Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Hear Me Pull a Rabbit Out of My Hat
Sometimes you have an idea, some critical judgment, that feels like a discovery, something that was hidden has been revealed. & you look around for evidence to support your idea, & you find out you weren’t the first person to come up w/the idea. Of course this is deflating, but at the same time a little exciting, perhaps even uncanny. It’s as if maybe this aesthetics thing weren’t totally subjective, as if there was something true about some of things we talk about.
What am I talking about? Rocky and Bullwinkle, of course. Because I have at least one parenting technique similar to Pa Holbo’s, namely, the indoctrination of young children in important pop culture. On our end, this involves more DVDs, not so many comic books. The kids don’t get to watch their own Saturday morning cartoons: they have to watch daddy’s. I’m sure it won’t produce any long term effects.
So one afternoon we’re watching, & it struck me. I already knew that the cartooning was crude. But it was more than just crude. It was for the most part unnecessary. That is, it conveyed no information not already presented in the soundtrack, more specifically, not already presented by the speech of a character or the narrator. This superfluity of the images seemed to apply 100% to the Rocky & Bullwinkle storylines, with the others—Aesop’s Fables, Fractured Fairytales, Dudley DooRite, etc.—having an occasional visual gag.
This was an insight surely worth blogging. But every post must have links, so I had to do some research. Where to go to first other than Wikipedia, but only to find a rude awakening, & in the very first paragraph of the entry: “the strengths of the series helped it overcome the fact that it had choppy, limited animation; in fact, some critics described the series as a well-written radio program with pictures.” As one might say, “D’oh!” If I have nothing to top Wikipedia, I’m an even lamer blogger than I thought. That may be true, but I’ll go ahead, as I can make a couple of tie-ins to previous posts, including a further consideration, this time literal, about voice.
First off, the Wikipedia links to an interview w/Alex Anderson, the actual creator of the Rocky & Bullwinkle characters, & the one who seems to have developed the show’s overall concept, though it took some wrangling in the courts to get his name added to the copyrights (& here I was thinking of Jay Ward as some beautiful soul making beautiful art & it turns out he’s yet another Hollywood hustler). But onto the important stuff:
I had seen a Walt Disney film called The Reluctant Dragon, featuring a sequence with Bob Benchley going into the story department and seeing how stories are developed. They were working on a story, obviously written just for the film, called Baby Weems, and this was told by a series of sketches tacked up on the wall with just enough animation to provide movement and give it a little vitality. It was very limited, but I thought to myself that this was every bit as entertaining as the full animation for The Reluctant Dragon. I began to think there was a way to do comic strips for television with just enough movement to sustain interest and having a narrator tell the story…. You use a narrator so the characters don’t have to act everything out. My theory is that humor is actually reaction rather than action, so you have a team of characters: one to react while the action is off-screen, then you cut to the final result. It’s a gimmick to avoid full animation.
(Note the appearance here of one of Ray Davis’s favorites, Robert Benchley.) So the famously bad animation provided by the Mexican studio, Gamma Productions, was a feature, not a bug. As Anderson says, “the voices were more important to the show, and from the beginning we knew they would have to carry it.” & the following exchange makes the connection to radio explicit:
Province: I was recently listening to some shows while working at my desk, and the scripts and voices almost make the animation incidental.
Anderson: Right. We’d all grown up on Jack Benny and those wonderful radio programs, where you made up your own pictures. So the show was something between television and radio.
So that’s obvious enough. The creators of the show new that the dialogue & narration we’re the essence of the show. What might seem peculiar, though, was that they would do this then. In my previous post on radio, I noted the belatedness of the Goon Show, at least compared to radio theater in the U.S. As I write this, I remembered the dramatically different rates of economic recovery after the war. I would expect that t.v. set ownership per capita in 1955 was dramatically different between the U.S. & the U.K. Setting economic base aside, I still wonder at how a whole medium, or at least a genre-medium combination, could go practically extinct. Which other high-tech artforms are destined for (relatively) short life-spans?
Major network radio comedy was in its death-throes in the U.S. when the Goon Show came to an end not from a lack of interest but from its creator’s lack of sanity. Now it would seem that in Rocky & Bullwinkle one radio show was actually beginning at the time, and destined to go well into the 60’s.
