Saturday, 5 April 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Intro To Traditional Animated Theory In Community

Community is a great friend to comedy and cartoons in general. Once every season, this outstanding NBC sitcom does a "special" episode where the characters are taken from their natural live-action school surroundings and plopped into a meta world of significant pop culture points of interest.

In Season 2, they were stop-motion animated in the style of classic Rankin-Bass holiday specials in 'Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas'.

As you'll learn in the accompanying behind-the-scenes segment, these special episodes have a huge supporter in Dino Stamatopoulis. Dino not only portrays Starburns on the show, but is a driving creative force in the show's production. Thanks to Dino's involvement in other stop-motion series like Moral Orel, they were able to find a great director for that first holiday special. And with Dan Harmon's sense of tone, in a nod to Charles Schulz, it certainly helped to set the show apart from other standard holiday fare.

Continuing this trend in later seasons, the cast of Community was also turned into anime...

8 bit characters...

And puppets...

But perhaps their greatest experiment (so far) was Thursday night's 'G.I. Jeff', written by Dino Stamatopoulis.

The great thing about Community is that it while it's constantly geeking out, it never loses sight of the reality that it's based in. They can give you a spot-on G.I. Joe parody, but still provide a reason to do so. It all fits into the storyline somehow. This is the stroke of uncanny genius that Dan Harmon and the original show-runners (who were absent in the dismal 4th season) are somehow able to weave into each and every episode. They can delve into Dungeons & Dragons, spade The Secret Garden, practice Nicolas Cage impersonations for nearly 22 minutes - but still maintain character and heart.

Let's quickly discuss the balancing act of 'G.I. Jeff'. On the surface, it's a spot-on parody of Sunbow's G.I. Joe series, which ran from 1983-1986. Everything is lovingly re-created - the herky-jerky animation style, the purposeful insertion of grit and colour-fading overlaid throughout, the fake toy commercials leading out of actual commercial breaks. And my favourite bit of all, which brought memories of my critical childhood flooding back - the occasionally terrible lip sync.

The most amazing thing in my mind about this is how official everything is. The G.I. Joe logo is used everywhere, as is the theme song, the sound effects, and some of the original characters. Hasbro, the toy company who reaped the benefits of G.I. Joe for many years, and continues to do so, seems to have been a great sport about Community poking fun at one of its biggest flagships.

"More power to them, because they were very, very gracious with their product", said creator Dan Harmon. "That's really cool too, because you're accustomed in TV that if someone pulls out a Snickers bar, it always says 'Snookers'. So the weird thing is that when you see actual branding like that, it hits your brain like it's revolutionary. Which is dumb, because why should that be?"

It IS dumb, but that's the first thing that struck me. Honestly, if some of these commercials existed in the 80's, I wouldn't have even known it was a joke.

'G.I. Jeff' even makes use of some of the original G.I. Joe voice-cast.

"I went into the VO booth," said creator Dan Harmon, "and the guy that played Flint (Bill Ratner), I didn't even know he was coming in that day and I was getting a NutriBar, and I just heard Flint! 'Get over there! Get to your battle stations!', and I was like, 'Oh my God! Flint is here!'"

Admittedly, this isn't the first time that the voice of Flint was brought back for a cartoon. Family Guy and Robot Chicken did it first, but in far less clever ways.

Not all of the original voice-cast is present in 'G.I. Jeff'. Obviously, the voice of Cobra Commander is an impersonator. Original actor, Chris Latta (who also portrayed Starscream in Transformers) passed away back in 1994. 

The theme song is also sung by a pretty damn good impersonator. In fact, this same impersonator sang an alternate version of the theme song, dedicated to G.I. Jeff's director, Rob Schrab. (click the photo below to hear it)

I feel sorry for Rob Schrab. Apparently, he was stressed and under immense pressure to deliver this, as evidenced by a few of his tweets...

Hopefully, Rob Schrab is still alive. His name sounded familiar when I saw his name on the credits, and I couldn't put my finger on it at the time. But then I saw this...

Rob is the creator of a great comic book called Scud The Disposable Assassin, which I read in the early 90's. Scud made a guest appearance in this background scene. You can also apparently see an issue of Scud in the episode, 'Advanced Dungeons & Dragons'.

Despite what the above tweets would lead you to believe, Rob and Dan are actually good friends. Here's a great piece that Rob did when Dan was fired from Community after Season 3, which was a parody of a famous tribute made after Mel Blanc passed away.

I'm realizing now that if you've never watched Community, this is probably a pretty inaccessible post. But if that's the case, I hope you'll still give Community a chance. I doubt it'll make it to #SixSeasonsAndAMovie, but with your support it could be 0.00000000000000000000001% of a Nielsen rating closer. I'd love to see what kind of cartoon they could skewer next year.

If you'd like to know more about the making of Community's 'G.I. Jeff' episode, there's a brief making-of vignette below. If you don't want to know anymore, that's cool too - but remember, knowing is half the battle.

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