Chuck Jones is famous as the director of the greatest animated short of all time, “What’s Opera Doc.” You might know it better as “Kill the Wabbit.” Mel Blanc was the voice of Bugs and a pile of other great characters. Munro Leaf was the creator of Ferdinand the Bull and other great children’s stories. P.D. Eastman is the guy who gave us “Are You My Mother?,” the poster child for attachment disorder. And Dr. Seuss, of course, is the guy who is ultimately responsible for a couple terrible movies with Jim Carrey and Mike Myers. Put ’em all together and whaddy get? Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo? Heck naw. You get something like this.
Private Snafu cartoons were used during World War II not just to portray Japanese soldiers with unabashed racism and show scantily clad and topless animated ladies but to educate soldiers as well. The power of film to educate was acknowledged early in its history, from such luminaries in the educational field as Woodrow Wilson (1). Twenty-five years later, Sesame Street refined education through film on the small screen. Now that we all have smart screens, what’s the next step?
Thinking has entered the age of the microwave. Pick out something ready-made, pop it in, nuke it, and you have knowledge. At least, that’s what the folks at Napkin Note Productions want you to think. They’ve joined the long and scrabulous tradition of folks educating our youths through moving pictures. If you haven’t heard of Napkin Note, that’s a bit by design. They’re the quiet brains behind the brazen web series Thug Notes, starring this saucy fellow:
If you haven’t watched any episodes of Thug Notes, you go right ahead and watch one. Right now.
Okay you’re back right? Cool. What did you think? Are you one of the folks who asks “What are a couple of white guys from Hipsterville Texas doing using a black comedian as their mouthpiece? Is Mr. Edwards performing in a kind of blackface?” It’s totally cool if you’re that kind of person. However, we’re not going to much go there.
But what did you think about the literary analysis? Even the critics agree the analysis is some “of the best [they’ve] seen” (2) How about the entertainment value? Did you watch the whole thing? Did you laugh? Are you now thinking about whatever book Sparky Sweets broke down for you? Did you not even remember to come back to read this essay for a few minutes because you were too busy watching episodes?
Exactly. They’re on to something. But what? More on that in a minute.
While you were watching Thug Notes, you probably saw an advertisement for 8-Bit Philosophy, Napkin Notes newest project. You can watch one of those too. Text waits for all.
Did you wonder why these two filmmakers are coopting geek culture to shill some basic philosophical concepts? Interesting what a change in context does for your thoughts, right?
So let’s dispense with worrying about what culture is being coopted by Napkin Notes. It’s rather a matter of fact that they’re playacting. To what degree this involves the use or abuse of a culture is a question for a different kind of cultural critic (though I’m happy to read those results should you be inspired to write them).
Because the more obvious thing being riffed on here is the distillation of knowledge. Folks have complained about our soundbyte culture and dwindling attention-spans probably since Eisenstein made his first montage (3). Teachers have complained about kids not reading assigned books since the first crib sheet was passed around (4). What’s refreshing about both Thug Notes and 8-Bit Philosophy is how sincerely they embrace these complaints.
“Yes,” Sparky Sweets seems to say, “kids are probably going to use this instead of reading the novel.” That’s one of the reasons the folks at Napkin Note have explicitly tackled traditional high school literature (5). But as a teacher, let me tell you something: I would be delighted for some of my students just to watch the Thug Notes of a book. Why you ask? What kind of teacher am I? The kind who can’t believe kids not only blow off a reading assignment but don’t even make the effort to read the Wikipedia entry on the book. It would be cool if they did anything resembling interacting with the text.
Interacting with the text is what Thug Notes does well. Each episode’s division of summary and analysis is an excellent mini-essay in video form (6). 8-Bit Philosophy is doing something slightly different and isn’t quite as successful. As much as you can distill a philosopher’s argument into a few hundred words, they’re not bad—but one can get a better (if not as concise) understanding from the SEP. I point that out because the Wikipedia entry on, say, Lolita doesn’t really have much to add on plot and analysis over what can be gleaned from Thug Notes (7).
