The Surreal Truth of Cartoon Comedy - Animation/Cartoon Week on BTR


In cartoons, the goof is often the quickest route to the truth.

Manga, anime, and graphic novels do their part in giving realistic credence to the animated medium, but it is still humor that draws the skeptic’s jaded eye just as it has done with news media to the apathetic. This upsurge of mature, absurd comedic prevalence in just about every form of media has taken shape very successfully in the animation offerings at Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim and Comedy Central, two cable networks that have upped the ante in the last decade in the world of comix. Squidbillies, Metalocalypse, Ugly Americans, South Park, and other such surreal and comical shows on Adult Swim and Comedy Central have become the updated equivalents of Looney Tunes and the old cartoons of Tex Avery and the Fleischer brothers that cracked major wise at American life.

BreakThru Radio spoke with the animators and directors behind Ugly Americans and Superjail!, two especially enigmatic cartoons that have done well to exploit the creative range of drawn material and outrageous imagination.

Superjail! is set in the alternate reality of a jail that sits inside a volcano that is itself inside of a larger volcano, where the warden’s (voiced by Stella’s David Wane) methods of control usually result in a horrific bloodbath of epically lysergic proportions.

“With Superjail!,” says creative director at Augenblick Studios, Aaron Augenblick, “it was always meant to be a faux-action show, as if a little kid created his own conception of what would be the awesomest action show ever. A lot of the comedy came from crazy, over the top violence.”

Series creator Devin Clark calls it a “mindfuck by design.”

Augenblick and Clark credit the show’s design to their love of horror, absurdist humor, the urban/human critique of Robert Crumb and the gruesome realism of EC Comics.

“You’re playing it just for the absurdity of it. People already contextualize that as OK,” says Augenblick of his shows’ over-the-top nature.

Augenblick’s most successful show, Ugly Americans, tones down the outrageous but retains much of the creative muscles of Superjail!, building on character development to drive the narrative.

“We’re dealing with such a crazy world, it was important for us to have a structure in the stories – to have a relatability with the characters, and to make it a little more grounded.”

The show’s central character and narrator Mark Lilly, a human social worker who helps integrate immigrant monsters into a fantasy/horror hodgepodge version of New York City, is a kind of helpless romantic who has been succubused into an abusive relationship with a she-devil (literally a half-demon, half-human) and lives with a zombie who occasionally tries to eat his brains. Bookending the show are Mark’s observations and questions about life that all city dwellers ask themselves to better explain their conditions, particularly when circumstances lead them to look after an acid spitting demon baby for a week.

“He’s also like a bumbling idiot so the lessons learned shouldn’t all be taken to heart,” Augenblick reminds us.

According to Augenblick, the production of Ugly Americans is a gauntlet-style process that starts with writers and producers, then adds the varying humor of improv comedians, board artists, voice actors, designers and finally Augenblick and Clark, who compile the team’s work into a workable episode for airing. Augenblick employs 40 in-house animators, and farms out additional animation and layout work to the Canadian studio Big Jump.

Titmouse animator and storyboard designer Mike Roush, who works on Adult Swim’s heavy metal mockery/celebration series Metalocalypse, talks about the liberties afforded to cartoon animators compared to live action directors.

“Taking a show like Metalocalypse, we use a realistic based style so when the characters do something horrible and over the top it has that much more impact. You wouldn’t expect a person to chop someone in half longwise, but you would expect something like that from a big cartoony looking viking. This I think helps preserve the element of surprise.”

One should not forget that it is not only the viewer who takes pleasure (or pain) in the histrionics of a show’s more graphically violent depictions, but the animators themselves, who will gladly jump at any opportunity to draw a good old fashioned bloody massacre.

“I like to animate the real juicy acting between characters the best,” says Roush, “I also sometimes get a chance to animate them jumping off mountains, and shooting flame-throwers at each other, which is nice too.”

Like Augenblick and Clark, Roush relishes the freedom that Adult Swim grants its content producers, all while recognizing the sometimes paralyzing prospect of a wide open field of choices.

“From my experience Adult Swim shows have a very whatever goes mentality, which is refreshing at times and at other times feels frightening. There aren’t a lot of rules when it comes to Adult Swim.”

An implied dictum, however, is that most of the shows will employ artistic understatement to capture the subversive attitude that Adult Swim has turned into its trademark look.

The lo-fi, minimal atmospherics of their shows limit the scope of animators’ flexibility, but that limitation is exactly what creates such effective humor. Brandon Betts of Radical Axis, one of the fastest growing animation studios in the country due in large part to the success of their hallmark shows Squidbillies, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and Archer, talks about the values of limitation outside of the obvious cost benefits.

“It forces you to do a lot with a little,” Betts says, “Where the instinct might be to have a character flipping-out and gesturing all over the place, you might get more out of the joke with just a simple eyebrow move. I think awkward silences are hilarious. You might have an entire shot with the only animated element is an eye-blink. And it totally works.”

“There will always be a place for classical techniques, just like there will always be people pushing technology. The only thing that kind-of creeps me out is mo-cap (motion capture). I think it’s that whole uncanny valley thing. But, there’s a use for that, too.”

The ‘uncanny valley’ is a theory hypothesizing that as robots or digital images come closer to representing reality without absolutely replicating it, observers will react with an overwhelming feeling of revulsion.

In an interview with Oral History Journal in 1987 Art Spiegelman, creator of the Holocaust survivor tale turned graphic novel Maus, encapsulated this irony of representation in comics regarding his use of animals instead of human forms to depict scenes of humanity’s inhumanity to man.

“I can’t really imagine having done the comic strip for instance with people rather than with animals…I’d be kind of counterfeiting reality, in that I would be making the pretense of being a camera wandering through the ghettoes of Europe. That would be something far enough away from my own direct experiences that any attempt to do so would be doomed in failure.”***

Probably the most successful comic to ever strive to invoke the same pathos of a live action film or a novel, Maus’ superficial distance from reality permitted readers to gather the key elements of the story they might otherwise be loathe to connect with had the drawings been too close to visually representing human suffering.

Ricardo Cortes, who wrote and illustrated the books Go the Fuck to Sleep, marijuana: It’s Just a Plant, and a children’s/adult’s jury nullification book Jury Independence Illustrated describes the importance of humor in his often politically charged messages.

“A lot of my work is politically-oriented, with a mission to change things. I also recognize how dry and righteous that road can be, so I really try to poke holes in a lot of my work that give it some room to breathe. Plus, I should also be under the assumption that I’ve been wrong about something, right, so leaving in a bit of humor can soften the impact when I realize I’ve been playing the fool.”

A few weeks ago Jon Stewart told Fox News’ Chris Wallace that because he was a comedian, a certain amount of leeway had to be granted to him in terms of legitimacy and seriousness. To have a voice in the public is to be questioned, but with a buffer like comedy lessening the surface level sincerity of a message, one could argue that everyone hoping to get a real point across should employ a bit of humor. Fortunately or not, most people can get away with a lie, but no one can get away with faking the funny.

*** From Oral History Journal Spring 1987, pp.26-34. Reprinted in Art Spiegelman: Conversations, edited by Witek, Joseph, University Press of Mississippi Jackson 2007

Written By: Jakob Schnaidt