At this point in my life, a full-grown adult without any kids, publicly sharing the amount of cartoons I watch would either call into question my mental capacities or land me on a sexual predator watch list. So let’s skip over that part.
Instead, let me jump right to making the case for why you should be watching more cartoons.
It wasn’t until last night when friend of Cultivated Wit and designer/location director at IDEO in Boston Colin Raney shared 23 pages of gifs created from old Tex Avery-animated Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts that a large part of my attraction to this medium became clear. The gifs, each highlighting maybe 3-7 seconds of action, wonderfully capture the inventiveness and imagination that exists within even the most minor moments of those old cartoons. Check out some of these I’ve inserted below.
So often when we speak of innovation or sparks of creative genius, we’re talking about a clever new take on something familiar. Geniuses rarely conjure up something wholly original—something that alien to us often frightens or confuses more than it impresses—rather they take that which we’re accustomed to and present it in some new way. Our astonishment then stems from wondering how nobody ever thought of that before.
Creative brilliance is more commonly met with a reaction of “I see what you did there” than one of “what the hell is that?”
Which brings us back to cartoons. The nature of creating content for kids is it has to be simple and relatable—you know, dumbed down for dummy kids—but the laws of physics or nature can be tossed out the window and plummet to the ground to a drawn out, descending whistle. That combination of rule breaking without abandoning familiarity is as much of a secret sauce as one can pin down when it comes to effective creativity.
The above gif of the cat climbing up boxes perfectly exemplifies what I’m getting at. In only a few seconds it establishes a typical scenario with predictable results, then delivers something completely unexpected. The surprise is what shocks you or makes you laugh, but most importantly it elicits an emotional engagement while bringing you to the place the storyteller wants you to be. Whether that place is selling you auto insurance, teaching you about sustainable farming, or in this case, just bringing you inside the house where the cat’s next scene needs to play out.
Now that we’re all hungry for some animated inspiration, I’ll share a classic Merrie Melodies short, “One Froggy Evening,” that I watched this week for the first time in eons. What strikes me seeing it now is how dark it was (that fucking frog completely ruins this guy’s life), and yet how hilarious it was (but it sings!). In six tightly constructed minutes, it communicates some pretty deep moral lessons that half a semester of philosophy class would be lucky to encapsulate as cleanly. And there isn’t even one line of dialogue in the entire thing. I think that’s the magic of these cartoons and why they have such incredible ability to inspire even after 50+ years: they are simple ideas communicated in imaginative ways. They appeal to logic, yet remain completely unpredictable.
Well, that and they have frogs wearing top hats.