When one sees a cute bunny, an adorable squirrel or a delightful baby bear prancing around smiling and laughing the assumption is that we are about to see a wonderful little uplifting story about friends, companionship and love. Unless that cartoon you happened upon in your search on YouTube, created by Aubrey Ankrum, Rhode Montijo, and Kenn Navarro, is Happy Tree Friends.
This cartoon began in 1999 as a series of short online cartoons. It has now amassed a huge cult following that has seen the airing of a 39 episode TV series in 2006, merchandise and potentially a full length feature film (still in production so I have heard). These deceptive animated videos are anything but “cute”, they’re full of in your face, graphic torture, decapitations, blood, guts and all types of gore. You watch as little woodland creatures go about their lives with not a care in the world, making cakes, getting dressed up, going on rides at an amusement park until they meet their untimely death and honestly, it is hilarious as it is just so unexpected of something that looks at first to be so innocent. This is my kind of shit.
Happy Tree friends is not the first of its kind, in fact many creatives have taken this kind of approach of using something that is childlike and turned it into something dark. Joan Cornellàs “instantly recognisable black humour and deeply unsettling imagery” ( Cowan, 2019) characters stare at the viewer with wide eyes and giant cheesy grins. We see smiling people shooting, running over, hanging, or stabbing each other or themselves. In one cartoon a man dressed as a pink bear shoots a man in the crutch, handing him a tampon as way of apology. Another sees a hunter shoot at a cow which he then blows up with a bazooka. A little girl stares at the remains with tears in her eyes so the man covers his dog in the scraps of cow for the little girl that skips off smiling with her new pet.
These messed up, yet sidesplittingly funny comic strips “confront everything from our unnatural connection to social media and masturbatory selfie culture to political topics such as abortion, addiction and gender issues” (Cowan, 2019) and god he does a great job of it too! He antagonises us with these sickly sweet images and makes use uncomfortable playing on the idea that humour is in many ways cruel. We are always laughing at someone or something and it is often with malice.
Conkers Bad Fur Day, with a similar cult like following to Happy Tree Friends, took on a similar look and feel to two popular Nintendo 64 games, Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64. This game follows the journey of Conkers, a fowl mouthed, alcoholic, cigarette smoking squirrel trying to get back to his girlfriend. Gamers are lead through multiple different worlds where they fight Nazi like teddy bears, giant turds that sing and aliens. When the game was released it was not that popular, but after a while gained in popularity due to its use of dark humour and in 2005 was remade as Conker: Live and Reloaded.
All three of these creative works, the cartoon, the comic strip and the console game, have used dark humour in their own way. Cornellà, using his humour to as a tool to teach, Happy Tree Friends and Conkers Bad Fur day to entertain us and make us laugh. This is something I hope to capture in my own work. I want people to laugh, but I want them to stop and question why it is funny. People with mental illness are so often mocked and ridiculed in our society. People do not see the pain and believe it is all made up, or that it is something that is just easy to “get over”. Just be happier, don’t stress so much, it’s not that bad. Words that just make the agony so much deeper. I hope that I make people uncomfortable, but at the same time I hope to enlighten them and show them that being mentally unwell is not something to be scared of or ashamed of. That the scars might not be visible but they can still be embraced and shown off as they’re still beautiful.
Cowan, K 2019, The renowned Joan Cornellà returns to London for a new solo exhibition, I’m Good Thanks, Creative Boom, posted 19 March, viewed 5 April 2019, https://www.creativeboom.com/inspiration/the-renowned-joan-cornell-returns-to-london-for-a-new-solo-exhibition-im-good-thanks/