Unleashing the cartoon anarchy and wacky violence of Looney Tunes

Unleashing the cartoon anarchy and wacky violence of Looney Tunes

Childhood recalled via five Warner Bros. shorts

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that all deal with a central theme. Now through July: TV we loved as kids.

Five Looney Tunes cartoons: “Hair-Raising Hare” (1946), “The Scarlet Pumpernickel” (1949), “Rabbit Of Seville” (1950), “Feed The Kitty” (1952), “Duck Amuck” (1953)

In which cartoon chaos holds reign

Todd VanDerWerff: The western half of South Dakota is as desolate and empty as anything you’ll see this side of the moon. Drive across it in the middle of the night—as I used to do when shuttling between my summer internship and the town where I went to college—and you’ll be able to see lights from ranches way off in the distance, the only evidence that human beings have been here. But looming up out of all of this emptiness is a giant TV tower, one that beams the signal for the state’s CBS affiliate, KELO, to all its corners. (Or at least it used to loom. An ice storm destroyed the tower in 2010, and now I can’t find news of what happened to it.) It sits on a high hill, so, you can see the red light atop it blinking for mile after mile, especially on a clear night. Tune your radio to 87.7, and you can listen to CBS for a good 100 miles, so strong does it sing the signal over the prairie.

I became fascinated by television—even though I wasn’t allowed to watch much of it—in part because the totems of its existence were so physical to me growing up. To get any programs on the farm where I lived, we had to have a giant satellite dish installed, or we had to rely on an old antenna on the roof. My dad would sometimes have to climb up and adjust that antenna by hand when we weren’t able to pull in one of the few networks we had access to. (We never did get access to Fox, eventually being able to watch its Denver affiliate thanks to a satellite package.) TV was a beacon, a lifeline, and a mystery—made somewhere else, beamed out of the skies and down to us.

I watched a handful of shows. I saw a fair amount of Jim Henson’s output (The Muppet Show and Muppet Babies, for two), and The Cosby Show was a staple. I also watched a lot of a terrible Christian kids TV show about a local sheriff who counted a talking dog among his fast friends. (Be thankful I did not make you watch an episode of this. I could have.) And Scooby Doo was a longtime favorite. But if I look for a constant throughout all those years of growing up, it would have to be Captain 11.

Do I expect you to know what this is? Absolutely not, even though KELO claims this was the longest-running local kids show in U.S. history. Captain 11 was the local weatherman for KELO, but for his show, he’d dress up in a blue jumpsuit to entertain a gathering of local kids. His shtick was like that of dozens of other kids’ show hosts around the country: The opening monologue claimed he’d been given immense power, but he mainly used that power to show cartoons. He’d go around the live studio audience (every kid in the area attended at least once) and ask us all our names. Going to one of these tapings for my friend’s birthday was my first time on a TV set and a seminal experience.

Today, I’m most thankful to the Captain for introducing me to Looney Tunes. I’m just old enough that Looney Tunes hadn’t yet become part of the Nickelodeon daily rotation when I was young enough to follow that sort of thing. (My sister, just a couple of years younger than I am, first saw them on Nick, which suggests how fast things move when you’re a kid.) Captain 11 featured three cartoons every weekday, usually with grainy filmstrip quality, and at least two of them were always Looney Tunes. (The other was usually Popeye.) I initially thought about trying to digitize an episode of Captain 11 to give you the full experience, but I think watching these five cartoons (all of which are available on the first volume of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection DVD set) gives you much the same effect. This also explains why Looney Tunes, which originated as theatrical animated shorts at a time when the film industry still made shorts, counts in the TV Roundtable: Is there any living American who knows Looney Tunes best from the movie theater anymore?

Looney Tunes is a national treasure, but upon revisiting these cartoons after a few years away, I was struck by how funny they are every time. I love the rampant absurdity of everything that happens—for instance, the way that Bugs doesn’t flee in terror from the monster in “Hair-Raising Hare” but instead dances away, as if he thinks he can charm the beast into not eating him. And I love the way “The Rabbit Of Seville” builds and builds to that epic climax that culminates in Bugs and Elmer getting married, because the rules of logic don’t apply in this universe, but they also don’t really apply to love. (Bugs carries Elmer up to a theater catwalk and drops him in his bridal gown to the stage below. Some wedding.) As I get older, I identify more and more with Daffy Duck, whose rages seem less inexplicable and more understandable with every year, but even as a kid, I found the breaking of the fourth wall in “Duck Amuck” delightful and hugely formative.

