse.

SELF-REVELATION

The reader realises something along the lines of ‘Every Jack Has His Jill’ even if you have to think outside the box in your choice of mate.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

‘neither of them regretted their marriage in the least’

The Mechanical Behaviour Of Fussbudgets In Comedy

Fussbudgets, sticklers, officious types, whatever you want to call them — they are comedy gold. We’ve all had run-ins with them, which makes the comedy aspect universal.

TV Tropes calls these characters Sticklers For Procedure.

An essential component of the comedic fussbudget is ‘mechanical behaviour’. The scene above is from the film Meet The Parents. Note how both women behave like robots. If they really were robots they’d more appropriately fit into horror or sci-fi, but when the setting is realist, their fixed smiles, lack of emotion and recognisable, stock-standard responses enhance the humanity of the straight-man, our underdog hero, and for some reason we find mechanical behaviour in humans extremely funny. The adult equivalent of putting a hat on a dog.

Perhaps it’s even more funny when the mechanical person is a woman, as it often is (though not always, by any means). Is this perhaps because in real life we’d expect more emotion and empathy out of a woman than we would out of a man? In any case, when a woman behaves in this way there’s a distinctly Stepford Wives vibe to it.

We have a slight variation in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

The audience, as well as Steve Martin’s character, is shown the robot’s human side first before she snaps into robotic mode. This makes the comedy all the sweeter when she slips out of it again at the end of the scene, and turns into a Jerkass who sticks to the rules just because she knows it will inconvenience someone who’s just been rude to her.

The ‘Computer Says No’ series of Little Britain sketches uses the same mechanical behaviour — the more sketches you watch the funnier they become, because you know the line that’s coming. But here is the first one:

These are all examples of extreme robotic behaviour, but if we widen the definition, it includes any situation in which X occurs and Character does Y. Catherine Tate’s creation Lauren is funny because we know, after any provocation at all, she will embellish the initial slight and eventually she will ask, ‘Am I bovvered?’ and  ‘Are you disrespecting my family?’

The Beach As Setting In Storytelling

sea liminal space

Across all forms of storytelling, the beach functions as an  alternative, liberating space, almost a heterotopia.

The beach takes characters away from the intellectualism and emotional cynicism of the modern city. (love stories, see below.)

The beach contains hidden treasure and fantastical elements. (Paul Jennings short stories.)

The beach is a space in which characters explore their own relationships to life and death. (Katherine Mansfield short stories.)

mamamia

THE BEACH IN ROMANTIC COMEDIES

Within romantic comedy, the setting of the beach has come to function as a highly potent and privileged setting, evolving into a generic ‘magic space’ that sanctions and protects those desiring love, while allowing for certain forms of speech involving intimacy and the (sexual) self that cannot be uttered elsewhere.

Time and again, the sea functions as an alternative, liberating space away from the intellectualism and emotional cynicism of the modern city, constituting an arena where characters can find intimacy and give themselves over to love in ways impossible elsewhere.

The sea also suggests the elusiveness of everlasting love. The meaning of the sea in romantic comedy is not entirely stable. It is used to endorse romantic notions about ‘authentic’ love and natural ‘soulmates’. But that’s not all: a certain paradox is at play in the genre’s use of the shoreline, since the liminal space of the sea/beach stands simultaneously both for enduring natural wonder that will outlast each of us, and the very essence of evanescence. Always changing, never fixed, inescapably different from one day to the next, it is a reminder of the capriciousness of love and life, an expressive signifier which by its very nature reminds us of the transience of all things.

— notes from the abstract of Sea of love: place, desire and the beaches of romantic comedy by Deborah Jermyn; Janet McCabe

There are also obvious connections between swimming in the water and being housed safely inside your mother’s body. Less obvious, perhaps, is the way the sea can transgressively return us to a primitive time:

In the womb we swim in salty water, sprouting residual fins and tails and rudimentary gills, turning in our little oceans, queer beasts that might yet become whales or fish or humans. We first sense the world through the fluid of our mother’s belly; we hear through the sea inside her. We speak of bodies of water, Herman Melville wrote of “the times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin”.

And when we return to swim beneath that skin, our identities and stories are blurred and reinvented. Jellyfish – ancient evolutionary survivors that predate and may yet outlive us – change sex as they mature; cuttlefish and moray eels slip from one gender and back again, shape-shifting in the alien deep. Ever since we began, we have found an affinity in this mutative place and its sense of the sublime.

The Guardian

THE BEACH IN LOVE TRAGEDIES

Dear John movie poster

In case you hadn’t heard, Nicholas Sparks does not like his masterful works of art to be labelled ‘chick-lit’; he prefers the term ‘love tragedy’.

