Where to start with the Looney Tunes? Ask an animation buff, and they will talk your ear off detailing the ways in which these are the most groundbreaking, influential and hilarious cartoons of the classic Hollywood era. And why stop there? One could easily argue for Duck Amuck and What’s Opera, Doc? as two of the best movies ever made. So much of American comedy has been deeply influenced by the Looney Tunes, partly because three generations (boomers, genxers, and millennials) grew up watching Bug Bunny and Road Runner cartoons on television. Things are different these days. Kids don’t just turn on the t.v. and watch whatever is on, they have Youtube, Netflix, and many other ways to watch exactly what they want whenever they want. But all is not lost. An extensive selection of classic Looney Tunes shorts as well as a new series called Looney Tunes Cartoons are currently available to stream via HBOMax. It’s a good time to be a Looney Tunes fan, and a great time to become one if you aren’t already. I know the sheer amount of material available right now can be a little overwhelming – where do you start? – but that’s where this article comes in. Call this an introduction, a crash course, a viewing guide – it doesn’t matter. What’s important is you’re about to enter the wonderful world of Looney Tunes.
Who or What are the Looney Tunes?
Broadly speaking, we use the term Looney Tunes to refer to shorts, tv series, and movies starring a cast of animated characters that includes Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Wylie E. Coyote, Tweetie-Bird, and many others. Most of the time, especially when we’re talking about “classic Looney Tunes,” we are talking about two series of shorts released theatrically by Warner Bros. between the 1930s and the 1960s called Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes.
This started with producer Leon Schlesinger, who took a pilot film by former Disney animators Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising to Warner Brothers and pitched a cartoon series that could rival Disney’s Silly Symphonies (hence the similar titles.) Warners, saw this as an opportunity to promote songs from their publishing company, bought the pilot, and the rest is history. These early shorts are quite different from what we usually think of as Looney Tunes, as they were basically lower budget imitations of Disney’s work. Notably, the first breakout character of the series was Bosko, a Mickey Mouse rip-off and racist caricature with clear roots in minstrelsy (Mickey himself is both a sort of rip-off and an heir of minstrelsy, but that’s a conversation for a different time.)
It wasn’t until the mid-30s, when Harman and Ising left and a new group of animators came in, that the Looney Tunes as we know them started to take shape. This group included Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Frank Tashlin, and Friz Freleng – all considered legends of the medium. By the early forties, the shorts had not only established a cast of popular and enduring characters (including Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Porky Pig) but they had developed a style notably different from Disney’s. Film critic Leonard Maltin describes the shorts as “bold, brash, innovative” and “funny in a way Disney’s cartoons had never been.” (By the way, Maltin’s chapter on Warner Bros. in his book Of Mice and Magic is a great read for anyone who wants to learn more about the history of the Looney Tunes.)
Where Do I Start?
Actually, the series of new shorts developed for HBOMax, Looney Tunes Cartoons, is a pretty good place to start. Unlike recent attempts that sought to rebrand the characters in “modern styles,” the shorts are purposely trying to bring back the chaotic energy and comedic sensibilities of the old shorts – and they largely succeed! Fans can tell these new shorts were made with great respect for the characters’ history by the way they recreate the elastic animation style of Bob Clampett and Tex Avery, whereas most Looney Tunes properties since at leas the 1990s have defaulted to copying the style of Chuck Jones. There’s nothing wrong with Jones, of course, who was nothing short of a genius and has more masterpieces under his belt than any other Looney Tunes director, but it was nice to see a different style be honored for a change. Still, given the man’s reputation, if you liked the new Looney Tunes Cartoons and want to get into the classics, I recommend you start with Jones.
Image taken from http://looneytunescaps.blogspot.com/
As far as characters go, the obvious place to start is with Bugs Bunny. The character as we know him first appeared in Tex Avery’s A Wild Hare (not available on HBOMax, weirdly) and quickly became one of the most popular cartoon characters of his time. The basic set-up of most Bugs Bunny cartoons is simple: the rabbit learns someone is trying to hunt, eat, or somehow harm him, and so he turns the tables on the dim-witted villains in violent and hilarious fashion. The forties were full of great Bugs Bunny cartoons, but the character reached his highest heights in the fifties, when director Chuck Jones discovered that Bugs Bunny and opera made a great pairing. Thus, Long-Haired Hare gave way to Rabbit of Seville and finally What’s Opera, Doc? – considered by many the best animated short ever made. Most Bugs cartoons are worth it, especially those directed by Chuck Jones, but if you want to see what other directors did with the character, try Baseball Bugs, Tortoise wins by a Hare, and The Old Grey Hare.
