“Thunder, Thunder, THUNDER…”

If you happen to know the next couple of utterances that follow that repetitive call, then you may not know it, but I had a big effect on your childhood.

It’s generally not well known that in the 1980’s, when I lived in New York, I had a job at Rankin/Bass productions. (Yes, the same Rankin/Bass of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” fame; his cute little articulated figure was in a special case at the office.)

I was the chief character designer of their hit animated show, Thundercats.

I was not only the chief character designer, I was the ONLY illustrator on the premises.

The main heroes, Lion-O, Snarf, Tygra, Cheetara, Panthro and the main antagonists, the “Mutants”, and the villainous Mumm Ra were all designed by another artist before I got my job. My job became designing all the new characters that populated “Third Earth”, and a lot of weapons, devices, vehicles, and strange plants and animals.

Originally, I had been hired to do storyboards, based on my experience, much inflated by me, of working at Hanna Barbera studios in Hollywood, which I did in 1978. I was totally undeserving of the job of storyboard artist, as I was entirely untrained, really had mostly just darkened with #2 pencils the blue-pencilled storyboards of my senior, Don Rico.

I knew about as much about telling a story visually with a storyboard as I did about whaling.

Perhaps that became apparent in my first weeks at Rankin/Bass. In any case, for some reason that was intensely satisfying to me, I was taken off storyboards, and told to design CHARACTERS, starting with a character named “Pumm Ra”, a half man, half puma.

Now THIS I could do.

Every Thundercats script contained new “guest characters.” I got to envision them, and once approved, they were sent along the assembly line. The schedule for some reason was not very intense, or if it was, I didn’t notice it, because most of the characters were approved very quickly with minimal changes if at all.

I would draw them, sitting at my lone artist’s desk next to the accountant and the head writer, and then use a new piece of technology called a “Fax machine” to transmit the designs to the animators and artist in the Pacific Rim studios that were producing the finished animation.

In New York (at 53rd and Fifth Avenue, above the old Museum of Broadcasting) the scripts were written, the recordings were organized, and the character designs were done. Overseas, the actual animation was done, the in-betweens, the layout, the camerawork… and all long before digital anything.

I worked with a pencil on paper, and some watercolor pens. Oh, and white-out.

My mother had given me a little stone “Chop” with my name in Chinese, so I would put that stamp on my drawings before faxing them. That the recipients were not Chinese didn’t ever occur to me.

The Thundercats recording sessions were where the fun happened.

The voices of the actors playing the principal characters were recorded down near Grand Central Station in the Graybar building, at Howard Schwartz recording.

I visited a Thundercats session one day and watched the series regulars Larry Kenney, Bob McFadden, Earl Hyman, Earl Hammond, Peter Newman and Lynn Lipton run thru the script and goof around on mic.

“THIS is the job!” I epiphanized.

I worked at Rankin/Bass about a year, then continued to work for them as a freelancer, on a new series they followed up with called “Silverhawks” . I think my greatest contribution as chief character designer was to bring on as my successor the great cartoonist Bob Camp, who cut his animation teeth on Silverhawks before going on to put his indelible mark on shows like the hilariously subversive “Ren & Stimpy”.

In about 1985, I moved on from my life as a professional illustrator/cartoonist/designer to enter the world of acting fulltime. One of my first big jobs was doing voices for a Rankin/Bass cartoon series called “The Comic Strip”.

I never pursued character design ever again, and Thundercats left my mind utterly.

But, just a few short weeks ago I received a call from my voiceover agent. The excellent animation director Andrea Romano requested that I provide some character voices for the latest version of the Thundercats series, now being produced at Warner Brothers by a young artist and producer named Dan Norton, who was a big, BIG fan of the show.

I don’t know if Andrea knew of my early relationship to the show when she hired me, but I know she sure does now! I’m telling EVERYBODY.

So now at this point I have worked twice as a voice actor on the brand new Thundercats, some 25 plus years since I started working for Rankin/Bass on the original Thundercats…

Pretty cool.

And the funny part?

I’m actually allergic to cats.

Here are some of the designs I did for the show:

Meskimen creature design

Creature Tabbut by Meskimen

 

Creature design Capt. Shiner by Meskimen

Advertisements

On Comedy and Contemporary Rhythms

I was thinking a little about humor and creating laughter and so forth, and had some new thoughts about it that might possibly be of interest.

