And Another Thing: <i>Looney Tunes</i> — a Relic That Still Largely Holds Up
And Another Thing: <i>Looney Tunes</i> — a Relic That Still Largely Holds Up

Ashley Spurgeon is a lifelong TV fan — nay, expert — and with her recurring television and pop-culture column "And Another Thing," she'll tell you what to watch, what to skip, and what's worth thinking more about.

The Looney Tunes are good — that is my thesis. When I was a child, I enjoyed watching the rabbit and duck try to murder one another; I liked it when the coyote tried to eat the roadrunner, so he won’t starve to death out there in the vast American West; I liked it when peppy, instrumental versions of songs like “Hello! Ma Baby” and “Old Folks at Home” (aka “Swanee River”) popped up in the background of shorts where, like, I don’t know, an old lady beat a cat with a broom.

If you’ve ever used the word “nimrod” as an insult to describe someone as stupid or incompetent, guess what: That’s from Looney Tunes. Nimrod is an Old Testament name and, per the KJV, he was a “Mighty hunter before the LORD.” Daffy Duck (the very duck I mentioned earlier) addressed Elmer Fudd (hunter) as “My little Nimrod” as a sarcastic observation regarding Fudd’s aptitude for blood sports. (Bugs Bunny — a rabbit — later used the same nickname for Yosemite Sam, when the rabbit had second thoughts about roasting the man alive.)

Looney Tunes is where I first learned about Richard Wagner, Gioachino Rossini, Leopold Stokowski, The Scarlet Pimpernel, WWII-era gasoline rationing, the poetry of Burma-Shave billboards and the vaudeville tradition, generally. The 1941 short “Hollywood Steps Out” taught me, at a very young age, that memories are very, very short, and “current” fame was by no means a guarantee your star will shine as bright as it ever did in the decades to come. Most pop-culture aficionados can recognize the caricatures of actors like Greta Garbo, Clark Gable or Jimmy Stewart, but — Kay Kyser? Paulette Goddard? Jerry Colonna? The first time I saw Casablanca, and therefore Peter Lorre, a lot of jokes in Looney Tunes suddenly clicked. 

I call all the cartoons Looney Tunes, including the sister series Merrie Melodies. Any Warner Brothers-branded animation from the '30s to present day is a “Looney Tunes” as far as I’m concerned. For example, "Duck Amuck" (a moving examination of the human/duck condition to persevere despite the chaotic whims of a malevolent creator) was technically a Merrie Melodies, and if you’re asked about it on Jeopardy! now you know the “correct answer,” but in your heart you know — they’re all Looney Tunes. 

I’ve watched (rewatched) a lot of these cartoons recently — honestly, dozens and dozens — because we recently signed up for Boomerang on Amazon Prime Video. Boomerang is a children’s network with a focus on old or syndicated cartoons, and it’s owned by Warner Bros. Entertainment, so yes — they have a lot of the Looney Tunes I like, though not all. (Amazon, more than any other streaming service, is doing its damndest to invent [reinvent] cable packages. Give Jeff Bezos a li'l more of your money every month and you can add HBO, Starz, CBS All-Access, Britbox, Cinemax, IFC, Nickhits, Lifetime Movie Club and more to your Prime streaming.) 

It’s likely that you too think the Looney Tunes are good. For generations of people, my generation included, Daffy & the Gang were Saturday-morning friends, a weekly treat For Kids. One of the many reasons the shorts are still great is because several of them explicitly reference the fact they were never originally intended for home viewing — mostly because TVs weren’t really a thing. These were meant to be played before films, in movie theaters. There were a handful of fourth-wall-breaking audience gags from the ‘30s to the ‘50s, when an anonymous silhouetted theater-goer attempts to exit, is threatened by one of the characters on screen, and hurriedly returns to his seat. 

Just my two cents, but Chuck Jones was good at animating. I like all of Mel Blanc’s voices. I even like the late-‘60s cartoons with too-swinging music and characters like Bunny and Claude, inspired by the Warner Brothers picture Bonnie and Clyde. (The brand synergy is so deep.) A few of the Looney Tunes you’ll find on Boomerang now come with a bumper informing you that some of the content will be nakedly racist, but rather than censoring it or leaving it in the past, it’s still there, as proof of how past informs the present, and isn’t all that long ago anyway. (You know what was extremely popular in the vaudeville tradition? Blackface.)

Even though I now recognize Peter Lorre, there are still tons of allusions and references I don’t get. Maybe it’s lyrics from a Warner Bros. musical no one has thought of since 1948, or quote from a film I’ve never heard of starring someone like Ned Sparks, who I still don’t think I could pick out of a “Hollywood Steps Out” lineup. I find it both silly and poignant, and always, always wonder which of our enormously famous current crop of celebs will be the first to be forgotten, left in the past forever.

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