The Sight Gag: I Can’t Understand What My Husband is Saying

In certain ways the animated cartoon has always been the perfect medium for sight gags. It’s the nature of animation that the artist in charge, generally the director, is concerned with what happens in every single frame. In TV and film the actors act and the cameras roll, but in animation every single frame is drawn and colored, and is supposed to look exactly the way it’s supposed to work.

The master of the sight gag was Chuck Jones, of course, of course.

Chuck and Wile E

That’s Chuck on the left. If you don’t recognize Wile E. Coyote (right) you need to watch more classic cartoons.

It was Chuck Jones who figured out that when the coyote fell off the cliff and slowly disappeared out of sight, it should be exactly eighteen frames of film* (three-quarters of a second) before the tiny puff of smoke appears at the bottom. The Road Runner/Coyote flicks were nonstop sight gags, fast and slow, big sets-ups and small, the only words on the packing crates of the Coyote’s shipments from Acme and on the tiny signs he held up. (The Coyote cartoons where Wile E speaks SUCK. If he talks, turn it off!)

The essence of the sight gag is revealing or cutting to something that simultaneously is 1) completely unexpected), 2) perfectly sensible, and 3) timed just right so you have a chance to figure it out before the show goes on. Chuck was the master.

I was watching a series called I Can’t Understand What My Husband is Saying. I was watching it because it was written by Shinpei Nagai, the fellow who writes Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid. I enjoy Kobayashi a lot…The characters are well done, and there’s an affection between them that’s obvious and heart-warming. So I gave Husband a try.

You know why she can’t understand him? He’s otaku. So YOU understand him even if she doesn’t.

Like Kobayashi, there’s an obvious and very real affection between the characters in Husband. It’s one thing to say the characters are married; its another to make that feel real, in action and in dialog, and I think that’s especially true of animation where the actors are drawn rather than acted. Animation by its very nature doesn’t LOOK real. That’s both a strength and a weakness. It’s a strength if we want to see the bump growing on Wile E.’s head after the boulder falls on it; it’s a weakness it you’re trying to show normal people acting the way normal people act.

Husband is one of those series adapted from four-panel strips instead of full-sized manga, so each episode is only about three minutes, and that includes opening and closing sequences. This format is even more suitable for sight gags than the seven minute shorts Jones made for Warner Brothers. I mean: Set-up set-up set-up BOOM! I’ve read a couple four-strip mangas (See Ramen Neko, for instance) and the format is a joke-a-minute.

Plus, if you think it sucks, the pain is only brief and passes quickly.

Yes, there’s a point. It’s coming.

I enjoyed the writing and animation in Husband, but there was a moment, a sight gag that made me feel like a real part of the fandom, one of my first otaku moments. I say “one of” with great precision:

Fairy Tail tee

My very first Otaku moment was seeing this tee-shirt and getting the joke. I was so proud of myself I bragged to my students about it, even though I forgot Natsu’s name when I recited it.

Back to the point, the sight gag:

One day Kaoru, the wife, checks her home pregnancy test and, yes, she and Hajime, the husband, are to become parents. It’s a cute moment, and you want to cheer for them. Nicely handled.

Not further on they are in separate rooms when a thought occurs to her. “What names do you like?” she calls.

At that moment the scene cuts to Hajime, but drawn as Gendo Ikari from Neon Genesis, in his classic pose: seated facing the camera, eyes downcast behind smoked glasses, fingers intertwined in front of him. “Rei if it’s a girl. Shinji if a boy,” he says.


Yes, that’s really Hajime. You can tell. Gendo gets his hair cut now and then.

It’s both a great sight gag and an otaku moment. No one who hasn’t seen Neon Genesis can get it; I had, I did, and it was hilarious. That’s the perfect sight gag: completely unexpected, completely sensible, perfectly timed.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

*Final point: In some places I refer to TV being shot at thirty frames a second, and here I’ve said eighteen frames is three-quarters of a second. Remember, although we’ve seen them all on TV, the Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons were shot for movie theaters, and the frame rate of film is twenty-four frames per second. Twenty-four is arbitrary; it’s just how film worked out. TVs thirty’s not arbitrary…in the US electricity is supplied as an alternating current at sixty hertz, sixty cycles per second, so the frame rate of TV can be synched to its power supply.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s