Saturday, March 24, 2012

One of the World's Most Creepiest Cartoons.

Reposting the last archive article about Muppet slapstick moments that tend to backfire causing a viewer to feel sorry for the characters rather than laughing at the comedy reminded me of one (non-Muppet) short that i always found really disturbing (funny, but still disturbing) - precisely because it broke some of the standard rules and was especially subversive.

The short in question is the Walter Lantz (Woody Woodpecker/Chilly Willy/Andy Panda) cartoon, "Sh-h-h-h-h-h" written and directed by Tex Avery.  I remember when i'd see it as a kid, i laughed at it and found it funny, but it also left me feeling a bit uneasy and probably even triggered a nightmare or two.  As a child, i couldn't quite articulate why it was so creepy - but as an adult, i can - and there's basically three reasons why it's so unnerving...

(3) The laughter.  The recording of the trumpet and the laughter actually predates this 1955 cartoon by three decades:  "The Okeh Laughing Record" - and the cartoon seemingly was built around it.  There's a kinkiness about the laughter on its own, and then when used in the context of next-door guests, it creates a feeling of paranoia - like a party one's not invited to or more appropriately to the cartoon, neighbors plotting against you.

(2) The doctor/patient relationship.  Doctors are people we seek out for help - to save us from physical harm and keep us healthy.  To turn that around and to twist it to where the doctor/nurse are the cause of distress - and even laugh hysterically amongst themselves even after the patient's condition became fatal makes this comedy out-creep the scariest episodes of The Twilight Zone.

(1) Sense of Justice (or rather lack of it).  This is the biggie.  Slapstick comedy generally follows a rule:  the person(s) that get picked on usually have it coming - it's typically established that the antagonist is some type of bully or authority figure or causes some kind of harm (or threat of it - such as a hunter like Elmer Fudd potentially causing danger to Bugs Bunny) or discomfort to the protagonist.  But this cartoon reverses the standard formula:  Mr. Twiddle is presumably the good guy; the innocent.  He seeks out his doctor's help and follows his orders to cure his condition.  From his design to his voice, everything about the character suggests meekness.  He's purely a victim of circumstance and from the audience's vantage point, didn't do anything to deserve having all his efforts to quiet his neighbors to majorly backfire.  If he's guilty of anything (aside from perhaps not being the world's best tipper), it's taking matters in his own hands instead of complaining to management and letting them handle the noise...but then there wouldn't be a story.  The message it leaves the viewer is that we can do our best to go along and live our lives - and by random misfortune can suffer at the actions of others who seemingly enter our paths at random.  This is what made me so creeped out by this cartoon as a kid and still causes me to shudder as an adult - even if it still makes me laugh.  This is true Dark Humor...and Tex Avery, being a master of the animated short was probably fully aware that he was breaking the rules and trying something a bit subversive - and so this can best be seen as something original, experimental, innovative and ultimately successful...even despite the effects it may have on the audience.


Anonymous said...

It does have some very disturbing elements to it, though I'd think it would be more disturbing if the Doctor and Nurse were doing that on purpose, not by coincidence. The fact that little guy was slowly being driven to madness was funny, yet unnerving at the same time.

It is on the end of the creepier scale, not quite North Korean propaganda cartoons (I've seen some South Korean ones that were kinda unnerving) or the hallucination sequences in Akira (I couldn't sleep that night after seeing the movie), but it does have a level of wrongness in the context.

But you gotta admit, the old Tex Avery gag where someone trips over something and pulls out a sign instead of screaming is always a riot. There was a Droopy cartoon that was basically 7 minutes of that.

d.w. mckim said...

It's kind of left open as to whether or not they were doing it on purpose or not. They put on an "innocent" act when they're revealed to each other ("Mr. Twiddle? YOU? Here?") but are they genuinely surprised or just feigning ignorence? In order to have continually beat Mr Twiddle at his attempts to silence them, they probably had done some keyhole peeking and such themselves...and remember they were the ones who reccomended/set up the travel plans! Their laughter after Doc's final line suggests to me they were fully aware of what they had been doing.