Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Tex Avery's Rational Story Structures

Here's a very good copy. Thanks to Steve and Asifa!

Here's a youtube low rez version.

here it is with a better picture, but in French.

Tex Avery's storytelling tradition goes back to American folklore -"Tall Tales" like Paul Bunyan.

He likes ideas that are based on impossible premises. Once you accept the impossible premise, he keeps building it to more preposterous heights.

This takes a lot of imagination to make funny, but it also takes a very rational approach to storytelling. Tex Avery at MGM became a master of story structure.

Bad Luck Blackie structure


The premise is that if a black cat crosses your path it brings you trouble.
A Bulldog is mean to a kitten. A black cat witnesses the bullying.
He tells the kitten “If you’re ever in trouble, just whistle and I’ll cross the bulldog’s path and something will come crashing down on his head.”

Is the premise funny?

Not if you just told it to someone.
Tex wants you to understand this premise, so he can get to the middle of the cartoon, which has a series of funny accidents happening to the bulldog, each time he bullies the kitten.


Structurally, the beginning of the story has to introduce the premises upon which the story is based on. Tex needs to have us understand what the cartoon is going to be about.

In some Avery cartoons, Tex gets the setup over with as fast as possible using exposition, so that you can get to the story part, like in his hilarious “Deputy Droopy”.

In Bad Luck Blackie, he instead chooses to make the setup really funny by not merely stating the story premise, but by giving us feelings about the characters.


In less talented hands, a mean bulldog torturing a kitten would be very downbeat and depressing. Some of the gags are downright shocking and cruel! Like the kitten getting his tongue caught in a mousetrap.

Amazingly, this whole section is really funny. You feel sympathy for the kitten, but at the same time, the bulldog’s design and acting and his sheer glee makes you like him as well.

Introduce Twist

Once we’ve seen the setup and we feel sorry for the poor kitten, Tex introduces a way to save the kitten and thwart the Bulldog’s bullying.

A black cat tells the kitten to just whistle whenever he’s in trouble, and Blackie will walk by the bulldog and cause something to fall on his head.

Blackie himself is not just a black cat; he is a character too, a street smart city kid, like one of the Bowery boys.

Build The middle

The gags in the middle are mostly bigger and bigger and crazier things falling on the Bulldog’s head, but the setup, middle and payoff for each gag is funny too.
Most of the humor comes, not from the object that lands on the Bulldog’s head, but from his personality. His joy at torturing the cat, his change in attitude as he starts to realize the consequences of his actions, and his self pride, when he thinks he has figured out how to outwit the whistle gag.

So Tex leads us to believe that the gags are a straight build up of things crashing on the head gags (and those are all funny) but he tosses in some twists and thwarts our expectations here and there, just as we think we have it all figured out.

This is not only imaginative, it is extremely clever and took a sharp brain and serious structural planning to pull off.

Tex is in total control of our brains and our expectations.

Crazy Topper Ending

Once Tex has basically milked what you think is the most you could from this premise, he tops it all off with a fast climax as the bulldog runs away with huge impossible things falling from the sky. By this time, as Joe Adamson keenly observed in his Tex Avery, King Of Cartoons book, the premise is no longer needed for us to accept things falling on the bulldog’s head.
Blackie no longer needs to cross his path. We just have to hear the whistle and we totally accept the logic.

The Best Cartoonists Make Us Believe Preposterous Things

Tex took us on a ride that we should never have accepted if we stopped to think logically about it. Thank God he didn't have to get notes from today's executives!

He did it with utter control of his talent, skills, logical brain and our psychology.

Tex Avery is a genius in my books. Most cartoons day are plagued with time-eating explanations for things that don't need to be explained logically. The more that modern cartoons try to explain the ridiculous things that happen in cartoons, the more we are aware of how unbelievable they are. And these explanations are generally boring to boot.

Cartoons can completely convince us of impossible, illogical things...if they are highly structured and logical in their illogical premises. And the more fun they are, the less time we will have to stop and say "Why, that's impossible!"


Booo Tooons Ltd. said...

He got better at MGM, I think, at setting up the story quickly and moving on to the jokes.

- trevor.

Tony C. said...

I obtained the French version of the Complete Tex Avery box set (since it is not available in the US, and it is just phenomenal. It's great to be able to watch all of a single director's cartoons in chronological order, and see how their style evolves. I wish there were a WB box set for each of the directors.

Tex is a master of repeating the same gag but changing the end result or take, each time to keep it interesting. The bulldog got hit in the head 20 times, but there were 20 unique and hilarious results. Look at all the different ways the Black Cat crosses the Bulldog's path. Same intent, but a completely different and surprising way of doing it each time. It's truly brilliant.

Great post John!

Blammo said...

All that and he was the voice of the mean laughing Bulldog too!


Oli stuff said...

That Tex is so damn inventive.

Rodrigo said...

It seems to me that if the director can engage the viewer's emotional side, and "win" the audience over after establishing thier cast/premise, they're much more receptive to ridiculousness. Good post.

PCUnfunny said...