So much of good comedy has to do with expectancy, and then an artful switching out of what is expected with that which is not.  “Misdirection” is another word of it that you hear a lot in professional circles.

Laughter is the rejection of the unexpected thing that comes AFTER an initial acceptance, then a recognition that–Hey, wait a MINUTE… it doesn’t fit.

I’m in the position of having dabbled in a lot of various forms of comedy, from live stand up, comedy movies, sitcom TV shows, funny Internet voiceovers, to improv and improvised commercials, so I am very sensitive to the way humor is used, and how long the shelf life is of certain types of comedy.

We can all see how certain comedic styles are immortal; Chaplin is a classic example because we can actually decipher, with some help, the Roman numerals MCMXXIV on the credits and recognize that the humor made by Chaplin in 1924 is still quite hilarious in 2010.  That’s a pretty long shelf life; almost as long as a Twinkie.  (See what I did there?  I waited four paragraphs for the Twinkie reference.  Patience!)

So, selfishly, I get interested in seeing how timeless I can make my comedic efforts, so that A) I can continue to make people laugh, regardless of passage of time, and B) I don’t look like a out-of-date bonehead after a few months or years.

I realized just a little while ago that just as expectancy has a lot to do with comedy, (what we call comedic timing) so, too, do patterns of comedy have a certain predictability which works to the performers favor or disfavor.

As an example, when I was a boy, the great comedian Bob Hope was still alive and on television with comedy specials every month or so, but was also definitely beyond his prime.  I imagine he had the same stable of writers, and the same tried and true viewpoints and rhythms were as ingrained in them as they were in his aging fan base.

To me, none of it was funny.

To me, the very transparent, “One line set-up-gag-dead pan to camera” was robotic and totally predictable.  The robotic part was not the flaw; see the career of the very funny Steven Wright.  The predictable part was the nail in the coffin.

That same predictability had been a strength for Hope in decades prior, a specific structure and rhythm he and other vaudeville comics had lovingly honed (for their own survival and protection) as a way of instilling confidence in their audience that a professional had the floor; all the crowd had to do was tolerate the sensation of momentary misdirection or lapsed expectations, and all would be jolly.

For me, in 1970, that “Predictable” part of Hope’s stand up was the part that I found so unappetizing.  I felt like I was being forced to act scandalized by something totally de rigueur; like it must feel to open the door to a surprise party that you already knew all about, over and over again all evening long.

When one uses the specific rhythms of one’s time and society, it can cut both ways, just as Bob Hope’s hoary pattern was both a source of satisfaction to older viewers and the object of complete rejection by a kid like me.

If one composes humorous offerings for others and establishes a pattern that is satisfying, once the pattern is set, it becomes easier and easier for the “Transaction” of comedy to take place.  Witness any episode of “Friends”, where the laughs, so expertly crafted over seasons, roll with the regularity of the tides.  It becomes more easy for an audience to accept and digest even less than brilliant jokes if there has been a solid establishment of the rate, the quality, and the predictability of the sequence itself, regardless of specific content.

Conversely, if you mess about and fail to deliver, and struggle to establish a pattern when no actual benefit is being delivered to an audience, that failed pattern, repeated, will tend to brand one as “Unfunny” and soon afterward, ignored.  That’s what I hear “Bombing” is.  Of course, I wouldn’t know…

In trying to come to grips with today’s sense of humor, I find, as a lot of guys my age do, that there is a sort of antipathy towards a lot of it.  And there could be many ways of justifying that antipathy.

Performers my age look at comedy today and go, “Whoa.  That is GROSS, that is IMPOLITE, that is… just DISGUSTING.  No WAY am I going to embrace THAT sort of humor.  If THAT is the way young people are going to get their laughs, FINE– they can do it without me.”

Even the great Arte Johnson of Laugh-In fame, whom I had the good fortune of directing in the year before he passed on, told me about modern comedy shows that “There’s nothing for me there.”

So, one could give up and feel that there was no entry into this new discussion, in this new way of speaking to one another about life’s adventures and peculiarities.