My favorite, though, will always be “Feed The Kitty,” which seems as good a chance as any to segue to a question for all of you: Which of these did you like best? And how did you first come to know the Looney Tunes? Did any of you have your own Captain 11?

Carrie Raisler: I’ll do my best not to have this devolve into another weird “I can’t remember my childhood” rant (but seriously, I can’t really remember most of my childhood, and it’s frustrating), because although I cannot remember exactly how I consumed them, I most definitely watched my fair share of Looney Tunes. (And it was assuredly pre-Nickelodeon, as I didn’t have cable until I was at least 10 years old.) I could recall everything that was going to happen next in “Feed The Kitty” right before it happened, and that when the title of “Rabbit Of Seville” came up, I immediately knew it would be an Elmer Fudd/Bugs Bunny caper ending with their “wedding.” I couldn’t have told you that before re-watching the cartoons, but seeing these again shook loose something in my brain—a deep, repetition-based recollection of watching these short stories over and over and over again.

Watching this selection of cartoons, what stood out to me most as an adult is just how wide a breadth they cover in terms of story and style. “Rabbit Of Seville” and “The Scarlet Pumpernickel” draw their inspiration from other works (The Barber Of Seville and The Scarlet Pimpernel, respectively) but execute them in wildly different fashion, with “Seville” mostly working as a cat-and-mouse caper and “Pumpernickel” taking a more traditional narrative focus. “Feed The Kitty” and “Hair-Raising Hare” use the playfulness of animation to go for both laughs and heart, although “Kitty” leans toward a tragic-then-sweet take, while “Hare” goes for tongue-in-cheek scares. But the cartoon that surprised me the most was “Duck Amuck,” which was the only one I didn’t immediately remember. It’s the most subversive cartoon in this bunch. Was my childhood mind simply blocking it out? Did I have too little comprehension of what I was watching to file it away for later recall?

I don’t watch a lot of animation these days, and what I do watch tends to be grounded a bit more in reality (à la Bob’s Burgers or Archer, which is as realistic as a show can be while featuring a woman who consumes pounds of cocaine and remains upright). The purpose of “Duck Amuck” is to subvert reality, making the viewer a participant in Daffy Duck’s torture and then daring us to laugh as the unseen hand of the animator frustrates Daffy. That’s the point: Daffy Duck is at his Daffiest when he’s mad as hell. The setup of the gag is almost like an instruction book on animation itself, teaching the viewer how these stories are made by breaking them down to their basest elements and building them up again in the most surreal way possible. With a flick of a pencil, Daffy goes from a full character to a disembodied (yet still cranky) bill, then back to a duck again in a different form. It’s almost like animation as out-of-body experience, and I wish I could remember what young me thought of it because I’m pretty sure it blew my mind. It sort of blew my adult mind, honestly.

Really, all of these were more subversive than I recalled: There are guns and cross-dressing and fake interspecies marriage! But “Duck Amuck,” even though it kind of annoyed me—Daffy Duck will never be my favorite character—is my choice for the most surprising and satisfying as an adult viewer (even if “Feed The Kitty” is more funny and likable).

Zack, which is your favorite? And do you have a significant childhood (or adult) connection to any of these old standbys?

Zack Handlen: Oh, “Duck Amuck” is my favorite. Probably my favorite cartoon of all time, at least Looney Tunes-wise; the only other one that comes close is “One Froggy Evening,” although weirdly enough, I hated that one as a kid. (It bugged me for what sounds like the same reason “Duck Amuck” kind of annoyed you—it’s hard to watch characters punished, especially when you’re a kid.) Watching “Duck Amuck” now, it still amazes me how inventive the short is, how casually and thoroughly it does deconstruction and meta humor. We take those concepts for granted now, but most cartoons that point out their own cartooniness do so with a wink at the audience. Part of the pleasure is that satisfaction of thinking, “Oh, this is terribly clever, and I’m terribly clever for noticing it’s terribly clever.” “Duck Amuck” doesn’t bother with that. Like all the cartoons Todd picked (including the almost agonizingly adorable “Feed The Kitty”), it’s here to make you laugh, and entertain you, and keep the animators amused. The cleverness comes second, if at all.