It was easier for the show to get into the middle space between television and radio on account of the voice talent, which the interviewer (Province) calls the finest ever assembled. They were all long-time radio veterans. Of course at the time that would not be so remarkable. Any cast of experienced voice talent gathered in 1959 would have to have radio veterans. In fact most of them had been working in both radio & cartoon their whole careers. There was lots of carry-over.
The most important member, in terms of voicing, would be the narrator, William Conrad. & if you want a luminous image to highlight the disjunction between radio & television, get inside the head of a pre-teen in the early 70’s when his parents tell him that the short fat guy waddling around as the private eye Cannon was the original Marshall Matt Dillon, whom the pre-teen had only known in the heroic hulk of James Arness.
But there is a problem with setting Rocky & Bullwinkle off as a paradigm: there were other television shows that basically brought across the radio format, shows such as Burns & Allen or Jack Benny. & Benny’s show also went into the 60’s.
O.K., so now I fall back on my second tie-in (how’s this for argument as orderly retreat?). In the recent Reznikoff post there was talk in the post & in the comments about voice. Of course in poems, at least on the page, voice is figurative. Of course on the radio, voice is literal.
And it can be literally enchanting. Or at least, Conrad’s vocal presence was as, if not more, attractive as Arness’s visual presence. But vocal presence isn’t noticed as often. Perhaps we are a visually oriented culture or something.
Which leads me to my last point, which is about animation rather than radio. What if the Rocky & Bullwinkle is not an outlier but offers an essential insight into the medium? What if the voices were more important than the pictures? What is the best shows depended on voices as much as on stories? Such as when they say of an actor, I’d listen to him read the phone book.
What am I talking about? Family Guy of course. I’m not sure what to make of it—can’t tell if my attraction is greater than my repulsion. But a guy as smart as Peli Grietzer seems to like it. One thing about the show amazes me: the voice of Scott MacFarlane. It’s hard to believe that the voice of Peter, Brian, and Stewie come from the same body. It’s harder to believe when you see the voice coming from the body. Now that is uncanny.
What if the Rocky & Bullwinkle is not an outlier but offers an essential insight into the medium? What if the voices were more important than the pictures? What is the best shows depended on voices as much as on stories?
You’ve now bumped into a major issue in the history of animation. Animation got started in the silent-era, when there were no voices - in fact, it has a “pre-history” is flip books and mutoscopes before moving pictures existed. When sound came along, well the music was as important as the voices and visual gags abounded. The cartoon that put Disney on the map - “Steamboat Willie” - was about the synchronization between action and music. I don’t think there was a spoken line in the whole film - or, if there was, it was just that, a line.
Up through the fifties animation was a visual medium. Think about all those Roadrunner cartoons, no one says anything, though we see plenty of written signs (and other signs as well). But producing high-quality animation is expensive and so we see the introduction of limited animation.
One position is that, at that point, the medium was well on the way to hell in a hand basket, that illustrated radio plays is not what animation’s about. And then there’s the position you are advocating here, that the voices carry the show and that’s just fine. And there’s lots of other stuff thrown into this particular mix. It’s complicated.
Now that you mention it, I just started introducing the kids to Looney Tunes. The only reason I haven’t so far is that Zoë is excruciatingly sensitive to violence. She just can’t take it on-screen. The younger one, like any normal person, thinks violence is funny. Zoë, as she grows older, grows a little wiser in this way. A cat getting hit with a rolling pin IS funny.
I told Zoë that one guy did all the voices and she just said: ‘no way’. Thanks for the great post.
“He do the police in different voices,” indeed!
Any truth to the rumor that R&B is / was banned in Canada because of Dudley Dooright the Mountie?
The Wikipedia article notes that “banned in Canada” is a popular urban legend and goes on to say “The show aired in Canada the early 1960s, and was on YTV throughout the 1990s.”
Thank you for this treat, Lawrence. Of course Edward Everett Horton is a hero of mine as well.
