Why Is Tom and Jerry Genius?
August 12, 2013
(The shortened opening is shown, before we see NC in his room)
NC: Hello, I’m the Nostalgia Critic. I remember it so you don’t have to. There’s this idea going around that slapstick is a lesser form of humor. Well, to them, I say... [A large safe suddenly falls down on top of NC, crushing him] Ow.
[Footage from The Three Stooges, Looney Tunes cartoons, and various slapstick comedy films, is shown]
NC (vo): Slapstick focuses on the most important rule of comedy, that all comedy, in one way or another, is based on misery. Whether it be mocking something others hold dear or crushing another in a perfectly timed manner, humor is that defense mechanism that acknowledges that pain is just another part of life.
NC: And nowhere deeper is the pain exploited more hilariously than in Tom and Jerry.
[The Tom and Jerry opening logo is shown, before showing clips from various Tom and Jerry cartoons. "Symphony No. 4 (Italian)" by Felix Mendelssohn plays throughout]
NC (vo): This cat and mouse duo has had both kids and adults laughing for years, through no real dialogue, no real stories, just excuses to crush, burn and maim each other as much as physically possible. Now, when these shorts came out, cartoons hurting each other wasn’t anything new.
[Footage from Disney cartoons and Looney Tunes are shown briefly]
NC (vo): Lots of cartoon shorts including Disney and especially Warner Bros. seem to handle this shtick down pretty well. But if there was already two major companies doing it so well, how come Tom and Jerry rose to be the pinnacle of slapstick duos?
NC: Well, maybe one of the main reasons was there was rarely any talking.
NC (vo): I mean, there was an occasional line from one or two other characters, but Tom and Jerry themselves usually kept quiet, perhaps allowing less time to devote to motivation and instead more time to devote to the physical humor. Warner Bros is great, but half their comedy was the words they would say to one another in between the violence, and that worked wonderful for them. But here, they take a few moments to set up the scenario, and then it’s nothing but hardcore pain the rest of the way, giving many audiences exactly what they wanted.
[Footage mostly focusing on either Jerry or Tom is shown as NC speaks]
NC (vo): On top of that, despite the fact that they couldn’t speak, they actually did form very solid personalities. Jerry is playful, innocent, and often looking to just have fun or even just survive, even if he can have a little too much fun surviving. Tom, being a cat, of course, sees him either as a meal or as an interference. Whatever the setup, he’s always the one who starts the fight, which makes it very easy to laugh when he gets his comeuppance. But that’s not the only reason to feel like he deserves it. He’s cocky, he’s egotistical, he’s prone to anger, he’s stubborn. He’s all the things that make a great foil, but never to the point where he’s unlikeable. He still has that goofy playfulness that Jerry has, too, which is why in the few instances where they do come together, it’s not entirely unbelievable.
NC: But let’s get down to the reason why people really love Tom and Jerry: their lust for blood!
[Tom and Jerry creators Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera are shown]
NC (vo): William Hanna and Joseph Barbera knew how to animate great slapstick. It makes sense in animation, seeing how so much of the humor relies on timing, and here, you can literally control each frame to the tiniest detail, giving you complete power over your delivery. And that’s exactly what they do. They know exactly how fast, how hard and how painful every device of torture should be. But it’s one thing to say they’re good at it. Exactly how are they good at it? Why does the slapstick work so much better here than it does in other cartoons? Well, because, again, they understood that anything that can emphasize the amount of pain a character is in, usually the funnier the joke will be.
[Footage from Tiny Toons is shown]
NC (vo): Compare Tom and Jerry to, say, this scene from an episode of Tiny Toons. Now Tiny Toons, most of the time, had good slapstick, too. But sometimes, they got a director or a team of animators that didn’t do it as well as Hanna-Barbera did. Of course, the idea of cartoons is to exaggerate the possible, turning it into the impossible. But in order for it to be funny, you have to know what to exaggerate. Like, watch this bit.
[A scene from Tiny Toons is shown, showing a singing bunny hitting a bear on the head with a drum]
NC (vo): This scene doesn’t work as well because the character is too stretchy and too flexible. It doesn’t look like they’re getting hurt that bad because it doesn’t look solid enough. Now watch when Tom gets hurt.
[A scene from "Salt Water Tabby" is shown. At a beach, Tom hears a scream for help. Jerry is in the water, sitting behind a piece of wood on the shore with a drawn face on it. Tom, attempting to save the "drowning victim", then dives into the ocean, but crashes onto the piece of wood, hard. A tidal wave hits, washing him away]
NC (vo): This works so much better because even though he’s being distorted, he still feels solid, and the area that they do manipulate compliments the weight of the item that’s causing the damage.
[A jar of playdough is shown on NC's table. NC takes out the playdough and punches it for a bit as he speaks]
NC: It’s like when you have a jar of playdough. Yeah, it’s stretchy and not too hard, but when you smash your fist down on it, it leaves an imprint.
[Back to Tom and Jerry footage, where Tom is shown getting hit by a frying pan]
NC (vo): So you can tell it’s still solid. And the same can be said here. The objects usually leave an imprint on Tom.
[Back to NC's table, where NC smashes the playdough and stretches it]
NC: Now if I was to smash my fist down on the playdough and it was to stretch all over the place, that would be too distracting, and thus, we couldn’t connect with what we were seeing as well.
[A caption is shown, saying "Do not attempt at home. You will attempt to eat it."]
NC (vo): The animators of Tom and Jerry knew that the more you feel how solid they are, the more they feel the pain. The same can be said for the sounds they make. In the early days, when they were still trying to find their ditch, Tom and Jerry, especially Tom, looked much more like real-life animals, and even sounded more like real-life animals.
