Since last week’s post, What’s Up Between Cartoonist and Audience? I’ve been thinking about the fact that so many (most? almost all?) Golden Age cartoons are constructed with gags. We all know this, and yet, I must confess, that I for one don’t know what’s going on. What are these things, these gags? How do they work, why should we take such pleasure in a sequence of them? And why did they come to occupy such a large place in popular culture when they did?
I don’t know the answers to any of those questions, but I do know something about how to describe and analyze cartoons. I can at least take a look at some more cartoons and see how they work. As for those large questions, they’ll just have to wait.
Duck Dodgers Instructs His Pupil
Let’s take a look at Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century, a 1952 Chuck Jones cartoon featuring Daffy Duck as Duck Dodgers and Porky Pig as his space cadet sidekick. The earth is running out of Illudium Phosdex, the essential ingredient in shaving cream, and Duck Dodgers is sent to claim the only remaining source, on Planet X. And Planet X is in a zone that’s simply marked “unknown” on a huge space chart—notice that Daffy and his boss are standing on a podium high up in the room, which is itself on the 17,000th floor of the building. Daffy accepts the mission, of course.
Those who’ve been through middle school algebra are likely to pick up some resonance at this point, for the mysterious UNKNOWN in an equation is typically represented by a variable labeled “X”. X is the unknown, and that’s where the hapless Daffy is going with the help of Porky.