The symbolic function of the beach in a love tragedy seems to be exactly the same as it is in a romantic comedy, with emphasis on the ephemeral nature of everything, including sublime happiness.

THE BEACH AS SETTING IN GOTHIC FICTION

Traditionally, gothic storyworlds contain old buildings, misty moors and the like.

In a young country like New Zealand there are no medieval castles. However, there is always the beach. The beaches of NZ have a haunted history which takes the place of Europe’s castles and dungeons.

The beach can therefore function as a gothic setting in its own right.

beaches gothic
image from The Piano by Jane Campion

The coast can have a binar yrole:

  1. offers restoration
  2. be home to all sorts of strange creatures and happenings

In Australia, there is a cabal of writers who can be described as ‘Australian Coastal Gothic’.

  • Tim Winton
  • Robert Drewe
  • Peter Temple

These novels are about men who retreat to the coast. The atmosphere is dark and brooding. They have secrets. They are often in mourning over a woman’s death. They meet grotesque characters who almost personify their grief. The landscape feels evil.

For more on this see: Does the coast belong in the Australian Gothic Landscape by Christine Tondorf.

STORIES WHICH END AT THE BEACH

Because the beach is such a symbolic place, ending a character’s journey beside the sea is left with the audience as a proxy for so much more. Katherine Mansfield does it in “The Wind Blows”. After a long, windy day, the teenage girl ends up looking out at the sea.

Richard Ayoade has his main character run to the seaside and there he is joined by his problematic girlfriend. They stand in the water together.

This isn’t so dissimilar to Thelma & Louise, who end up in the canyon, but together. (The canyon was itself created by a body of water.)

The French Film 400 Blows also ends with the main character running to the sea. The outtake is a freeze frame of his face.

My interpretation of this rush-to-the-seaside as a story ending: The seaside is functioning similarly to how crossroads function narratively. The main character has come to the edge of a chunk of their life just as they have come to the edge of the land, things are about to change completely and the flat bed of the ocean afford them a view of the grand scheme of things. And since the sea is scary, we are left with the sense that their life from here on will include danger — storms, choppy waters and no guarantee that they will get to where they want to end up.

Transgression Comedy and The IT Crowd

Comedies can be divided into categories. One of those categories is the ‘transgression comedy’. The IT Crowd is a good example of a transgression comedy. About A Boy is another. Screenwriting experts (including John Truby and Cockeyed Caravan) usually give the example of Tootsie as the perfect example of this form, but I’m no particular fan of that film. It hasn’t aged well.

What is a transgression comedy?

The key to this kind of comedy is that the characters make ridiculous choices and disguise themselves in ridiculous ways. The initial transgression tends to escalate, as the characters commit to bigger and bigger lies. This kind of story is well-suited to socially awkward characters such as Moss and Roy, and to a woman who has bluffed her way into a management position.

Laughter is not an emotion. Joy is an emotion. Laughter is a criticism we hurl at something we find ridiculous or outrageous. It may occur inside any emotion, from terror to love. Nor do we laugh without relief.

– Robert McKee, Story

Structure Of A Transgression Comedy

Discontent: someone is unhappy about something

Transgression with a mask: peculiar to comedy (and, incidentally, to noir thrillers)

Transgression without a mask: midpoint disaster when the mask is ripped off

Dealing with consequences

Spiritual Crisis: happens in almost every story

Growth Without a Mask

 

“Yesterday’s Jam” Season One, Episode One of The IT Crowd

Jen fakes her way into a job at Reynholm Industries with some phony techno-jargon and a nice-looking resume.

well you certainly seem to know your stuff

Discontent: Moss and Roy are unhappy that they have a new manager who doesn’t know a thing about computers. Jen is unhappy to be sent down to the basement, because she’s just admired the wonderful view of London from the top floor where she was interviewed.

Transgression with a mask: Roy pretends to be cool (the two of them walk out after realising a woman is in the basement and walk back in with Roy pretending to have been talking about a famous book (with his cover blown by the oblivious Moss immediately.) Jen, the other star of the show, has secured the job by putting ‘computers’ on her CV. She has successfully bullshitted her way into the job by telling the equally clueless CEO that she’s good at sending and receiving emails and double clicking mice.

