Humor and Arthur: Things Looked Fuzzy Before I Got Glasses!
(note: the title of this post is from what an Arthur talking doll I had says when you squeeze him. He says some other things too, but that one’s by far the best.)
I’ve started watching old episodes of Arthur recently. I used to watch this show all the time, as recently as 2010 or so, but lately I hadn’t seen it for a while. So when I started watching the first season again I ended up rediscovering some things that I had loved but mostly forgotten about, and some things that probably had more of an impact on my own sense of humor than I realized at the time.
I discovered Arthur when I was fourteen years old and in ninth grade, and though I was still in junior high I had mostly moved on from kids’ programming (it was still two years before I could claim “nostalgia” as the reason I looked up old Disney Afternoon shows online). For about two and a half weeks I was at home and basically bedridden after having my gall bladder removed, not with laser surgery as they do nowadays, but with the old-fashioned “cut him open like a ripe melon” style of surgery. During that time is when I first watched Arthur, and since I was on a lot of painkillers at the time I still have some strange memories of the first season of that show. It was also around this time that my sense of humor started to mature from juvenile “knock-knock joke”-type stuff to more sophisticated comedy, and while Arthur certainly wasn’t my only influence in that regard (90’s-era The Simpsons was a big part of that too), and it may just had been coincidence due to the life stage I was in at the time, I think I owe a lot of my certain brand of humor to the style found in Arthur, especially in the early seasons.
You see, while I think Arthur is one of the funniest shows on TV, Arthur isn’t a comedy, or at least it’s not touted as such. It’s primarily a PBS kids’ show, where normal kids learn valuable life lessons about sharing and teamwork, etc. etc. It was one of the more subtle PBS shows in regards to its educational value (most other PBS shows were a little more upfront about exactly what they’re trying to teach), but it wouldn’t quite have fit on any network at the time either, not being a glorified toy commercial or hyper joke factory like most Saturday Morning fare (is the Saturday Morning cartoon block even a thing anymore? Has the whole paradigm of kids’ shows shifted to DVD’s and Netflix and whatever? Strangely, as a 30-year-old single childless man who doesn’t watch My Little Pony, it’s not something I’ve investigated in a while.). And since neither comedy, educational value, nor commercialism are explicitly its focus, the humor that does exist isn’t shoved in your face like a bad Spy Kids movie, but is simply allowed to exist on its own terms.
Most of the stories in early Arthur episodes are as slice-of-life as it’s possible to get. Arthur gets glasses. Arthur gets a puppy. Arthur’s family goes on vacation. Francine gets a lead in the school play, with predictable results (it goes to her head until she realizes that other people worked hard too, so they all work together at the end, etc. etc.). Nothing terribly groundbreaking. But the humor rarely, if ever, comes from the actual premise of any particular episode. The jokes are little side bits that appear and deliver, and almost immediately the episode moves on. There’s no laugh track, there’s no awkward pause or reaction a la The Office, and many jokes probably go over kids’ heads to the point where they may not even realize that a joke happened. One example of that occurs in an episode where Arthur’s family hosts a family reunion at their house. The focus of the episode is that Arthur’s mean cousin Mo will be there, and Arthur spends most of the time avoiding her, only to find at the end that she’s actually pretty cool, and Arthur’s the only reason she goes to these reunions, and they become friends, etc. etc. But every so often we get little glimpses of what some of the other relatives are like, and my own personal favorite is a certain uncle who’s trying to make it as a writer, but is clearly single, somewhat pretentious, and a total failure. He tries to impress everyone by summarizing an original story he’s writing, only to have Arthur’s great-grandmother point out that it’s just like The Fugitive, or Les Miserables, or The 39 Steps, to which the uncle stammers, “Well, yes, it’s like those, but, uh, completely different.” This would be a fun scene on its own, but what I think makes it great, and just up my alley, is that it’s not the focus of the scene (it’s just going on in the background as Arthur’s sneaking around trying to avoid his cousin). In this way the scene is allowed to be real. It’s not a standard comedy setup scene, it’s just something funny that happens in the background of life, and that makes it genuine. In a way, it’s the opposite of certain shows like Family Guy and South Park where the humor and events of the show are so completely divorced from reality that sincerity is lost, and the proscenium is revealed, so to speak. (The same uncle later on tries to get everyone in a game of charades to guess some obscure 14-century book about the bridges of Paris, and gets all huffy when nobody knows what it is. Another reason I love Arthur is because it has great adult characters; where in most kids’ shows the adults are either completely ineffectual, sadistically evil, simple authority figures, or generic stereotypes, the adults in Arthur all have their own personalities and quirks without pulling the focus off the core group of kids, and this uncle and the family’s reaction to him is a great example of that.)