[The first ever cartoon, "Puss Gets the Boot", is shown. Jerry punches Tom in the eye, causing Tom to screech like a cat. Another scene is shown, showing Tom attempting to flee from his owner, yowling all the while]
NC (vo): Now that’s not as funny because it’s not as relatable. The only thing you think about when you hear that sound is a real-life cat getting hurt. What sick fuck would enjoy that? But when you add a human yell to it...
[A scene from "Little Quacker" is shown, showing Tom accidentally cutting his tail off with an axe, causing him to scream loudly]
NC (vo): Suddenly, it’s more funny. And, yes. Every single one of them is done by William Hanna.
[A brief montage of Tom screaming is shown]
NC (vo): So, why is this yell funnier than an actual cat yell? Well, on top of the surrealness factor, the idea of hearing a man’s voice come out of an animal’s mouth.
[A clip from the Three Stooges is shown]
NC (vo): As people, we understand a human being being hurt more than we do an animal.
[Various photos of various animals are shown]
NC (vo): Animals don’t communicate with us the same way we communicate with each other.
[Back to Tom and Jerry]
NC (vo): So, naturally, we’ll be able to find the humor easier with something that acts more human despite the fact that they look like an animal. That’s another reason why you almost never see them on all fours. The more they made it look like animals acting like people and not animals acting like animals, the more likely they were to get a laugh. They knew just when to have them use their voices, too, and they were never overplayed...
[The poster for Tom and Jerry: The Movie is shown]
NC (vo): ...like some piece of cockbugger that I know. They were just used at the appropriate time when the scene needed something particularly silly to up the humor.
[A clip showing Tom talking with Spike, thinking he's a female cat, is shown]
Tom: [in a richly voice] I love you.
[A scene from "Mouse Trouble" is shown, showing Tom chasing Jerry into a corner. Tom reads a page on a book that says, "A Cornered Mouse NEVER Fights"]
NC (vo): This one especially gets me, just for the surrealness alone.
[After reading the book, Tom pounces onto Jerry. Crashes and bangs are heard offscreen, and ultimately, an injured Tom reappears and looks at the camera]
Tom: [in a deep, echoey voice] Don't you believe it!
NC (vo): Why that deeper voice? Why that major echo? Why even those exact words? I don’t know. It’s just so strange, you have to laugh at it. But again, if they use their voices too much, it would have gotten old, and a scene like that wouldn’t be nearly as funny. So they had to use them sparingly. The expressions are also something Hanna-Barbera got down perfectly. The more content and comfortable a character can be in their environment, the more funny it’ll be when it comes crackling down. That’s why so often you’ll see Tom give this mocking grin when he thinks he’s won. The more happy he is, the harder the blow will be that knocks him out of his bliss. Even a simple questioning expression can work, as long as the character looks generally confused, adding to the idea that the more the character thinks he’s connected to what’s really going on, the funnier it’ll be when reality comes smashing him in the face.
[A scene from "The Little Orphan" is shown. As Tom grabs Jerry and hollers like an Indian while doing so, Nibbles catapults a pie into Tom's face, knocking the cat off the table]
NC (vo): And the longer they keep it, the more it’ll build up how painful the payoff is gonna be. In fact, with that said, half the time, you don’t even need to see the expression all the way through.
[A scene showing Tom being defeated in "Kitty Foiled" is shown]
NC (vo): We never see Tom hit the ground in this scene, but the idea that he would keep his face all the way to the bottom just makes the moment all the more hilarious. They practically had it down to mathematical perfection.
NC: So, if Tom and Jerry were so good at what they did, how come they’re not as popular now as they were back then?
[Various other forms of Tom and Jerry are shown]
NC (vo): I mean, granted, they’re still big names, but you don’t see them around as much as you do Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny. I think part of that is that a lot of people just didn’t know what to do with them after the animated movie shorts died. Some tried, like legendary animator Chuck Jones gave his spin on the classic duo, but they were a bit too friendly and often times, the animation wasn’t on par with the original. But with that said, it’s not awful. Take this scene where a magic mouse fairy comes down and gives Jerry a magic potion in order to help him defeat Tom.
[That scene from the cartoon, "Of Feline Bondage", is shown. Jerry looks at the magic potion, then looks at the mouse fairy, giving an evil smirk. The mouse fairy does that evil smirk as well]
NC (vo): Any series that has a scene like that has some understanding of what made Tom and Jerry work.
[Various other adaptations are shown]
NC (vo): But aside from that, we had a lot of adaptations that seemed to aim towards much younger kids than it did both kids and adults, and even today, that still seems to be the lead. Trying to put these two characters that obviously belong in simplistic shorts into dialogue-heavy stories that rarely have anything to do with what made them so popular to begin with. So, whether or not an outlet will open up for Tom and Jerry to really shine again is unknown.
[The classic shorts are shown again]
NC (vo): But what is known is that when Tom and Jerry got it right, they got it right. With the perfect combination of animation, timing, sound effects, and a clear understanding of why physical humor will never die as a comedic art, this is why, though not as popular as they used to be, their names will not be forgotten anytime soon. They didn’t break any barriers or change the way animation is done, they just did what they did so well, and that was simply being funny. And as long as we keep orphan girls with Indiana Jones fathers and ice cream cart rapists out of the picture, I can assure you that Tom and Jerry will still be relevant names for years to come.
[A scene from "Jerry and the Lion" is shown, showing Jerry looking at a scared Tom. Tom screams, opens the door, crashes through the wall, and runs away]
NC: I’m the Nostalgia Critic. I remember it so you don’t have to.
[He gets up and leaves. The credits roll]
Channel Awesome Tag: Tom: Don't you believe it!