The Humor of Tex Avery

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Much has been said and written about Tex Avery over the years: from historical articles remembering him as “the creator of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck”, film historians and scholars championing him as “the King of Comedy” and, crucially, as “The Anti-Disney”, and often even as the best animation director of ALL time – barring none. None of those statements are necessarely false (although some of them are strictly a matter of opinion) but some of them may lend themselves to some misunderstanding when taken out of context. With this post I want to make a breif analysis of what we may call Tex Avery’s “style” – more specifically, what we may define his sense of humor and how it invades almost the entirety of his filmography. Tex Avery was, first and foremost, an animator and filmmaker, one with a unique voice and personality, and his films have been able to show a specific view of the world and of Cinema itself, not unlike the best silent comedians like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy and The Three Stooges. My suggestion would be to try to break down his style in several different major characteristics of his works.

 

Exaggerration

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Exaggeration is, of course, a key factor in almost every animated film, some more so than others, but few filmmakers have been able to exploit this characteristic of animation more than Avery. Avery’s characters present of course stylized, “cartoony” designs and exagerrated body movements all meant to evoke laughter, but what Avery really mastered are, of course, his famous “wild takes”, featured in almost every major picture of his. Some cartoons, like his celebrated Northwest Hounded Police (1946), are almost entirely built on the concept of wild takes, to the point tha the story is actually very bare-bones, even for the standards of an animated short film. Avery’s characters feel no shame in being animated, and this attitude reflects the way his own director treats them: throughout the pictures, his characters are liquified, destroyed, infinitely malleable as long as his directors wish them to be, to the point of sacrificing visual consistency (so dear to Disney films, the long-time “rival” of Avery and Warner Bros./MGM) or even believability. Avery’s confidence with his own tools and skills is so high that he isn’t afraid to play with his own stars (and often the audience itself) and shake them up a bit for the sake of obtaining the intended effect. The result is that the extreme distortions of Avery’s characters aren’t just a tool to provoke laughter in the audience (although that’s certainly the intended goal) but also a way to show the characters’ mental states and what’s going on inside their heads, eliminating, like Michael Barrier said, “the difference between the inner and outer” referring to the mental states of the characters and their own feelings. This way, it’s hard to have doubts about what the Wolf is feeling in the celebrated short Red Hot Riding Hood (1943), when the title character appears on stage, in his outrageous reactions and wild takes so dear to Avery; or, once again, in Northwest Hounded Police, where the driving force of the Wolf isn’t sex but fear, in a constant attempt to get away from Droopy, which inevitably results in failure. Thanks to these extreme reactions, it is not hard to emphatize with the characters, both positive and negative; all the feelings of the characters are immediately relatable (lust, fear), both comprehensible and convincing in their presentation despite the fictional nature of the characters and the films themselves. There are other directors who will take these distortions as reprentations of characters’ feelings even further (namely Bob Clampett, or, in recent years, directors like John Kricfalusi, Masaaki Yuasa and Paul Rudish, all admirers of Avery) but Avery was perhaps one of the first to experiment in this direction.

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Subverting Expectations

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Of course, like almost all Artists, the only way to truly understand Avery body of work is to understand the context around him, both socio-political and of course artistic. This context goes way beyond the simple references to popular culture present in his films, which today have taken an almost entirely new meanings, but it’s rather about the environment Avery had to work in. With Walt Disney being at the peak of his popularity, other Studios struggled to keep up with him. Some of them didn’t have the necessary skills or production values to compete, others aimlessly tried to imitate their style but to no avail. Tex Avery was perhaps the first that thought of going into another direction entirely. He has developed an almost entirely new style of humor, based on faster timing, tighter pacing, an awareness of cinematic conventions, more adult subject matter and a willingness to play with the characters’ bodies and to exploit their own malleability and their own nature of drawings on a sheet of paper. But perhaps the most direct and explicit attack at Disney is the subject matter of Avery’s own films: many Avery shorts are, in fact, direct parodies of Disney shorts and often contain explicit jabs at Disney’s expense, although always in a playful and tasteful manner. Avery is well aware of the fact that comedy comes from expectations, and for an animated short there are no better expectations that those created by what was considered the King of Cartoons back then, which is of course Walt himself. Therefore, a good chunk of Avery films start with the notion that the viewer is already aware of the subject being parodied, so that Avery can go in a new and unexpected direction, effectively “playing” with his audience.

