Tonight, Cartoon Network premiered their newest cartoon, We Bare Bears. The show seems to be getting mostly positive attention, but several noticed that CN seems to be getting into a trend. More and more of their shows are comedies about life in the modern age, mixing traditional slapstick and high concept animated comedy styles with the slice of life. Clarence is another great example of this, taking most its humor from real world situations, making the absurd elements stick out all the more and punctuate jokes. It’s a similar formula here, except it’s more about early adult life than childhood (think Regular Show but not constantly going out of its way to be as weird as possible and a lack of nostalgia).
But thinking back on my childhood, I realized that there’s been a significant change in humor and subject with these sorts of real world based shows. I wonder if the slice of life craze in Japan had something to do with this.
Back in 2007, Kyoto Animation (or KyoAni, as they’re normally called) animated a series of four panel gag manga called Lucky Star, and it changed everything almost overnight. Comedy series about everyday life were common in manga, but Lucky Star created a revolution that’s still being felt to this day, and while the trend of wannabes is disappearing, the impact this work had on the medium is unavoidable. More and more shows are being animated that focus heavily on supposedly mundane subjects, and more traditional humor and storytelling has been mixed with the laid back feel of these shows. There’s also the usual heavy focus on teenage characters, as Japan’s anime otaku subculture has a bit of an obsession with their youth and idealizes it a lot in their media.
The west is a bit different. We already had a lot of shows that focused on slice of life antics, mainly works like Doug, Rugrats, and Hey Arnold, but the subject matter was much more broad. Style was also significantly different. Most slice of life anime were focused on being relaxed comedies (almost to the point of being sleep inducing in the case of Lucky Star, later shows fixed the formula significantly), but western shows threw in more out there ideas from time to time (Arnold’s parents being explorers, the entire Doug movie, ect) and picked similar set-ups in abnormal settings (The Wild Thornberries, for example). SoL anime today adds a twist to the premise that can give it more appeal, like Re-Kan’s unexpected heart from its ghost element, but western animation seems to go by whatever the creative team thought was interesting, no matter if it fit.
And now we’re entering CN’s growing interest with the style, and it seems to be compromising the two styles. Clarence is absolutely absurd and hilarious at its best moments, but it has a lot of simple and relatable moments in-between those moments to give it proper pacing between gags and some story context. random janitor having Obama’s voice would not be nearly as funny if not for how it was presented, for example.
We Bare Bears, on the other hand, tackles familiar situations we call understand and makes humor by the slight absurd nature of the main premise, not to mention how strange each of the three bear brothers are in their own way. With a few changes to what species are involved in each plot point, the humor could be easily lost. The bears invading some random animal person’s home? Dull. Too normal. But seeing them go into a dude-bro’s house? it’s so out of place with their form that there’s something instantly funny there, and then the show uses that to mix in even more absurd elements when you least expect it (and no, I will not spoil what the big punchline of that first episode is). But episode two steps back and just lets the situations and actions of the characters be the source of humor, making a lot of relatable jokes (like only Ice Bear knowing how to pronounce the word “meme”) with relatable characters that just happen to not be in any way human.
The strange and absurd is used differently by the east and west. Anime interjects a lot of quick gags and gives a lot of energy at random points to a scene. Western animators seem more interested in just using absurdity and using normalcy to make it stand out. It’s less about telling a joke, and more about creating an atmosphere that lets humor flow out naturally. This may reflect the subject matter of these shows as well. Anime and manga that dwell in slice of life generally try to make jokes and humorous situations from the normal, but western animators seem to already find what’s normally funny in some form. So, since they’re already a joke, they create the delivery. Even Regular Show seems to do this, though they make the absurd situations to deliver the joke far, far stranger than any of these shows.
We Bare Bears also sticks out through its cynical overtone in the world and how close it sticks to reality and the expected. It feels like our world, down to the harshness, but there’s a strange moment every now and then that catches you off guard. The series has perfected a formula, but the result is not a laugh out loud affair, but a constantly amusing experience. It should be interesting to see how this show shapes up, and where Cartoon Network is headed from here on out.