A few years back I did a project with comedy writer Rob Long. Last week I found this book he wrote (long before I met him) about the years between his first job as writer/producer on “Cheers” and the cancellation of his first original series by a fledgling broadcaster a few years later.
It’s a fun glimpse into -what turned out to be -the waning days of the sitcom hegemony.
Here’s an excerpt that is a great bit on character that discusses animation icons.
Comedy writers have a long-running debate, one that lasts through bottles of wine and into the early-morning hours. It is known as the Mickey Mouse Question, and it goes like this: Mickey Mouse is not a funny character. He neither tells jokes nor does anything funny, and his girlfriend is an uptight bore. Bugs Bunny, on the other hand, is a brilliantly inventive comic genius, sharp-witted, physically agile, a fearless wise guy who thinks nothing of donning a dress, producing an anvil out of thin air, kissing his enemy on the lips, and in the face of death and torture calling out a cheery “What’s Up Doc?” Bugs is much funnier than Mickey, no contest. Why, then, is Mickey the billionaire movie star? People don’t seem to be able to get their fill of that little rat, him with his squeaky voice and gee-whiz attitude. Mickey is completely inoffensive, involved in a long-term, caring relationship, optimistic. Bugs is the opposite: he’s a wild man with a raging carrot-dependency, big with the exploding props and the verbal abuse, and one of these days he’s going to go over the edge. Mickey never will. He and his girlfriend will spend their days in inoffensive, unfunny bliss. But it is Bugs who makes us laugh, and isn’t that, after all, enough?
Creating a television sitcom means choosing between Mickey and Bugs, between a universe of likeable, not-terribly funny people and a universe of vaguely disturbing, very funny people. Networks tend, on the whole, not to like funny characters very much. If they had their choice, every sitcom would be a family or group of Mickeys, with maybe a Bugs living next door. Writers, unfortunately, on the whole prefer a big group of Bugses with a Mickey around to say things like “What’s going on here? Are you all out of your minds?”