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Bill Burnett & Vincent Waller: What is Funny?

January 5th, 2007

Upper left illustrated by Lou Brooks
HA! The TV Comdey Network

I don’t know, I’m asking.

One of my favorite projects back in the day was one few people have ever seen. It started out as a TV network branding assignment, our agency’s specialty, for HA!: The TV Comedy Network. And it led to one of our favorite cartoons that not enough people have seen. Cartoon creator Bill Burnett was at the center of it all.
Viacom’s HA! was their answer to HBO’s Comedy Channel. They both lost the competition and merged into Comedy Central. Some of Fred/Alan’s best work for the network, the naming of Comedy Central, and the conception and writing of the cartoon were all done by Bill (also the co-creator of ChalkZone).

Once our agency helped name HA! we went to work on its branding, figuring out the belief system of the channel. Our creative director, Noel Frankel, designed the distinct shouting logo, with various illustrators and models depicting the shout. Bill led the effort to write dozens of promotional spots, including What is Funny?.

Bill takes it from here:”It featured Marc Weil–a member of England’s legendary Madhouse Company of London, asking the question “Is This Funny? I don’t Know, I’m asking” in the face of increasingly bizarre events: For example, he’d be dressed in Judges Robes holding two squealing piglets; then two Mexican banditos would emerge from his robes. Then he’d be chased and lassoed by men in diapers, smoking cigars, and so on. The series was directed by Cliff Fagin, produced by Noh Hands Productions. The recurring What Is Funny? Chorus was performed by Bill Burnett, Suzy Williams and Lori Jacobson. Edited by Chris Strand.”

The spots ran in 1989 and that was the end of that though they never left my mind. Fast forward about eight years and I was starting my latest set of cartoon shorts for Nickelodeon, Oh Yeah! Cartoons. Bill was one of our early creative signings and I kept bringing up What is Funny? I reminded him that Nick’s owner Viacom already owned the original spots, so why not take a flyer on creating a balls-to-the-wall funny cartoon character based on the same concept. Bill selected former Spumco artist/director Vincent Waller (now a key part of the SpongeBob team) and they were off to the races.

Nick production chief Albie Hecht loved the cartoon. So did CEO Herb Scannell. But I guess it didn’t have the typical cartoon hero at it’s center or something and we could never get series traction. It’s too bad. It’s a damn good cartoon.

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I think the answer to why this cartoon didn’t take off is pretty simple. It constantly breaks the fourth wall by asking the viewers what they think is funny, making them think about something that should be relatively instinctual or unconscious. It is its own worste enemy. Perhaps a comedian who has trained himself to consciously consider what is funny would be able to enjoy this cartoon, but I don’t think most people would.

 

“What is funny? I don’t know, I’m asking” is a genius catchphrase for a cartoon character (No surprise there if you know Bill Burnett. Many people approach being geniuses in their niche, but Bill has more niches than just about anybody I know).
I do feel though that the cartoon needs a through “storyline” (Story being loosely defined in the old cartoon tradition of a comic situation with a payoff). A situation could define the character in a way that makes the line “Is that Funny? I don’t know, I’m asking” a natural for the character. The design already does this (I love it).

so that’s what I think is Funny even though you weren’t asking me!

Oh, and one more thing about Bill’s “genius”. He’s generous with his genius.

 

Thanks for this fab late Chanukkah present - a big ol piniata full of Bill Burnett creations.
Great to be able to savor a Burnett retrospective. As just another jealous singer songwriter I have to say “Let it Blow my Way” is one of the top 10 or 5 on anyone’s list-tho of course I always dig “In the Land of the Giant Babies” and what was that one about flannel omelets or something - and also I must marvel at the Burnettian musical versatility - not only is Guantanamo Bay a classic, but you have Gordon Lightfood nailed . .
I will have more awestruck fan stuff as I
proceed to sample all the goodies Bill

The world awaits a full Burnett screen production with music, animation, Burnett acting and singing . . . This must happen

love & amazement at all you’ve done
the real stormin norman

 

In my mind (little hopes and dreams) this was an introduction to a character. Not and always or a bible. I didn’t think the plan was to have him search for What is Funny for the rest of his life. I think Slap could have been a great and funny character in almost any situation that we threw at him.
It would have been fun building a stable of characters around him and putting them through their paces.

 

Of course I meant, Not “An” always, or a bible. I had to rush to a SpongeBob breakdown meeting, and didn’t proof read the dang thing.

Back in the good’ol days, when Bugs Bunny or for that matter any cartoon character showed up. No one needed to know all his background in the first six minutes of their appearance. No one asked about or expected to be shown whether or not he lived with his parents, if he was married, or if he had any kids. All he had to do was show up, bring his personality, along with his ability to deal in his own special way, with whatever situation he was dropped into.
I don’t mean this to a negative rant. I had a wonderful time working on, and with everyone at Oh Yeah. It was a terrific chance to do cartoons as close to the old way as may be possible in the current enviroment. I am grateful to have had the chance.
Reading the above I just truly hope that whoever was making the decision when they were looking over Slap T Pooch, that they didn’t think we intended him to be on a perpetual search for the actual question “What is Funny”.
Thanks Fred for posting the cartoon. Maybe someone will re-think Slaps usefulness.
Happy Happy

 

HA!

I remember this! Thanks again for bringing those back into the public mind! HA! was the cable channel my cable company bothered picking up by the summer of ‘90.

I do have more HA! promos and ID’s in my collection as well, and could stick those up on YouTube if or whenever I have the time to cobble them all together. Used to watch that channel a lot before my family got rid of cable for a brief period once they became “CTV: The Comedy Network” to when they became Comedy Central for which I next saw the channel in the fall of ‘92.

 
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