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There are things I love that I don’t think are that great and other things that I know are an acquired taste. And then there’s Looney Tunes, the most commonly used umbrella name for a series of short theatrical cartoons created for Warner Bros. from the 1930s to the 1960s, with “carrot-chewing rascal” Bugs Bunny as their biggest star.
To me, Looney Tunes is the greatest achievement of American film comedy in the sound era. These were not just entertainments that diverted me on Saturday morning. They were the greatest kind of classic, one that never loses its power over audiences no matter how much time passes. In 1959, a few years before the studio was shut down, director Chuck Jones wrote to his chief writer comparing cartoons like “Duck Amuck” (Daffy Duck is tormented by an offscreen animator) and “One Froggy Evening” (the comical allegory of a man who finds a singing frog but can’t prove the frog’s abilities to anyone else) to the great silent films of Charlie Chaplin. But even he couldn’t have predicted just how well his work, and the work of other Looney Tunes directors, like Friz Freleng (creator of Sylvester and Yosemite Sam), Bob Clampett (creator of Tweety), and Bob McKimson (creator of Foghorn Leghorn), would hold up, or for how long.
I grew up in a period when it seemed normal that a child born in 1976 would prefer to spend his Saturday morning watching cartoons from the 1940s and ’50s. A lot of the people I know enjoyed the same experience. Why did several generations watch old Looney Tunes alongside new work and actually prefer the stuff made before they were born? It was partly a historical accident caused by television’s demand for endless material at a relatively high cost. On radio, you can fill twenty-four hours cheaply; on TV, even the cheapest filler needs cameras, lights, and makeup. So what every television station required was a supply of preexisting content, something that might cost money to run but not to produce. The broadcasting rights for pre-1948 Warner Bros. cartoons weren’t very expensive, and the show was far better than most of the programming available for the same price.
So part of Looney Tunes’ enduring success reflects the simple power of money. They were made for the big screen, and while they weren’t lavishly budgeted compared to the cartoons of Disney, they had much more time and per-unit money than television cartoons. On television, the Looneys were up against shows that had to turn out twenty-two minutes per week and looked like it: Kissyfur and The Smurfs and Rubik, the Amazing Cube. The beauty of TV reruns is that you can watch lavishly made movies instead of cheaply produced TV shows if you don’t care how old something is. Kids didn’t care how old Looney Tunes cartoons were, and televisions weren’t sophisticated enough to expose the age of the films or the poor condition of some of the prints.
Also, Looney Tunes seemed edgier and freer than the new material. It’s much easier to impose blandness on something before it’s made than after. No matter how much the censors cut out of a Looney Tunes cartoon, they could never quite censor their spirit. The cartoons where Bugs Bunny tricks Elmer Fudd into shooting Daffy Duck would get chopped a little more with every year of parental complaint. But, even with the violence excised, they were still cartoons about a man with a shotgun and two popular characters scheming to get each other shot. Years after they were produced, that concept would never have made it out of a pitch meeting.
However much kids loved watching Looney Tunes, the cartoons never got the credit they deserved. There hasn’t been much mainstream film criticism about them. When they were being made, they were almost totally ignored by all but two critics: James Agee and Manny Farber. Later, after the cartoons started appearing on TV, younger critics got interested, and Film Comment magazine in 1975 devoted a whole issue to classic Hollywood cartoons and to Warner Bros. in particular. There have been interesting things since from historian-critics like Michael Barrier, author of Hollywood Cartoons, which devotes a lot of space to Warner Bros. directors. But there still hasn’t been much said, particularly outside of animation fandom, about why Looney Tunes is so great.
First, let’s admit their limitations. Some great comedy is moving or profound even while it does the things a comedy is supposed to do. There are a few Looney Tunes cartoons that can be taken seriously, like “One Froggy Evening,” which very much wants us to know that it’s a parable about human greed. But most of the cartoons are comedy for its own sake, with no underlying message or theme.
And, unlike the great silent comedians, most Warner Bros. characters lack depth. Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd all created characters that not only were funny but also embodied the human desire for love and respect. They seem real, and we can like them even when they’re not doing anything funny. They also were classic underdogs, struggling against society or natural disasters or all the things that put us in our place. Some classic cartoon characters fit that mould, like Popeye, who (in both comics and animation) lives to punch back against bullies.
The case has sometimes been made for the great Looney Tunes characters as underdogs, but it’s never a convincing case because the characters aren’t actually struggling against anything. They seldom have to try hard: as long as it’s funny, they can produce a weapon out of nowhere, and the most horrific acts of violence cause them no stronger reaction than irritation. In a more serious comedy, the characters feel an exaggerated version of what we might feel in their shoes, whether anger, fear, or determination. We can’t usually identify much with a Looney Tunes character because we know that nothing has consequences for them, and they seem to know it too. Even Wile E. Coyote, whose futile attempts to catch the Road Runner sometimes bring him close to the great silent-screen losers, can end a cartoon by holding up a sign asking for the creator to cut it off early and give him a break.
