Balancing Comedy With Melancholy In We Bare Bears

Cartoon Network's animated comedy may seem hilarious on the surface but look deeper and you'll find some heartbreaking substance.

An upcoming episode of the Cartoon Network animated comedy, We Bare Bears, “The Fair” has a simple enough premise. In one of the show’s regular flashbacks to the bears as babies we follow the trio at a carnival working for one of the vendors. The episode has all the hallmark humor that’s made We Bare Bears a hit for Cartoon Network. Fun gags, physical comedy, hilarious verbal jokes, and even a stand out ’90s hip hop music video. With vocals by a rapping baby bear.

Underneath it all though there’s something that tugs at the heartstrings. The bears are doing all of this to find a home. At the start of the episode the baby bears try to sell their way into passing humans hearts. At first they offer up their undying love for twenty-five cents and when that doesn’t work they’ll say they’re giving it away for free. One person almost takes them but instead uses his quarter on a fortune telling machine. 

While none of this is dwelt on for too long, what with the jokes being so rapid fire, it still helps to make the plot heartbreaking and deeply resonant to anyone who’s been desperate for love and affection. 

This is not a rare tactic for We Bare Bears. Premiering on Cartoon Network in 2015 the series follows the adventures of three anthropomorphic bears, over enthusiastic Grizz, social media obsessed Panda, and stoic Ice Bear trying to make friends and live life in San Francisco. The series will often mix its comical main stories with just enough character centric melancholy to punch you in the feels.

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“Yuri and the Bear” details the origin of Ice Bear. Living alone in the arctic, he meets a Russian man named Yuri. The two bond but Ice Bear unearths some unhappy memories for Yuri and he pushes Ice Bear away which nearly gets him killed. Yuri saves Ice Bear but it sends him floating away on a chunk of ice.

“Burrito”,  features Grizz becoming attached to a bear sized burrito which he refuses to eat. Everyone wonders why until it’s revealed it reminds him of the arm of a rescue worker who saved him from a thunderstorm when he was a baby. 

In “Professor Lampwick” the child genius Chloe fails an important lab exam in her college class but she’s too afraid to confront her professor (chillingly played by Malcolm McDowell) who she believes messed up her experiment. She’s so scared she visibly trembles and just gives up. Thankfully the bears are on hand and kidnap him to let Chloe retake the lab. The episode is just a comedy of escalating errors after that. 

We Bare Bears creator Daniel Chong says that while Cartoon Network wants to keep the series more focused on the comedy, “every once in awhile we have the freedom to do those (melancholy) episodes. Usually (Cartoon Network) is pretty on board.”

Even the show’s funniest episodes that are full on comedies without the more introspective moments of melancholy still have a deeper element if you’re looking for them. Take for example the episode, “Tote Life”.

In it, Grizz spearheads the Bears coating their cave in tote bags in order to fit in with environmentally conscious crowd. It’s insane but if you stop and think about it, they end up becoming obsessed with tote bags solely so they can be accepted by the Trader Joes style crowd. 

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Chong has described the series as an allegory for what it feels like to be a minority in America. In a twitter post back in 2016, Chong stated, “The pitch for We Bare Bears always had a much broader thematic idea for audiences- the need to fit in and belong. It is a desire I believed everyone (children and adults alike) could understand and relate to- regardless of background.”

You can see that even in the zaniest aspects of the Bear characters, like Panda’s intense love of Japanese manga. Panda not only reads it but also draws it, according to Chong, and it makes perfect sense. Many outsiders have turned to manga and found something that resonated there. 

Chong stresses that this focus on character is what makes a great We Bare Bears story.

“First and foremost we always talk about character in the room. We make sure we know where they’re coming from and that people can sympathize and empathize with them. That’s a huge part of connecting with the audience. I definitely think if we can throw in some heart and an emotional element that’s always a plus.”

In one particular instance however, Chong and his team may have taken it a little too far. The episode, “Everyone’s Tube” features a compilation of shorts featuring the bears in wacky situations including Grizz demonstrating how to do “The Swaggy Shuffle”, Panda lip syncing, and Ice Bear basically dancing to a sound alike of Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice.” All of the shorts were fun and upbeat but one of them was originally more introspective.

One segment featured Ice Bear and Chloe performing a duet, with a song written by Chloe’s voice actress Charlyne Yi. The song is a moving piece about feeling alone. You can listen to it here.

“She submitted a bunch of demos and the one I picked was the sad one,” remembers Chong. He was drawn to the song because of how it underscored the series’ theme of wanting to fit in. “It just felt like the right thing so (storyboard artist) Louie Zong took that and he boarded it. When we saw it in context with the rest of the episode I think we all went, ‘Oh my god, this is so depressing.’”

While the lyrics for the song are ultimately uplifting, the somber tone “didn’t fit the vibe of the episode. The episode needed to be fun and upbeat so why do we feel like we want to kill ourselves while listening to this? In the end poor Louie basically had to reboard the whole sequence with one of the brighter songs (Charlyne submitted).”

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You can listen to that song below and it is much more upbeat.

Chong thinks the song that aired was fine and that Zong did a great job with it, adding piano accompaniment, but he still prefers the first song. He hopes one day they can find a place for it in another episode but, “for now it’s just kind of on the shelf waiting.”

“The Fair” episode of We Bare Bears, which airs on August 7th  and kicks off a week of summer themed episodes, was able to find the right balance of fun and tragedy. Chong says they always try to pump up the comedy as much as they can in Baby Bears episodes to counter balance the insurmountable challenges they face.

“We keep them very broad and make them very outspoken. They’re even more outspoken than their older selves.  If something bad happens we don’t have them get too down. Especially with Grizz, he’s more resilient and he’s going to push back a bit. Even baby Panda is a bit more resilient than adult Panda in some ways. It’s sad, but they’re very aggressive so that helps with the comedy.”

At the end of the day, Chong just hopes they can tell stories that resonate with all ages, no matter if it’s goofy comedy or more personal tales. 

“When I was working at Pixar and Disney, they never had a strong mandate of ‘this is for kids. How do we dumb this down or how do we make this palpable?’ They always just tried to make the most entertaining thing they could and the most successful thing for everybody and just put it out there. That’s something that I brought into the show and tried to keep going and keep working on with We Bare Bears.”

We Bare Bears returns for a week of all new episodes starting August 7th on Cartoon Network.

Shamus Kelley is a forever member of Tote Life. Follow him on Twitter! 

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