Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Don Martin - department store 2, The Genius of "Ignorant Humor"

Every so often I read someone’s decree that cartoons have to be “believable” and I think to myself, “Wow, this person really just doesn’t get what cartoons are”. You get a lot of theories like that from executives who would never be caught dead even watching cartoons on their own if their jobs didn’t force them to.

My own idea of what cartoons do is to make the unbelievable believable, which requires great talent and skill. Not all cartoonists are equally gifted in this area.
My pal Eddie has a term he uses when he likes something funny. He calls it “Ignorant Humor”. I think that’s a funny term too, but hope he never uses it in front of a layman or cartoon executive, because it might give the impression that cartoons are stupid and easy to do.
I hope I am not misinterpreting your term, Eddie. Feel free to add your complete definition in the comments! I’d love to make an elaborate post of it.
I think by “ignorant” he means “low-brow” - the category that includes Tex Avery, Mad Magazine, The 3 Stooges but for some reason often excludes Charlie Chaplin, The Marx Bros. and Laurel and Hardy and Frank Miller.
Many critics thumb their snooty noses at pure comedy or “ignorant humor”. Why is that? Because the pure comics don’t contaminate the ice cream with pathos, heavy seriousness or important issues?
The top ignorant comics like the 3 Stooges, Jerry Lewis and Don Martin are actually extremely intelligent.

It takes a lot of not only talent and skill, but intelligent sophisticated planning to pull the audience along a trail of completely preposterous events and logic.

These top humorists are among humanity’s greatest heroes, because they take us away from all the ugly things in life for a few minutes and let us cleanse away worldly poisons with laughter.
The sophistication in what Eddie calls “Ignorant comedy” and could also be called “generous comedy” lies not merely in the content itself but in the execution of it. The staging, he structure, the momentum, the acting, the sincerity, the performances, the creative invention, the pure joy of craziness.

If “Ignorant Humor” were truly ignorant, then everybody could make Tex Avery cartoons, Don Martin comics and 3 Stooges shorts. On the other hand just about anybody can criticize them. That doesn't take much intelligence. Luckily, most people just enjoy the fruits of their genius.

more of Don Martin's Department Store to come.


mike f. said...

With all due respect to our pal Eddie, I wish you guys wouldn't popularize "ignorant humor" into an everyday term. It has unintended negative connotations that'll just provide ammunition to the Mike Barriers of the world.

Raw comedy, Distilled comedy, Unabashed comedy, Vulgar comedy, Sketch comedy, Low comedy, Burlesque humor, Surreal humor...
Almost any term would be preferable to "ignorant" humor.

Keeno said...

ain't no word of a lie!
there's so many thangs that can make someone laugh, from a witty comment on the absurdity of life, to someone getting a kick up the arse

who's to say what's good or bad?

it's like music
some times a good old 12 bar blues played on a 3 string guitar can touch you as profoundly as a piece of Mozart with its complex arrangements and myriad of emotive sections.

so how does your man get out of the tuba?

does the last part of that cartoon end with a big *PARP!!!*?

Whit said...

The Hudson Brothers were some executive's idea of an updated Three Stooges. They had like seventeen hundred different TV series and failed every time. In 1977 some exec even tried launching 'new' Three Stooges-type film shorts starring the Hudsons and 'internationally renowned comedy sensation Bob Monkhouse'but that effort thankfully never got off the ground. The Hudson Brothers today take turns pissing on Emil Sitka's grave.

Kali Fontecchio said...

Yeah I agree with Mike, ignorant does have a negative connotation. It literally means that the reader is inexperienced and uneducated.

How about.... funny pictures, hahaha.

Rodrigo said...

When I read the term "ignorant humor" I thought of something else. I was thinking in terms of when you may have a stupid/goofy character that is purposefully mistaken or misinformed for the sake of humor. Like when Stan Laurel would spell words out wrong. Or when Patrick the starfish makes a ridiculous observation. Or Jim Carrey and Jeff Bridges in one of my all time favorites: Dumb and Dumber.

There's different levels of subtleties with this type of humor, but the audience loves to see how the idiot interprets he world. But like you said, the creative mind behind it doesn't get the credit he/she deserves. Ironically, it does take intelligence to make something stupid. And I mean stupid in a good, funny, and entertaining way.

It's fun for the audience to

Bitter Animator said...

Is there more to this one? That's not the end, right?

Mr. Trombley said...

Dear Sir, I have read on the internet that there are people who believe that animation must be "believable", but I have never seen it for myself. Nor is there any general believability in contemporary cartoons, so I must question the efficacy of there philosophy.