Transgression without a mask: Roy’s mask is ripped off immediately. Jen’s is gradually ripped off by degrees, first when she doesn’t comment upon a particularly fascinating piece of equipment, next when she pretends to be talking on a phone that isn’t yet connected and then when she’s typing busily on a computer which isn’t plugged in.

you don't know anything about computers

Dealing with consequences: At first Jen tries to bullshit her way out of her embarrassment, but they do escalate until she can no longer pretend. Roy marches them all upstairs to tell on her to the CEO, but as it happens, the CEO is busy on the phone firing people who can’t work as a team, so the two of them (gagging Moss) find a new plan: they will pretend that all is hunky dory in the basement so that they can keep their jobs. (A few episodes later Jen says to Roy something like, “Don’t you know how this works yet? First I lie, then I lie, then I lie some more. This is the main comedy source around Jen — she is a veteran liar, even at times lying to herself — about the size of her own feet etc.)

Spiritual Crisis: By the end of the episode she has stormed around the basement saying she knows nothing about computers and she might as well leave now.

Growth Without a Mask: Jen realises the two men in the basement are hopeless with people when a woman comes down to beat Roy up. She realises that as a ‘people person’ she can defuse the biweekly beatings (in this instance by engaging the woman in conversation about her Manolos) and that the three of them can make a good team.

The Work Outing (SE02E01)

When the dashing Philip asks Jen to the theatre she accepts — but so do Moss and Roy — turning what could’ve been a date into a work outing.

Discontent: Moss and Roy aren’t happy about getting themselves into an outing to a very camp gay play. (The play is called GAY.) More specifically, they’re not happy to use the men’s urinals in front of the toilet attendant after just having spent two hours considering gayness during this play.

Transgression with a mask: Bursting to pee, Roy decides to use the disabled loos, after a dressing-down by Moss, who says that ‘it’s illegal’. Roy pulls the emergency chord instead of the chain to flush the toilet, which brings all the theater’s staff to his aid. This leads to Roy pretending to have fallen off the toilet. “I’m disabled!” This leads to a further lie, since his wheelchair is nowhere to be seen: “A man stole it!” Even the police get involved. A wheelchair is found for him, and now he must pretend to be disabled.

Moss gets into his own trouble when he uses the staff toilets.

“Excuse me, those are staff toilets!”

“I am staff!”

“Then get back to work!”

Emerging from the toilets, Moss feels his only way out of his mess is to pretend to actually work there, so he puts on a staff uniform and starts bar-tending.

Transgression without a mask: Roy almost makes a getaway in a van for disabled men, because coincidentally there are tens of disabled gay men from the North down to see the show, and they all get invited backstage for an after party. Roy manages the ruse okay until he sees Jen:

The Work Outing Jen's inquisition

Dealing with consequences: Roy is put into increasingly uncomfortable situations as a fake disabled man, culminating at the point where  his picture is taken in a wheelchair for the newspaper.

Spiritual Crisis:  The subplot of Jen and Philip mirrors the main plot of Roy and Moss. Philip is obviously gay, but midway through the story he admits that he’s been fooling himself, and was only interested in Jen because she looks ‘like a man’.

Growth Without a Mask: While Philip’s now without his mask of heterosexuality, Moss and Roy never manage to come out of theirs. At the story’s end we see Roy being put back onto the van and that’s when we find out he’s about to end up in Manchester this evening. We wonder how far Roy will go with his mask on when we see that a gay disabled man riding the van is interested in him. Meanwhile, Moss continues bar tending and continues to break stacks of wine glasses. In other words, the spiritual crisis and the growth are given to Philip, with Roy and Moss undergoing no real character change at all. They’ll be back to their deceptive old selves in many subsequent episodes.

Moss at the bar

 

Are We Not Men? (SE03E02)

A new football website allows Roy and Moss to pass as “proper” men for a momentous couple of days.

Discontent: Moss and Roy are unhappy that they don’t fit in with their perception of a ‘real man’. It has already been set up in a previous episode that the two of them see to much of each other and they are trying to expand their social network.

Transgression with a mask: Moss finds a website which tells him what to say to football fans. The website is updated daily and even offers a pronunciation guide. He successfully uses this website to talk to the post guy at work, but then Roy gets a hold of it and takes it to the pub where he gets them both involved with a bunch of ‘real men’ by using just a few stock football phrases.

did you see that ludicrous display last night

did you see that ludicous display

Transgression without a mask: When Roy unwittingly ends up driving the getaway vehicle as his new real-man friends rob a bank, he starts sobbing inside the getaway truck.

Dealing with consequences: Roy has a verbal altercation with the criminals during which time Moss turns up and inadvertently lets on that Roy had called the police, not knowing at the time that he was implicated.

