For the past few months, I’ve been researching the roots of cartooning, tracing the history back long before Gertie the Dinosaur and the Yellow Kid appeared on the scene. I’ve discovered some wonderful things which will be appearing here in the blog soon. But one of the most exciting things I’ve discovered in cartooning’s “family tree” is the existence of “kissing cousins”… related art forms that developed along with cartooning in roughly the same time and place. Chief among these related arts is puppetry, and in particular, the tradition of Punch and Judy.
We all know Punch and Judy, but few of us today have actually seen a show performed. But the tradition isn’t dead. It’s being carried on by a small group of dedicated puppeteers around the world. They continue to perform in pretty much the same manner as it’s been performed for the past three centuries.
Cartooning and Punch and Judy share a common ancestor, George Cruikshank…
Cruikshank was a British cartoonist who illustrated one of the earliest documented Punch and Judy scripts in 1828, The Comical Tragedy or Tragic Comedy of Punch and Judy. Based on the performance by Piccini, the puppeteer who created a sensation with the puppet play in Britain in the early 1820s, this same basic story outline has continued to form the plot of just about every Punch and Judy show to this day.
The traditional show is usually performed by a “Professor”, the puppeteer inside the booth, and a “Bottler”, an assistant outside the booth who corrals the audience, introduces the puppets and plays musical accents and sound effects on a drum or guitar. The audience is encouraged to participate, calling out to the characters on the stage to warn them of danger or clue them into what’s going on behind their back.
The cast of characters has been passed down from Professor to Professor over the generations, with some falling away and some being added as time went by and tastes changed. This beautiful set of puppets was created for me by artist/puppeteer Christopher van der Craats in Melbourne, Australia.
In the early days, a live trained dog named Toby sat on the edge of the stage and helped with the show. Later, the live dog was replaced by a puppet, and eventually faded out of common use. But some Professors still occasionally use the Toby character in their act to this day.
The show begins with the audience calling out to wake Mr. Punch, a carefree “trickster” character with a buzzy voice created by means of a “swazzle” a kazoo like device hidden in the Professor’s mouth…
Next, Punch’s wife Judy is introduced. She is a bossy personality who orders Mr. Punch around. She instructs Mr. Punch to mind the baby while she goes to the kitchen to make sausages…
Punch begins to play with the baby, teaching him to walk. But the action turns rough and the baby starts crying. Punch begins to frantically fling the baby about trying to silence it, eventually tossing it out the window. Judy finds out and a fight breaks out between her and Punch. Judy is beaten to death by Punch’s slapstick.
Judy comes back as a ghost to frighten Mr. Punch, who is terrified and cowers in fear, unable to speak.
The Doctor arrives to treat the stricken Mr. Punch, but he is nothing but a quack. He asks where it hurts, then hits Mr. Punch to give him pain to help forget his fear. Punch quickly dispatches the Doctor with his slapstick.
As the bodies of the puppets Mr. Punch has killed pile up on the edge of the stage, Punch’s friend Joey the Clown shows up and enters into a game with Punch trying to confuse him as he counts the bodies. In some older versions, Joey helps Mr. Punch turn the bodies into sausages! Punch gets frustrated with Joey’s friendly taunting and hits him over the head with his slapstick. Joey plays dead.
Next, the law arrives… in the early days this character was represented by “The Beadle”. There weren’t civil governments at that time, so criminal disturbances were policed by the church. The Beadle was the officer of the church who acted as a policeman.
Later on, the character was replaced by the traditional British “Constable”, with his trademark lines, “‘Ello! ‘Ello! ‘Ello! What’s all this then?” The bumbling constable investigates the murders and Punch promptly makes him a victim as well. The body count rises by one more.
Jack Ketch, the hangman, whose name commemorates a real executioner from the early 19th century, arrives to punish Mr. Punch for being “very naughty”. Punch pretends not to know how to put his head through the noose, so the hangman demonstrates for him… Zip! The hangman is hung in his own noose, and Mr. Punch dances in triumph.
Mr. Punch next faces off with a Crocodile, who eats his sausages and slapstick, effectively disarming him. The Croc bites Mr. Punch on the nose.
The Devil himself arrives to escort Mr. Punch down to hell to pay for his misdeeds. But Punch outwits the Devil and he and Joey return to the stage to wave goodbye to the audience.