I do not doubt these people exist, but where are they? Do they know who silly they sound and hide?

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

I understand why Mike and others object to the term "ignorant," but I don't see why we should stop using it.

Let's face it, ignorance is funny, in fact that's what ignorance is: funny stupidity. Sometimes stupidity is just too horrible to laugh at, but ignorance is almost always laughable. It's as if the stupid person willfully chose to be stupid.

I guess in real life people don't choose to be stupid, they just are, but in our frustration we can't help thinking that they choose to be that way, and there's something funny about that. It's nice to have a word that reflects how we feel about things, as opposed to the way they really are.

I admit that ignorance is a vague term that lends itself to misunderstanding, but for me that's its strength. I love words like that. It's great that "bad" can mean "good" if it's spoken in just the right way.

The English language is a marvelous instrument that allows for amazing precision on the one hand, and loose, intuitive speech on the other. Why shouldn't we take full advantage of that?

Mike's right, the use of terms like "Ignorant humor" probably will provide ammunition to critics of funny but, really, there's nothing we can do about that. Why worry about what you can't change? The term is much too useful to put aside just because a critic might misuse it.

MasterK said...

Definately agree about the negative connotations of ignorant.

David Germain said...

If “Ignorant Humor” were truly ignorant, then everybody could make Tex Avery cartoons, Don Martin comics and 3 Stooges shorts.

Some have tried. How many times has anyone here seen some sketch comedy show attempt a three stooges routine? 99.999999% of the time it's pretty awful. Sadly, most people wold attribute that to the Stooges being awful. Nothing could be further from the truth. The problem is that the imitators executed it wrong. They ignorantly assumed that "the Stooges are just 3 goony guys slapping each other" and then that's all they do. What they DON'T do is put the same comedic rhythm or timing behind the violence. THAT'S where the Stooges shine.
The joke isn't simply that Moe is slapping Curly, it's WHEN he's slapping Curly. Usually, Moe waits until Curly is feeling good about himself (because he thinks the train noises he's making are wonderful or whatever) and THEN Moe slaps him and brings him back down to Earth.
There's also a certain rhythm to the Stooges violence. It's like they all hear the same song in their heads and are merely dancing to it.

Those two aspects are what the imitators haven't even tried to incorporate into their Stooge routines and it looks all the worse because of it.

This of course is all similar to what happens when people attempt Monty Python as well.

Ray said...

Aristotle had this figured out in the Poetics over 2000 years ago...

Comic heroes have to be of a "lower type", it is the hero's ignorance of common logic, inability to predict sh** from happening, and misunderstanding (or not listening to) others, lack of awareness...these attributes create situations for COMIC MOMENTS. Don Martin knew this quite well

An interesting example comes from Rowan Atkinson, who said that Mr. Bean is someone who appears to be a bumbling idiot (lower type) who is really quite clever. He is the opposite of Inspector Clouseau (who thinks of himself as quite brilliant but is really just a bumbling idiot).

I like to think these two types are represented somewhat by Ren (the Clouseau type) and Stimpy (the Mr. Bean type)

Booo Tooons Ltd. said...

You know, Dave, I take issue only with the last sentence.

The Pythons will be the first to point out that there's never been anyone really trying to do what they did, in essence. Sure, 'Saturday Night Live' and 'Laugh-In' all got called Python rip-offs in the seventies, but it was only because America hadn't seen pure sketch comedy done at all.

In fact, Barry Took, who's responsible for 'Flying Circus' and getting the Pythons together, has said that what he predicted and what happened were totally opposite. He said that 'Monty Python's Flying Circus' would not be very popular, but highly copied, but that what actually happened was they were hugely popular and never copied..... unless you count Mr. Show.

- trevor.

pappy d said...

Ignorance is the human condition. Ever notice that once you learn enough about a subject to really appreciate it, you're confronted by the vastness of your own ignorance? What you've managed to digest with your petty pound of wet grey meat won't make a dent in it. You never suspected there was so much to learn. I've come to think it may be the beginning of wisdom.

Eddie's a natural idealist. He has a high regard for lofty ideas but knows that high-minded abstractions create a vacuum that longs to be filled by a loud fart.

People who don't know what he means by "ignorant humor" are typical of the folks who control what kids watch. They hope to use the powers of imagination to foster the growth of better human beings, but humor keeps interrupting to remind us of the human truth about who we really are.

Bob said...