Mark Evanier is my source for all news voice-actorly. Search his site for “Rocky” or “Bullwinkle” sometime. One of the less-often-mentioned peculiar things about the show is just how hard it is to do Bullwinkle’s voice—I’ve never heard anyone but Bill Scott (also the voice of Dudley Do-Right and Mr. Peabody—and the head writer!) really manage it. On the other hand I had a college roommate who did a perfect Dudley. He even looked like Dudley.
All my younger prettier wiser friends like Family Guy but I just don’t get it. From my fogeyish position, I was surprised you didn’t mention Dan Castellaneta, whose collaboration with The Simpsons‘ writers must be one of the pinnacles of American art. Has there ever been a performance so capable of incorporating any line that’s thrown at it? The show’s unpromising start shocks me now less because of the primitive character design than because Castellaneta hadn’t yet spread his wings.
Reluctantly against Bill, I have to say that the best Betty Boops are the ones with Cab Calloway, the Fleischer Popeyes with the “wrong” voices are infinitely less amusing than the Popeyes with the “right” ones, and as much as I adore the sproing and spittle of Bob Clampett’s and Frank Tashlin’s 1940s work, the Loony Tunes voice characterizations and music made the lasting difference.
Oh, and regarding “animation as radio”: You know how radio aficionados talk about how unlimited the medium was, how you could imagine anything instead of being limited to the cheap stuff of before-the-camera reality, how easy the transitions were...? Animation—even crude animation—comes a lot closer to that freedom and weightlessness than live action can. Sure, you occasionally get a Duck Soup or a Burns & Allen show, or a Green Acres. But no props crew can really do justice to the Benny vault or the McGee closet.
.... how easy the transitions were...?
Well, you know, the Elizabethan theatre didn’t use scenery and elaborate props. Costumes, yes, scenery. no. That meant that the plays went more quickly; there was no need to stop the action, drop the curtain, and change the scenery. Those stage directions and act divisions weren’t there in the original texts. They’re later additions.
Along the same lines while I was drinking my coffee I remembered the most weightless live-action TV I’ve seen, The Garry Shandling Show (later ripped off and watered down by Seinfeld). Shandling’s Off-Broadway approach came close to radio (or to kids playing house): baldly ("How’s my hair?") asserting transitions and set-ups felt so much funnier and looser than the usual techniques.... The contrast between visuals and narrative was still jarring; they just used the jar for comedy.
Considering the rich verbal texture of Elizabethan and Jacobean theater, I wonder how many theater-goers occasionally shut their eyes to reduce distraction, like sometimes happens at the opera.
Or wait—are those guys sleeping?
Well, Ray, Norm Holland has somewhere confessed that the most compelling Shakespeare performances he’s heard are audio recordings. I believe he said they had a dreamlike intensity.
...(or to kids playing house)...
Interesting you should mention that. I was thinking about that in a comment over at Citizen of Somewhere Else.* I wonder if there are any good ethnographic studies of how kids stage-manage their pretend play. I just barely remember a thing or two from my youth.
I’ve just been teaching the Anglo-American ballad tradition in my Literature of American Popular Music course & was struck by the mention of the narrator in the R&B episodes. Most ballads have narrators, who sometimes make introduce themselves, as in “Barbara Allen,” or are simply assumed in the 3rd person point of view. Ballads are boiled down narratives, efficient, & this seems related to the intentionally stripped down action of the R&B episodes, in which the images serve as icons for the characters being described in the narrative voiceover.
Hey, thanks! One might also note that Family Guy is 100% tempo. Its architecture is sub-par by nearly any established measure of composition, from Aristotelian plot to Jakobsonian parallelism, but the moment one thinks of it as made out of shifting rhythms (in a dozen metaphorical senses, but also and primarily literally the rhythm of speech) it reveals an outstandingly precise and inimitable craft.
There is an astonishing South Park episode (and South Park seems entirely relevant to this discussion of intentionally crude animation, in both senses) which sends up Family Guy. The characters sneak into the Family Guy studio, and discover that the jokes are being compiled by manatees selecting “idea balls” at random and concatenating them. Which describes the show’s blitzkrieg pop culture dream about as well as anything.
Yeah, only unlike Family Guy it’s not funny.
In fact, probably the best indicator of Family Guy’s craft (not that it should matter, as difficulty of production is a poor indicator of aesthetic merit) is that the 6th season is just terrible.