Characterization and the Bunny

I was trying to come up with a good topic to amuse and entertain you all, and as I am wading through final edits on Trickster Noir, after a long week of school, my brain had run a bit dry. So I put it off, and fixed dinner, and as we sat and chatted over the meal, we got to talking about favorite cartoon characters. Mine are Pepe LePew and Marvin the Martian. My First Reader likes Yosemite Sam, Sniffles, and Taz. Of course we both like the old gray hare, and neither of us like Road Runner or Tweety in too large a dose. Funny how the oldies are still golden, when I introduced the Looney Tune set to my kids, they adored them too.

We got to talking about what makes these characters endearing, and what it is that keeps them fresh and alive for new generations. Even the ‘villains’ are enjoyed, like Marvin and Sam, as we mentioned above. So what is it? And how can we incorporate it into our storytelling? I’ve talked before about reading profusely to make our writing better, and my personal preference not to use film, but in this case I’m making an exception, because I think there is much to be learned, and besides, it’s fun!

I think that as a culture we root for the underdog. So Tweety, the tiny helpless bird (and of course Granny, alongside her little pal) fending off Sylvester, and Jerry backing down Tom, fit into that niche. Neither of us, talking about it, are fond of these characters. Tweety can be a bit saccharine, and we’re both farm kids. In our worlds, mice are not a good thing and cats are supposed to earn their keep. Rabbits are equally destructive, mowing the garden as fast as it’s planted, but Bugs himself is endearing and earns our cheers as he galumphs through ridiculous scenarios.

Perhaps it’s a combination of his take on life – devious, snarky, and not a little irreverent – with his intelligence. We all like smart heroes. Even if occasionally they are smart by accident, and especially if they are smart without smacking us in the face with it. Bugs can make accidents happen in his wake without ever seeming to try.

Pepe LePew, on the borderline of clueless, and I don’t mean this side of the border, is charming in his relentlessness. He reminds me of Wooster in PG Wodehoouse’s classics. He means well, but oh! the chaos that follows him around, to his perpetual bewilderment. Marvin has a bit of this, too. He has a plan, and just can’t quite understand why it’s not working.

The Martian cartoons are very Human Wave, you know. It’s Bugs’ planet, and he’s not apologizing for it, he’s just doing his darndest to protect it against being blown up or covered in inflatable alien dog-things. Marvin in turn is only doing his job, like the wolf in one of my all-time favorites, the by-play between the sheepdog and the wolf: “Mornin’ Ralph. Mornin’ Sam.” It’s a job… the separation from reality, the sheer surreal transition between everyman commuting to work, to wolf-eat-sheep while the dog tries to make him dead, there’s a brilliance to it.

The thing about these cartoons is they are classic comedy, but they last, and work, because they capture human truths in them. As a metaphor for life, we can all look back at our paths and muse ‘shoulda taken a left turn at Albekerkey’ even if we have never been to Albuquerque. They have become embedded in the American psyche. It’s worth some time on my part (and no small pleasure) to delve back into them, watching them for characteristics that encapsulate humanity, that I can weave into my own tales. And, of course, the humor is worth learning to add to my work, something I already try to do, but can always improve.

We may not write comedy. Some of us do, Kate Paulk’s Con series are brilliant and well worth the read if you haven’t already. You will laugh yourself silly.  However, adding some humor to any story alleviates the human suffering, keeps the tension from drawing too taut, and a good laugh is a wonderful thing. My favorite movie, Singing in the Rain, has the absolute best song-and-dance routine in it, and I take it to heart. Make ’em laugh!

37 comments

  1. Oddly enough, it’s very hard for today’s kids to SEE any of the Looney Tunes cartoons. Turner bought them all up, and put them all on Boomerang, occasionally, which is a second tier (non-basic) channel fewer systems have. And when they do get shown, they are terribly, terribly edited. (I’ve seen two different version editing the one where Elmer Fudd tears up his contract and Bugs invades his dream. Both edits were ham-handed attempts to cut out Bugs downing a bottle of sleeping pills (“Take deze and doze.”), the first one might have been done with an axe, the second was an even more unsubtle attempt to cover for it.

