The laws of cartoon physics

October 21, 2016 • 4:03 pm

To end the week, we have a lovely post that gives the cartoon laws of physics, whose author is, sadly, unknown. But they’re hilarious, and if you’re of a certain age you’ll recognize them all. Here they are; I’ve put my favorites in bold.

Cartoon Law I
Any body suspended in space will remain in space until made aware of its situation. Daffy Duck steps off a cliff, expecting further pastureland. He loiters in midair, soliloquizing flippantly, until he chances to look down. At this point, the familiar principle of 32 feet per second per second takes over.

Here’s an illustration:

Cartoon Law II
Any body in motion will tend to remain in motion until solid matter intervenes suddenly. Whether shot from a cannon or in hot pursuit on foot, cartoon characters are so absolute in their momentum that only a telephone pole or an outsize boulder retards their forward motion absolutely. Sir Isaac Newton called this sudden termination of motion the stooge’s surcease.

Cartoon Law III
Any body passing through solid matter will leave a perforation conforming to its perimeter. Also called the silhouette of passage, this phenomenon is the specialty of victims of directed-pressure explosions and of reckless cowards who are so eager to escape that they exit directly through the wall of a house, leaving a cookie-cutout-perfect hole. The threat of skunks or matrimony often catalyzes this reaction.

Cartoon Law IV
The time required for an object to fall twenty stories is greater than or equal to the time it takes for whoever knocked it off the ledge to spiral down twenty flights to attempt to capture it unbroken. Such an object is inevitably priceless, the attempt to capture it inevitably unsuccessful.

Cartoon Law V
All principles of gravity are negated by fear. Psychic forces are sufficient in most bodies for a shock to propel them directly away from the earth’s surface. A spooky noise or an adversary’s signature sound will induce motion upward, usually to the cradle of a chandelier, a treetop, or the crest of a flagpole. The feet of a character who is running or the wheels of a speeding auto need never touch the ground, especially when in flight.

Cartoon Law VI
As speed increases, objects can be in several places at once. This is particularly true of tooth-and-claw fights, in which a character’s head may be glimpsed emerging from the cloud of altercation at several places simultaneously. This effect is common as well among bodies that are spinning or being throttled. A `wacky’ character has the option of self-replication only at manic high speeds and may ricochet off walls to achieve the velocity required.

Cartoon Law VII
Certain bodies can pass through solid walls painted to resemble tunnel entrances; others cannot. This trompe l’oeil inconsistency has baffled generations, but at least it is known that whoever paints an entrance on a wall’s surface to trick an opponent will be unable to pursue him into this theoretical space. The painter is flattened against the wall when he attempts to follow into the painting. This is ultimately a problem of art, not of science.

Cartoon Law VIII
Any violent rearrangement of feline matter is impermanent. Cartoon cats possess even more deaths than the traditional nine lives might comfortably afford. They can be decimated, spliced, splayed, accordion-pleated, spindled, or disassembled, but they cannot be destroyed. After a few moments of blinking self pity, they reinflate, elongate, snap back, or solidify. Corollary: A cat will assume the shape of its container.

Cartoon Law IX
Everything falls faster than an anvil.

Cartoon Law X
For every vengeance there is an equal and opposite revengeance. This is the one law of animated cartoon motion that also applies to the physical world at large. For that reason, we need the relief of watching it happen to a duck instead.

Cartoon Law Amendment A
A sharp object will always propel a character upward. When poked (usually in the buttocks) with a sharp object (usually a pin), a character will defy gravity by shooting straight up, with great velocity.

Cartoon Law Amendment B
The laws of object permanence are nullified for “cool” characters. Characters who are intended to be “cool” can make previously nonexistent objects appear from behind their backs at will. For instance, the Road Runner can materialize signs to express himself without speaking.

Cartoon Law Amendment C
Explosive weapons cannot cause fatal injuries. They merely turn characters temporarily black and smoky.

Cartoon Law Amendment D
Gravity is transmitted by slow-moving waves of large wavelengths. Their operation can be witnessed by observing the behavior of a canine suspended over a large vertical drop. Its feet will begin to fall first, causing its legs to stretch. As the wave reaches its torso, that part will begin to fall, causing the neck to stretch. As the head begins to fall, tension is released and the canine will resume its regular proportions until such time as it strikes the ground.

Cartoon Law Amendment E
Dynamite is spontaneously generated in “C-spaces” (spaces in which cartoon laws hold). The process is analogous to steady-state theories of the universe which postulated that the tensions involved in maintaining a space would cause the creation of hydrogen from nothing. Dynamite quanta are quite large (stick sized) and unstable (lit). Such quanta are attracted to psychic forces generated by feelings of distress in “cool” characters (see Amendment B, which may be a special case of this law), who are able to use said quanta to their advantage. One may imagine C-spaces where all matter and energy result from primal masses of dynamite exploding. A big bang indeed.

Can you think of any more?

h/t: Michael

36 thoughts on “The laws of cartoon physics

  1. The IQ Rule:
    Any character’s intelligence is inversely proportional to the amount of effort used to proclaim their intelligence.

    The IQ Cool Rule:
    Characters may perform feats of Tony Stark levels of creativity, intelligence, and engineering, provided that the result is cool… and completely ineffectual.

    The IQ Cool Rule negates the IQ Rule.

    ‘Toon Relativity
    In ‘toon universe time dilation effects occur at speeds slightly slower than mice and small birds can run.