Spiritual Crisis: I wouldn’t call it a ‘spiritual crisis’ but as the police cars drive past them in the alley way, Moss kisses Roy passionately against the wall, in a spoof of heist movies in which the male and female lead characters gladly take the opportunity. Roy is left stunned by this event. A policeman yells ‘Homos!’ out of his window, and we understand that Roy has felt something during this kiss, which leads to Roy’s revelation that he’ll never be a real ‘real man’.

weird is good

Growth Without a Mask: When the post guy comes down and makes a comment to Moss about football, Moss tells him to shut up. He’s done with pretending to be knowledgeable about football.

The really masterful thing about this episode is that the subplot of Jen and Michael The Magician mirrors the main plot. After Moss and Roy point out that her new boyfriend looks like a magician, Jen can’t get it out of her head. When she tries to break up with Michael, Michael is devastated and comes up with a transgression comedy of his own: If he actually becomes a magician, Jen won’t mind that he looks like one. The comedy comes from the facts that 1. the actor who plays Michael really does look like a magician and 2. he turns out to be terribly unsuited to magic tricks and Jen dumps him anyway. (In the story he is actually a driving instructor.)

The theme line of this episode then is a rather serious one: Don’t try to be what you are not. The only authentic self comes from within.

Other Examples

Those aren’t the only episodes of The IT Crowd which make use of the transgression comedy structure. There’s Fifty-Fifty, in which Jen’s flirtation with a company security guard gets a little out of hand when he mistakes her pretend knowledge for the real thing. Her cover is blown when he calls her from a quiz show and she gets the answer wrong.

In The Haunting Of Bill Crouse Moss gets Jen into trouble by telling everyone at the company that she is dead, all because she doesn’t want to talk to the loutish Bill Crouse after a disastrous date.

In The Dinner Party, Moss, Roy and Richmond ‘pretend to be normal’. When they are outed for being the awkward nerds that they are, results vary: Richmond gets a girlfriend out of it, Roy offends a maimed model who turns out to love the same things he does, and the two of them inadvertently start behaving like an old married couple.

Throughout the series there are other scene-level transgressions, such as where Jen is caught spying on her ‘builder from hell’ while he’s in the toilet, and then she has to pretend she always walks around her apartment on her knees. The same sort of gag is used in the the pilot episode of Black Books, when Manny is caught making a face behind his boss’s back, then pretends that his face always looks like that.

Jen is often pretending to like a guy until she can find an opportunity to get rid of him.

Swine Lake by James Marshall and Maurice Sendak

 

Swine Lake is a 1999 picture book by James Marshall, illustrated by Maurice Sendak. The humour is an example of ‘hero wears a mask’ transgression comedy.

About the Author and Illustrator

If you’re American, perhaps you’re familiar with the following series:

George-and-Martha

The author and illustrator of the George and Martha series also wrote other books, and one of those was illustrated posthumously (after Marshall had died, that is) by Maurice Sendak. Even if you’re not American, if you’re at this blog you’ll most definitely know who Maurice Sendak is!

So Marshall died in 1992 of a brain tumour. The powers that be probably weren’t expecting him to die quite so young, and awarded him the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for contributions to children’s literature in 2007.

Maurice Sendak illustrated James Marshall’s standalone book Swine Lake for publication in 1999. Sendak himself died in 2012, but he was 83 when he died and, lucky for him, he lived long enough to see himself awarded that Laura Ingalls Wilder award, as well as receive an honorary doctorate, the National Medal of Arts and the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, among others. The moral of that story is, if you’re a talented picture book creator, make sure you live to a grand old age if you want to live to see all of your awards.

Let’s talk some more about James Marshall.

Marshall obviously enjoyed reimagining pop culture as animals. He came up with George and Martha while lying in a hammock as his mother watched Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? nearby. He took the characters George and Martha from that, but turned them into hippopotami.

He’s done it again in Swine Lake which, to the adult co-reader, at least, is an obvious pun on the famous Russian ballet Swan Lake, composed by Tchaikovsky. A synopsis of Swan Lake can be found here.

Notes On The Illustration Of Swine Lake

It’s interesting to see that lettering on the cover, in which the block letters incorporate the picture, because it’s become very popular since Photoshop with its layer masks making it so easy to do.

Swine Lake puns intratext

Swine Lake is an example of a picture book in which the intratext is a part of the plot. This page adds to the humour, with a variety of #PigTheaterPuns (let’s make that trend on twitter, shall we?) Later in the book we’ll see the wolf reading the reviews of his own performance, in which the review is part of the illustration.

This is also one of those picture books which includes a subplot running through the illustrations which isn’t mentioned in the text. It’s often a pair of animals which play a minor part, and so it is here with the squirrels who Wolf initially contemplates eating, and who end up laughing at the spectacle of the wolf as dancer. The squirrels know that the wolf is really a wolf even if the pigs don’t. We see them exchange a knowing look on the final page (where there is nothing but a small picture, in true picturebook tradition).