    The violence being done to our cultural heritage in the name of political correctness and “For the Children” is eating away at the soul of our society.

    1. We bought my kids a multi-disk set of the ‘golden age’ of looney tunes a few years back (ok, might be close to ten. They keep growing!) Another favorite of theirs was a set of very old cartoons, betty boop, Popeye, that sort of thing. Given the nastiness of some of the modern era of cartoons that are not intended for kids, I’m surprised to hear they are bothering to try and edit LT at all.

    2. Cartoon network runs an hour of them weekdays at 11am eastern, but they get put off often for their newer shows (like this week), and they repeat many of them “so as not to offend” but I am happy they did show Daffy one-upping Bugs and eating the burning match then exploding … a few years back they edited that bit out.
      They do have a decent set of DVDs with many of the old ones unmolested, but the “racist” ones are mostly gone. I used to be able to find them on Veoh but after a few years and some changes to to Veoh I can’t get Inky the caveman and Coal Black and the Sebben Dwarves any longer.
      Both of those were a favorite of a friend of mine who also happens to be black. We did have them downloaded so he could show his kids, but for me they are on a dead drive, and he too has lost them. I will have to try and find them again.
      For a while CN had a show called Toon Heads that had many of the war era ones (Coal Black was a war propaganda toon) and did more than WB toons.

      My great uncles (Grandma Kalishek’s brothers) were noted animators and the most prolific worked mostly for Walter Lance, doing Woody Woodpecker and Chilly Willy but in his early days did some work with Chuck Jones at Merry Melodies/Looney Tunes in the black and white days. One other worked on the original Guliver’s Travels animated movie, and after black listing (he pretty much was a commie, but we love him anyway) he got back in working on the Peanuts specials. The third worked for most of the animation houses in Cali, but not as often, and he too worked on the Peanuts with his brother.

      1. The WWII Donald Duck cartoons are still some of my all time favorites. I managed to grab most of Donald’s cartoons in the “Treasures” sets that came out a few years ago. Wish I had been able to grab a copy of the Goofy set, though. > >

  2. Bugs is a jerk, but he’s an amusing jerk….

    I think part of the appeal is that they aren’t being nasty— there’s no sense of desire to really do harm, even when blowing someone up with increasingly wacky devices.
    I’m not saying it very well, but– Sylvester wants to eat Tweety, because he’s a cat. Not because he wishes pain on the annoying birdie.

    1. Rikki, who was raised by his mother to kill and eat snakes. Versus someone who is motivated by sadism, the desire for power over a helpless victim, or lust.

    2. Bugs is a jerk.

      The problem for me is that he so out matches his opponents that it fails to be amusing after a time.

      Oh, his words can be amusing but his actions not so much.

      Oh well, YMMV and all that.

      By the way, I’m not in favor of banning the “Wabbit”.

      I just want the “Wabbit” to get a taste of his own medicine. [Very Big Evil Grin]

        1. Gets angry about how little the bounty on rabbits is, decides to drive up the price, and ends up in a federal prison. Best episode ever.

        2. Well the problem is (for me) is that those don’t “stick in my memory”. I may have seen them but I don’t remember seeing them. [Frown]

          1. Oh, I’d love to see the Road Runner getting caught more often. [Wink]

        1. which if you think about it, make the few episodes of him going toe to toe with Wiley kind of ironic. Both the rabbit and the coyote have places in mythology as tricksters, which in a way makes them two halves of the same coin. They both rely on ploys to accomplish their means, but where Bugs is typically successful pulling off his shenanigans, Wiley is the one who finds himself getting his mouth sewn shut.

  3. I took a left turn at Albuquerque once–it didn’t end well.

    It’s fascinating that two of the native trickster spirits end up in our cartoons (and sometimes in the same one!) Coyote of course, and Rabbit is the Cherokee trickster. Mostly known by the Uncle Remus tales, black retellings of Cherokee myths. A pity arachnophobia prevents the African trickster Spider from joining them on Saturday mornings…

    1. It’s also a shame that Uncle Remus isn’t available any more either. Uncle Remus was the first black man I ever saw. I loved his stories, and storytellers have been my heroes from my first memories. Yet now, they are racist. WTF? Next they will say that Blazing Saddles and Airplane are racist.