    1. This list has been around for a LONG time. I may have a copy, somewhere, from the early to mid 1980’s. If I can find it (open to question, due to several purgings of the files over the years), I will see if there is attribution.

      1. The ToonTalk Show, Episode 12, displays page 89 of Mort Walker’s book The Lexicon of Comicana, which shows Mark O’Donnell’s original June 1980 Esquire article (minute 30:33 of the video, YouTube video ID wfeVEPRtqhE). You can use your keyboard’s comma and period keys to move to a video frame where the article is readable and/or you can screenshot the page to enlarge it.

        Also, Toonrama has a discussion page much like this one (toonrama DOT blogspot DOT COM FORWARDSLASH 2007 FORWARDSLASH 11 FORWARDSLASH more-cartoon-laws-woohooo DOT HTML), where people have added some additional great insights onto O’Donnell’s list, like here.

        (I tried posting this info earlier and rewrote the above URLs the way I did in case their format was what prevented posting.)

  2. This reminds me of the exchange between Roger Rabbit and Eddie Valiant from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, when Eddie is trying to use a hacksaw to get out of a pair of handcuffs tying him and Roger together. He uses a shaky box as a support, and when he asks Roger to hold still, Roger takes his hand out of the cuffs, and holds the box still:

    Eddie: “Do you mean to tell me that you could have taken your hand out of that cuff at any time!?”

    Roger: “No, not at any time. Only when it was funny.”

    1. That is the Grand Unified Theory of cartoons. All of the above listed laws are merely aspects of “you can do anything as long as it is funny”.

  3. They forgot to mention for Law VII that, when the painter stands in front of the painting, scratching his head, a train comes through.

  4. This cartoon law states that anyone that falls into water can still see, talk and breathe, until such time as they walk out or swim out on to land again. Often they can also walk on water.

  5. Balloon Law: Any character can be flattened (usually by a steam roller) into a two dimensional object. Eventually, they will re-inflate into their normal form, with no harmful effects!

  6. This is similar to the laws of physics in comic books. Superman for example. He jump/flies which is quite an amazing feat.
    And, what’s the chemistry and physics of Kryptonite, x-ray vision, and how does a steel body engage in any bodily function – including sex?

  7. Cartoon Law Amendment D*: a comparable, but inverse (head first) slow-moving wave may be observed during horizontal movement, particularly when fleeing.

  8. “One may imagine C-spaces where all matter and energy result from primal masses of dynamite exploding. A big bang indeed.”

    Or, as admirably summarised by Terry Pratchett –

    In the beginning, there was nothing, which exploded.


  9. Well, I know a physicist who told me of a project he worked on with his students, and what he described is exactly that.

    He also told me it was massive copyright infringement, though.

  10. Law of Infinite Acceleration: Small birds can go from one velocity V1 (V1 >= 0) to a faster velocity V2 (V2 > V1) in zero time without generating a sonic boom.

  11. Law of Fur Clothes: The fur or skin of characters is often a type of clothing. On occasion, characters might roll up their fur-sleeves or even undress, exposing old fashioned underwear underneath. It is for this reason that cartoon characters are not actually naked, and may wear additional shirt, a scarf or a hat but don’t require extra pants.

    Law of Karmic Contraptions: A device or contraption built to harm another character, no matter how elaborate, will stop working briefly just when it was meant to harm the target, and resume its intended purpose as soon as its inventor inspects it.

    1. Law of Karmic Contraptions – Oh yes, Will E. Coyote comes to my mind. Or Tom from the Tom and Jerry animated series. 🙂

  12. Law of ghost physics: A ghost can walk through walls, but does not sink through the floor into the basement, and can hold objects without them dropping through the hands( re: Dan Dennett).

  13. Cartoon law: internal space in containers is not limited by the container’s external volume. They access trains-dimensional spaces of limitless proportions.

  14. Bernoulli’s Cartoon Law: a fast-moving object creates a suction force around it that draws other objects toward it, including, on occasion, sucking the traveled-over pavement off of the ground.

  15. I forget the name, but it involved trucks and other vehicles being invisibly in all places and all times until a non-cool character steps into an otherwise empty street, so that they are immediately hit by a now visible truck.

  16. Not a cartoon law, but one pertaining to action movies (especially old ones):

    The efficacy of any strike to an opponent is directly proportional to the level of anonymity of the character.

    (That is: any single blow will suffice to knock out anonymous henchmen, where those same blows will result in a knock-down, drag out battle with the star-billed antagonist).

    1. A related axiom?: A character’s longevity is proportional to that character’s nonanonymity or importance (in the grand scheme of things), according to a general, at-large perception of that (whether by ensemble or audience) or according to the character’s own self-assessment. (BTW, “the grand scheme of things” would be in the authorial realm.) For example:

      Guy Fleegman (from Galaxy Quest): I’m not even supposed to be here. I’m just “Crewman Number Six.” I’m expendable. I’m the guy in the episode who dies to prove how serious the situation is. I’ve gotta get outta here.

      Interestingly, in this example, as Guy Fleegman begins to be known to and championed by both crew and audience (as the “plucky,” lovable underdog), the balance tips him to the “gets to survive” side of the equation.

  17. All principles of gravity are negated by fear. Psychic forces are sufficient in most bodies for a shock to propel them directly away from the earth’s surface.

    Isn’t this just standard cat physics?

  18. The law of sound transport. A sound can immediately be captured in a container to be released at a later time to the surprise of uncool characters.

  19. Cartoon eyeblinks produce sounds audible at a great distance, particularly when no music happens to be playing.

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