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!"