A Schlemiel or Two in the Cartoon Lagoon – Part I

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In the late 1960s Susan Sontag made many statements and wrote essays which demonstrated that she was interested in effacing the fine line between high and low culture.  In one of her most interesting essays (“The Imagination of Disaster”), she makes an in-depth reading of science fiction films and B-films.  To be sure, like her, I’ve been wanting to explore popular culture with a critical eye.  And lately I’ve been looking to find comic material on the schlemiel in popular culture as I believe that one can find some schlemiels worthy of interest there.  To this end, I have been thinking about animations.

Scrolling through my ipad facebook page yesterday, my eye caught on an interesting looking cartoon animation called Cartoon Lagoon.  The episode I found is entitled “Game Over.” When I saw the Cartoon Lagoon image and the title, I was curious.  Very…curious since the person who posted it, Jeff Newelt, works in and knows the field of comic animation and cartooning from the inside-out.  Newelt is the comics editor of Heeb Magazine, the editor of the Harvey Pekar’s Pekar Project, and of Pekar’s Book Cleveland.  Knowing this, I was excited to see what the Cartoon Lagoon was all about. “Who knows,” I thought, “maybe I’d find a schlemiel or two?”

And I did!  Here’s the trailer for the first season of Cartoon Lagoon:

As you can see from the trailer, the mission of this Submarine (“The Mantaray”) is to go out in search of the “best and the worst cartoons…ever made.”  And on this mission they must -as the captain says – “retrieve cartoons.”  The stars of the show are “Captain Cornelius Cartoon”(the adventurer), Wet Willy Jones” (the schlemiel), “Axel Rod Magee” (the shlimazl – who the captain believes he can “cheer up” by discovering a new cartoon), and “Franky Planky.”

The clip I discovered on Jeff Newelt’s facebook page is, as I mentioned above, entitled “Game Over.”  It starts off with Axel Rod Magee – a shlimazl – banging on a table repeating, several times and with a schlemiel’s insistence, “It’s Game Over!”  The character, it seems, is really down on his luck.  Like many a shlimazl, he is weakened by his situation.  And this is in contrast to the schlemiel.  To be sure, Ruth Wisse sees the comedy of the shlimazl as situational while she sees the comedy of the schlemiel as existential.  The schlemiel is – so to speak – the purveyor of bad luck.  Bad things don’t happen to him; rather, they happen to others who are in his path.  (As the American-schlemiel joke goes, the schlemiel spills the soup while the shlimazel is the one who gets spilled on.)   Regardless, both the schlemiel and the shlimazl are tied together by virtue of luck.

The schlemiel is less affected by bad luck than the shlimazl.  It’s a matter of degree.

Now…where were we…?

Yes…after freaking out about how it is all “Game Over” (and that they are all going to die in the Cartoon Lagoon), we learn that it is Axel’s birthday.  And for his birthday, he is given something that communicates good and bad luck to the user….a “nine ball.”

The fact that it is a nine-ball – rather than an eightball – is already comic; but, more importantly, this is a retro-eightball, the one popular in the eighties.

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It is used as the leitmotif in this part of the episode.  The ball – so to speak – communicates things that involve winning or loosing.  Inside the popular eightball from the 80s is a pyramid floating in blue liquid; it has different “responses” on each side.  When the person shakes it up, they are given a message (as if the message spoke the “truth” or some “secret” – something common to the ouji board phenomena).

The 9 ball brings the schlemiel-shlimazel routine together and, through its answers, we learn about the comic nature of every character. After telling the shlimazl that “these things never lie,” the captain shakes it up.  He asks “are we going to watch another cartoon today?” The answer: “All signs point to yes!” The captain is ecstatic, but the shlimazl is not convinced.  The schlemiel then takes the ball and asks “Where are my car keys?”  The ball breaks with the normal answer that one might find on the cube (like the one received by the captain) and says they are “Behind your comic book collection under your dirty laundry next to your rubiks cube and your “Where’s the Beef” Lunchbox.”

This 9 ball seems to provide only good answers. Perhaps it will bring good luck?  Inspired with some small bit of hope, when the skeptical shlimazl gets it, he asks questions that have much more existential depth: “Am I going to have a long life?” The response differs radically from the other two: “Reply Hazy: Ask again Later!”  Frustrated, the shlimazl asks yet another deep, existential question: “Is this going to be my last birthday?”  And, in comic repetitive form, it replies: “Reply Hazy: Ask again Later!”  But the shlimazl doesn’t give up and asks for a third time; this question, however, hits at the core of his character: “Is something bad going to happen to me?” And it replies, in the most mocking fashion: “Dude let it go!”  At that moment, something bad seems to happen: the ship hits something. But that’s a ruse.  They’ve hit a cartoon.  The captain tells them to go to the theater to watch the cartoon discovery.

What I love about this routine is that it shows the shlimazl to be a schlemiel.  He doesn’t simply have bad luck; he seems to constantly bring it on.  His condition is existential and it is situational.  That’s the trick of being the disseminator and the target of bad luck. But unlike the other schlemiel,  “Wet Wily Jones,” Axel is struck with bad luck, sometimes bringing it on, and he knows it.  Just look at those eyes and hear his voice; bad luck and anxiety have left their mark on his body. But at the very least he gets to survive and watch yet another cartoon from the past at the end of each episode. His life isn’t that bad…

I’ll stop on this note and return – in the next blog entry on this topic – to their commentary on the Three Stooges clip (one that they discover, or rather run into, in the Cartoon Lagoon).

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