And now for someting completely animated...
I’ve been watching quite a bit of animation recently, both web-based and otherwise. After months of lobbying from my good friend Ben in Boston, I finally broke down and watched “King of the Hill” for the first time since the fifth episode of the first season. Also, with my partner’s sister and her boyfriend in town from Malaysia we ended up watching a surprising amount of “Aqua Teen Hunger Force”. Add this in to my usual diet of “The Simpsons”, “"Homestarrunner", “South Park” and all sorts of flash content (“"Rather Good”, anyone?) and animated movies and I guess you could say that I’m fairly well versed for a layman.
And one thing that I’ve noticed unites all of the animation that I like is a certain amount of creative absurdism balanced out by creative and consistent character building. Of all of the things listed above, “The Simpsons” and “Homestarrunner” succeed the best. Take, for example, this Strongbad e-mail from “Homestarrunner’s website (flash required, of course). On its surface, it’s an amusing bit of witty slapstick—Strongbad pretty much makes fun of people, hurts/breaks things and then gets accidentally beaten up. This slapstick exists in counterpoint with the usual absurdist dialogue that makes up the website’s scripts. When Strongbad is stealing swiss cake rolls from Bubs whilst invisible, Bubs (seeing only the rolls flying away) shouts “My chocolates! Come back guys! I didn’t mean those things I said!” and when the pile of rolls (i.e. Strongbad) punches Homestar, Homestar exclaims “Ow! Those things are bad for you!”
So on its surface, we have slapstick and absurdist humor. But if you are a frequent visitor to the website, there’s a third level the e-mail operates on—that of character knowledge. Strongbad will pretty much always make fun of everyone around him, and his fantasies of things that are cool often turn out to be severely lame. Furthermore, Homestar Runner will always find a creative way to be blissfully, sublimely stupid. This cartoon gets funnier the more you watch it, because it builds off of your existing knowledge of the characters and lets the characters grow and develop from comedic short to comedic short.
Animation also allows the fantastical to invade the everyday. There is no suspension of disbelief when you’re watching animation; it’s fundamentally impossible. This does not mean that you can’t empathize with the characters it’s just that the bizarre becomes possible. Take the Simpsons: Homer can shine his bald head in the “shine-o ball-o” without suffering any kind of real damage, Marge can have a tower of blue hair without it being weird and a man named Jasper can freeze himself in a deli freezer awaiting an age of robotic sex slaves. This is all possible because the flights of surreal fancy are balanced by tight plotting and well developed characters.
The golden age of the Simpsons (roughly seasons 3-7) also uses this mix between the surreal and the everyday beautifully. Most jokes worked on several different levels- they played off your knowledge of the characters, were witty, often came from somewhere beyond left field and also usually set up the next joke or plot point beautifully. The dramatic fall off in quality in the Simpsons largely comes (I believe) from an abandonment of all character development for the cheap gag, the surreal moment, or the mean spirited gross out joke. Without loveable characters to root for, the jokes fall flat. It becomes like the worst of “The Family Guy” (itself a frequently funny but artistically bankrupt Xerox copy of the Simpsons).
The only animation that can really survive the dip into pure surrealism seems to be short from animation. There are plenty of shorts (including on Homestar’s site) that make no coherent sense, yet are so clever and inventive that you can’t help but be moved in some way. The Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” family of short shows (“Aqua Teen”, “Space Ghost”, “Harvey Birdman” etc.) all rely on this. They are so short (twelve mintues, by God!) that by the time you ask yourself “no really, what the hell is going on here?” they’re over, and you’ve already laughed your ass off. The only thing that the Adult Swim shows have to watch out for is their increasing need to feature lots of annoying voice characterizations and shouting instead of witty craziness (“Shake” on Aqua Teen, I’m lookin’ at you).
The point I’m trying to make is that longer-form animation has a real balancing act to commit itself to. It has to be just outlandish enough to justify its existence as an animated piece, while remaining character based enough to make you care to watch it. Some animation is too concerned with character development. I’ve watched quite a bit of “King of the Hill” now and, while occasionally amusing, the show is basically a boring family sit com a la “Home Improvement” or “Everybody Loves Raymond”. Simply put, there’s no reason for the show to be animated, and the limited range of visual acting that animated characters can produce often undermines the show’s occasional moments of wit. It could really use a dream sequence with a space coyote voiced by Johnny Cash or two, it would liven the show up, and take its tame unimaginative visual style to another level.