My Favorite “Hurt” Gag My Favorite “Hurt” Gag

My Favorite “Hurt” Gag

It’s been acknowledged by the creators of The Simpsons that the blood-thirsty antics of Itchy and Scratchy were inspired less by Tom & Jerry and more by the violent situations of Herman and Katnip. By the 1950s, the writers at Paramount’s Famous Studios were suffering from cartoon fatigue — endlessly rewriting and redrawing the same tired stories for Popeye, Casper, Baby Huey et al. for years on end. The Herman and Katnip pictures were pure cat-chasing-mice opuses, which were by now running on auto-pilot, and got progressively more and more violent as the years went by.

The cartoons have what I call “Shemp syndrome” – it’s the same problem the Three Stooges shorts of the 50s had – they forgot what was funny about slapstick in the first place. The filmmakers just knew that “hurt gags” worked, so they upped the “hurt”, figuring it’ll be funnier. The results were less funny and more painful, and often in horrible taste.

Embedded below is the last 90 seconds from Mouseum (1956) which features my all-time favorite bad-taste ending. I love it. It makes me laugh because of how wrong it is. By this time, the animators had really lost all perspective. Here’s the set-up: Katnip is chasing Herman and his cousins through a natural history museum.

What follows next is pure genius: The cat chases the mouse into a stuffed elephant’s head. Katnip sticks a rifle into the elephant’s trunk and Herman, using super-human strength, bends the rifle to aim it back towards Katnip. His gunshot blast blows the elephant’s glass eyes into Katnip’s head! The eyes fall from his head and the cat thinks the eyeballs are his! He shoves them into his eye sockets making himself blind… he goes running into the street blindly, as Herman and the mice laugh at his handicap. Iris out.

Quentin Tarantino would be proud.

  • Perhaps they should have changed their name to InFamous Studios by this point. I particularly liked the follow-up cartoon, “Resevoir Mice!”

  • Christopher Cook

    I remember this cartoon, and the ending was pure wrong all right. Among all else mentioned about the Famous Studio output, the facial takes of the characters were labored and uninspired.

  • Thanks, Jerry. I missed Herman and Katnip the first time around, now I’m going to go dig for more. Any tips for tracking this stuff down outside of Youtube?

  • Mitch Kennedy

    WOW that made me laugh, but oh man….

  • Garner

    Twenty years earlier that sign hung around the cat’s neck would have read “BLIND” rather than “EXTINCT”, proving that at least one of the Famous gagmen had, by 1956, finished high school. And did you ever notice that, at certain angles, Haim Saban is a dead ringer for Shemp? Just sayin’.

  • Dock Miles

    Jeeze, where were all the Werthamites all worked up about “eyeball threats” when this was going on?

  • Ryan

    Ho ho ho! For some reason, I’ve never even heard of this duo. That Wikipedia says that they can be found on public domanin DVDs, any recommendations for the best ones to go for?

  • You know, I forget the name of the cartoon, but it has to do with Casper’s rise to prominence in the cartoon industry–I’m recalling that terrificly sick bit in which Casper approaches two animators who are not only mapping out a violent gag for a potential HERMAN and KATNIP cartoon, they are performing the violence on each other!!

    I’ve kind of secretly enjoyed the sadism in cartoons, and this goes especially for the antics at Famous Studios — not only the HERMAN and KATNIP and BABY HUEY cartoons, but in CASPER toons as well, where you might expect the friendly ghost to be gentle. Remember how Casper helps a plodding old dog named Molasses? As the dog continues to move slow, dear friendly Casper becomes invisible, grabs a buzzing beehive off a nearby tree, rubs the gooey honey thoroughly over the dog’s rump and sends the bees out after him, stinging him, en masse, to action and finishing the race, coming in first! I think we’ve fired little league coaches for much less!

    Then, there’s always Finnegan’s Flea, one of those truly dark latter-day cartoons that the studio had done so…umm…”well”. Guess we all just took it for granted that the animated cartoon was nothing more than moving drawings and didn’t question the sometimes tasteless antics of the characters involved. The whole point of the animated cartoon is that we could do, with the main characters, things that we dared not put live actors through, child or adult!! However, seeing these antics also makes you wonder about the sanity of the animators involved, doesn’t it? “THE SIMPSONS” are tame in comparison. The gags were truly painful especially when the animation was beautifully done, no matter what the studio. Famous was not the only studio that had these painful gags.

