Putting the Punch in Your Punch-Up

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Part 1: Funny Goddamn Pictures

I humbly borrow (okay, steal) this column’s sub-headline from a famous 1996 essay by John Kricfalusi entitled “Funny Goddamn Drawings,” because in that piece John nailed one of the most important concepts, possibly the most important concept, in cartooning.

In the post-Bugs, pre-SpongeBob era in which he wrote it, when cartoons had gotten more talky and less fun to look at, his article was an impassioned plea to get cartoon-making to be about making funny pictures again. I agreed, and still think this is just about the highest goal for our awesomely lowbrow profession.

But what if you’re a cartoon writer? What if you don’t draw? What if dialogue is your thing? Are you the enemy? No. Writers, just like animators, storyboard artists and designers, can and should be making “funny goddamn pictures.” In fact, it’s one of the most powerful tools you have: shaping dialogue to put funny pictures in the audience’s head.

Why say “I’m gonna get you!” when you can say “I’m gonna use your tongue to paint my boat!“(Moe to Bart in The Simpsons)?

Why say “I’ll be darned,” when you can say “Well stick me on a cornjobber and slap me on the grill!” (blueberry farmer in Sanjay and Craig). You get the idea. Crafting funny pictures with your dialogue works, and is an age-old comedy technique (in and out of cartoons):

Sanjay and Craig

Sanjay and Craig

Margaret Dumont: “Hold me closer! Closer!”

Groucho: “If I held you any closer, I’d be in back of you.”

I first learned funny-picture writing years back on the Fox Kids show Viva Pinata, a lesser-known series with an amazing writing crew including the great Craig Ferguson writer John Reynolds and the inimitable Daria scribe Anne Bernstein, among many other talents. We really got into the rhythm of topping lines that had already been topped–ridiculous imagery always helped.

In one episode, Hudson, our absurdly spoiled show-biz horse, takes a job on the police force. He bombs horribly, and is chewed out by the chief. In the first draft the line was simply:

“No, you idiot!”

I remember our thought process punching that up. My co-writer Dave Benjoya and I wanted a more “visual” word than “idiot,” so first we changed it to “No, you clown.”

More colorful, but ordinary, so we tried: “No, you clown shoe.” Then, to make it more horse-centric, “No, you clip-clopping clown shoe.” This finally cracked us up (silly sound effect and all), plus it really zinged it to the feckless but conceited Hudson character.

A punch-up on a punch-up on a punch-up like this is standard procedure in rewriting. Sometimes a funny line will hit you like a bucket in the face, but often it’s more like milking a moody cow. The trick is to not give up until you’re sure you squeezed out that last creamy drop.

Try this experiment: Find a “straight” line in your script, something necessary but boring, like “I’d really rather not.” Find a picture-word way to say the same thing. (No matter what the line, you can do this.) “I’d rather eat a rake.” “I’d rather drink a cup of bees.” Get trippy. Provoke senses. Create imaginary moments beyond your storyline. I polled some of our writing cohorts for their variations:

The Simpsons

The Simpsons

“I’d rather dance through a lion cage in a hamburger tuxedo.” – Dave Benjoya

“I’d rather go to a sci-fi convention and shout ‘Firefly is overrated!’” – Joe Vitale

“I’d rather get into an ugly contest with Mickey Rourke than answer your question about what I’d rather do.” – Billy Frolick

Character-based imagery gets you mega bonus points, of course:

Homer Simpson: “Apu, you must love this country more than I love a cold beer on a hot Christmas morning.”

It’s a fantastic visual line. You can see Homer, sweaty by the tree, holding that icy little Christmas miracle. Plus, only a Homer could so passionately equate love of country with love of beer and really mean it.

So if you’re writing or rewriting, comb that document like a mean school nurse on lice day, and have fun with it. Check every cranny for opportunities for funny picture- or sound- or smell-words, even names of objects or places. If your characters are visiting a geyser, name it “Old Faceful” (another Benjoya gem). Or note Anne Bernstein’s name for a nursing home for retired theater folks, “Sitting Ovations.” Remember—not just funny lines, funny goddamn pictures in your head.

Mike de Seve is creative director of Baboon Animation, a group of multi-Emmy-winning, Oscar-nominated writers and directors based in New York. You can write him at [email protected].