Popeye, Bugs Bunny, Yogi Bear, some Peanuts characters..there really is only a handful of complex characters in our whole history. Specific is naturally funny.
I could also say a character who has a few traits that you would never think to put together, some odd contradictions and some random unrelated traits. That's how real people are.
Most people don't analyze things into their separate parts. If they did, they would realize that many things and people they think of as whole entities are really mishmashes of odd parts. We glue the mismatched parts in our heads and don't question them. The most interesting people are the ones with the most mishmash.
SIMPLE CARTOON PERSONALITIESThink of how many generic cartoon stereotypes there are.
The big dumb strong guy. The little mean guy. The wiseacre. The normal guy. The 'tude guy. The assertive modern girl. None of those characters make up whole characters. There aren't enough mismatched unrelated traits.
Animation has the worst history of shallow characters. Mickey, Sneezy, Grumpy, Happy, etc. Characters who either have no trait at all, or just one.
JOHNNY HART'S RANGE OF SPECIFICITYJohnny Hart has characters that range from the completely generic to the most specific.
B.C. has no personality.
Thor is a frustrated inventor who sometimes has a way with girls. Not enough to make a full character.
Peter is a snooty know-it-all. We've seen that many times.
Curls is sarcastic.
The cute girl is the cute girl. That's it.
The fat Broad is more interesting. She is a man-hunter. She loves men but also wants to dominate them. She hates snakes and beats them to a pulp.
Hart's most specific characters though, have the oddest traits.
CLUMSY CARPClumsy Carp is clumsy. By itself, not much of anything.
He also is an ichthyologist - he studies fish, especially rare prehistoric ones. He spends hours a day with his head under water watching the odd fish go by.
Wiley is the oddest, most specific character of all. He has the most unique and unrelated traits:
He is a poet.
He hates water - actually fears and is repulsed by it.
He is scraggly and has a peg leg.
He is superstitious. Superstition is one of the funniest traits a human can have and Hart really draws superstitious fear and outrage with great conviction.
He distrusts anything new - especially women. The very fact that women are so appealing makes him distrust them. When Hart combines Wiley's phobias it's really funny.
I always wondered - how did Hart decide on these weird combinations of traits? They work great and real people are like that, but it's not usual to see it in cartoons. Did he just sit down and make a list of these traits and build a character around them? Or did he draw Wiley first and then come up with traits for him?
Other specific characters in comics and cartoons tended to evolve. Popeye wasn't quite as weird as he became later. Bugs evolved over a few cartoons. The Peanuts characters started as generic characters and little by little grew specific odd traits. Linus is insecure and needs to clutch his blanket. We accept that as normal now, but how did Schultz come up with that? Schroeder was just a small kid but then started playing the piano. I can't remember whether Lucy sprung into character full blown or whether she evolved.
Hart and Schultz' comics are not as funny as the best animated cartoons, or Don Martin comics, but they have something else that we instinctively crave in entertainment- characters that seem real - and by real, that usually means unexpected combinations of odd traits. We read those comics because we like to follow the adventures of the characters. We don't need a belly laugh every step of the way. The weirdness of the personalities and how they play off each other is entertainment.
CARTOONISTS ARE AT A DISADVANTAGE TO ACTORS IN CREATING CHARACTERSWhen live actors create specific characters for TV and movies, they bring a lot of themselves to the character. Even if the script doesn't create fully blown personalities and quirks in the writing, an interesting actor can fill in the gaps with his own idiosyncrasies, look and voice.
We in cartoons have to come up with it almost from scratch and that's why cartoon characters in general are pretty stereotypical and simple compared to live characters. So when someone like Johnny Hart comes along and creates specific characters from scratch, it's mighty impressive.
STEREOTYPICAL GROUPS MADE UP OF UNRELATED RANDOM TRAITSYou could take this idea of unrelated odd traits a step farther and think of whole groups of people who are stereotyped. Like, you're either a "democrat" or a "republican". When you actually list the beliefs and traits that make up either group, you can find a lot of unrelated randomly selected attributes that the poor members have to believe and accept in order to belong to their chosen stereotype.
Republicans believe in Guns and Jesus - 2 completely incompatible philosophies.
They believe in "right to life", until you grow up and then they send you to get your head blown off. They believe in unrestrained capitalism, even though a huge chunk of their group are poor rednecks who are the last to benefit from this belief.
Like Joe the Goddamn Plumber. Republican radio hosts have hard rock music for their intros. Someone explain that one to me. Shouldn't they only have country music?
Democrats believe in defending the rights of the poor, but wouldn't be caught dead hanging out with any of them. They also believe in political correctness and not offending other groups - even though the poor people they defend are probably the least politically correct people in the country.You could make a long list of the beliefs and traits of any group of people and find totally random unrelated parts that make up the whole we recognize as the group.