I was trying to come up with a good topic to amuse and entertain you all, and as I am wading through final edits on Trickster Noir, after a long week of school, my brain had run a bit dry. So I put it off, and fixed dinner, and as we sat and chatted over the meal, we got to talking about favorite cartoon characters. Mine are Pepe LePew and Marvin the Martian. My First Reader likes Yosemite Sam, Sniffles, and Taz. Of course we both like the old gray hare, and neither of us like Road Runner or Tweety in too large a dose. Funny how the oldies are still golden, when I introduced the Looney Tune set to my kids, they adored them too.
We got to talking about what makes these characters endearing, and what it is that keeps them fresh and alive for new generations. Even the ‘villains’ are enjoyed, like Marvin and Sam, as we mentioned above. So what is it? And how can we incorporate it into our storytelling? I’ve talked before about reading profusely to make our writing better, and my personal preference not to use film, but in this case I’m making an exception, because I think there is much to be learned, and besides, it’s fun!
I think that as a culture we root for the underdog. So Tweety, the tiny helpless bird (and of course Granny, alongside her little pal) fending off Sylvester, and Jerry backing down Tom, fit into that niche. Neither of us, talking about it, are fond of these characters. Tweety can be a bit saccharine, and we’re both farm kids. In our worlds, mice are not a good thing and cats are supposed to earn their keep. Rabbits are equally destructive, mowing the garden as fast as it’s planted, but Bugs himself is endearing and earns our cheers as he galumphs through ridiculous scenarios.
Perhaps it’s a combination of his take on life – devious, snarky, and not a little irreverent – with his intelligence. We all like smart heroes. Even if occasionally they are smart by accident, and especially if they are smart without smacking us in the face with it. Bugs can make accidents happen in his wake without ever seeming to try.
Pepe LePew, on the borderline of clueless, and I don’t mean this side of the border, is charming in his relentlessness. He reminds me of Wooster in PG Wodehoouse’s classics. He means well, but oh! the chaos that follows him around, to his perpetual bewilderment. Marvin has a bit of this, too. He has a plan, and just can’t quite understand why it’s not working.
The Martian cartoons are very Human Wave, you know. It’s Bugs’ planet, and he’s not apologizing for it, he’s just doing his darndest to protect it against being blown up or covered in inflatable alien dog-things. Marvin in turn is only doing his job, like the wolf in one of my all-time favorites, the by-play between the sheepdog and the wolf: “Mornin’ Ralph. Mornin’ Sam.” It’s a job… the separation from reality, the sheer surreal transition between everyman commuting to work, to wolf-eat-sheep while the dog tries to make him dead, there’s a brilliance to it.
The thing about these cartoons is they are classic comedy, but they last, and work, because they capture human truths in them. As a metaphor for life, we can all look back at our paths and muse ‘shoulda taken a left turn at Albekerkey’ even if we have never been to Albuquerque. They have become embedded in the American psyche. It’s worth some time on my part (and no small pleasure) to delve back into them, watching them for characteristics that encapsulate humanity, that I can weave into my own tales. And, of course, the humor is worth learning to add to my work, something I already try to do, but can always improve.
We may not write comedy. Some of us do, Kate Paulk’s Con series are brilliant and well worth the read if you haven’t already. You will laugh yourself silly. However, adding some humor to any story alleviates the human suffering, keeps the tension from drawing too taut, and a good laugh is a wonderful thing. My favorite movie, Singing in the Rain, has the absolute best song-and-dance routine in it, and I take it to heart. Make ’em laugh!