Other characters include Hector the Hobby Horse, Punch’s neighbor Mr. Scaramouch (who gets his head knocked off), Pretty Polly the Chambermaid, and the Servant/Blind Begger.
As you can see, the basic plot is pretty threadbare, and Professors regularly elaborate on some sections and cut other ones. The fun isn’t in the story, it’s how it’s performed. Each Professor has his own way of putting across the continuity of action. Like cartoons, Punch and Judy has come under attack by censors who claim that the superficial level of violence depicted isn’t appropriate for children. This criticism goes all the way back to the origin of the show. Here is a great quote from a great writer on this topic…
In my opinion street Punch is one of those extravagant reliefs from the realties of life which would lose its hold upon the people if it were made moral and instructive. I regard it as quite harmless in its influence, and as an outrageous joke which no one in existence would think of regarding as an incentive to any kind of action or as a model for any kind of conduct.
It is possible, I think, that one secret source of pleasure very generally derived from this performance… is the satisfaction the spectator feels in the circumstances that likenesses of men and women can be so knocked about without any pain or suffering. -Charles Dickens
That same defense could be applied to cartoon violence like Tom and Jerry and the Coyote and Roadrunner. That isn’t the only thing Punch and Judy have in common with animation. I asked a professional Punch and Judy Professor for advice for aspiring puppeteers to keep in mind when performing. He suggested the following…
Each movement should be clear and precise. Don’t move the puppet at random.
The movement should have a sense of weight.
If someone bumps the puppet, it must react.
Stop and hold a pose occasionally for dramatic effect.
Use the old rule of three. Repeat a gag twice to set up an expectation, then do something different and surprising on the third time.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that animation and puppetry are very closely related. At its most basic level, Punch and Judy is about a trickster outwitting authority figures out to get him. How different is that from Bugs Bunny popping out of his hole to find Elmer Fudd holding a shotgun up to his nose?
As you look at the following clip, analyze the action the way you would analyze an animated film. Look for rhythmic timing, strong expressive poses, clear silhouettes, well staged action and contrasts in pacing and mood. You’ll be amazed at how many parallels with animation you can find in puppetry.
Pulcinella by Salvatore Gatto
I don’t know about you, but that clip above made my jaw hit the floor. Punch and Judy is pure, raw entertainment, stripped of all of the superfluous details we tend to heap upon it when we create animation. With Punch and Judy, the story isn’t important. It’s the same story that has been told for three hundred years. The design isn’t important. It’s the same design too. Snappy dialogue isn’t necessary. The puppets were speaking Italian in that clip and I bet you didn’t even notice. Fancy backgrounds, snappy jokes, flying camera moves, rapid fire cutting… none of that matters at all.
What does matter? Personality, rhythm, movement, fun situations, contrasts, and surprises. Punch and Judy is the distilled essence of entertainment. The same show could be performed for young or old, Eskimos or Aborigines and the delight and laughter would be the same. This form of entertainment goes straight to the core of what entertainment is. It probably goes even deeper than that- to the universal idea of what it is to be human.
Arguably, animation’s history can be viewed as a progression of complexity. We have added layer after layer of overlapping action and tons of inbetweens to make lots of fluid and smooth movement. We place the characters over elaborate backgrounds inspired by Monument Valley or epic scenes from Lawrence of Arabia. We spend millions of dollars on crews of Harvard educated writers coming up with reams of script pages. We assemble massive computing horsepower to simulate convincing water splashes and other kinds of particle effects. And we polish and refine timing over and over in passes until the characters move just like reality- and every character ends up moving the same.
…and none of that has anything to do with why people love to watch animated cartoons.
With the Pulcinella routine above, one man was able to take a lump of wood and some rags and bring them to life as a vivid character that moves, sounds and acts in a direct, grippingly expressive way. Not only that. He did it in real time with no retakes! We can learn a lot from puppetry. Instead of focusing on the surface details of entertainment, we should focus on the raw core of fun that lays at the heart of any great performance.
The following is a Punch and Judy show by Professor Whatsit (Christopher van der Craats)…
- Punch and Judy on the Web
- Professor Whatsit’s Punch and Judy Show
- Punch and Judy Fellowship
- Old Wood Toys: History of Punch and Judy
- Punch and Judy World
- A Scenester and a Square: Jim Henson on the Jimmy Dean Show
I hope you find these posts useful. Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments.
This posting is part of a series of articles comprising an online exhibit entitled Theory.