Over the past week I’ve been pondering the nature of Visual Humour. This is a difficult thing to write about, because people mean different things by those words, especially “humour”. It has little to do with deliberately being funny, and lots to do with needle-sharp observation.
To illustrate what I mean, here’s a joke which employs a visual medium (the strip cartoon) without a trace of visual humour. Indeed the cartoonist (geek and poke) uses the tools available to him (line and colour) in an impoverished way which is almost scornful. The colours are boring and the characters are drawn with templates. Nevertheless some people find the joke funny (I did, when I first saw it). But it is purely verbal: an absurdity arising from a clash of high technology with traditional idiom.
A celebrated exponent of visual humour was Charlie Chaplin: so much so that he carried on making silent movies when the talkies had all but displaced them, aware that his characteristic style of humour would not migrate to the new medium.
Chaplin’s London childhood was dire. His mother went mad in the end, and you might think she was a dead loss to his upbringing. But during her bouts of sanity she would entertain young Charlie by sitting with him at the window, mimicking the actions and attitudes of the passers-by.
When I first read about that, I immediately thought of a wildlife film I’d seen of a mother cheetah and her cubs. She’d be simulating a little furry animal with the tip of her tail, inviting the cubs to pounce on it. Which they would do anyway without her encouragement.
Now you might see a monumentally patient mum being pestered by the kids. I see an infant being painstakingly trained for its main task in life: pouncing on things. So, far from being a dead loss to his upbringing, Charlie’s mum gave him the magic ingredient of his career, which put him streets ahead of everyone else and enabled him to demand over half a million dollars a year salary – at a time when a working man in England kept a family on £5 a week.
Closer to home, my daughter Leela is another advanced exponent of visual humour. Apart from supplying her with reams of used computer paper, we didn’t consciously bring her up to be an artist, but from the age of three you’d never see her without a crayon in her hand. We had a Ladybird book called Lions and Tigers, and I think it was that which got her drawing tigers. Her first tiger was monochrome, except for a deft use of colour I’ve never known in one so young. She coloured the insides of the tiger’s ears lemon-yellow.
The impression on all who saw it was immediate astonishment and delight. I went straight back to what I guessed were her primary sources and – would you believe it? – tigers’ ears are full of lemon-yellow fur. I’d never noticed it before – but now whenever I see a tiger photo my eye is drawn straight to the ears.
I stress “photo”. It’s a feature of the animal that eludes even the finest artists – until it’s pointed out, whereupon it’s obvious. People get distracted by the fearsome black-and-orange stripes, plus those dreadful ochre eyes. Apart from Leela’s, I cannot recall ever seeing a hand-drawn tiger which shows the bright yellow fur in its ears.
That’s what I mean by Visual Humour – a sense of delight engendered in the viewer that owes nothing to words. In consequence its appeal is worldwide, transcending language and culture.
The Japanese notion of Kawaii comes close. But that’s weighed down with manga conventions: moon-faces and huge soulful eyes. Consciously strip away those conventions and there’s often a residue left: a precious residue. Miyazaki has it in bucketloads. People miss most of it, I suspect, because it’s there and gone again in half-a-dozen frames. I watch Castle In The Sky over and over again, just to relish that secret ingredient.
Watch carefully as young Pazu blows his horn for morning reveille. He puts it to his mouth, but it is too dry. So he briefly lowers the instrument to lick his lips – a gesture that horn players must do unconsciously time and again.
Watch the robot try to stand up on a broken leg which gives way. But the robot recovers its balance by firing its rocket. It then blunders on in the same fashion, overcoming its poor state of repair and bafflement at its surroundings by revealing shocking latent powers.
This is visual humour of a high order. One sees it too in Disney, courtesy of the accomplished cartoonists he employs. But I have long suspected it emerges in spite of, not by virtue of, their director.