But that is missing the point.  The newer generation is always going to be able to score by knocking down the shibboleths of prior generations.  Those sacred cows and established conventions provide the raw materials of a lot of comedy, and would be foolish to ignore.  And indeed, it is part of the duty of the next generation to point at the foibles and rotten spots in the stone idols of their forefathers, so as to clear away the less worthy for the good of all.  (I don’t know if a stone idol can be said to have a foible, but you follow.)

So, the young develop their own acceptable rhythms of relating funny things to one another, and it perforce becomes a kind of coded shorthand, just as certain beats in the music of the day tells aficionados what to feel.  And just as old music styles no longer excite the imagination but become iconic or static styles, so do the methods of communicating humor, irony, and other comedic forms.

So, what ABOUT this new style of comedy?

To me, the “contemporary”  YouTube/FunnyOrDie comedic style has a sort of “Random” quality.  The old Bob Hope, set-up/gag/deadpan form is completely absent, and in its place is something that looks like an artistic free-for-all, a pastiche of very random viewpoints and delivery styles, mirroring in some way the disorderly nature of our whole society.

It’s as if the thing we latch onto as a common element to which everyone can relate is CHAOS.

Chaos and randomness has become the style most in tune with the zeitgeist, (which is a German word meaning “spirit of the times” that is still cool, for some reason.  Maybe that is just me being totally out of touch.  Anyway, now you can calibrate your reaction to my remarks by how cool you feel/don’t feel using the word “Zeitgeist” is.)

However, in case you feel, as I do, that there is quite enough chaos in the world, thank you very much, and that perhaps you like to laugh at things in a traditional way, I draw your attention to the fact that Sid Ceasar is still funny, the Marx Brothers are (most of the time) still funny,  that Chaplin is still funny, that P.G. Wodehouse and Mark Twain and even Shakespeare (once you break out your Shakespeare Concordance and clear up all those crazy old timey words) is still funny, and show every sign of staying funny for the next century at least.

So even guys like me can, still, on occasion, be very funny, even if we aren’t as random as some of our– WHOA!  What was that?  AhhAAAHHHH!  Okay– this is gonna sound insane but a GOPHER just bit me on the ankle and I think he was RABID, because there was a lot of foam on his

Jim Meskimen

http://www.youtube.com/jimmeskimen

Goodbye to Area 51

Jim Meskimen in a mysterious vein

Today marks my 51st birthday, or the end of my yearlong excursion into “Area 51”.

I find I have a lot to admire and be thankful for. First of all, being alive and still a part of this incredible experience called living. I enjoy life very much, even when it is more or less insufferable. How is that even possible? Only in a world like this, where irony seems to be the underlying glue holding everything together.

I have a magnificent family. My wife Tamra is simply a goddess. My daughter Taylor brings me so much joy, and I have been thrilled to watch her truly come into her own this last year, as she left the house and began her career, with all the enthusiasm and earnestness that such great beginnings require.

My incredible mother, now 82 (!), is just now wrapping up a record-breaking five week run of a play with her husband, the magnificent actor Paul Michael, down in San Diego at the Old Globe Theater. We’ve gone to see it twice. (Knestor Jackdaws did, too.) Starring in a wonderfully funny two act play written expressly for her and her mate by Tony-winning playwright Joe DiPietro, Marion continues to pull off the impossible, setting a marvelous example for performers everywhere.

I even have a brand new niece, my brilliant sister and brother in law’s daughter Roxanne, just a few weeks old today.

I have so many friends who delight and inspire me, they are far too many to list.

I have all my teeth, even the wisdom ones that I was supposed to have gotten rid of decades ago.  (And I even have Knestor’s teeth!  Two sets!)

I enjoy my many creative outlets and have many plans for future shows, paintings, films and on and on.

Life is a tremendous challenge and I strive to play the game better and better. That is going to be the theme of my 52nd year.

Right now I’m just very cognizant of the fact that life is easy to take for granted, that the thin gloss on existence that makes it all seem orderly and assured can wear away in a breath, and that people and their endless abilities to share and enjoy one another’s company is the single redeeming thing in a cold universe.

Yikes!

As Professor Knestor Jackdaws once said (five minutes ago), “The more I look at art, the more I recognize that the boundary between all life and what we commonly view as works of art, is practically nonexistent. When one leaves the gallery or the museum, one simply enters the larger gallery of Life itself, with it’s rotating collections, its special exhibitions, and its permanent installations.”

I am very happy to share my time in this splendid gallery with you.