I grew up watching Looney Tunes, although I didn’t have as colorful a delivery system as Todd. I had to rely on stuff like The Bugs Bunny Show (or The Bugs Bunny & Tweety Show, as it was called when I was a kid). I remember watching it on Saturdays, and every half-hour was a crapshoot. You nearly always got a Bugs cartoon, but the rest was up in the air, and I always hated it when the Road Runner or Tweety and Sylvester showed up. Well, I didn’t “hate” it, but those were never my favorites. I’ve changed my opinion about the Road Runner as an adult (those cartoons are the platonic ideal of the chase/failure structure that so many Tunes shorts fall into), but back then, I was all about Bugs or Daffy. They were the best. 

Looking back now, I’m impressed and happy to remember how much these cartoons were just an inevitable and even unremarkable part of my life. It never occurred to me to think about historical relevance, or how Looney Tunes influenced so many of the shows and movies I loved. As a kid, it was just accessible, funny stuff, the sort of thing where even if I didn’t understand a reference, I knew that reference was supposed to be hilarious, so I laughed anyway. These cartoons helped develop my conception of what cartoons and comedic storytelling could accomplish. I can’t imagine thinking or writing about Futurama or Rick And Morty or Monty Python without having all of this floating around in my head. It was even part of my language back then. For years, every time I ran into a certain friend, one of us would say, “Did yah ever get the feeling you was being watched?” and we’d launch into the gag near the end of “Hair-Raising Hare.”

Every time there’s a rumor about Warner Bros. trying to update these characters for a “modern” audience, I cringe, because they don’t need to be updated. The dated nods to old-school stars and outmoded slang are part of the charm. It’s good to watch things you don’t immediately understand, especially when you’re growing up. It encourages you to keep digging. But I wonder how easy it is to watch these cartoons these days, and if Saturday mornings still hold the prominence they held in my childhood. Loading up the DVDs to watch Todd’s selections was fun, but I always feel like the shorts are best discovered in the wild, so to speak—something out of nowhere that you weren’t quite looking for but wanted anyway.

Genevieve, now that we’ve all answered, what was your pick out of this five? And did all that stuff with the razor in “Rabbit Of Seville” freak you out a little, or was that just me?

Genevieve Koski: I’ll tell you what freaked me out about “Rabbit Of Seville”: The way that, after the first couple dozen indignities he suffers at Bugs’ paws, Elmer Fudd just sort of goes limp, a serene smile on his face, and pretty much lets Bugs have his way with him in that barber’s chair. I never cottoned to Elmer’s strange placidity over the dozens of times I saw this cartoon as a kid (more on that in a moment), but as an adult, all I could think was, “Man, that guy is clearly concussed out of his mind.” Cartoon physics are one thing, but Elmer Fudd basically becomes Bernie from Weekend At Bernie’s for a good chunk of this cartoon, and it’s a bit unsettling. (I also never noticed how often Bugs placates his victims by subjecting them to a manicure, as he does in both “Barber” and “Hair-Raising Hare.”)

Of these five cartoons that Todd chose, I’ll also have to crown “Duck Amuck” my favorite, even though I remember not loving it as a kid. (I never really liked Daffy. Maybe because I had a lisp growing up and hearing him speak was a little traumatic.) But as someone whose love of cartoons has grown deeper as I’ve aged, I love how it literally deconstructs the art form while still functioning as both a character study and a funny cartoon short. That’s the sort of thing I couldn’t appreciate fully as a kid, when I was more apt to love the endless chases of Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, or the more musical/story-driven stuff like “Rabbit Of Seville” or, Little Genevieve’s very favorite, not included here, “What’s Opera, Doc.” (My family still talks about how I would run around singing “Kill The Wabbit” at the top of my lungs as a tyke.)

I can’t remember a time when Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies weren’t part of my childhood viewing habits. I lived with my grandparents until I was 4 and stayed with them often for years after that, and much of that time was spent watching cartoons with my TV-loving grandpa. He took great pride in his multi-VCR entertainment center, which he’d rigged not only to record tapes and tapes’ worth of TV shows but also to dub VHS tapes he’d rent from the video store. He had shelves of hand-labeled tapes, dozens of which included cartoons and kiddie shows he’d taped for me, mostly Disney shorts and lots of Looney Tunes. I’m not sure where he recorded them from—my guess would be Saturday-morning network airings of The Bugs Bunny Show, because this was before the Nickelodeon era as well—I just know that they were always there, part of the sense-memory of my childhood, along with the taste of orange Push-Up pops and the sound of my grandpa laughing at Bugs’ antics. 