Possibly more popular and beloved than Bugs, despite always being presented as second banana, is Daffy Duck. The thing is that there are actually two different Daffy Ducks. When he was first introduced in the forties, Daffy – as his name suggests – was a wacky, loud, hyper-active character. It was in the fifties that Chuck Jones refashioned him as an eternal loser who keeps paying for thinking he’s the smartest person in the room, and thus turned him into one of the most existential characters in western culture. This is most apparent in Jones’s Hunting Trilogy, in which Daffy stars alongside Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in the iconic “duck season, rabbit season” face-offs that always end with the duck being shot in the face. The peak of this era is undoubtedly Duck Amuck – also considered the best cartoon ever made – a fourth wall-breaking short in which Daffy is tormented by a sadistic animator. Other great Daffy shorts of this time include Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century and Robin Hood Daffy.
Where Do I Go Next?
I’m glad you asked. Since we’re on the topic of Daffy Duck, why not try the cartoons that show the early iteration of the character? During this period, and starting with his debut in Porky’s Duck Hunt, Daffy was most often paired up with the then-most-popular-character Porky Pig. The classic Daffy and Porky pairing has been revived by the Looney Tunes Cartoons, and is one of the elements that make the new shorts feel so influenced by Bob Clampett, Frank Tashlin, and Tex Avery. These cartoons have a fluidity of movement that results in some of the most visually inventive gags put on film. I highly recommend Tashlin’s Porky Pig’s Feat and Friz Freleng’s live action hybrid You Ought to Be in Pictures. While the most emblematic director of this period was Clampett, his two masterpieces (Porky in Wackyland and The Great Piggy Bank Robbery) are not available on HBOMax. Not ideal, but one can get a sense of his talent in The Daffy Doc, Porky and Daffy, and Draftee Daffy.
Image taken from http://looneytunescaps.blogspot.com/
Then, of course, one must make time for Chuck Jones’s most influential and enduring creation: the Coyote and Road Runner cartoons. Wyle E. Coyote’s struggle to capture that elusive Road Runner, and his insistence on trying despite endless injury make up for deeply existential yet hilarious cartoons. In fact, it sometimes feels like the philosophical reading of the Coyote’s failures takes center-stage over the cartoons themselves, which feature plenty of inventive gags and perfectly timed comedy. The Coyote-Road Runner dynamic emerged practically fully formed in their debut short Fast and Furry-ous and produced cartoons non-stop for about three decades. It is admittedly hard to pin-point stand-outs in a series with such a strict formula, but a good rule of thumb is that anything before 1965 should be good enough to watch. If you want more specific recommendations, go for Beep Beep, Zipping Along, There They Go-Go-Go, and for the curious: Operation: Rabbit, where Wyle E. Coyote hunts Bugs Bunny and -gasp- talks!
This is when the list of memorable characters starts to get shaky. There are virtually no Speedy Gonzales or Pepe Le Pew cartoons on HBOMax, Foghorn Leghorn is a dud, and outside of their debut (Tweetie Pie) the best Sylvester and Tweetie cartoons aren’t available either. At that point I’d recommend some of the great one-offs and oddball cartoons that didn’t result in long-running characters but are nevertheless fantastic. Two of Chuck Jones’s very best work, Feed the Kitty and One Froggy Evening,are not only agreed-upon classics but two of my personal favorites. I’d also recommend Friz Freleng’s Rhapsody in Rivets (which presages the Rhapsody in Blue segment of Fantasia 2000) and Bob Clampett’s A Corny Concerto (itself a hilarious parody of the then brand new Fantasia). At this point, recommendations start to become pointless – After watching all these cartoons you’ll be ready and able to dig into whatever corner of Looney Tunes shorts excites you the most.
Conrado Falco is a New York-based playwright and co-artistic director at Showdogs: Theatre Unleashed. He publishes most of his film writing at CocoHitsNY, but the best way to keep up with him is to follow him on Twitter (@CocoHitsNewYork).