  • OtherDan

    That was funny!

  • jip

    To be honest, I don’t get what’s so wrong about this?
    I thought it was quite funny. To let the cat think those eyes are his.. and then becoming blind only when he puts them in. How is that not funny?
    And how is that more in bad taste than any other cartoon?

  • Brent

    Katnip (and audiences of the day) apparently didn’t question HOW he is able to SEE his ‘eyes’ rolling around on the floor before him. Such logic lapses would be cut after the storyboard pitch at greater studios, unless the joke were really hilarious. This sort of graphic ‘hurt’ gag is what gave UPA its mission statement, though by 1956 it was just about headed into the big hackwork crapper in the sky, lurching along on its early rep while Saperstein whored its name.

  • FP

    This bit always impressed the hell out of me. It’s horrifyingly violent, and poorly done – a killer combo.

    What’s with the YouTube transfer? It looks like every fourth frame from the original cartoon, held for four frames each, skipping those in between . Choppy.

  • It would’ve been more disturbing if Katnip lost his real eyes before using the fake ones as his replacement. This gag just shows how stupid he is.

    A REAL violent gag was from one Herman and Katnip where the mice not only kill Katnip, but use his corpse for one of their games!

  • J Lee

    The cheaper animation in the final three years of the series (1957-59) actually helped make some of the latter gags less painful, because they weren’t as realistic (Katnip getting cut in half in 1958’s “Owly to Bed” has less of a pained reaction, going right from shock to annoyance before he “shuts” himself back together. Had the cartoon been made 3-4 years earlier, we would have gotten more reaction along with a big Sid Raymond scream to really emphasize the pain).

  • uncle wayne

    i just have this fond (1980) memory of us, at the Thalia, and you having me sing “Merman & Katnip!”

  • Stephen DeStefano

    One of the all time great (bad) cartoon gags.

  • Forgive my historical ignorance, but… is that Bugs Bunny in the cast lineup in the bump at the end? Or a lawsuit-bait lookalike?

  • I remembered this gag from having seen this cartoon many times on the noon-time “Casey Jones Show” in Minnesota in the 60’s. But I was expecting to see the sign say “BLIND”. Is there another cartoon in which Katnip runs off at the end, sightless and with “BLIND” sign around his neck?

    I think that Youtube version must be faulty. Even cheap animation didn’t have that arbitrary missing frame look to it.

  • If the mice laugh at Katnip’s “handicap”, why not do more jokes that goes beyond deaf and blind with no subtleties at all…..

    You know, maybe the fox who gets Baby Huey should have nephews humlating him.

  • Gary Pearson

    Ah yes, violent and inappropriate…and yet…watch any kid’s entertainment lately? The sitcoms my kids watch seem to be so devoid of any comedy and have all their story edges completely rounded so that nobody ever does anything offensive…or even interesting. On some level I guess, I think it is okay for the cat to mistake fake eyes for real ones and make himself blind as pay back for jamming a gun up the Elephant’s snout in order to shoot the mouse. IN today’s world, we’d be all about suing the museum for leaving a loaded shot gun on display.

  • Thad

    I also like the earlier scene in MOUSEUM where Herman uses the “First Wheel” covered in knives to slice Katnip like a piece of salami. And to all the naysayers, stfu. Famous Studios is awesome. I’ll take this stuff over UP.

  • Skiddle-diddle-do, skiddle-diddle-don’t.

  • Inkan1969

    I liked that gag. I thought it was an inspired twist on the cartoon convention of eyes being able to fall out.

    As a little kid, I didn’t make any connection between Katnip and real life blind people. To tell the truth, I was confused as to why the elephant eyes didn’t work; I had to think a minute to remember that they were just wooden models.

    I wouldn’t call this H&K’s most “wrong” cartoon. The one I’d call that would be the one where Herman tricked Katnip into thinking he had died from drinking poison. Man, that had an over the top ending. :-)

  • Thad

    BTW, I always assumed that Herman puts the “EXTINCT” sign on Katnip to refer to his brainpower. Exactly.

