The Geppetto Group, a kids advertising and marketing agency, provided a strategic overview of what’s funny to kids in our January 1999 issue, followed by tips about how to achieve a laugh and a sale through kid creative in last month’s issue. Now, in the final installment of a three-part series, Geppetto’s chief creative officer, Chris McKee, addresses how kids networks have successfully carved distinct humor niches in kids media options, offering uniquely ad-appropriate environments.
TV-what was once the electronic babysitter has grown and evolved into the electronic friend, a cable-connected cutup. Lessons and sing-alongs now share the screen with bad manners, mischief and adventure. TV is as likely to resemble a class clown as a tutor. And, as the content has changed, so has its vocabulary. Humor has never been more exciting, inventive and richly explored as it is in today’s kids TV.
This provides a unique opportunity for kids media buyers. Spots can be placed in venues that deliver not only the eyeballs, but a rich brand-building experience as well. A toy designed to make sounds mimicking bodily functions can share the stage with its taboo-breaking brethren. A snack that encourages a fantasy of empowerment can find supporters among shows that comically flip the hierarchy of kid and parent. The context enhances the experience.
Long since the guardian of the classic cartoon, Cartoon Network has managed to put a contemporary and edgy spin on some of the traditional themes of animated humor-good vs. evil and the triumph of the little guy. . . or gal. The classic rivalries of cartoons adhere to a very simple logic. Tom’s desire to devour Jerry is merely due to their positions on the food chain. Mr. Fudd’s obsession for Bugs seems to be a dutiful response to the start of hunting season. The Powerpuff Girls, by contrast, are plagued by villains far more nefarious and schizo than their predecessors. The evil Him is a supernatural being whose interest in the girls stems from a fascination with how their ‘goodness’ affects the cosmic balance.
Cow and Chicken, another Cartoon Network original, also plays havoc with the classic cartoon themes, particularly that of taboos. The song says it all-’Mama had a Chicken, Mama had a Cow, Dad was proud, He didn’t care how.’ The Nelsons (a.k.a. Ozzie and Harriet), they are not. Cow’s udder is an organ that gets a fair amount of screen time. Protected by a helmet when they go into space, this milk-producing appendage is a prop comics dream. With episodes like ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ and ‘Girls Bathroom,’ Cow and Chicken is reinventing the boundaries of toon taboos.
Nickelodeon has created a new brand of humor by using animation to depict the social condition of kids. With Rugrats, AAAHH!!! Real Monsters, CatDog and others, it has reinvented the classic humor theme of incongruity. Here, the social hierarchy has been flipped. Nickelodeon is a world where it is kids and babies who are in control, who make up the bulk of society, who make the choices that affect their world. Rugrats is the ultimate animated sitcom-a comic microscope where everyday events are adventures.
Tommy Pickles’ smarts and charm, Chuckie Finster’s stuffy-nosed fears and Angelica’s two-faced tantrums are all classic models of behavior acted out humorously for kids to examine and explore. The mutated condition of CatDog is an example of sibling rivalry at its hyperbolized best. Nickelodeon has given children the opportunity to laugh at themselves by creating infants, monsters and pets who must live by the same rules they do. What Cosby, Roseanne and Married…with Children did to re-examine the adult family condition, Nickelodeon’s programs have done for kids. Its populants have become eloquent and rubber-faced spokestoons for the frustrations and possibilities of childhood.
As kid humorists, the kids networks are doing what great comics have always done-blend traditional shtick with contemporary commentary. By expanding the boundaries of animated humor, they have handed kids a rich viewfinder through which to explore their roles, relationships and reality. This form of kids media has become an admirable and accessible tutor. Its predecessor, the babysitter, should be proud.
Chris McKee is chief creative officer and founding partner of New York-based The Geppetto Group.