And I’m really grateful for that experience because I think a lot of people my age were indoctrinated into the Looney Tunes-iverse via inferior ’90s iterations like Tiny Toon Adventures, Space Jam, and those weird “hip-hop” Looney Tunes shirts that were popular for a hot minute. Not that those are necessarily bad entry points—well, okay, the latter two are pretty bad—but they lack the anarchic Looney Tunes mayhem that defined the classics and inspired a generation of animators. I think that’s why I always gravitated toward the cacophony and light surrealism of Animaniacs, which is more of a direct successor to classic Looney Tunes than even Tiny Toons—which, while loyal to the Looney Tunes spirit in its own way, lacked the subversive qualities that Carrie noted in these shorts. 

So, Todd, to turn your question back around on you, in a way: Why these five shorts specifically? You gravitated to Bugs and Daffy in particular, and to the late ’40s/early ’50s, the heyday of Chuck Jones, who directed all of these. Is that a coincidence, or is there something about Jones’ work that speaks to you?

TV: To be honest, I picked these five because they were the five cartoons on the DVD set I own that revived particularly strong memories of watching as a child. “Rabbit Of Seville” taught me about classical music, while “Hair-Raising Hare” taught me how you could smush genres right up next to each other. Even today, I love jokes where somebody ends up forced into the shape of whatever tiny container they end up in, and “Hair-Raising Hare” has a doozy. “Duck Amuck” and “Scarlet Pumpernickel” both fed my love, even as a child, of seeing how the Hollywood sausage was made and starting to understand how stories worked. And “Feed The Kitty” was just fantastically funny while still offering beauty and heart. So when I picked these, it was to get as close as I could to some of the feelings I had when I first came across these shorts. (The one I’m most sad about not being able to offer was the one where Bugs Bunny fights a bull. My wife and I still occasionally quote that one to each other.)

Watching these cartoons now, I’m struck by their violence. Don’t get me wrong: I think that’s a big part of the cartoons’ charm. But I don’t think I’d ever seen the original ending of “Scarlet Pumpernickel,” where Daffy blows his own head off, and it’s a pretty dark moment, all things considered. I remember that when I was a kid, the debate about violence in children’s cartoons was just starting to rage (along with the idea of kids’ cartoons functioning primarily as toy commercials, which I’m hopeful some other group will get to). I thought then—and still think—that a little cartoon violence never hurt anybody, but it’s still a bit shocking to me to watch these things and see the characters basically annihilating each other in ways that would result in death in reality. Yes, that’s part of the joke, but it’s hard to think of anything quite this anarchic and violent in kids’ TV nowadays (though, granted, I’m not an expert). I think it works in Looney Tunes, perhaps because of the anarchy, but I’d like to throw that out to you. Does the violence bother you or ping sensors now that it didn’t when you were a kid? And why do you think Looney Tunes can get away with it when it might be awful in some other context?

ZH: It’s possible that I’m more sensitive to, say, gun violence these days, given where we are as a culture, but I watched Captain America: The Winter Soldier last week, and I didn’t spend the whole time cringing, and while Daffy’s “suicide” at the end of “The Scarlet Pumpernickel” is somewhat shocking, I think I find it shocking in part because I’m conscious that I should be shocked, so I watch it and think, “Yup, definitely shocking.” Does that make sense?

As a kid, I took all of this in stride, because it was Looney Tunes, so it was meant to be crazy. As a grown-up, I find myself sometimes looking for things to comment on, not because I’m offended by them (certainly not in this case), but because I’m no longer capable of taking stuff for granted the way I did when I was younger. Back then, the shows and movies and books I took in all happened the way they happened because that was just how they were supposed to happen. Craft, artistry, and choices weren’t considerations. I’m glad I can pay more attention to that sort of thing as an adult, because it helps me appreciate the genius of, say, the way “Feed The Kitty” uses extreme adorableness both as a punchline and as a legitimate reason for emotional investment. But at the same time, I miss the unquestioning acceptance that used to define so much of my love for what I read and watched. 

