Saturday, February 24, 2018

Tex Avery and the Art of the Premise

Well, it's coming upon Tex Avery's birthday again. This coming February 26, if he were still alive, he'd be turning 110 years old.  But my day of February 26 will consist of me going to work and taking my truck in to be fixed.  So, that's why I'm making this post today while I managed to find the time.  Without further AROOOOOOOOO....

[ahem]..... I mean, adieu...... here is Tex Avery: Art of the Premise

In many animation circles, Tex Avery is praised for his gags. "You need to analyze all of his funny gags." This is true, Tex conjured up some of the funniest and most industry-shaking gags of all time.  But really, just focussing on the gags is such a superficial and rudimentary approach that does not at all cover Tex' wide range of expertise.  People too often overlook that Tex Avery was a genius at creating premises too.
Anyone in this world, from professional to amateur to civilian, who has
attempted humour at any point in time knows all too well that jokes and gags are like delicate flowers. They need the exact right conditions to flourish and do well. A gag can go from 'clutching-your-ribs hilarious' to either 'mildly amusing' or 'what-the-hell-was-that' if the delicate ecosystem in which a joke exists has been altered ever so slightly.  In other words, a gag itself is only as funny as the environment that it's in.  This is where the premise comes in.  The premise has to provide the framework for which gags can flourish.
The premise itself doesn't have to be funny of course much the same way the main support beam of a building doesn't have to be decorated to be pretty.  A premise such as "a husband and wife living together" or "a cat and a mouse chasing each other" are not at all funny or uproarious by themselves.  But, those very premises have showcased some very funny gags thanks in part to the sound structure of that premise as well as the equally sound structure and appeal of the characters performing the gags.  (Of course, character is very much intertwined with the concept of premise so there no need to elaborate on that point here.)

That being said, there are also times when the premise of a show has been quite hilarious and even quite clever.  The addition to equally clever gags to such ingenious premises would surely be the pinnacle of any entertainment culture. There have been many brilliant artists of all genres throughout the centuries who have achieved this dichotomy of excellence and Tex Avery is certainly one of them.  On this blog of mine I've already talked about the brilliance of premises from Tex' filmography such as Out Foxed, Dixieland Droopy, and The Blow Out.  You can read what I said about those cartoons by clicking those links.  For the rest of this blog post I will highlight some of Tex' cartoons that I feel contain a very clever and ingenious premise.


In a small Mexican town, there's a big bull fight going down in which residents of the town can volunteer to challenge the bull.  The prize for defeating the bull is 1000 pesos. So, Porky Pig and his two pals hatch a scheme. Porky will volunteer to be the matador and his two friends will dress up like one bull. They'll "fight" in the arena, his pals will take a dive thus securing victory for Porky, and the three of them will share the prize money later. However, the plan goes awry when his friends become falling over drunk just minutes before the contest starts.  So, Porky instead fights a real bull while his pals whoop it up singing La Cucaracha on the side lines (this singing performance was Mel Blanc's first voice recording for the studio by the way. You're welcome for that little foot note).


This is a fun cartoon within a cartoon so to speak.  The premise here is that Porky Pig himself makes his very own animated cartoon.  All the animorphed animals from far and wide come to this local theatre and pay 5 cents each to witness Porky's masterpiece.  It merely consists of silly isolated gags executed by crudely drawn stick people.  In-between each gag is a crudely drawn card containing childish caricatures both Porky himself and "you".  If you have not seen this cartoon, it is something to find and check out.


I chose this one because of some of the background history around it.  The character Bugs Bunny had just become a sensation with the release of A Wild Hare.  So, naturally, the Warner Bros. studio were under way to producing as many Bugs Bunny cartoons as possible to meet this overwhelming demand.  For Bugs' second cartoon, someone suggested placing him into the old tortoise and the hare fable.  However, many of the writers, directors and whatnot could not think of a way to place the Bugs character into the fable and make it work.  Seminal genius Tex Avery found a way though. The premise he came up with is that the tortoise (named Cecil here) makes a $10 bet with Bugs Bunny that he can win the race. Bugs agrees and the race is on.  But, Cecil cheats by planting his lookalike turtle relatives all along the track looking as though he's somehow getting ahead.  Bugs is stupefied by this and thus ends up paying Cecil the $10 which Cecil then share with his 9 other relatives.  Sure, it doesn't adhere to the "formula" of Bugs being the winner, but 1)that formula hadn't been established yet and 2)who really said Bugs had to win every time anyway?  The point is that the premise still works thanks to Tex Avery's genius.


