Looney Tunes: An Appreciation (Part 3)
For sheer technique, I’m not sure anything in the Looney Tunes world beats the Coyote-Road Runner cartoons, which began in 1949 with “Fast And Furry-ous.” There is a purity to their dialogue-free world, like that of the silent clowns, Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, and in the simplicity and consistency of their cat-and-mouse game. Wile E. Coyote’s various traps and schemes for catching the Road Runner, running the gamut from simple snares to elaborate Rube Goldberg contraptions, are a playground for exploring the relationship of physical principles—gravity, speed, mass, momentum, leverage, magnetism, jet propulsion and so forth—and the stylizations of animation.
The Coyote-Road Runner shorts are master classes in timing, a key element in both physical and verbal comedy. In particular, they highlight the crucial role of anticipation—of the pregnant moment before the punchline, or the punch, or whatever the payoff is. Like the exaggerated pratfalls themselves, with characters stretching, smooshing, flying, unraveling, and being blasted into cinders before bouncing back to normal for the next gag, animation allowed the filmmakers to exaggerate the moment of anticipation, from the signature gag of characters walking off cliffs or out of windows and not falling until they notice the empty space below them to physical contortions such as the Coyote’s panicked reaction shot lingering briefly in the frame while the rest of his body suddenly accelerates in a new direction.
Comic anticipation can also be something as simple as a line that a character hasn’t yet reacted to, or a realization that hasn’t yet sunk in. (“You know what? I think that was the rabbit!”) Often Bugs or Daffy buffalo an opponent with fast talk and enthusiasm, and the humor often comes not only from watching the bewildered opponents going along with an imaginary situation but also from the expectation of the penny dropping.
Such tricks can be a fleeting gag, like Bugs in “Super-Rabbit” (1943) getting Cottontail Smith and his horse chanting “Bricka-bracka, firecracka, sis-boom-bah! Bugs Bunny, Bugs Bunny, rah rah rah!” without knowing why. Other times the light bulb takes longer to click. I think my favorite delayed reaction is in “Rabbit Hood” (1949), in which Bugs turns the Sheriff of Nottingham’s reverence for the King’s Royal Rose Garden on its head by adopting a real-estate agent schtick and persuading the Sheriff to “buy” the highly desirable Garden grounds to build a “six-room Tudor.” Cut to the Sheriff, possibly months later, happily constructing his house on the King’s ground—and then it sinks in.
Sometimes the penny never drops, and the gag takes over the rest of the cartoon. “Hillbilly Hare” (1950) is a good example: Bugs is pursued by a pair of hillbilly brothers until he suddenly turns square-dance caller, and the brothers spend the rest of the short dancing in obedience to Bugs’s calls, ultimately pummeling each other senseless.
I enjoy picking things apart to figure out why they work, though of course ultimately what makes something “funny” or “classic” can’t really be explained. Perhaps that’s why one of the most memorable Looney Tunes shorts, “One Froggy Evening” (1955), is also one of the most inexplicable. A stand-alone short about a man who finds a singing, dancing frog, “One Froggy Evening” is a dialogue-free parable about human nature, happiness and circumstances beyond our control or analysis.
Chuck Jones has called Michigan J. Frog, as the character is unofficially known, his favorite of all the characters he created, “because I don’t understand him.” I always resented the Kids WB network using a singing, dancing Michigan J. Frog as their mascot. If they had been true to his character, every time they cut to a station break he would have been squatting stonefaced, croaking. It’s an iconic example of how latter-day appropriations of the Looney Tunes legacy have seldom if ever really honored their source material, let alone lived up to it.
Note: The Looney Tunes Platinum Collection, Vol 1 includes “Duck Amuck,” “What’s Opera, Doc?”, “One Froggy Evening,” “Rabbit Of Seville,” “Robin Hood Daffy,” and “Fast And Furry-ous,” among other shorts mentioned or alluded to in this article.