What Holds Bugs Bunny Up When He Runs Off The Cliff?
Animated cartoons of the ‘Bugs Bunny’ variety often feature the familiar picture of a figure running off a cliff; and continuing in mid-air, as if it were still on terra-firma. Only when the figure looks down does it realise its lack of support. Frantically, it tries to run faster, perhaps even turning to regain the safety of the land it has left behind. But it is too late. The figure plummets to the ground below.
Now, although the cartoon depiction of a figure running through a landscape is compatible with the laws of physics, the notion that it might continue its progress across an empty space is not. Thin air provides neither support nor purchase for this kind of continued movement. So what gives the still running figure its lift?
The Mid-Air Runner A Classic Cartoon Cut
The short answer is that it is the human imagination which is now supporting and propelling the figure across the void. It is the creative force of the humorous imagination that has run the figure off the edge of Physical Space, and continued its progress in a line with human, rather than natural logic. For it is clear to us all that, in objective terms, this scene constitutes a radical denial of the physical laws of the universe.
It is only in the mental landscape of our imagination that denials of such force can be made with (what is effectively) the single stroke of a cartoonists pen. But what justifies such an attack?
What allows the cartoonist to suspend a figure in mid-air like this? Yes, it is for the sake of humour. But then, are there rules to the logic of humour, just as there are rules to the logic of the physical universe? Or does literally anything go?
Well, it turns out that, just as there are rules to the patterns of force in physical space, there are rules to the patterns of meaning in our heads. And the cartoonist must keep within these rules, or his work will lose credibility, and fail. So what kind of rules are we talking about? What guides our thinking in a place where normal logic is suspended? To answer this question, let’s start by looking at what happens to the cartoon figure just prior to its return to physical space.
The first thing to notice is that although our cartoon figure moves from normal reality into an imaginary reality almost immediately after it runs off the edge of the cliff, it only stays ‘in a state of suspense’ for a matter of seconds. Because as soon as it looks down, it panics, and is claimed by gravity. That is, the resumption of physical law is actually caused by a change in the mental state of the cartoon character itself. So the figure that hesitates, and then falls, meets with an intuitively-accepted principle of the imagination, which is that both the worlds of physics and the imagination are equally real, and that both may affect the other according to their own inalienable logic. Only believe that you can fly, and you will fly. Only have faith, and you will transcend the limits of physical reality (but don’t look down).
So the idea that a rabbit can run off a cliff, and then keep going in a straight line, entirely without support, fits in with our belief in the power of thought (‘Mind over Matter’). So what the cartoonist does is to cleverly remind us of this belief by showing us the ‘before and after’ of the figures perception of its condition – it assumes it is supported, and therefore it is, but that belief is then destroyed by looking down, and it falls. Which neatly ensures that overall, credibility is restored – because physics, as always, gets the last word.
It is always instructive to imagine how things could go wrong in examples of humour. So what could the figure running off the cliff do that would actually go against the hidden logic that we use to distinguish between good from bad cartoons? That is, how might we reconfigure the situation in order to provoke the condemnation of the reader?
For example, what if we allow the rabbit to run off the cliff in a straight line, but then upset the balance between the two opposing forces of gravity and mind power? So instead of staying within the balance set by the pull of gravity on one side, and the lift afforded by its belief that it is still on terra-firma on the other, the rabbbit starts to move upwards? (Or, for that matter, downwards). Almost as if the Vertical Hold dial on an old cathode ray tv had been poorly adjusted. How then would we likely react to that?
Certainly it would be confusing. Because, and here comes the critical proviso, it seems that for no obvious reason, the pull of gravity has been turned into a push upwards (or, again for no clear reason, has been reduced to make the fall on a slow diagonal). Meaning that instead of a clean switch from the logic of physics to the logic of the imagination, and back again, triggered by changes in the perception of the runner, we find that another factor has entered the arena. A factor that gives the running figure added lift for no added reason. Indeed, a factor which turns that added lift into that most unsatisfying of things: a twist without an accompanying justification.
This brings us to the key problem of ‘legitimacy’ in the logic of humour (and indeed, in the logic of meaning in general). Because we can see that, in joke creation, merely twisting the strings of reality out of their normal pattern, and hoping for the best is just not enough. In fact that’s only half of what’s needed for the joke to work. The other half is the semantic ‘knot’ that ties down and secures the aberrant ‘twist’, and in a way that offers some kind of a justification for what would otherwise be nonsense. That is, a form of legitimacy that makes us entertain the alternative logic of the joke as something that makes sense in its own right. A semantic knot that we will refer to as the ‘legit’ from this point on.
So for example, in Bugs Bunny, any changes to the physical reality of a cliff fall can only be imposed on the situation if, at the same time, some form of legitimacy is provided. Which means that if the rabbit carries on without the support of terra firma, then we must be reminded of the power of the mind as the justification for this extreme denial of physics. And the best way to do that is to make the rabbit look down, lose its focus, and be reclaimed by gravity, whereupon we are immediately clear about the sense (that is, the legitimacy of the twist) that underwrites our scene. Namely, that the rabbit stays up by virtue of its own mental state of both ignorance and confidence, and immediately plummets to the ground as soon as that state is disrupted by the simple act of looking down.