An absolutely fire-cracker game changer of a premise here. It starts off telling a very safe child-friendly version of the Red Riding Hood story. It quickly grinds to a halt however when all of the characters complain about how it's all "sissy stuff".  So, the story is then told a new way.  The wolf becomes a Hollywood wolf that's always looking to 'score' with any beautiful women. Red Riding Hood is now a sweet and sexy dancing girl that the wolf pursues. Red Riding Hood's grandma is also looking to 'score' and thus pursues the wolf when she sets her eyes on him.  It's full of frenetic energy and has a premise that only adults would understand. I'll add to that, adults who visited Hollywood & Vine at any point in the 1940's and saw all sorts of sleazy men making moves on either naive or equally sleazy women would understand this premise all too well.


This one starts off with a homeless cat desperately looking for food.  That itself is a simple enough premise, but that's not the full premise. The full premise is revealed when this cat finds a canary but sees that it is way too small to be a satisfying enough meal.  But, the cat finds a bottle full of Miracle Gro and feeds that to the canary hoping he will grow at least big enough to be a one course meal.  However, the Miracle Gro stuff works too well which causes that canary to become as big as a house. So the cat drinks some of that stuff to make himself from big enough to eat that bird. A bull dog and a mouse get caught up in this situation as well. All four of these animals take turns drinking that Miracle Gro in an effort to overwhelm each other. They of course grow to be as big all the tallest skyscraper buildings in the process.  Spoiler: it ends when the bottle is finally empty, at which point the cat and the mouse are as big as planet Earth itself.


This cartoon's premise, gags, and overall execution are so well done that it was inducted into the Library of Congress as a culturally significant work.  The premise starts with a magician who approaches a prestigious opera singer and asks if his magic show can be an opening act. The magician demonstrates that his magic wand can make anything appear or disappear at will.  The opera singer is not impressed and quickly boots the magician out of the theatre just before he goes on stage to perform.  The magician is not deterred in any way and very quickly seeks his revenge.  He sneaks in and takes the conductor's place with his magic wand standing in for the conductor's baton of course.  So, while the opera star sings his aria, the magician waves his wand and makes all manor of things happen to him throughout the course of the performance (some of them more 'politically incorrect' than others).  The ingenious hilarity of this premise is made more riotous with the split-second timing that Tex Avery was great at pulling off.


This one starts off as a man walking with his dog on the way to the store to pick up a few things for his wife.  On the way to the store both the man and the dog get run over by a car and are in critical life threatening condition.  They both need blood and need it fast.  An ambulance drives up with two types of blood, one for humans and one for dogs.  However, the ambulance driver is a cross-eyed loon and so gives the wrong blood to the two victims.  Once they've fully recovered, they'r back on their way.  But then they start acting strangely.  The man starts acting more like a dog and thusly the dog starts acting more like a man.  His wife and her poodle are very confused by this when they get home.  The man keeps biting people's legs for no reason and the dog keeps verbally asking for "ham and eggs".  This cartoon was nominated for an Oscar and upon watching it, it's easy to see why.

That's just a small sampling of some of the truly stand out premises that Tex Avery managed to come up with throughout his career.  If there are any premises you feel I should have mentioned, feel free to post them in the comment section below.

You can also check out Frank Young's blog where he's posted so much about Tex Avery's cartoons made at Warner Bros.  There's quite a bit of in-depth analysis there.

I hope you had as much fun reading this blog post as I had typing it.  Although, what would be even more fun is watching the very same cartoons I talked about here.  Please seek them out and watch them.  You won't be disappointed.

No comments:

Post a Comment