I have an uncomfortable confession to make: I have never liked the Looney Tunes. Despite the cultural pervasiveness of these characters, and a lifelong love of animation on my part, they’ve always struck me as annoying, repetitive, and boring — for all the pandemonium that Bugs Bunny and his ilk ostensibly represent, their chaos is bland, their destruction is predictable, and their lineage is corporate.
To be fair, my exposure to Looney Tunes at the time bore that out pretty well: I grew up in the age of Space Jam and the slew of jerseys, sneakers, McDonald’s toys, pogs, and cookie jars that film spawned. Today is no better, with the Roadrunner and Foghorn Leghorn perhaps most recognizable as shills for companies like Time Warner and GEICO.
Yet this was not always the case, as demonstrated by the excellent Chuck Jones exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. Entitled “What’s Up Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones”, this retrospective illuminates the originality and charm of Jones in particular and the Looney Tunes in general. I learned that Bugs Bunny’s smart-alecky attitude and cigar-like carrot were based on Groucho Marx, and Wile E Coyote’s design was inspired by Mark Twain’s description of the coyote as “a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton…with a despairing expression of forsakenness and misery, a furtive and evil eye, and a long, sharp face…The coyote is a living, breathing allegory of Want.”
I was also surprised to discover how topical these cartoons were — as a kid watching cartoons on Saturday mornings, I didn’t catch many of the forty-year-old references. Yet Looney Tunes was a definite forerunner to the adult animation of today, poking fun at contemporary politics and pop culture. These cartoons were far from the squeaky-clean version of today: they were vibrant, innovative, and often subversive. While this certainly makes these shorts more interesting, it also means that some of the uglier elements of the time are on full display.
Such elements are abundantly clear in the Censored Eleven, shorts from the Warner Bros catalogue that were withheld from syndication due to racially offensive content. These cartoons have not been broadcast since 1968, though they are available online. I present them below, not to glamorize them but to shed some light on an occasionally fascinating — and often appalling — corner of an American institution. READ MORE