Dada got a new Bugs bwand. Our resident film critic, Peter Wix, on the lost lunatic fringe of cartoon comedy
Bugs Bunny is a successful marketing icon with an efficient portfolio in beta-carotene supplement firms. But he was once the iconoclastic “What’s up, Doc” star of a cartoon comedy cabal that hid social stick behind a carrot of visual absurdity and grotesquely enlarged human foibles. Irreverent, stubborn, and vewy twicky, his lagomorphic audacity led Warner Bros’ Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoon output from 1930 to 1964, his New Yorkese mordancy constantly exposing the clumsiness and ignorance of the middle-American Elmer Fudd, the speech-impaired hunter of wabbit twacks.
A hunt victim who stylishly, without remorse, defended his corner, won, and frequently took revenge, Bugs stood up blood and guts for his integrity and intelligence against the obtuse and mediocre. In Rebel Rabbit (1949), he even became a terrorist, filling up the Grand Canyon in a fit of anti-authoritarian pride.
Despite a manipulative, bellicose period of insanity when WB characters were drafted into WWII propaganda services – and with some shamefully, since-censored, racist dialogue – Warner cartoons were at the heart of a more salutary madness, a lunatic fringe of entertainment, of anarchic, zany screen and radio comedy from the subversive vaudeville of the Marx Brothers to Monty Python in the 1980s.
The WB animators sought an alternative to the cuteness of the Disney dream of an opulent bourgeois reward for clean behaviour, its outsiders who climb, like Tramp when his Lady gets him, or bow-tied Thomas O’Malley joining the ‘Aristocatsy’. WB artists and directors were boys who hadn’t much liked school, but they were cultured autodidacts. Tex Avery, Chuck Jones and voice artists like Stan Freberg (a songwriting comedian who lampooned Joseph McCarthy at the height of the witch-hunt), gave their characters great psychological depth. They borrowed from models such as Groucho Marx, and from the movements of Dadaism and Surrealism. Abstract backgrounds and bitingly extreme voices helped provide a greater emotional range for characters, but with high art perhaps alienating some audiences.
While the popular Daffy Duck was a paranoid, despicably obsessive loser, Bugs was the shining example of intelligence being the underdog’s best form of resistance to brutality and conformism. Chuck Jones’ creation of the sublime and speedy Road Runner (batoutahelius) brought us the perfect uncatchable, invincible prey. His pursuer, Wile E. Coyote (hardheadipus oedipus), was locked in a Sisyphean struggle, remaining a faithful consumer of the products of the Acme Corporation. Coyote fails, dies a hundred deaths, comes back down to earth from a height, but never changes. Road Runner keeps poise and dignity intact.
It is up for grabs if the anarchic spirit and hardcore illogicality of so many Bugs Bunny victories, and zany humour in general, worked to keep rebellion alive or just boosted morale enough as a safety valve for the kids and workers of an exploitative society. While echoes of Looney Tunes’ anarchic iconoclasm can be felt in Seth McFarlane’s Family Guy and American Dad franchises, it could be argued that we have largely lost ‘zany’, and with it, we another antidote to a general dumbing down, the moulding of society into a more predictable mass for a consumer economy.
Of the lunatic influence of 50 years of luminous oddballs, perhaps best represented by Bugs Bunny, the toughest and quickest-witted of them all, it is certain little or nothing remains but the merchandise. As Lebowski said, new shit has come to light.
That’s all folks… and remember, wabbits love cawwots!