This lack of consequences is almost a fundamental storytelling principle of Looney Tunes; it explains why the cartoons work even though they violate all the normal rules of storytelling. Take, for example, the rule that a hero must face a villain who is a match for them. Looney Tunes villains are the biggest idiots in fiction, even when they initially seem threatening. In “The Hasty Hare” (1952), Bugs Bunny faces off for the second time against a tiny Martian who has no face, just a pair of eyes in a void. The character was never named in the cartoons but is usually called “Marvin the Martian” for marketing purposes. Like any good 1950s Martian, Marvin possesses a destructive ray gun and seems to terrify Bugs when he shows it off. But, immediately afterward, Marvin and his Martian dog sidekick fall for every one of Bugs’s tricks, including turning the two of them against each other by merely suggesting that the dog is a mutineer. (“Mutiny makes me so angry!” Marvin replies, blasting the K-9 in the face.) Bugs was never really in trouble.
Even the idea that characters should be consistent is rarely followed. A Looney Tunes character may have one or two traits that define him, and everything else can change depending on what’s funnier in the moment. Daffy Duck is so inconsistent that people think of him as almost two separate characters with the same name: one a wild screwball who drives Elmer Fudd crazy, the other an angry loser who constantly gets shot in the face by Elmer. (Sometimes he can go back and forth between both characterizations in a single cartoon.) This all falls under the general heading of “anything for a laugh.” It isn’t what we expect of first-rate art. Even popular art isn’t supposed to pander to the audience by giving them anything for a laugh; it’s supposed to leave out things that violate the world the artist is trying to create.
That’s how things were done at United Productions of America, the cartoon studio usually considered the most artistic and ambitious. UPA people generally thought that their willingness to avoid the easy gag and the sudden disregard for reality made their product superior to Warner Bros. cartoons. Bill Scott, who co-wrote cartoons at Warner Bros. for several years and then moved to UPA (and later became famous as the writer and voice of Bullwinkle Moose and George of the Jungle), said that “the kiss of death at UPA was to be considered a Warner Brothers writer.” Looney Tunes writers, he added, were dismissed as “clothesline gag” writers, for whom a story was just a cheap, insubstantial way to support the gags. That description wasn’t exactly wrong. If Warner Bros. creators have a choice between telling a joke and giving the film a consistent style, they’ll almost always choose the joke.
This all sounds like I’m hedging my bets when it comes to proclaiming the greatness of Looney Tunes. I’m not. To celebrate the greatness of works of art, you have to acknowledge their limitations, the sides of the world that they don’t or can’t see. Looney Tunes cartoons leave out a lot of human experience and speak to only one kind of mood. What we ask of art, however, is not that it tell us everything but that it tell us something, that it have a style and a viewpoint that make sense to us. Every good Looney Tunes cartoon has that.
Part of this special quality involved a uniquely rich relationship between visual and verbal comedy. American animated films are often stronger in visual humour than in dialogue. Mickey Mouse started out as a silent character and usually had very few lines. Donald Duck’s dialogue was (intentionally) almost impossible to understand. Popeye muttered as much as he talked, and Tom and Jerry almost never talked. But Warner Bros. cartoons had arguably the best soundtracks in American film comedy. Mel Blanc, who voiced all the important recurring characters except Elmer Fudd, was so essential to the studio that he became the first voice actor ever to get credit for short cartoons; composer Carl Stalling, who essentially invented the art of animated movie music when he worked for Disney, spent most of his career at Warner Bros., working closely with the directors (and sound effects wizard Treg Brown) to set a tempo for all the animated action and make sure that the sounds and movements complemented each other perfectly. The result of all this is a series where the dialogue has the wise-guy tone and fast pace of radio comedy, the music is funny, the animation is funny, the sound effects are funny, and none of them ever do something that’s redundant. They solved the problem of how to incorporate sound without losing visual interest.
Then there’s the violence. You can’t talk about Looney Tunes without talking about violence. The Warner Bros. cartoons didn’t start out as particularly violent—less violent, certainly, than Popeye, where every cartoon ended in a huge fist fight, and even less violent than the early Mickey Mouse cartoons, where he could be a bit of a psychopath. But, by the early 1940s, violence was a standard device in most Looney Tunes cartoons. Dropping an anvil on a character is perhaps their most iconic gag, with one of its earliest incarnations turning up in “A Tale of Two Kitties,” which introduced Tweety along with a couple of dim-witted cats based on Abbott and Costello (and named Babbit and Catstello). When Catstello falls from a wire, Tweety throws him a rope, but the rope is attached to an anvil, and it smashes the cat into the ground, leaving him a squashed, thin layer underneath it. Before getting around to the anvil, Tweety repeatedly hits the “putty tat” with a club, then switches to blowing him up with a stick of dynamite, which is second only to the anvil as the most iconic cartoon weapon. All of these items, of course, are produced from nowhere. And a tiny little bird can brandish a club that’s several times larger than he is.