I think ignorant humor is great because its humor that ignorant people understand, not like snobby critics. Sometimes stupid things make me laugh like fart noises or chicken faces, I can't explain it but it's funny and to me I guess thats ignorant humor. Sometimes comedians have to explain why their jokes are funny or make some sort of logic to their humor to tell a joke and that's a different type of humor. For me when I watch popeye the studiest things make me laugh like popeye's pipe it makes noises that are really funny or when bluto mumbles words when he's angry. Cartoons are great because they can visually make something funny and that's an artform of itself.

Jay said...

Ooo! teacher, can I be the pedant? Please?

I think one reason "ignorant humor" sounds negative is because the adjectival form "ignorant", in modifying "humor," implies that the humor on display is itself stupid. But if you called it "ignorance humor," though, people paying attention to the words would better understand that it is meant to classify a *type* of humor: humor *about* stupidity.

I think Eddie's on the right track that this is probably about the most precise label one could come up with for it, even if many critics would semi-intentionally misunderstand it. And whatever you call it, when done well it can be some of the funniest and most sublime comedy imaginable.

DonB said...

>> Is there more to this one?
>> That's not the end, right?

I'd like to know what happened to that guy in the tuba too. Gee, I hope he ain't dead!

Ted said...

Isn't most humor ignorant humor? Humor generally relies on a turnaround in expectations (which a lot of drama relies on too, of course). This usually hinges on the observer's ignorance of the facts, tho this is usually in combination with one of the other ignorances below, otherwise things would be in keeping with expectations.

1) People acting in a way not in keeping with good sense is one way of violating regular expectations; that is, the subject's ignorance of a) facts or b) what generally is a good idea (Ren whizzing on the electric fence being an example of the first, Sven and Stimpy's general activities being an example of the second).
2) Literalism is another way of going about it; the willful ignorance of the artist (Old Man Hunger in Big House Blues, or Symphony in Slang). There's probably some other aspects I'm missing.
So is Eddie's idea of ignorant humor specific to 1b, or is it more wide ranging? If it's specific to 1b, "Ignoramus Humor" might avoid the problems associated with Ignorant Humor. If it's wider than 1b, "Humor" might cover it...

ByTito said...

it´s only ignorant humor, but I like it!!

Kris said...

I love low-brow comedy, and to be honest I was always baffled by anyone who couldn't laugh at the Three Stooges. Poking people in the eyes isn't inherently funny, but those guys could really poke a man in the eyes and make it HILARIOUS.

I have heard people call it juvenile, but honestly it's no more juvenile than the Marx Brothers, and the fact that both are juvenile is part of why they're so damn funny.

Adam T said...

Another thing I would lump in this category would be blooper reels and 'America's Funniest Home Videos' type tv programs. They may be a subcategory, 'Accidental Ignorant Humor.'

My take on it is that 'Ignorant Humor' is secretly enjoyed by all, but because it has such mass appeal most people feel ashamed to like it publicly. It's 'common' to like the 3 Stooges.

I think it's because 'Ignorant Humor' makes us remember how flawed we all are. Sophisticates who poo-poo this sort of stuff think we're further removed from the rest of the animal kingdom than we really are. But nope we're still horny, peeing, pooping, blood-lusting creatures at our core just like every other animal on this planet.

I really believe a well timed fart is ALWAYS funny. Somebody falling down, as long as they don't get hurt too bad, is ALWAYS funny. People who disagree are deluding themselves.

And one last thing 'Ignorant Humor' is much more satisfying to me than being sarcastic or witty which seems to have taken over, because it's so much more direct. It reminds you that something is actually inherently funny instead of reminding you that the world sometimes sucks the big one.

I.D.R.C. said...

I'm pitching ignoramus humor. Hasn't Moe called Curley that? It's perfect.

There is a big difference between asinine and brilliantly asinine. They are about 180 degrees apart. Many critics cannot tell the difference. Many critics could not find their own ass with both hands. Rowan Atkinson's BEAN gets panned all the time. The guy's got real chops.

Ryan Cole said...

I guess in real life people don't choose to be stupid, they just are, but in our frustration we can't help thinking that they choose to be that way, and there's something funny about that. It's nice to have a word that reflects how we feel about things, as opposed to the way they really are.

Wow Eddie, it's kinda like ignorance is a cartoony expression all on its own, since it's not really a realistic term (in that sense). No wonder it can be so humorous.

Giuseppe said...

