Long-Running Cartoons and The Ship of Theseus

The “Ship of Theseus” is a pretty interesting paradox. One of the oldest thought experiments in Western philosophy, the idea behind it is that if you gradually replace all the parts in a ship over time, is it still fundamentally the same ship despite physically being totally different? (Fans of British comedy would know this better as the “Trigger’s Broom Paradox”, named for a scene from Only Fools and Horses running with a similar idea)

It’s a question about what makes up the identity of something, be that an object, a person or whatever, when that something is always changing in countless ways. It’s a question that can also be asked of works produced over a certain length of time.

All works change in some way, as the people creating them change. Whether it’s what the work values, its production qualities, the circumstances surrounding its creation, or even who’s creating it: they always change. So when you look at cartoons that run continuously, perhaps for several years, can they be said to be the same as they once where?

An obvious example to bring up would be The Simpsons, a series that is generally considered to have dropped in quality around its ninth season and has long since existed in mediocrity. Although it’s called The Simpsons, and features the same cast of characters living in a satirization of American culture, there is a world of difference between the classic TV comedy The Simpsons and the grey sludge The Simpsons.

In fact, this particular example caused the Dead Homer Society blog to invent the term “Zombie Simpsons”, as a way to distinguish the lifeless husk airing for 25+ years from its glory days. But this could be explained by the change of many things: much of the original writing staff leaving for other projects, the vastly altered pop cultural landscape that caused the show to no longer feel rebellious, the complacency that settled in when it turned out people would still offer the show attention long after it stopped deserving it. Of course the show is different when so much had changed within and without.

A visual metaphor, quietly nicked from this Dead Homer Society Article: https://deadhomersociety.wordpress.com/2013/10/15/animation-alley-treehouse-of-horror-iii/

But that’s not always how that works. Look at something like the original Tom & Jerry cartoons by MGM, for example. These cartoons were worked on by mostly the same animators, the same music composer, and the same directing duo at the helm during its 18-year run, which would imply that things would largely stay the same overall. But they still changed anyway.

The art direction, the animation quality, the way the music was scored and arranged, the kind of stories being told, the way they were directed, the sound design. Both the style and substance of Tom & Jerry changed so much by the end that it was almost unrecognizable. Can we really say that the very last cartoon “Tot Watchers” is Tom & Jerry when it’s so far removed from the very first cartoon “Puss Gets The Boot”?

But perhaps that’s easy to decide when you’re looking at certain cartoons across great stretches of time, when you can see how they’re so different. The truth is, things were always quietly changing from the word go; Tom used to be called Jasper while Jerry had no name; the human authority figure used to be a black maid stereotype; Tom used to scream in pain like a real cat instead of human yelps and shrieks.

Which of the 114 cartoons produced at MGM can be said to truly be “Tom & Jerry”? What is the essence of “Tom & Jerry”? Is it the ballroom jazz music featured in the early shorts? Is it Spike threatening to maul Tom if he wakes up his son? Is it the inexplicably horny energy from that time Tom dressed up as a female bird to trick a lovestruck hawk into handing over Jerry?

Or, despite the changes both big and small, are they all still “Tom & Jerry”? If so, what decides that? Is it some consistent idea running throughout all 114 shorts, or is it just that they’re all called “Tom & Jerry” in the title cards?

Which, by the way, were always changing too.

FrDougal9000 writes for hardcoregaming101.net as Apollo Chungus. When he isn’t writing about video games, he is cultivating his love of animation that’s only increased over the last few years as he’s explored the wide, weird and wonderful world of the medium.

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