  • I know the H/K comics could get a little violent at time and it was a pleasure to see the gratuitous violence spill over into the film version. Check out the end of “Mousetro Herman” where Katnip winds up inside a saxophone, followed by a big Winston Sharples rave-up finale with Herman pulling Katnip’s tale in time to the music.

    Kevin W: The cartoon you’re thinking of is “Ghost of Honor”, from 1957.

    Brian T: Moe Hare appears in the end title of the Harveytoons, of “Tommy Tortoise and…” fame.

  • gijoe rotc

    Lies! Itchy and Scratchy was ripped off from a comic strip in National Lampoon magazine.

  • J. J. Hunsecker

    I think the ending of Mice Meeting You surpasses the example you posted, Jerry, in terms of sadistic and violent gags in the Herman/Katnip cartoons. The corpse of Katnip is decorated and lit up like a Christmas tree, while Herman and his mice brethren enjoy a turkey dinner.

  • Donald Benson

    There are plenty of Famous/Paramount/Harveytoons even more disturbing — especially as they seemed designed for slow little kids. Characters’ faces and poses often registered real pain rather than a comic take.

    I recall one toon where Herman’s buddies had to react to Katnip catching one of them (grim and unfunny despite the obligatory little ghost angel). And Baby Huey was just plain disturbing even when he wasn’t taking an ax to the neck.

    As a kid, I thought of them as cartoons you watched when nothing but grownup stuff was on, and you didn’t discuss them with friends the way you’d discuss Warner Brothers or Saturday morning superhero shows. Watching Harveytoons was like eating cookies with a Gerber label.

  • Donald Benson

    Forget to mention the Popeyes they were doing at this time. One especially warped item had Bluto using a marionette of Popeye to tick off Olive (a life-size puppet pitching woo with Olive was downright creepy).

    The payoff had Popeye beating up Bluto as usual and using his not-quiet conscious body (with a drunken psycho expression) as a puppet to further annoy Olive.

    Popeye has the puppet Bluto hold a knife at Olive’s throat. She screams bloody murder and Popeye drops into frame to beat the crud out of the already comatose Bluto AGAIN.

  • FP

    –Itchy and Scratchy was ripped off from a comic strip in National Lampoon magazine–

    Yup. KIT’N’KABOODLE. June 1973 VIOLENCE issue (I actually keep it by my desk). Brian McConnachie script. Warren Sattler art.
    “Blech, my spine!”

    “I’ll get you yet, you pesky ragamuffins!”

    “The eyes have it!”

  • David

    The Popeye you mention wasn’t from the same time period as MOUSEUM. It was one of the early Technicolor Famous cartoons. PUPPET LOVE, I think, from 1944 or ’45. Sure do hope those make it onto DVD eventually. I was looking forward to seeing the color cartoons from that era fully restored.

  • Mike Fontanelli

    It’s not so much that the later Harveys ramped up the violence, especially; they were always violent. The real problem is the “gags” are presented without sufficient comic context or exaggeration, to offset potential tastelessness. Warner Bros. pain gags, by contrast, usually have a double edge. The real joke in the Roadrunner cartoons is a deliberate sense of ironic inevitability, plus the Coyote’s loss of dignity. Bugs Bunny always humiliates his opponents. I remember one horrific H&K where Katnip is viewing a nickelodeon, and Herman replaces the viewer eyepiece with the muzzle of a double-barreled shotgun. Katnip “cranks” the trigger, and takes the full blast up close in both eyes. Yeesh.

  • Doug Drown

    Gary said, “Ah yes, violent and inappropriate…and yet…watch any kid’s entertainment lately? The sitcoms my kids watch seem to be so devoid of any comedy and have all their story edges completely rounded so that nobody ever does anything offensive…or even interesting.”

    There are the sitcoms, and then there are the Saturday morning cartoons and live-action shows. It makes no sense to me that the cartoon violence of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s was tamed out of existence, but kids today can watch people (animated or otherwise) blast one another with ray guns. Watch an episode of the Power Rangers sometime. It’s not only mindless crap, but it represents the substitution of one form of violence with another — in such a way that it’s somehow “acceptable” because it’s less “real.” Go figure.