 

Story Structure Of Swine Lake

Weakness/Need

The wolf eats other animals and is ungrateful (for example when offered tickets). He is your typical sociopathic wolf. (Actually, I did hear that wolves are basically ‘sociopathic dogs’.)

Desire

He wants to eat pigs.

Opponent

Is there a true opponent in this story? This is one man’s self-revelation. Everyone around him is very obliging. The circumstances stand in his way a little — he has no money to buy a ticket.

Plan

He will get inside a performance of Swine Lake because there will be pigs everywhere. He can then have a pig feeding frenzy at an opportune moment. The hitch in his plan is that he has no money for a ticket, but he is saved by circumstance when a rich sow gives him her tickets.

Battle

The reader is expecting a battle, and this story subverts the expectations. The wolf’s battle is an inner one — what has happened to him? He’s so overwhelmed by the beauty of the play that he’s not the same wolf anymore.

In stories where there is no outer battle there is always some sort of climactic scene. Here, the author takes the climactic scene from the play and uses that to convey the crescendo of the wolf’s emotions.

Self-revelation

Wolf realises he loves the theatre, and his love of this art can even keep his mind off more grim matters.

New equilibrium

After reading such wonderful reviews of his own performance he’ll probably keep going to the theatre and trying to get in on the act. The final sentence says, “And he executed a couple of flashy dance steps.”

 

The Humour Of Swine Lake

A lot of comedic stories are of the type where the hero wears a mask, metaphorical or otherwise. The structure goes like this:

Discontent: the hero is unhappy about something
Transgression with a ‘mask’: peculiar to comedy and noir thrillers (the mask is metaphorical — the hero is trying to pass themselves off as something they’re not)
Transgression without a mask: midpoint disaster when the mask is ripped off — the hero is ‘found out’
Dealing with consequences  [Howard Suber writes: “What will the hero do when he discovers his armour doesn’t protect him, that he can be violated — now and in the future? There is only one satisfactory answer: he can pick himself up, dust himself off, and start all over again.”]
Spiritual Crisis: happens in almost every story
Growth Without a Mask [Suber writes on this point: Some people might find it astonishing how many memorable popular films end in violence and death, but the history of drama is filled with them, and it is difficult to find any period that is not filled with them. If death is the ultimate separation, the next worst is the separation of people who love one another…The story that resolves itself in unification is most often a comedy.]

This book is a slight variation on this structure — when his mask ‘came off’ (when he lost himself and flew into the middle of the pigs’ performance to dance) the characters around him assumed he was only dressed as a wolf.

Wolf leaps onto stage

The metaphorical mask he didn’t know he was wearing from the get-go has come off, however: He demonstrates his wolflike bravado when he threatens to chase the squirrels (and then doesn’t), and when he has every opportunity to eat pig outside the theatre (but still doesn’t). This wolf is a lot more at home as a lover of ballet. Now he is free to dance. He also seems to have been freed from his wolflike impulses (though I’ve no idea what he’s going to eat from now on, which is a problem in all of these stories in which a carnivorous animal sees the error of their ways — The Tawny Scrawny Lion is another one!).

Everywhere you look in the illustrations, the more you realise you’re living in pig-land. The banister at the theater has been carved with pig faces, for example. Is this a visit to Pig Town for the wolf, who would surely be spotted right away if he’d really gone to such a part of town, or is this Wolf’s hallucination? We’ve already seen that he is scrawny and sick in bed. He could be dreaming the whole thing.

wolf entranced swine lake

Another word on the humour: A lot of picturebook humour derives from stock characters which have been inverted. In this case, a wolf loves ballet rather than eating meat and ballet dancers are shaped like pigs rather than the svelte figures we’re used to. In other words, it is funny that fat characters are dancing. Of course it is, right? Except for the problematic message this sends. And the fact that ballet is rife with eating disordered young dancers. I’m reminded of the documentary series Big Ballet which sets out to defy expectations by employing dancers with bigger bodies.

For the Channel 4 documentary series Big Ballet, 18 amateur plus-sized dancers were selected from 500 applicants for an experiment: under instruction from former Royal Ballet principal Wayne Sleep and dancer turned artistic director Monica Loughman, the larger ladies (and a couple of men) had just 20 weekends to master Swan Lake.

The Independent

I wonder if Prawn Lake could have been just as funny? I really don’t know. And if we lived in a culture where there was no body-size shaming, this book stands up just fine. I’m simply pointing this out type of humour as an example of just how deeply fat politics run.