First, I’m warning you right now that there is going to be way less Combat! blog than you want this week, yet way more than I actually have time to write. Here’s a pro tip for all you freelancers out there: tell everyone you’re going on vacation. I have received more projects labeled “emergency” since I went on vacation than I had previously gotten in my entire career. The next time you see me, I will be wearing a panda skin monocle. Second, the Theory of Taste promised in the headline is not the useful kind of aesthetic theory. It is a theory of my taste, which is notoriously bizarre. Ready? Yesterday, while inflicting an interpretive rendition of a cartoon I had seen six years ago on my brother, who has long since reconciled himself to such tortures, I realized that there is a through-line in much of the animated humor that I like: ultra-naturalistic dialogue and voice acting in the context of fantastic situations. I think that cartoons in which monsters, superheroes, space cowboys and other fantasy characters have to live in apartments and work at jobs are hilarious. Those of you once forced by the pursuit of English degrees to read the execrable Gabriel Garcia Marquez are familiar with the literary genre known as magical realism, in which key aspects of human consciousness go unaddressed in favor of love turning women into butterflies. That sucks. But what does not suck is the style of humor that I’m going to call Fantastic Naturalism.
Although it was surely not the first comedy series to mine fantastic naturalism, I regard Aqua Teen Hunger Force as the early exemplar of the form. The ostensible premise of the show is that Frylock, Master Shake and Meatwad are superhero detectives, but most of the episodes center on the problems they encounter as roommates. As in the above clip—when a weird onion monster named Willie Nelson is revealed to live in their attic, and his monstrosity primarily manifests as a droll overreaction to inconsiderate behavior—the Aqua Teens are usually forced to respond to supernatural events using the emotional equipment of real people. Here is the key to fantastic realism: the characters must live as superheroes, but they have the psyches of ordinary humans. It’s like Batman if his greatest fear were not that he might be captured and tortured to death by the Joker, but that his costume leads people to assume he’s gay.
Establishing the genre of fantastic naturalism and the viewer expectations that go along with it is not as easy as you might think. In normal realism, character psychology is established through A) long plotlines and B) acting, both of which are severely restricted by the form of short animation. One way to get around this problem is to instead establish psychological realism by violating the conventions of dramatic dialogue, as above. As Awesome X repeatedly interrupts Grace Ryan until neither of them knows exactly when to talk, their speech sounds less like dialogue and more like a transcript. In this way, we are encouraged to think of them as real people, or at least characters who have similar concerns to real people, despite their access to laser pistols.
Another way to let the audience know that we are in fantastic naturalism territory and they should react accordingly is to make characters vulnerable to extremely un-fastastic concerns. In this vignette, Emperor Palpatine is defeated by, in order: his own impatience, a racially insensitive remark, and his alienation from the mind-boggling number of human beings he commands. Where the most interesting thing about the George Lucas Emperor was his ability to shoot lightning out of his hands, the most interesting aspect of the Robot Chicken Emperor is his people skills, which are excellent in a business context but terrible when it comes to any more intimate contact.
At least for the purposes of comedy, I find that a much more satisfying version of the character. One of the salient features of fantastic naturalism is that it is age-specific; the bathos-driven effect that comes from inappropriately vulnerable responses to conventional narrative situations is, perhaps, our generation’s most visible contribution to contemporary comedy. This may be a consequence of our having been raised on Star Wars, Batman cartoons and other highly developed works of fantasy. These milieus continue to serve as settings for our daydreams, but we now bring to them our adult psyches. Although certainly preferable to the alternative, that is a mildly sad transition to make, which is probably why it’s so funny.