In Thug Notes, and 8-Bit a bit, Napkin Notes has found a way to communicate accurate and compelling information in an entertaining and engaging audiovisual medium. That’s what they’re “on to.” But what is that? Is “communicating compelling information in an entertaining and engaging audiovisual medium” some new art form?
Of course not. It’s educational filmmaking. I said it at the beginning of the essay, y’all. If you clicked on that Private Snafu link at the beginning, you might have found your way to this great little film that, while never released, was intended to teach young soldiers to keep their mouths shut regarding sensitive military information. It was made 70 years ago: 1944. Some of the guys who were involved in the Snafu cartoons (and other military propaganda films) went on to be known as Dr. Seuss, P.D. Eastman, and Munro Leaf (8).
So besides seven decades of tinkering, what do the folks at Napkin Notes have that Chuck Jones and his crew did not?
Nothing, really. What they’re “on to” is that humor sells (9).
I’d like to make the argument that Thug Notes and 8-Bit Philosophy are really just commercials for books and philosophers but that argument is implied in the above statement. Jones & Co were selling war. Napkin Notes is selling books (10). They just happened to remember that if we think something is funny, we remember it. Every rewatchable educational show I can think of works first and foremost because it’s amusing (11).
What does that mean for us? Are we all doomed? Has literature been reduced to farce? Has the commercialization of culture reached even our hallowed halls of education? Pretty sure that’s already happened, folks.
So no, we’re not doomed. Thug Notes isn’t exploiting literature, it’s entertaining you (12). If you don’t know the book Sparky’s talking about, it’s probably educating you, too. You know it’s making you laugh.
The work of the folks at Napkin Notes is the grandchild, warts and all, of Private Snafu, especially Thug Notes which works better than 8-Bit Philosophy precisely because it doesn’t shy away from making you a little uncomfortable. Are you laughing with Sparky Sweets or at him?
But no matter what the answer is, if you like what Sparky Sweets says about the book you just might pick it up and read it.
Is that so wrong?
(1) Whatever his faults as a president (kept us out of war: sure, Woody! Negotiate a treaty without the help of a hostile Senate who has to ratify said treaty: great idea!), Wilson was a heck of an educator. Unfortunately, his foray into the educational value of film was in praising D.W. Griffiths’ super-racist Birth of a Nation because, you know, folks were all crazy racists back in the day.
(2) See the “blackface” article above.
(3) I can imagine some Edwardian literary complaining that the use of stream-of-consciousness was proof we couldn’t pay attention to things.
(4) And then people made MOVIES out of books and then wrote summaries of books and SOLD them! The criminals!
(5) That and the advertising revenue each view brings.
(6) Heck, if my kids wrote like that I wouldn’t even be mad, bro.
(7) The Wik entry is superior for history and a collection of criticism but that’s hardly fair as Thug Notes isn’t attempting to do that.
(8) Though to be fair, Mr. Leaf was already famous for Ferdinand before the war.
(9) Humor sells better than sex when you’re trying to sell something that isn’t sex. That is, if these were Slut Notes or something it would be harder to remember the text because it would get all consumed by the sex. But if we’re laughing, we’re remembering what made us laugh.
(10) And T-Shirts and Youtube views that sell whatever ad space Google sees fit to fill them with.
(11) Even if it isn’t meant to be, like painting with Bob Ross. But we remember and rewatch something like Sesame Street or Reading Rainbow because there were moments of levity that spiked those good endorphins we’re all so addicted to.
(12) At the very worst, this is just another way folks are making money. Way back when Aristotle was spittin’ truth in the Lyceum he was just tryna get paid, son. I mean you’re reading this on your shiny computer because Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or Linus Torvalds thought they could pay their bills through playing with computers. Going down the cynical “Thug Notes only exists to sell pageviews” is hardly a profitable line of exploration.
G.M. Palmer lives on a poodle farm in North Florida. Find his work at www.gmpalmer.com.