Perhaps the short that best encapsulates ALL of these characteristics is Blitz Wolf (1942), which is at the same time a propaganda cartoons with Adolf Hitler as his target (like many cartoons produced around that time) and also a parody of Three Little Pigs. It is worth noting that although these are technically parodies of the fairy tales, there’s little to no doubt that the main point of reference are the specific Disney adaptations or, at the very least, a general Disney “style” made of well-known clichés and formulas, thanks especially to some visual cues. Therefore, the Three Little Pigs in Blitz Wolf are not too different from the ones featured in the original 1933 short, with well-rounded shapes and a pronounced “cuteness” and, almost to clear up any doubt, Pinto Colvig is back to reprise the same role of the “wise” pig that he also had in the original short, doing a near-identical performance. The early scenes of the short therefore quickly make the point, first by showing us an apparentely “normal” version of the story, but just as quickly it diverts expectations, showing us the wise pig digging a trench and a full-blown tank instead of a brick house. Thanks to this the film establishes his double nature as both a parody and a war satire, with the Wolf acting as Hitler. The short then takes a completely different direction and only vaguely tells the classic story, which then becomes a humorous depiction of the World War II conflict with the Three Little Pigs characters in it, and with most of the gags revolving around the absurdity of the situation (and therefore of war itself), needlessly complicated artillery that doesn’t have the desired (for the characters, most often at the Hitler Wolf’s expense) or expected (for the audience) effect, once again playing with expectations. The film even features a couple of uncomfortable (in hindsight) sequences, such as the one where a bomb single-handedly makes the entirety of Japan sink into the ocean.

Perhaps the most celebrated case of this, however, is in Red Hot Riding Hood. The short begins with a straightforward adaptation of the Red Riding Hood fairy tale with apparantely no twists at all, that is, until the Wolf and the other characters (Red Riding Hood, the Grandma) point directly at the camera, declaring themselves to be fed up with the story and effectively rebelling to the Narrator and, therefore, the Director. A quick title card change and we already found ourselves in a new, modern version of the story, featuring the same characters as before, with the exception of Red Riding Hood who is now a full-grown woman working and dancing at a night club. Grandma is now a nymphomaniac men-chaser and the Wolf is still a wolf, but in a less literal sense, since he happens to represent the typical “Hollywood wolf”. The woods are now replaced by a modern city, with absurdly high skyscrapers, night clubs, limousines and wealth. The contrast between this short and the usual Disney flare couldn’t be more explicit. With Red Hot Riding Hood, Avery is making a very specific statement.

Of course, the fairy tales parodies don’t stop here: Swing Shift Cinderella (1945), a sequel to Red Hot Riding Hood, will have a very similar beginning, with the characters realizing that they’re in a different cartoon than expected, upon reading the title card. Little Rural Riding Hood (1949) will take things even further by starting with a Red Riding Hood parody that later takes a completely different direction by venturing into a parody of The Country Cousin fairy tale.

But of course, this constant play with the audience and their own beliefs doesn’t stop here. There’s another fundamental aspect of this that must be discussed.