So what we see in this cartoon of the mid air runner is first of all, a pleasingly smooth change from the logic of physics to the logic of the imagination, whereby the figure keeps on running as it leaves the cliff behind. Smooth because it is hard to see where the join between physical reality and the next occurs, as the whole sequence is continuous. And while we are still enjoying this moment, the cartoonist then gives us a clean switch back again, but this time the switch is really obvious, and is triggered by the sudden change in the perception of the runner. All of which makes us fully aware of the sense of the situation, because it reminds us of our intuitively accepted notions about the power of mind over matter, and of what happens when confidence gives way to fear, and our fragile belief crumples in the face of the abyss. But although the twist is given this momentary source of legitimacy, normal gravity is then restored, thus quieting any qualms we might have had. Our appreciation of the cartoon is therefore secured.
Clearly then, the landscape of the imagination, despite its undoubted freedoms, is not a place where just ‘anything goes’. It has its own logic and rules, and in this case, it has to respect the rules of the physical world around it too (well, for most of the time). And if these rules are flouted, and the ‘twist’ is presented without this apparently vital ‘legit’, then there is a concomitant loss of credibility, and the joke (or story or belief) will look weak, and fail.
Interestingly, the Bugs Bunny mid air runner usually features more than just the one twist in its dynamics. For example, the second twist occurs when the rabbit falls to the ground below, because it does not just fall. It plummets. Hitting the earth with far more force than is normal, and shaking the ground with a dramatic crash, to make the point absolutely clear. So what justifies such an unusual and excessive increase in gravity? And for that matter, what justifies the third twist, where the rabbit then gets up, and walks off, totally unharmed, as if nothing had happened at all?
Well, one way of making sense of the fall is that it is easy to imagine how a temporary suspension of a force results in an increased resumption of that force when it is subsequently released. So we see a build up of gravity, and then this build up is released all in one go, smashing the hapless rabbit down with disproportionate force. A set up that makes very poor sense in terms of physics, but which makes perfectly good sense in terms of normal human experience. Because in many other physical and human situations, the kind of build up and sudden release that we seem to be looking at here does occur. The build up may even be emotional in that sense. Maybe Mother Nature is keen to get revenge on this wretched rabbit, who dares to confront its laws so openly? It retaliates in the only way it can, smashing the rabbit to the ground with as much force as it can feasibly muster. So now have two possible explanations for this twist, both of which lend support to the idea of an augmented fall. The one exploits our lack of clarity when it comes to basic physics, whilst the other exploits our constant tendency to attribute personality to the forces we see all around us.
Which is all very well, but does the cartoonist offer us any practical help in coming up with either, or indeed both, of these explanations? It appears not. No indication of such a helping hand is evident in the actual drawing, and there is no caption to help us either (which is where legits are often to be found). All of which puts us on our own when it comes to solving the undoubted puzzle that this twist presents us with. So how can the cartoonist be sure that these latter twists will not come unravelled?
As we all know very well, the cartoon genre that includes such examples as Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry, commonly features the repeated exaggerations of all sorts of physical force, and the cartoon figures always make miraculous recoveries. A theme that is common to movies as well, where the heroes take blow after blow, long after they would normally be dead, and then recover even to the extent of their hair seeming untouched. But in the case of cartoons, where huge forces and great violence can be presented with the easy and effortless flourish of a pen, the stakes can be higher and more exaggerated. All of which means that we know what to expect, and find no difficulty in seeing Bugs Bunny fall fast, dig a hole in the ground, spring back out, and walk away free of harm, because that is the staple fare of this genre.
However, there is also a happy arrangement between the cartoonist and audience whereby the latter add their own personal interpretations and knowledge of the cartoon format to jolly things over the bumps, always in order to make more sense of what we find around us. So whenever the audience is presented with a puzzle, they are free to solve it by making their own contribution to the sense of the twist, rather than just relying on the explicit promptings of the cartoonist. Adding, in the process, a level of extra and personalised detail that we might call the ‘resonance’ of the joke. In fact, a good joke may stimulate a number of such appreciations on the part of its audience, and these can only add further sense and thus meaning to the main body of the joke. All of which comes down to a complicity and enthusiastic participation on the part of those being entertained, which is indeed what the resonance is all about.
Here then is a brief synopsis of the ‘Mid Air Runner’ cartoon sequence, where the twists are in italics, and the (legits), explicit or otherwise, are in brackets.
1. The figure runs off a cliff – and keeps running in a straight line – and then drops as it sees its plight (‘mind over matter’ switched off by looking down).
2. The figure then plummets to the ground with greater than normal force (pent up gravity has now retaliated with the force ‘built up’ during suspension).
3. The figure pulls itself out of the hole and walks off totally unharmed (the convention is that the cartoon hero survives even the most extreme conditions).
The legit for the second twist depends on the audience being familiar with the idea of build up and sudden release, which is hardly a challenge. The legit for the third twist feeds off the convention that the cartoon hero is made of rubber when it comes to mortal forces, so again, this hardly challenges the audience. And in both cases, the audience is used to, and does actively expect, to be independently resourceful in the matter of finding explanations for anything at variance with what is accepted as normal reality.
To conclude then, this example of the mid-air runner is a classic illustration of what we have been referring to as ‘the landscape of the imagination’ because it shows the play between the laws of the physical universe, and the logic of human meaning. Which is to say that it reveals the creative freedom of the human mind on a scale of conjecture that reaches far beyond the constraints of normal reality. Yet at the same time, it affirms the loyalty of the imagination to objective reality by reasserting these constraints a moment later.
In fact, it is precisely this tendency of the human imagination to reach well beyond the strict reality of Physical Space that gives it the fundamental power that we now see exercised in modern scientific culture. Because it is actually this potential to reach beyond normal reality that has enabled the evolution and emergence of the imagination from the organic part of Physical Space in the first place. And in order to appreciate this critically important point, our next step in describing the nature of the imagination must take a step backwards in time.