As for why Looney Tunes can get away with it, I’m not sure. Context is important, and the shorts establish that while violence has a consequence, this consequence is never permanent. Unlike, say, the sterile combat of G.I. Joe, every bullet and mousetrap has an impact, but that impact fades fast. It’s a nifty balance that allows for stakes (because it’s hard to have jokes without stakes) but doesn’t force the writers and artists to hold back for the sake of realism. If Daffy shot himself in the head and nothing happened, it wouldn’t be funny. But if he shot himself in the head and brains splattered over the carpet, it would be really, really not funny. So instead, we get this weird gray area in which the headshot clearly isn’t a fun time for him, but it also isn’t so horrifying that it colors our view of the entire cartoon. The violence always hurts, it just doesn’t linger, and while that doesn’t make them educational, it does mean that they satisfy the requirements of, well, art: they tell a certain sort of truth, even if that truth isn’t one that you’d want a 5-year-old to take too literally. It’s a bit like watching a Jackie Chan movie, actually. He’ll do these insane stunts that, in real life, would probably kill anyone else dumb enough to try them, and on-screen, he’ll pull it off, but he’ll nearly always wince afterwards. The fiction allows in just enough honesty to give the stunt the necessary dramatic weight.

Okay, here’s an out-of-left-field question: Did you appreciate how “The Scarlet Pumpernickel” went off the rails at the end? And are you as impressed as I am by how modern these shorts’ narratives still feel?

CR: Zack, I think the impermanence of the violence is exactly why it works in Looney Tunes where elsewhere it would feel horrifying. Call it the Wile E. Coyote principle: You know he’s going to get squashed by the anvil, but you also know he’s going to pop right up and ask for more. I think kids get this on an instinctive level, so the violence works (whereas watching a violent action or horror film with realistic, permanent violence might get a different reaction). 

As for your question about the timelessness, it’s impressive how modern these feel considering they have blatant references to things no young person would actually know these days, unless kids are suddenly into Errol Flynn again. (Maybe they are! What do I know?) Strangely, the escalating climax of “The Scarlet Pumpernickel’s” reminded me of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, which structures the resolution of its stories in a similar way, by piling every conflict on top of each other until it all explodes into pure madness. I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that Looney Tunes’ storytelling structure has been absorbed by generations of kids who then went on to tell their own stories, using the things they learned from these childhood cartoons either consciously or subconsciously in the process. The end of “The Scarlet Pumpernickel” is my favorite part (especially the random, lonely little kreplach that demonstrates the scarcity and rising price of foodstuffs) just like the denouement of an It’s Always Sunny episode is my favorite part: It’s fun to see the madness burst through. It’s not a stretch to imagine one of the Paddy’s gang shooting themselves in the head at the end of an episode, but I suppose that would be a bit more horrifying than when old Daffy does it.

The cartoon here that’s always impressed me the most tonally, though, is “Feed The Kitty.” It has tremendous shifts in tone, from sweet to sad to scary to mournful to sweet again, all in less than seven minutes and with very little verbal communication. It’s hard to think of a modern-day equivalent. Then again, you don’t need one, as “Feed The Kitty” will be able to stand on its own in any time. Genevieve, do any of these seem timeless to you? Or do you see a specific modern-day counterpart to classic Looney Tunes?

GK: ”Feed The Kitty” is the only cartoon of these five that didn’t bring up strong memories as I was going into this viewing. (I knew the characters, Marc Antony and Pussyfoot, from other shorts, particularly “Feline Frame Up.”) Still, it was familiar somehow, particularly the protector-protectee relationship between the hulking dog and the aggressively adorable puddy-tat. I felt quite smart and proud of myself when I realized I was seeing the short’s influence on Sully and Boo from Monsters, Inc.—then I felt less smart when I Googled a bit and realized this is an established bit of Pixar trivia, and that Monsters Inc. actually includes a direct homage to “Feed The Kitty.” (When Sully thinks Boo has been trash-compacted into a cube, he has the same reactions and expressions as Marc Antony has when he thinks Pussyfoot has been baked into cookies.)

That’s the great part about going back to visit entertainment you loved as a kid, even those things you remember well. You’re experiencing those old memories from a new perspective, a perspective that has been filled by subsequent experiences and entertainments. And when those subsequent entertainments—be they Pixar films, Animaniacs, or even Itchy and Scratchy from The Simpsons—are informed by that same thing you loved as a kid, you form a new memory that’s stronger and more significant. It’s like snapping that last puzzle piece into place, an “a-ha” moment that makes an already special work even more so.

Next time: Erik Adams’ group goes 20 minutes into the future with Max Headroom’s “Blipverts.”

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