  • Chris Sobieniak

    What Gary Pearson said sums up my problems with today’s entertainment in general. Nobody can keep their mouths shut if you did something ‘odd’ or ‘ballsy’ in a production. They will make a big deal about it either way, and what’s left is generic or bland in my opinion because it lacks that ‘bite’ that was once there when all signs of bad taste was not scorned.

    For me, Famous Studios is a guilty pleasure since I think I come off thinking they made gutsy, morbid cartoons when they had nothing left out of their formulaic templates. It’s a nice form of escapist entertainment in a confined world where such thoughts could never happen off the paper or celluloid. I personally didn’t see anything that bad in this cartoon’s ending, and enjoyed the joke of Katnip mistaking those ‘eyes’ as his and being blind. As some have stated, I thought that sign would say “BLIND” too, but I’m glad it didn’t, but wouldn’t be surprised if that would’ve been the case (and this coming from someone who once went to a school with a blind child as a young’um).

    > Ho ho ho! For some reason, I’ve never even heard of this duo. That Wikipedia says that they can be found on public domanin DVDs, any recommendations for the best ones to go for?

    The ones in the “Public Domain” are mostly the earlier Herman cartoons that do not have Katnip in them, yet they are often labeled as such if only to deceive some buyers into buying the cartoons they think they’re getting. You’re better off buying the HarveyToons DVD box set that came out a while ago to see those classics.

  • Corey K.

    After watching the clip, I don’t think they were laughing at his “handicap,” because he doesn’t HAVE one. They’re laughing at his STUPIDITY (which, I guess, is a handicap in and of itself). It’s not like they’re laughing at a genuinely blind person for being blind.

  • David Breneman

    I hated Herman and Catnip as a kid and I hate them today. The characters were imbecilic and the humor sadistic. Somehow, though, I watched these cartoons in the 60s with the same type of fascination that compels people to slow down and gape at a traffic accident. I’m older now, and not subject to the gravity of this type of smut. Didn’t watch the clip. A victory for civilization.

  • William Griffin

    I’ve seen worse…

  • Paul J. Mular

    I think the cartoon with Herman cutting off Katnip’s head, only to have it land back on Katnip’s shoulders upside down (he then sees everyhting upside-down) is even better than this!

  • Stephen Rhodes Treadwell

    Tom & Jerry is definitely better than Herman & Katnip. It’s more unusual & not as predictable. Mostly it’s better, I’d say, because it’s not as one-sided. Besides T&J cartoons have better animation.

  • joe

    I distinctly remember a Looney Tunes cartoon in which, towards the end, an unsympathetic (of course) cat is chasing a sympathetic (of course) mouse. Either a hawk or an owl, who in the course of the cartoon has taken a liking to the mouse, swoops down, grabs the cat with its claws, flies over a house with a chimney with smoke emanating from it, and drops the cat into it. A fresh cloud of smoke emerges from the chimney, accompanied by the sound of the cat’s howl of agony as it presumably burns to death in the fire inside the house.
    Entertainment for the kiddies!

  • Darkhill

    I find the Popeye cartoons to be peppered with disturbing imagery. If I had children I wouldn’t let them watch it.

  • Steve Carras

    In 1952 Warner Bros.released an unusal cartoon directed by Robert McKimson, (unusual in that the lead voice was Sheldon Leonard before he came a hotshot bigwig TV producer and still later Linus the Lionhearted’s voice), “Kiddin’ the Kitten”, with Bea Benaderet the housewife ordering Dodsworth to get the mice out, so he trains a kitty to catch ’em. Upshot? Oh: Dodsy, as he calls himself, is clobbered and all tied up (so to speak) by the mice, and the KITTEN winds up the chamo mouser! (McKImson and Warner Brothers did a follow up which was just a typical cat and kitten chase bird cartoon, 1953’s “A Peck O’Trouble”, with no humans.). “Mice Meeting You”, one of the earliest Harvey owned shorts (1950), has a pretty sadistic ending, but I’ll still take that or “Mouseum” (1956) over the Warners or “Roger Rabbit” meta-self referencing to the untold degree, or head bashing just for its sake all the time. The Herman and Katcips were still pretyt funny..especially Herman’s voice (thank you..Arnold Stang!). And the cartoons generally seem to go out of their way to be shorter than those of most other outfits..”Mouseum” clocks at around 5:43!