Which brings us to cartoon logic. Possibly the best-known aspect of the classic Looney Tunes cartoons is that they seem to break the laws of physics in ways that suggest they exist in an alternative universe with its own rules. Anything can be pulled from anywhere if a character needs it. Gravity doesn’t work until you look down, and even then, it’s sometimes possible to resist gravity and crawl back to safety. Distances and weights are never consistent: Catstello falls more quickly than the anvil, racing it to the ground before it smashes him and pulls a few acres into a hole behind it.
Cartoon logic also allows things to happen that are completely contradictory to the actual story. In this film, these leaps of logic involve food. In one scene, Catstello is shown eating an apple while Babbit prepares to launch him up to Tweety’s nest. Later, after the anvil falls on Catstello, we see Babbit planting a “victory garden.” Almost since the beginning of YouTube, commenters have pointed out that these moments go against the premise of the cartoon, which is that the cats are so hungry they’ll do almost anything to catch one little bird.
They’re right, but it doesn’t matter. Catstello is eating an apple to set up a gag: Tweety takes the apple from him, pulls out a worm, eats the worm, and throws away the apple. The question of why Catstello wants to eat a bird if he can get an apple is no more important than the classic issue of why Wile E. Coyote doesn’t just buy food with all the money he spends on Acme products. These cartoons break the most familiar storytelling rule of all, that of internal consistency. Logic bends to the demands of the joke.
There’s something else that sets the Warner Bros. cartoons apart from even the best work from other studios. More than other cartoons, maybe even more than any other comedy films, Looney Tunes have a power over the audience that goes beyond the quality of the individual gags. Looney Tunes cartoons are full of inexplicable laughs—where all the elements add up to a laugh that is much bigger than the same bit would get in anyone else’s film. This mystery—Why is an anvil drop funnier in a Warner Bros. cartoon than in almost any other cartoon that has ever tried to imitate the gag?—reminds me of a comment by a symphony conductor who said that, given all the clichés and derivative tricks in Mozart’s music, a computer analysis of his work would probably decide that Mozart was a second-rate composer. Obviously, only a computer would ever come to that conclusion. The point is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Mozart’s greatness is hard to analyze but easy to feel. You also feel the greatness of a great Warner Bros. cartoon.
The comparison of Warner Bros. cartoons to music is deliberate. Music’s power is in making us feel things without being able to say, in ordinary language, what we feel or why we feel it. Looney Tunes also have a power beyond words. Analyze a lot of the big gags and none of the phrases we have developed to describe comedy greatness will help. In 1948’s “Buccaneer Bunny,” Bugs deals with a parrot who keeps pointing out his location to the villain. Bugs says, “Polly want a cracker?” and when the parrot says yes, Bugs hands him a firecracker that blows up. An explosion gag. Why do we laugh even though we know what’s going to happen?
It’s like music. The laughs come from timing and rhythm. The gag is divided into three basic beats: Bugs hands the firecracker to the parrot; the firecracker explodes; the smoke clears, showing the ashen but otherwise unharmed bird. This all happens in just a few seconds, but each of these beats is held just long enough for it to play properly. We react not so much to the explosion or to the parrot’s one line (“Me and my big mouth”) as to the subconscious feeling that each of these things is happening at the right time.
This special quality, this power that defies analysis, helps explain why there have been relatively few successful projects with the Looney Tunes characters since the original studio shut down—though there have been some, and HBO Max’s “Looney Tunes Cartoons” have been particularly well received. Still, even the good ones sometimes struggle to get the tone just right because it’s so hard to do. It’s possible to analyze what makes non-Looney characters work and replicate it for a modern audience. Disney’s most popular character worldwide is probably Donald Duck, and his adventures, especially in comic books, have a sort of template that a modern creator can follow. Superman has a formula for a successful story, as does James Bond. Bugs Bunny is much trickier.
Whatever happens going forward, few franchises can compare to the ability of Looney Tunes to thrive and even grow its audience based almost solely on the strength of its old material. Some characters need new material to keep them alive since tastes and styles change so much and one generation doesn’t (and shouldn’t) like the same things as another. But these characters experienced decades of strange management decisions, ill-advised revivals, and changes in technology and taste. Any other pop culture figures would have been completely forgotten after that kind of treatment, but Looney Tunes will never die. The cartoons are just too good to disappear.
Adapted with permission from Anvils, Mallets and Dynamite: The Unauthorized Biography of Looney Tunes by Jaime Weinman © 2021. All rights reserved. Published by Sutherland House Books.