On the other end of the spectrum, yet somewhat related, are when little reality-breaking surreal moments occur, but nobody pays them much mind. These are some of my favorite kind of jokes, not because they’re necessarily all that funny on their own, but many just come out of nowhere and quickly disappear again. Some gags like this include a toy that Arthur finds at a toy shop that’s based on a Transformer, except instead of turning into a robot it turns into a likeness of his principal. It doesn’t really make any sense no matter how you slice it, but it’s a tiny bit in an otherwise unrelated scene that adds to the quirkiness of the Arthur universe. Another such scene happens when Arthur is reading a story he’s writing to all his friends one by one, and they keep making him change it until it’s a confusing mess. When he reads it to the Brain they’re on the bank of a river or pond or something, and when Arthur asks the Brain what he thinks, he picks up a frog who croaks, “Rrrrrrotten,” and hops away. Nobody pays any attention to the fact that the Brain just had a frog answer the question; the scene just moves on with the Brain giving Arthur some more writing tips.
One of my all-time favorite gags like this comes in an episode where Arthur is teaching D.W. how to ride a bicycle and they’re working on various hand signals (holding your hand up means right turn, to the side means left turn, etc.). D.W. makes a silly face and waves her arms around, and asks Arthur what that hand signal means. But before Arthur can get too annoyed, suddenly a guy (who is apparently their next-door-neighbor Mr. Sipple, though I don’t recall seeing him in any other episode except maybe the one, years later, where he moves away and gets replaced with a family from Ecuador whose members become semi-reoccurring characters) wearing nothing but a towel appears out of nowhere and hands D.W. a cabbage, who explains that, where he comes from, when somebody makes that goofy face while sitting on a bike, it means, “bring me a cabbage, fast!” He then says, “I left the tub running! Bye!” and runs away, and the scene continues like nothing happened. Not only is it a wonderfully surreal moment, but it occurs in the middle of something as mundane as teaching a kid how to ride a bicycle, giving something utterly forgettable a delightful twist.
Probably the most memorable gag like this (although not the best, in my opinion, though it is pretty good) is an episode where Art Garfunkel (yes, really) is following the kids around the whole time inserting musical stings every so often, and nobody even really pays attention to him until the very end, when Arthur asks Buster where the singing guy came from and Buster has no idea. There’s even a bit where Garfunkel plays a happy, upbeat ditty about how sad Buster is until Buster gets mad that he’s not playing sad music, at which point Garfunkel plays something slower and sadder to oblige. All this in an otherwise rooted-in-reality episode about Buster coming home after a long trip around the world with his dad and having to readjust to being back home.
There are lots of other kinds of humor present in Arthur (such as the usually wonderful imagination spots), but those are my two favorite types: humor that exists on its own terms without having to draw attention to it, and humor that’s wonderfully surreal in the midst of the mundane. This, in turn, drives a lot of things I think are funny in the real world, too. For example, a shirt that I really want to get is this one: a T-shirt that simply says, in a boring font, “More information about licorice can be found on the internet.” Now, technically, it’s a quote from a random Mark Trail comic, but that’s not the point. I just love how nonchalant it is about advertising a piece of completely pointless and unnecessary advice that’s not sponsored by any licorice company or search engine. It’s a strange enough thing that you don’t have to know the reference in order to find the shirt funny (unlike a lot of nerdy humor shirts which I will not purchase), but at the same time it’s not screaming, “I’m a funny shirt! Laugh at me!” It just is what it is, and if you don’t find it funny, then who cares? At least you get good Internet searching advice in case you need to know more about licorice. The humor more comes from the fact that this factoid has now been immortalized on a T-shirt and somebody is out there displaying it like any other T-shirt. Also note: this shirt wouldn’t be funny if the wearer went around drawing attention to it. It would be annoying. But if you saw somebody wearing this at, say, the grocery store, just picking out lettuce or something as though their shirt was completely normal, even though it’s kind of surreal? That’s my kind of humor. And that’s something I could easily see happen in an episode of Arthur.
Life is full of the surreal mundane. And I like to make everyone’s day a little more surreal if I can, without drawing attention to it. I had a friend in college who told me how she really likes how I tell jokes. Normally my brand of humor is just to insert some sort of wry observation into an otherwise normal conversation, but then act as if what I said was perfectly normal. Some people say something they think is funny, but then they go around elbowing people and saying, “Eh? Eh? Get it? Get it?” or the equivalent. I just try to let the joke stand or fall on its own, and if you think it’s funny, great; if not, no biggie. A lot of the people that make me laugh deliver their humor in the same way.
I think that the things in life that make us laugh are much closer to the jokes you find in Arthur than in a lot of other comedies. People watch The Office and laugh because the situations are awkward, but you certainly wouldn’t want to actually work there (and personally, I can’t stand the brand of awkward humor in that show or others like it, but that’s just me). People watch Seinfeld and laugh at the crazy characters, but nobody would want to actually be friends with any of those people. (Invite them to parties, maybe, but not be friends with them.) That’s not to say that you’d want to be friends with everyone in Arthur (the Tibble twins come to mind, as does D.W. depending on the writer), but the characters are more based in reality than a lot of live-action comedies are (let alone other cartoons), so therefore the humor seems more genuine and sincere.
I guess that this could all be summed up thusly: The things I find funny (and that abound in many Arthur episodes) are strange, but low-key. Surreal, but rooted in the mundane. Because while some comedies stop for a laugh track, or a documentary-style interview, or have the perfect comedic setup or cutaway gag, life doesn’t. If you don’t have to point out your humor or have others point it out for you, you can start to find things to laugh about anywhere. And, for me, that’s what makes life grand.