I’ve never been what you’d call an animal person. I suppose it’s partly because I don’t cope well when things die. I struggled when Sam’s tropical fish floated to the top of the tank. I think it also comes from the fact that I didn’t grow up with animals around me. Thanks to two thirds of my childhood home having allergy issues, my parents never bought a pet. So I grew up without a puppy, kitten or baby gecko to call my own.
Since living under my own roof, any thought I’ve ever had about owning an animal has been crushed by realising just how much hard work that lies wrapped up in the relationship. Let alone the fact that living in a street where everyone apart from you owns a cat really puts you off owning one yourself.
The only animals I’ve ever made time for as a kid were all customers of Acme. They are whirling, wheezing devils and tall, goofy roosters. Despicable ducks and wisecracking rabbits. I’ve been a Looney Tune fan for as long as I can remember. I can’t quite remember the first time I heard that stretching, almost elastic opening note or saw a rabbit ask, in a New Yoirk, accent ‘What’s up, Doc?’. I just know the moment left an indelible mark on my soul.
I grew up with some Disney fans around me. Kids who were plastered in head to toe in the wares of a certain mouse, either the male or female version, by their parents. It was either the mouse ears or Winnie the Pooh.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for Disney in my immature heart. Although, it’s primarily for the movies and some of those loopy, instructional Goofy cartoons. But, particularly in the early 80s, Disney shorts just didn’t do it for me. We hadn’t hit the homerun era of Chip ‘N’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers, Duck Tales, Darkwing Duck and Tailspin. The older cartoons that cropped up in my viewing schedule seemed too twee. They were patronisingly cute. They were either toy adverts or morality lessons. Either way, they just weren’t funny at all. Even now some of those early, bouncing Disney cartoons still give me the creeps. Whereas the moment I saw the WB logo race towards the front of my TV screen, I knew I was in for a rollercoaster few minutes.
The first time I saw a Wile E Coyote cartoon I could hardly breathe. It absolutely slayed me. (And I had childhood asthma back then.) There was something about the golden age era of Looney Tunes that keyed perfectly into my childhood wiring. The music. The off the wall logic. The violence. The irreverence. It was right up my street. In fact, it might have constructed that street in my head. Along with a little help from The Marx Brothers, of course.
Plus, the Looney Tunes taught me a little something about myself. I rarely sided with the cute little birdy or the fastest mouse in all Mexico. I always found myself on Sylvester’s side. No matter how ill his intentions, I knew there was no real threat. The cartoons where he had to fight the baby kangaroo always had me rolling off my chair in giggles. The disappointment in his son’s voice when he only sees the tiny, little mouse.
I wrapped myself in those characters many catchphrases and watched them beat the living hell out of each other time and time again. The stories were simple. The motivations could be explained in a rapid establishing scene. Plot rarely got in the way of the action when it came to those Merry (if high octane) Melodies.
At some point, in amongst all of this, I saw ten minutes of TV that I’m pretty sure split my tiny brain wide open. It was a Daffy Duck cartoon. Not one of the early ones, where he was a whooping loon. Nope, this was a little further into his career. When the greed and desperation came to the forefront and he was often barrelling through parodies of classic genres. Except, in this cartoon, something strange was happening.
Daffy wasn’t tangling with dead eyed, hulking villains or harassing pigs with speech impediments. No, he was waging war with the animators. Or, really, it was the other way around. They were constantly redrawing him. Setting him in the middle of an ocean or smashing his face against the screen. They were changing him into strange shapes and then putting in a mirror to show him what they’d done. I’d never seen anything like it. It played with the form in a way I’d never thought possible. It broke the fourth wall with an Acme wrecking ball. It outright admitted what you were watching, showing you the bones of the process, whilst making fun of them. It was my first experience of anything meta. Long before Joss Whedon started ushering vampire slayers onto my TV.
I still remember the reveal at the end of that cartoon. The surreal moment when (spoilers) it turned out our evil animator was a certain rabbit all along. It spoke volumes about those characters and just how far Warner Brothers would go when it came to making us laugh.
As I got older, I became a bit of a Looney connoisseur. The early stirrings of the geek in me, I suppose. I began to know which cartoons to avoid and which were the classics to watch as often as possible. I bought the VHS sets and skipped the weaker offerings they stuck in as filler. I began to appreciate the many ways in which a black cat could be given a white stripe in order to fool a skunk. I learnt that the TV movies, where they’d stitched the cartoons together with crowbarred plots, were okay but nothing special. I learnt that Wile E was funniest when he didn’t talk and that the name Chuck Jones could guarantee great things, unless it was a later period Tom and Jerry cartoon. Oh, Chuck. Why did you go over to T and J?
I also learnt that Mel Blanc was a freaking genius. In a world where one proto celebrity cameo in a Disney movie could make everyone lose their minds, I never understood why more people weren’t amazed by the work of Mr Blanc. He voiced a universe and it wasn’t like all those voices sounded the same. He was a master of timing and emotion. He chewed carrots to play the rabbit. He jumped and screamed to play the duck. He screwed himself small and tight to play many the gangster foil and vocally strolled to play the loquacious Foghorn Leghorn. Lord only knows how much liquid he must’ve lost in the wet stutters of Sylvester.
Like Jerry Seinfeld, I learnt about opera through Looney Tunes. Of course, I also picked up a few cartooned facts as well. I was disappointed the first time I saw a real Tasmanian Devil on TV. Or when I found out that ants didn’t march to an incredibly catchy tune or that you could fall before you realised you’d run past the edge of a drop. I also learnt that animals couldn’t outwit their hunters by switching the hunting season signs. Still, it was nice to believe they could for a time.
It still surprises me that the franchise has slumped so badly over the years. Space Jam, their big jump to the movie screen, never quite stuck the landing. Then there was Looney Tunes: Back in Action. Which should’ve been great. The guy who directed Gremlins giving us a Roger Rabbit style movie where Steve Martin is the head of Acme, sending out cartoon classic henchmen to get Bugs and Daffy. All I remember about the movie is Brendan Fraser gracefully, inexplicably gliding down the Eiffel Tower.
Since then, it’s been fairly quiet. I guess we had a couple of high points on TV. Tiny Toon Adventures was far funnier than any of us expected and Animaniacs had some of that same wild magic running through its veins. They just never quite got the same foothold. They’re remembered as cult classics now.
I suppose it all just serves to make the golden era of Looney Tunes something truly special. A dazzlingly, addictive, vivid piece of entertainment for the entire family. It was rarely oversentimental and, for all its clichés and impending catchphrases, it was never dull. Those little ten minute shorts were exactly what you needed to pick you up and dust you off. Pure, perfect escapism. Surely we need that in our lives again now.
Ladies and gentlemen of Warner Brothers, if it’s any help, I have one suggestion. I would pay good money to see a version of The Revenant where it’s Elmer Fudd hunting the bear. Or maybe a rabbit who dressed as a bear to get out of hunting season. Call it The Irreverent. I’m pretty sure I’ll be rooting for the bear. Which is saying something when you consider I’ve never really been an animal person.