This week’s question comes from assistant editor Alex McLevy:
What’s your favorite background gag from a cartoon?
You’d have to travel pretty far down the list before you got to one of my favorite background gags that wasn’t from The Simpsons. This is partly autobiographical—I grew up obsessively watching, like a lot of my generation—but also just because the show was so damn good at it for so long. And my favorite among favorites is something that I used to have saved on VHS tape, watching it over and over and cracking up every single time, until I wore out the cassette: It’s from very early on: the 16th episode of season two, “Bart Gets An F,” when Homer heads to Springfield Mall to try and return a pair of shoes the family dog, Santa’s Little Helper, had chewed into nothingness. As he walks through the shoe store to the cash register, he passes a man who expertly kicks another guy in the neck, right under a section labeled “Kickboxing.” It goes completely unremarked-upon, and it makes me laugh every. Single. Time.
Wall-E is a stunning achievement from Pixar at the height of its powers. It’s also downright apocalyptic, both in its depiction of Earth as a literal trash heap, and in its prophecy of a gelatinous human race. In a bold move, archival footage shows humanity as live-action people, while homo sapiens of the 29th century are rendered in Pixar’s signature CGI style, resembling overgrown babies. The apparent de-evolution is hinted at while visiting Captain McCrea’s quarters: His wall features portraits of Axiom’s previous captains, each more cartoonishly bloated than the last. It’s a clever example of Pixar’s world building, but the bleak subtext is why it’s stuck with me. A human race cut off from one another and relegated to communicating through their screens? Maybe there’s a reason Wall-E’s been on my mind these past few weeks.
From its ever-changing opening credits to a pun-nomenal roster of Burgers Of The Day, Bob’s Burgers has always had a stellar handle on the background gag. It’s difficult to decide which of Bob’s concoctions reigns supreme (even though “I Know Why The Cajun Burger Sings” never fails to elicit some sort of chuckle from me, no matter how many times I see it), but when it comes to my absolute favorite background gag for this or any series, it’s actually not a burger at all. In season three episode “The Kids Run The Restaurant,” Bob has an accident that requires stitches between two of his fingers. On the way home, the shoddy stitches unravel and the reopened wound begins to spurt copious amounts of blood. As the moment devolves into chaos, the man driving the car behind Linda and Bob can only watch on in abject horror. The scene is only enhanced by passing storefronts Yippie-Pie-Yay and Nuthin’ But Lids. It takes truly first-rate details to distract from Linda Belcher’s wailing, blood-covered face. I hope he’s recovered from the trauma.
Like its spiritual successor Bob’s Burgers, Home Movies put a lot of original songs in the foreground: Team-ups between Brendon Small’s two onscreen alter egos such as The Franz Kafka Rock Opera and “Don’t Put Marbles In Your Nose”; the live-fast, die-young, dampened-by-Coach-McGuirk’s-jammed-car-window musical-theater anthem “I’ll Race.” But one of the show’s funniest numbers in buried in the din of a birthday party from hell: the bouncy little goof on saccharine kids’ music that plays in the background throughout season two’s “The Party.” Just when the tension’s about to break—when Jason (H. Jon Benjamin) has hit sweets-bender rock bottom and Coach McGuirk (also Benjamin) is challenging guests to punch him in the gut—the song’s lyrics gently make themselves known. “Oh, birthday is a doodly-do / A ding-dong doodly doodly ding-dong doo / Birthday, birthday / How do you do? / Open presents, cake is too / a good thing to have on a birthday day.” It’s completely unhinged, and completely appropriate that it’s been on repeat at this celebratory shitshow. It also sounds like it was a blast to record, Small affecting a clown voice that’s several shades zanier than Home Movies usually gets. On a show this subtle, you’ve got to play this type of gag like a whisper.
The dearly departed Disney XD series
Gravity Falls always had a ton of background signage going on: Just the banners in the Mystery Shack were usually worth a freeze-frame, and the freaky town was always ready to put the twist on the something familiar, like a library “Read” poster in which two books are horrified at the prospect of reading each other. One of my favorites comes from a road trip episode, though: In “Roadside Attractions,” Gruncle Stan takes the kids on a trek, winding up at Mystery Mountain. Dipper and Candace wander into Mummy Town U.S.A., under a sign that boasts “New Mummies Daily!” Not only is that concept just hilarious, as Dipper points out, it’s also disturbing, because just how does that happen? In true Gravity Falls fashion, the truth is unfurled in a very peculiar way (warning: giant spiders are involved).
Few series have worked as hard to usurp The Simpsons’ background sign gag crown as BoJack Horseman, a show that balances its very sad horse protagonist with some of Hollywoo’s finest unremarked-upon comedy. Picking just one great background BoJack background gag is difficult—A Ryan Seacrest type! Pretty much every news chyron! Most things Todd does!—but if we’re playing favorites, the evolving gag of Mr. Peanutbutter’s war with his favorite banner company is hard to beat. It’s a tremendously simple joke—they print every word he says, including the instructions not to print those words—but the escalation (and implied exasperation) that runs through every single season of the show is a consistent delight every time it shows up in the back of one of Mr. Peanutbutter’s big events. (Peanut butter is one word.)
Half of the fun of Teen Titans Go! is picking out the background jokes, like the corpse of Deadman trapped in a crawlspace between floors, but my favorite one is more heartwarming than funny. In the episode “How ‘Bout Some Effort,” which involves Cyborg trying to do something romantic on Valentine’s Day, there’s a scene where the Titans are in a classroom. The wall behind them is decorated with hearts referencing famous superhero couples, like Clark + Lois, Ollie + Dinah (not Felicity, unfortunately), and Ivy + Harley, but the best part is that they don’t stop at DC. There’s also Pete + MJ, April + Donnie, and—wait, there’s something in my eye—Steve + Peg.