    2. Spiderman could be argued to be a merry trickster– he’s paid to photograph himself!— and Static Shock had Aranzi, the African trickster spider himself as a character. (For a 90s cartoon, they did incredibly well at handling the Black American/ African Heritage thing, and I say that knowing it’s faint praise.)

  4. To show how far things have shifted, there some people who use Pepe LePew cartoons to demonstrate what sexual harassment is “in a nonconfrontational setting.” I never, ever thought f those as sexual harassment. I thought of Pepe as a misguided buffoon, who might need glasses, but not as a harasser. (The guys who went after me were nothing like Pepe Le Pew).

    And I just don’t get saying that Speedy Gonzales is “racist.” How? He wins every time! Even the lines about “Speedy’s dating my sister.” “He dates everyone’s sister,” strike me as typical male rather than denigrating northern Mexican culture. *shrug* And count me as another one who loves Sam and Ralph. 😀

    1. and yet the new Looney Tunes Show has Speedy in it … Go figure.
      Pepe was clueless and he seemed to A: think he was irresistible, and B: actually like the unfortunate cat, but today the feminists have redefined any unwanted attention (or in many a feminist, any attention at all) as harassment.

    2. And like the “Fighting Sioux” this is another case of Liberal Whites deciding that a Minority should be offended by something that does not offend them. Mexicans love Speedy.

  5. Inky & the Mynah Bird are some of the most fascinating existential cartoons ever. The only way to see them is to find old “racist” collections, because Inky is an African drawn in the “dese old nigga cannibals” style. But all the humans in these cartoons are black Africans, and none on them (or the rest of humanity by extension) stand a chance when confronted by the Mynah Bird of chaos and doom. Like they say to precious snowflakes today, it’s not about Inky — it’s about the futility of resisting the Mynah Bird.

    I’ve dreaded Mendelssohn (effect for the Mynah Bird) ever since.

    Strongly recommended.

  6. I miss wholesome cartoons. When I have kids I can tell you that I’m not letting them watch Cartoon Network. That channel has gone to hell and it makes me sick sometimes. Nickelodeon and Disney are not much better. Maybe the reason we love these old shows is because you can’t find anything decent these days.

    1. Netflix! The English imports are pretty good– Boo! and Guess With Jess are big in our house– and you can get Avatar: The Last Airbender and the Justice League cartoons. (The one where everyone is kinda triangle shaped.) The old Teen Titans.

      Also, you can find some good anime if you look right, especially subtitled. Fairy Tail is our current obsession. 😀

      1. I’ve got a lot of enthusiasm for Mahouka currently, but it probably is not a kids show.

        Netflix has Digimon. I was watching it subtitled and a) partly reliving a chunk of my childhood b) seeing what changes were made in translation. I watched a lot of dubbed anime over the air when I was young.

      2. I will admit that there’s at least one Cartoon Network show that I watch, enjoy, and collect the DVD’s – Adventure Time.

        But for crowd pleasing and getting the kids to calm down when they’re over, nothing beats the old Looney Tunes cartoons. > >

        1. When it first came out, I didn’t watch it because the animation style repelled me, but since then, I’ve taken up watching “Bravest Warriors” which is a cartoon by the same creators shown on YouTube, and Adventure Time is in my Netflix Queue.

          1. Take a look for Bee and Puppycat, also from Frederator and Cartoon Hangover, which I liked enough to support in their kickstarter campaign for a full season.

  7. On “Singing in the Rain”:

    We had friends where he was a real movie buff, had worked at Blockbuster, knew everything, yada, yada, and we had to INTRODUCE him to “Singing in the Rain.” From our friend’s conversation you would have thought him a veritable Remington Steele of movie knowledge, and he didn’t know “Singing in the Rain.”

  8. My favorite Pepe Le Pew was when the cat decided that Pepe was her last chance at love and went to a Limburger cheese factory to prepare herself for him. When he sees her waiting for him, he rushes into her arms … only to be repelled by the smell of Limburger. It ends with him running frantically away while she hops in pursuit.
    Awesome.

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