Some comments in my last post have gotten me thinking about the question of when cartoon violence crosses the line: what makes cartoon violence horrific rather than funny?
Many of the violent acts in Tom and Jerry cartoons and most of the violence in Famous Studios cartoons are famous for provoking disgust instead of laughter; the violence in The Simpsons "Itchy and Scratchy" cartoons is a parody of that kind of violence (they were inspired in part by Herman and Katnip), violence that is so horrible and painful that feels real, and therefore sickening. Warner Brothers, Tex Avery at MGM, and to some extent even Woody Woodpecker were better able to do violent gags without making them feel like real, painful violence. But what's the difference, and where's the line that bad violent gags cross?
As I said, I think that T&J's success helped make cartoons more violent at every studio; the Warners directors were doing more violent gags, both in terms of number and the degree of violence, after 1945 or so. But while the stuff that happens to Daffy Duck in "Rabbit Fire" is probably the most extreme violence that Chuck Jones had done up to that point, I think most people would agree that it doesn't cross that line. (The one possible exception is when he gets scalped by a bullet and we see the bullet hanging from his ripped-off scalp; when I saw that gag with an audience, the audience laughed, but there was some audible discomfort in the laughter.) So why is it funny rather than horrible to see Daffy get a part of his body blown off?
I don't know if there are any immutable rules about when a violent gag is funny and when it isn't; it's all about context and timing and many other things. For example, one of the few Warners gags that is truly horrible rather than funny is in "Sahara Hare" when Sam gets split in half. That's really not funny at all, at least for me and other people I've watched it with. But there are plenty of other cartoons where characters get scratched in half by cats' claws, cut in half by accident, and it's funny. There's just something about that particular moment that doesn't work.
Still, if there is any rule at all, it's probably that the most important issue in cartoon violence is how the character reacts. If a character reacts as if he's in agonizing pain, it's hard to laugh. The more realistic his pain, the more we associate the gag with what would happen to us if we were in that situation (namely, that we'd be in pain). Warners was famous for taking the edge off cartoon violence by placing the emphasis on the character's reactions, which were not reactions of pain but of humiliation or irritation. Daffy is always just pissed-off when he gets shot; he's not in pain, he's just angry that Bugs tricked him again. We instinctively understand that the shooting isn't a "real" shooting, just a punchline to the real point of the scene -- Bugs one-ups Daffy again. To get back to that "Sahara Hare" gag, one of the reasons it doesn't work is that Sam has his back to the camera when it happens and the scene blacks out immediately, so we never see Sam's reaction to the incident and we don't see him reconstituting himself. So the scene isn't about him getting outwitted by Bugs, it's just about a guy getting chopped in two, which isn't very funny at all.
Tex Avery's way of doing cartoon violence was a bit different at MGM, I think: he'd have characters act like they're in pain, but make their reactions so over-the-top that it, again, doesn't seem like real pain. I think the most crucial thing for a violent cartoon gag is that we should not relate it to anything that could happen to us (or worse, anything that has happened) to us.