Wednesday, August 23, 2006

I Missed the Freleng Blog-a-Thon

Monday, August 21, was the 100-somethingth anniversary of the birth of cartoon director Friz Freleng. Hell On Frisco Bay did a Friz Freleng Blog-a-Thon, consisting of a great analysis of Freleng's work and links to other bloggers who, unlike this one, posted something for the occasion.

One thing that doesn't really come across about Freleng's cartoons from the way they're usually seen now -- on TV or on DVD -- is how fantastically effective most of them are on the big screen. Freleng was not a great visual stylist, nor was his sense of humour particularly unique or groundbreaking, but what he was great at was timing. He's best known for his ability to time gags to music, as he did in "Rhapsody Rabbit" and "Pigs in a Polka" and many other cartoons, but his sense of gag timing in general was without parallel. If there's an explosion in a Freleng cartoon, he takes just the right amount of time to build up to it, holds on the explosion for just the right amount of time, and he'll take just the right amount of time to show the aftermath. Like in "Show Biz Bugs" when Freleng repeats the "Endearing Young Charms" gag (previously used by Freleng in "Ballot Box Bunny" and Bob Clampett in a Private Snafu cartoon): not only does he time the explosion just right, but after the smoke clears, he holds on the carnage for a split second and then, just as the audience is laughing at that, throws in an extra gag (the xylophone keys falling to the ground) before the fade-out.

My point is that this sense of timing doesn't really come through on the small screen, because it's the kind of timing that is basically theatrical in nature: it's meant to bounce off the reactions of a large audience in a darkened theatre, not someone sitting on a couch who's free to look away. And that's why Freleng's cartoons get uproarious reactions in theatres but don't necessarily work as well on TV: every gag is timed in such a way as to provoke, and build on, collective audience laughter. A Freleng cartoon without a crowd to watch it is like a standup comic performing in an empty club.

One Freleng cartoon that holds up particularly well is "Pigs in a Polka," which is the Three Little Pigs set to Brahms's Hungarian Dances. The gags aren't particularly great, but they're all so perfectly timed to the music, and so perfectly in keeping with the character of the music, that they get laughs just by how well-timed they are. Whereas Bob Clampett's similar cartoon from the following year, "Corny Concerto," is more imaginative but (by Clampett's own admission) not very well-timed to the music, with the result that it tends to fall flat (in my experience anyway) in theatrical screenings.

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