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Meta humor

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Tex Avery doesn’t stop himself at just playing with conventions derived from other cartoons and films. His own films are in fact sophisticated experiments with the cinematic form and its conventions. Many of the gags and jokes present in Avery’s films subvert the implied rules of fiction and believability and break the fourth wall, putting the audience itself in a VERY different position compared to other cartoons of the same period. The audience isn’t composed of passive spectators anymore: they’re effectively active players of the joke itself. The mere act of watching the film is a joke for all the parties involved: for the characters, for the filmmakers, for the audience. All of these elements are put on the same level and on the same field: the director of the film may be the butt of the joke as much as their characters or even the audience itself, which in some of Avery’s films is actually “represented” on the screen, like in one of his earlier efforts, Thugs with Dirty Mugs (1939), where one of the members of the audience is the main witness of a crime being commited, therefore becoming an active part of the story and crucial in its resolution. Other times, the characters may directly point their finger to the audience or even directly shoot at it in some of the most outrageous breaks of the fourth wall in the history of animation. Other times, it’s the director himself who seems to be talking directly to the audience, often recognizing the absurdity and vacuity of what’s actually being observed on the screen. This role is usually taken by the signs that can be often found in Avery’s pictures (“Corny gag, isn’t it?”). The characters aren’t entities that live autonomously anymore – they’re completely under the control of the director with no chance to escape from it. It is useful to see Droopy in Northwest Hounded Police as a personification of Avery himself: always there, always in control, with the Wolf powerless against him. This is perhaps the biggest difference between Avery and Disney: while Disney aims at believability, and while Disney characters are usually so strong and defined that they may even exist outside of their own picture when it is over (one great example of this are the Pixar outtakes after the credits), the characters of Avery do NOT exist outside of the film space. This is evident in those instances when the character literally cross the borders of the cinematic screen, such as in the great short Lucky Ducky (1948), where the character run so furiously that they end up on a black and white screen, literally at the other side of Technicolor, as noted by a sign that says “Technicolor ends here”.

The short that best encapsulates this constant playful attitude of Avery with the audience, sometimes almost in an attempt to get on their nerves, is probably his 1944 effort, Screwball Squirrel (1944). In it, we have one of the few star characters of Avery, an annoying squirrel whose main characteristic is to be almost in complete control of his own surroundings. Screwball Squirrel knows in advance what will happen in the picture, can do impossible things and many magic tricks, can decide when the picture will start, when will it end and how will it proceed. To no avail are the efforts of his dog antagonist: Screwball Squirrel is effectively the director of his own picture. It is ironic, then, that the character in which we can probably find Avery himself (not so muhc in terms of personality but in terms of role in his own picture) is also one that he admittedly hated the most.

It is precisely this attitude towards his characters and his audiences that kept Avery from creating truly memorable characters: although he’s often credited with the creation of Bugs Bunny adn Daffy Duck, the truth is that he merely set the basis for them. Most of the development took place in the hands of other artists (Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Frank Tashling, Friz Freleng, Robert McKimson). It is not necessarely because Avery was incapable of doing so, but because it simply wasn’t his main interest. Creating a recurring character to whom the audience can relate to and root for would mean to sacrifice the approach that Avery has always had towards his film, constantly walking the rope between the fictional reality of the movie screen and our own reality – that is, the one of those who are laughing at the picture.

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Adult Themes

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Finally, it’s important to recognize another major difference between Avery and the rest of his contemporaries, which is the embracement of adult subject matter. We’ve already talked about how the characters in Red Hot Riding Hood are filled with a sexual energy that leaps across the screen and that almost can’t be contained in their bodies full of frantic energy. But perhaps the most interesting question may be analyzing how exactly di Avery make it past the infamous Hays Code. Although these cartoons weren’t necessarely meant for children like it’s commonly believed, they still had to obey a code with very specific rules. Once again, Avery used the possibilities of animation to get past problems that would be rather serious in live-action. The truth is that, despite the light-hearted surface and the slapstick comedy, the world of Tex Avery is in fact a rather ugly world, dominated almost entirely by sex, violence and all of those human characteristics that are a lot closer to us that we’d like to think. By exaggerating it to impossible degrees, Avery is therefore able to get away with a lot more sex and violence that would usually be allowed in a live-action picture. None of these characters are real people being damaged: Avery makes their nature very clear and there’s rarely any consequences for the violence in these cartoons; it is, in fact, rather hard to take seriously.  That is probably the reason why, at the end of Red Hot Riding Hood, the Wolf can kill himself without not too many people really being that shocked. That doesn’t change the fact that those elements are still there, however, and they in fact almost dominate Avery’s pictures, making them paradoxically a lot closer to us that one may imagine by just looking at them at first glance.

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These aren’t, of course, the only major characteristics of Avery’s work. There are plenty of aspects one may choose to focus on (his carefully planned timing, his frantic pacing, his story construction, his character designs, his animation) but I’ve decided to focus on only some of the most prominent ones. Perhaps there will be other posts soon dedicated to Tex Avery that will discuss some of the most neglected aspects of his work.

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