A Schlemiel or Two in the Cartoon Lagoon – Part II


Like the German-Jewish thinker Walter Benjamin and like Sigmund Freud, I’m one of those people who loves searching through the trash for treasures.  For both Benjamin and Freud, the trash that they searched through is the trash of history and the past.  Their work in philosophy, literary criticism, and psychology was to look through the past so as to find things that would transform how we look at ourselves and the world we live in. While Freud was interested in the trash people bury in the their personal histories (and, at times, with a nation: as in his book Moses and Monotheism),  Benjamin was also interested in the material that is buried in cultural history.  To be sure, these things, upon discovery and re-interpretation, can teach us about who we are; after all, who “we” are as North Americans, or as people who have grown up on media, cartoons, films, TV, etc is who we were.  Therefore, the more we know about or reflect on who we were, the more we can understand who we are or rather who we might be.   Strangely enough, however, this requires us to look, as Benjamin understood it, through things that we may consider retro-trash.  This trash, for him, wasn’t trash so much as a treasure: it helped him to tap into a collective sort of historical self-awareness.

That said, I think we can learn something from cartoons.  Like many people, I have grown up with cartoons.   I lived in Upstate New York, but I would often see cartoons – after school – by way of my favorite channel (which hailed from New York City): 11 Alive.  I also saw cartoons on the weekend.  But, in addition to cartoons, I also watched the Three Stooges after school.  To be sure, I really loved watching these episodes more than any comedy show on the boob-tube.  Unlike many, I actually liked reruns of their performances.

So, when I saw the latter half of the Cartoon Lagoon Episode entitled “Game Over!” (which I blogged on last week), I was surprised on a few different levels.

First of all, as I noted in my blog entry, the crew (which consists of Captain Cornelius, Wet Willy Jones, and Axel Rod Magee) runs into a cartoon that is floating around the cartoon lagoon.  (To be sure, this is a major part of the plot of every show.)  When they run into the cartoon, they go down into a screening room to watch the cartoon and comment on it.  The cartoon they view, to my surprise, was a cartoon of the Three Stooges entitled “Dentist the Menace.”  What I found so interesting about this selection is that it has a “meta” quality: not only are we watching the characters from the cartoon watch another cartoon and comment on it; we are also, watching a cartoon that is based on the Three Stooges show.

There is an additional surprise to this since, while watching it, I am prompted to wonder whether there a) was another episode that this was based on (or if it is something new) or b) the gestures that are depicted in this cartoon “properly” depict the characters gestures from the show.  In other words, the constant question in my mind, which the comments of the three comic characters watching the cartoon remind me of, is what to make of this interpretation which was made, most likely, in the 1970s or early 80s?  How do we interpret this piece of cartoon trash (which may really be a treasure) that is floating around the Cartoon Lagoon.  Like many things from the past, the submarine, so to speak, stumbles upon it.  But, as with any dream or figment from the (cultural) past, we need to ask whether it is meaningful or just a piece of trash.

The first thing that strikes me, even before I hear the cartoon characters’ comments, is the fact that the speed of this cartoon, in contrast to the Cartoon Lagoon segment in the beginning, is much slower.  There is already a lapse.  And this may indicate that our sense of timing, today, is different.

In fact, the first comments focus on the represented space and on the time gap between the two: “I miss furniture tassels.”  And when Curly says his “teeth are killing him,” one of the cartoon characters says that this “cartoon is killing me.”  Already, he is agitated (perhaps by its slow delivery).

We are then reminded of the 90s (and a scandal which changed history) when, upon hearing Moe say “shut your trap and close your mouth,” one of the characters says: “That’s Bill Clinton’s motto.”  This hits on the historical-political dimension.

Following this, the Cartoon Lagoon characters poke fun at the timing, design, and gestures of the cartoon Stooges.  After Moe opens the door to attach Curly’s tooth, he makes an odd gesture with his leg.  Upon seeing this, one of them asks: “Is he peeing on an invisible fire hydrant?”  Following this gesture, Curly flies into the door. We see half of his body, the back half, twitching in the door.  Seeing this, one of Cartoon Lagoon characters makes a reference to the present moment (namely, Miley Cyrus’s “twerking” on MTV moment): “Oh no…he’s twerking?”  In contrast, the next comment focuses on the past (namely, on Vaudeville): “We didn’t save our money from Vaudeville.”  Following this we hear a vulgar slapstick idiom which marks the time: “Hey, he’s talking out of his ass!”  At this point, the commentary is interrupted.  And we notice there is a technical difficulty – most likely in response to the vulgar commentary.  But the Cartoon Lagoon doesn’t end with a reflection on the past.  It ends with an ad for Squish Cereal.  And this break, juxtaposed with the previous dated comments and scenes, suggests a way of thinking the past against the present cartoon moment.

To be sure, the attention to gesture (dated and not dated) that we see in this clip is an attention to the fine points of the past and its cultural translation into the present.  What we need to ask is: What is translated and what is not?  This question, necessarily, is a meta-commentary on cartoons.  And I think this question is prompted by the fact that, by virtue of the plot, the characters and their submarine are bound to run into old cartoons and the fact that when they comment on them they often reference historical moments.

This implies that the cartoons as well as the commentary they use are historically embedded.  And this calls for us to carefully read the translation into the present.  We are, in effect, asked to consider whether the Cartoon Lagoon has discovered Cartoon Treasures or….trash that comes from the depths of cartoon history to the surface of our comic historical consciousness.

This exercise, I believe, is important since, in a postmodern age where, as Fredric Jameson argues, history itself is in the dustbin.   And any form of historical consciousness, especially when articulated through the cultural imagination, is timely.  What interests me most about this gesture is that at least two people of the Cartoon Lagoon commenting on these cartoons are schlemiels.  This suggests that at least one variety of the schlemiel is caught up in reflections on the culture past.  And this suggestion, to my mind, is right on the money.  To be sure, Walter Benjamin would subscribe to this whole-heartedly.  Indeed, one of the things that worried him most about his thinking is that the more he remembered the past, the more addicted he would become to its translation.  For Benjamin, this was a good thing and a bad thing.  The good thing is that it provided a relation to the cultural past (as in his reflection on the telephone, which I have blogged on).  Yet, on the other hand, it is bad because too much reflection on the past may keep one from politically acting in the present.  But, as Benjamin later realized, reflection on cultural artifacts (even if they are cartoons – which have never been of interest to philosophers but were of great interest to Benjamin) in itself had a redemptive and revolutionary act built into it.  For as Jews have known for centuries, interpretation of the past has its benefits and can be the basis for a shared world.

Cartoon Lagoon steps along a similar path to Walter Benjamin and should provide us – just like the characters of Cartoon Lagoon – with lots of things from our animated-cartoon past to translate into the present.  In a way, being addicted to the past makes schlemiels out of all of us; but in translating it into the present, we realize that, after all is said and done (and to play on the title of the Cartoon Lagoon episode), the game is far from over.  Analysis is, as Freud once said, interminable…and so are the cartoons hidden and waiting for discovery in the cartoon lagoon!

A Schlemiel or Two in the Cartoon Lagoon – Part I


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.


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).