At Boom Box Post, we specialize in sound for animation. Although sonic sensibilities are moving toward a more realistic take, we still do a fair amount of work that harkens back to the classic cartoon sonic styles of shows like Tom and Jerry or Looney Tunes. Frequently, this style is one of the most difficult skills to teach new editors. It requires a good working knowledge of keywords to search in the library--since almost all cartoon sound effects are named with onomatopoeic names rather than real words like “boing”, “bork”, and “bewip”--an impeccable sense of timing, and a slight taste for the absurd.
I used to think that you were either funny or not. Either you inherently understood how to cut a sonic joke, or you just couldn’t do it. Period. But, recently, I began deconstructing my own process of sonic joke-telling, and teaching my formula to a few of our editors. I was absolutely floored by the results. It turns out, you can learn to be funny! It’s just a matter of understanding how to properly construct a joke.
What Not to Do
Before I get into what to do, I think it’s important to point out what not to do. When editors start cutting classic cartoon sound effects for the first time, they pretty much always have the same problem. They stumble upon the Hanna-Barbera sound effects library and find some really funny sounds. Bulb horns--those are always funny! Boings--hilarious! Splats--comic genius! Then, one by one, they start sprinkling these in whenever they feel there’s a dull moment.
Let me say this once: A single funny sound effect is almost never funny. It’s like blurting out the punchline of a joke without the setup.
Here’s an example of a joke: Someone stole my Microsoft Office and they’re going to pay. You have my Word.
I know, this is a super lame joke… but it is a joke nonetheless and if you told it at a party, you’d probably be rewarded with an awkward groan/chuckle. Cutting just a single bulb horn at a random moment is like yelling out “Microsoft Office!” in the middle of a party and expecting people to laugh. It’s just not funny. Cutting cartoon sound effects is not the artform of adding “funny” sounds randomly into a visual work, it’s the art of telling a sonic joke. And to tell a joke, you need three parts: the introduction, the setup, and the punchline. If you want to go one step further, you can add a bonus part: the tag.
An Example of Joke Construction In Progress
Love him or hate him, this video example of Jerry Seinfeld talking about his process in writing a Pop-Tart joke is very illuminating. There are many different elements that go into how funny your joke will be perceived to be. They are things like: how incongruous are the words (or sounds) to each other, how surprising is the punchline at the end, how well were elements from the setup woven back into the punchline, how well did you captivate your audience by the “story” of the joke. With that in mind, it’s not hard to see why it would take two years to craft the perfect Pop-Tart joke.
Anatomy of a Joke: The Introduction
When telling a joke, this is your first sentence. It lets the audience know where you’re starting. In the case of Jerry’s Pop-Tart joke, this is when he starts talking about breakfast in the 1960’s being composed of frozen orange juice and toast. From this, we understand that this is going to be a joke about breakfast.
In sound, the importance of the introduction is all about timing. Take a Mickey and the Roadster Racers that one of our editors, Brad Meyer, and I worked on. There was a sequence where all of the characters were driving around and Goofy was holding a stolen diamond. It was incredibly valuable and he was nervous to be mistakenly caught with it and possibly taken for the thief. At one point, he abruptly came to a stop, the diamond flew out of his car and landing in a ferris wheel bucket. The ferris wheel then began to turn around, and the two characters (one good guy and one bad guy) scrambled to enter the bucket with it. Up they went with the diamond to the top when it, of course, slipped from their hands, bounced down the spokes of the ferris wheel one by one, and then landed neatly in Goofy’s car at the bottom.
In this sound design example, choosing the point at which we kick off the joke is key. Like I mentioned earlier, if we just sprinkle cartoon sound effects in whenever anything slightly “toony” happens in the visual, it’s not really a joke. We’re just shouting funny-sounding words at a party. Instead, we need to choose an exact moment to begin the joke. That moment, would be when the diamond flies out of Goofy’s car. We chose a simple sail zip whistle to kick this off, and a glass clink when the diamond landed in the bucket. Those two sounds were our introduction to the joke. Keep in mind that from this moment, our goal is to make all of the following cartoon sound effect create anticipation leading up to the final “punchline” effect.
Anatomy of a Joke: The Setup
In Jerry’s Pop-Tart joke, after introducing us to the idea that he’s talking about breakfast, he continues his setup by us about the downside of all of the prevailing breakfast foods of the 1960’s. Then, he announces the arrival of the Pop-Tart, likening it to the arrival of an alien spacecraft, and he and his friends were like “chimps in the dirt playing with sticks.” As he points out--in that phrase alone, there are four very funny words: chimps, dirt, playing, sticks.
The setup is the story. It takes us on a journey and gives us all of the elements we need to pull together the punchline. But, notice that the more incongruous the elements of the setup, the better the punchline comes off. What do breakfast, aliens, chimps, dirt, and sticks have in common? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. This is exactly why it’s a great setup.
In sound, the idea is the same. You kick off the joke with something that makes sense (like a sail zip for an item flying into the air). In the example of the scene from MIckey and the Roadster Racers, we cut completely incongruous cartoon sounds for the landing of the the hero and villain in the bucket (timpani hits), followed by a spin whistle for them scrambling to grab the diamond. Then, when they got to the top, we cut different pitched glass “tinks” (ascending in pitch with each one) for the diamond falling and hitting spokes of the ferris wheel along the way. Not only are all of these sounds funny on their own, but they are funnier because they are so different from one another. Also note that these sounds, although different from one another, continue to build tension leading to the next moment.
Anatomy of a Joke: The Punchline
In the Pop-Tart joke, Jerry gives the punchline of wondering how they knew that there would be a demand for “a frosted fruit-filled heatable rectangle in the same shape as the box it comes in, and with the same nutritional value as the box it comes in.” And he goes on to wrap it up by telling us that in the midst of hopelessness, the Pop-Tart appeared to meet that need of the people. This punchline works because it harkens back to the introduction when Jerry tells us of the dire state of breakfast choices in America. The people were in need, and a savior appeared.
In our sonic cartoon example, we did the same thing. We started with an introduction of a sail zip, then lead to a whole batch of incongruous sounds that built anticipation, and then, as a punchline, we used a reversed sail zip to lead us to the final glass clink of the diamond falling into Goofy’s car. Thus, the joke was bookended.
Anatomy of a Joke: The Tag
In Jerry’s example, he talks about wanting to develop an additional end to the joke when he ties in the “chimps in the dirt playing with sticks” with the Pop-Tart punchline. This would be the tag. In a cartoon, it might be one final sound at the end of the gag that really finishes it off, like two slow eye blinks from another character who just watched the joke take place. When you see these visual “tags,” be sure that you always consider them part of the joke as a whole and keep the sounds part of the same family.
Because you made it to the end of this incredibly long blog post, you shall be rewarded! So, here is a video of my favorite comedian, George Carlin, telling fart jokes. Being that we work in animation, we at Boom Box Post love nothing more than a good old-fashioned fart joke. If you want extra credit, you can analyze this bit to see how the intros, setups, and punchlines work together. Or, just sit back and enjoy the smell….