Dear Mr Kricfalusi,
first of all I would like to thank you for what you have done to the history of animation!
My name is Giuseppe Bellina, I'm italian and I'm actually writing a book about Flash animation for the italian market, as we don't have a book about flash animation in Italy. I was wondering if it would be possible to send you some questions for the book. Of course I'll send you the book when it will go out, in mid september. My mail is
Thanks for your time.
Giuseppe Bellina

Mella said...

Marco M.

chrisallison said...

I agree. It's the job of the cartoonist to make the audience accept the impossible as obvious fact. "See things as they are not." - Zim

Golden Aged animation did this with expertise. I'd love to hear your theories about why that was so, John. I don't know too much about early comics, but Golden Age cartoons "created" conventions kinda borrowed from strips? Obviously you had a lot more creative freedom back then, but it seems that people were more accepting of new conventions (for them to stick). Just curious.

Seems like the only new conventions today are being conceived in anime, as off the wall and confusing as I find them to be.

Ryan G. said...

Whats the last comedy that has won an oscar. It seems that comedy is very hard to do right, but the good ones are never rewarded critically.

Raff said...

What's good is that you put "Ignorant Humor" in quotes, hinting that it's actually smart and only seems ignorant superficially. "Ignorant" Humor might describe it better. It's hard to say without fingers or over the phone though. "Quoteunquoteignorant Humor"

These top humorists are among humanity’s greatest heroes, because they take us away from all the ugly things in life for a few minutes and let us cleanse away worldly poisons with laughter.

Who's doing that now? Benny Hill and the others are all gone!

'Suppose it's up to one of us, isn't it.

Pat McMicheal said...

I definitely fit into this category!
Don Martin, Mad and the 3 Stooges were my reasons for living as a boy!

Sarcastro said...

Whats the last comedy that has won an oscar.

Annie Hall in 1977. Go figure. Before that you have to go all the way back to It Happened One Night in 1934.

I think we're skewing the definition John's using a bit. An ignorant character doesn't, necessarily, mean it's ignorant humor. For instance, I'd hardly call the court scene in Duck Soup ignorant comedy even though it is based on Chico's ignorance of good English. That comedy is based on the wittiness of how he is mangling the language and Groucho's impeccable timing in his responses. On the other hand, the mirror sequence with Groucho and Harpo is pure ignorant humor. Unbelievable, goofy... kind of stupid; And absolutely uproarious.

In my most humble opinion of course.

Peter Gray said...

Its great seeing new things here...he sure has a interesting strange style...

I'm British and collect comics here...we had some top cartoonist in comics here...check out Ken Reid he was even stranger than Dr Seus..

Would a kid dare to put these pictures up on the wall...its like its from another world.

I can still get Mad comic here in special comic shops...we need more Mad artists I say...:)

Jim Rockford said...

Anyone that thinks cartoons should be believeable should have an anvil dropped on their heads!

We have grim reality constantly surrounding us for that,cartoons as you put it should be an escape.

Its hard for me to believe there are people who have no sense of humor and cant enjoy true inspired comic lunacy.

Nobody watches the Three Stooges and thinks,"thats so unrealistic,Moe would have killed Curly with that blow from the pipe wrench" (at least nobody I've met)

Anyone who cant suspend their seriousness and seperate themselves from the sober realitys of the world long enough to enjoy a cartoon needs help!

Great Big Radio Guy said...

[Bitter Animator said...
Is there more to this one? That's not the end, right?]

Yes, there's more. And if my memory serves me well in my advanced years, the sound effect is quite possibly the most appropriate Don Martin ever did.

And it will destroy you. Go, John!

Captain Napalm said...

Personally, I think the funniest thing of all is seeing a person who IS genuinely smart and talented and imaginative get fucked over anyway. You can talk all you want about humanity, but when you get right down to it, few things about life are as funny as it's unfairness.
Also, I rarely, if ever, laugh at something because it "provides an escape" - I think it's really more of a duality that works as a whole. That's what I love about Clampett: He uses cruelty and pain and fear to be funny, but adds a surreal touch that gives the cartoons a sense of possibility that transcends the immediate situation, like a ray of hope that looms over the battlefield while paradoxically energizing it. So the sheer weirdness of his cartoons isn't neccesarily funny in and of itself, but it adds dimention to the humour, so you find yourself saying "oh, wow" as you're laughing at it. If you can find me a LESS escapist cartoon than "Draftee Daffy" , I will be very impressed indeed. The whole thing is about a failed attempt at escape from the political Here and Now of it's time. Kind of a "better face reality if you don't wanna get fucked up even worse" cartoon. Shows what a simplistic cliche most people's idea of Clampett is. He's my hero for all the things that nobody realizes he was really doing.