"the bulldog’s design and acting and his sheer glee makes you like him as well."

Yes and that is why sadism can be enjoyable from any character, antagonist or not. If you see them enjoy themselves in a non-threatening manner, you can't hate them very much.

Bitter Animator said...

The creeping around the door at about 1.20 is fantastic. A great example of breaking the rules of real physics and yet it's almost more true to the action than just depicting it literally - it gets across the full mental intention of that act.

The animation on the kitten is just lovely. So cute and it's cartoony enough to get across attitude and expression while taking on some great animal characteristics.

A bit of a contrast to the other two characters who very much move like cartoon people, even when the cat goes on four legs towards the end.

The laugh at .53 is another favourite. That's excellent and doesn't seem like a standard animation laugh - it's specific to that character.

Nice stuff. It's in French though so I had no idea what was happening because I don't know the language.

Emmett said...

Tex Avery's MGM work is brilliant. Iwould go so far to count it as among some of the best filmmaking ever. I wish he 40's work was on DVD, not just Droopy but cartoons like this.

Maybe we should check out American Folklore, and see if we can learn what Tex learned. Go back to the source.

Raff said...

In less talented hands, a mean bulldog torturing a kitten would be very downbeat and depressing.

I think it's the timing and the way the kitten reacts and keeps going.

We measure a blow by the amount of damage done. The kitten doesn't cry, or scream, or limp, or bleed, or struggle away with anything broken. As for the timing, we aren't given a second to wonder if something's wrong, we're just shown that it isn't and we move on.

I wonder if we laugh in relief.

Weirdo said...

Excellent post. I wish Warner Brothers would get off their asses and release Tex Avery's work on DVD. They're sitting on a comedy goldmine.

Stephen Worth said...

Bad Luck Blackie is also available for viewing on the ASIFA Archive site.

See ya

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Well said! I like what you said about the bulldog being appealing. It would have been a mistake to make him come off as a standard bully.

hayden the wise said...

it really asn't that funny

Brian said...

Yes and that is why sadism can be enjoyable from any character, antagonist or not. If you see them enjoy themselves in a non-threatening manner, you can't hate them very much.

I only enjoy watching a sadistic character if poetic justice comes about in a convoluted and entertaining way...which it did frequently (not always) in Tex Avery cartoons.

That reminds me of Bugs Bunny actually..for some reason. The only Bugs Bunny cartoons I enjoy are the ones where he isn't on top the whole time and he keeps getting the opposite of what he expects. That's why I only like Bob Clampett's Bugs Bunny.

Chris S. said...

I've been recording MGM on Boomerang lately - and I've noticed that all the really good cartoons they've shown are Avery's! There's a lot of Hugh Harmon(?) cartoons and Barney Bears, which are beautifully crafted - but pretty dull by comparison. For perfect comedic timing and hilarious characters - Tex's cartoons top the list.

If I could create something just 10% as charming as Dixieland Droopy (a pretty subtle cartoon in the Avery catalog) I'd be a happy man. From the FANTASTIC intro/credits and music, to the stylized "John Pettibone" Droopy - pure perfection. The flea smoke break is classic.

David Germain said...

Another little touch about this cartoon that I find interesting is in the first segment when the bulldog is torturing the kitten. At one point, he gets too careless and ends up injuring himself in that outdoor stove long before the black cat appears. I think this was also part of what you said about making us find the dog appealing. That's what bullies are in real life essentially. Most of the time they're not this ominous allpowerful menace. Most often they are clumsy and awkward losers. They simply use bullying as a futile attempt to feel better about themselves.
I think that's the personality Tex gave to that dog. This way we can enjoy the violent acts and his eventual comeupance on more than 1 level. All at one time, we feel sorry for him having all these things continuously fall on him (especially at the end) but then again we all know that he really did deserve it.

It takes talent and imagination to pull that off. Tex possessed both those qualities and more.

Adam T said...

There's something about the encoding of the .mov file on the ASIFA site that made the animation seem a little off. It made the characters move in a strange way like the characters in that Heathcliff cartoon series from the late 80s.

Anyone else notice this? Maybe the encoding caused some dropped frames. I just thought it was interesting because the hits aren't as hard as they are in the low res versions.

PCUnfunny said...

David: I actually didn't feel so sorry for the dog at the end. When he got the upper hand, the dog wanted to viciously beat the black cat. He wasn't going tease him like the kitten. So his punishment at the end was justified.

Brian: I also like Bob Clampett's Bugs the most. He was more of a playful joker and he didn't always win like in FALLING HARE.

Anonymous said...

This was a great entry. I hope we see more about the writing styles of different animators!

And its true, the less you explain it, the easier it is to pull off!

jaystein said...

Ok so I have a bunch of these classics, and now that I have an animation job, I've been scouring my collection to try and pick up some ideas, tricks, etc.
Ever time I try and watch the Merrie Melodies Cartoons from the 40's I end up just watching them totally absorbed in what is going on, then before I know it I'm backtracking and saying to myself, my God these guys are total Masters, how the @#$ do they do that!

Man I feel small.