Thursday, August 5, 2010

Why I love Looney Tunes

It's difficult to put into words exactly why something is funny. Descriptions don't manage it. We know funny when we see it. And funny, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. I prefer The Simpsons to Family Guy, but legions of fans take the opposite view. I once showed my DVD of The Princess Bride, a hilarous parody of fantasy/adventure movies, to a group of college freshmen, and I could count on one hand the number of laughs I heard. So writing a good explanation of my love for the cartoon shorts released by Warner Brothers during Hollywood's Golden Age isn't as simple a task as it might seem. "Because they're funny" simply won't do, and a detailed explanation of how and why they're funny might fall flat. I know a good number of people, some in my own family, who don't find them funny at all.

Perhaps the best place to begin is this: I love them because when I watch them, I understand the value of caricature -- the exaggeration of a single character trait to ridiculous extremes.

In live-action entertainment, caricature annoys me in the extreme, hence my dislike for most live-action sitcoms. (Monty Python gets a pass; I have a weakness for British accents.) When caricature elbows its way into an hour-long drama or adventure, I resent its intrusion. My husband and I are currently watching our DVDs of Due South, a series I mostly missed the first go-around. The show's two central characters, the compassionate straight-arrow Canadian Mountie and the cynical, tough-talking Chicago cop, seem like caricatures on first acquaintance, but as we get to know them, we see them in depth and dimension that persuades us to make an emotional investment in them. An episode we watched the other night, however, gave me an unpleasant surprise: a guest character, played by Jane Krakowski of Ally McBeal fame, who proved to be the most infuriating type of caricature (for me), the Dumb Blonde Who Won't Shut Up. All the danger and conflict in the episode stems directly from this dimwitted chatterbox's unwillingness to listen when someone else is talking. I kept waiting for her to "get better," to show some dimension, to swim beyond those shallow waters; she never did. The result was an episode nearly as irritating as the character herself.

Yet in animation, caricatures don't make me angry. If they're detailed enough, they can be as endearing as the most well-developed and complex live-action heroes. The best cartoon shorts from the Golden Age, particularly Warner Brothers releases, understand exactly what a caricature should do: inspire us to laugh at ourselves.

All Looney Tunes enthusiasts know that two distinct Daffy Ducks exist: the wild, no-holds-barred Daffy who first bounced across the screen in "Porky's Duck Hunt" in 1937, and the impulsively greedy, calculating Daffy popularized by Chuck Jones in shorts like "Rabbit Fire" and "Ali Baba Bunny." Each Daffy takes an element from the human blueprint and exaggerates it to a raucous extreme: longing to break rules in the first, the drive for self-preservation and self-aggrandizement in the second. They have in common yet another human trait, the desire -- nay, the need -- to win. As we watch him frustrate poor hunter Porky Pig's efforts to apply the laws of basic logic to him, we root for him to continue pole-vaulting over those laws and only wish we could follow; in some way, his victory is ours. Even when we're not rooting for him, we understand him because we sense his presence inside us. When the world is after us with a gun, what more sensible option could there be than to persuade it to aim at someone else? Of course, Daffy's efforts at this, just like our own, are doomed to failure. He gets the gun-blast in the face every time. Blam! Take that, Us!

In almost every Looney Tune character I can find some part of myself. I can identify with Sylvester as he gazes hungrily at that annoying little bird in his precious gilded cage and longs to take him down. Like Foghorn Leghorn, I'd like to have a voice loud enough to sound right even when I'm wrong. When I'm screaming at my frozen computer or waiting an age for a website to load, I'm Wile E. Coyote, fuming at yet another technological failure. Yet these caricatures share a distinctly admirable quality: they never give up.

Then there's Bugs Bunny. He's different from the others because he isn't like us. Rather, as Chuck Jones has pointed out, he's what we would like to be. Who wouldn't want to outsmart hunters, gangsters, bulls, opera singers, gamblers, witches, and Martians with as much panache as he? Because we wish ourselves into his paws, we can imagine his triumphs (for a little while) as our own.

Adult animation fans are often asked a Rorsach Test kind of question: "Are you Disney or Warner Brothers?" My answer is very simple: I'm both. Each one meets a need the other can't quite reach. When I want to get misty-eyed, when my heart needs to latch onto a beautifully-told sentimental tale, I look to Disney. When I want a good, hard laugh at what is best and worst in myself, I look to Warners. I treasure them equally, and I'm very grateful I don't have to do without either.

Now, a short list of favorite Warners cartoons, with a favorite line from each:

"Robin Hood Daffy": "Actually, it's a buck-and-a-quarter quarterstaff, but I'm not telling him that."
"What's Opera, Doc?": (sung) "Yes, magic helmet -- and I'll give you a sample!"
"Duck Amuck": (sung) "Daffy Duck he had a farm, E-I-E-I-O, And on this farm he had an igloo, E--I -- E... I... Oh."
"Duck Dodgers in the 24th 1/2 Century": "Gad, how do I do it?"
"One Froggy Evening": (sung) "Please don't talk about me when I'm gone..."
"Bugs and Thugs": "He's not in this stove!"
"Rabbit Hood": "I will probably hateth myself cometh the dawn!"

These lines won't make a bit of sense tho those who have never seen the cartoons. But my fellow Looney Tunes fans are probably having a good chuckle right now.

1 comment:

  1. Here are some of mine:

    Baby Buggy Bunny: "Oh, dear. I do believe I've forgotten my fudge."

    Feed The Kitty: "NOT ONE LITTLE THING!"

    Southern Fried Rabbit: "The first dang Yankee to step out of that dugout gets his head blasted off!"

    Birdy and the Beast: "The poor puddy tat. He faw down and go BOOM!!"

    Which is the one where Daffy draws moustaches on every poster? That one. "A moustache on every lip!"

    Or The Great Piggy Bank Robbery: "Scram, Sherlock! I'm working this side of the street!"

    I'll have to think of more...