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Looney Tunes’ slapstick violence and gender-bending rabbits, explained by a 4.75-year-old

Vox’s 39-year-old critic-at-large and much younger critic-at-small gather to discuss Bugs, Daffy, and the gang.

Porky Pig and Daffy Duck have a time of it in Looney Tunes. HBO Max
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Looney Tunes, the Warner Bros.-produced animated shorts that ran from 1930 to 1969, are some of the funniest movies ever made. From Bugs Bunny to Marvin the Martian, from Daffy Duck to the giant monster covered in red hair, even the most minor of characters have become iconic.

And yet “have become iconic” is a bit of a misnomer, because that’s really only true for people of a certain age. I’m 39, and I grew up with Looney Tunes, but people even 10 years younger than me have only a loose awareness of what they were, usually thanks to the existence of the 1996 film Space Jam, in which these characters play basketball alongside Michael Jordan, in hopes they will not be destroyed by monsters from outer space.

This modern lack of awareness is too bad. Looney Tunes offers a comprehensive course in slapstick humor, wisecracks, and classical music (thanks to the many, many famous pieces used for their scores), and everybody should at least know the wild, fourth-wall-breaking shenanigans of “Duck Amuck,” in which Daffy Duck faces down an animator who keeps trying to erase him and draw some other version of the original angry bird (give or take a Donald).

But HBO Max, the new streaming service, has come to the rescue. The service features a huge collection of the original Looney Tunes cartoons (though not all of them), as well as a brand new series of Looney Tunes animated shorts drawn in a modern style, closer to what you might find on Cartoon Network. And the new versions are pretty good! They’re not as good as the originals, but they’re close enough if you squint.

So I thought I would discuss these cartoons with one of my esteemed colleagues who didn’t grow up with the Looney Tunes the way I did. I speak, of course, of Vox’s critic-at-small, Eliza, who is 4.75 years old and known for her hard-hitting insights and trenchant observations on pop culture. The two of us recently hopped on Zoom to chat all things looney, tuney, and marooney.

Emily and Eliza on the eternal appeal of these cartoons

The kitty beds down in Marc Antony’s fur.
Marc Antony the dog kisses his new little kitty friend in the classic 1952 short “Feed the Kitty.”
Warner Bros.

Emily: I grew up with Looney Tunes. They were shown on the daily children’s program on one of our local stations in South Dakota, which is how I became familiar with their rhythms, the ways they told stories, the assorted running gags that kept escalating. My favorite character as a kid was probably Bugs Bunny — what kid doesn’t love a wise-cracking protagonist? But I was also fond of more obscure characters, like Marc Antony, the big, gruff dog who falls in love with a tiny kitten in “Feed the Kitty” (my favorite Looney Tune).

Revisiting these cartoons as an adult reveals just how much their sense of humor leached out into the world at large. In every single short, there’s a sense of barely restrained anarchy, of wild and glorious violence about to burst forth from every corner. That’s most evident in the slapstick gags — there are so many expressions of funny violence — but the storytelling is also breathless and so, so clever. Gags pile on top of gags pile on top of gags, and the incredibly simple stories nonetheless possess real depth.

The new Looney Tunes isn’t as sharp, but it offers a reasonable approximation of the good stuff. The series, mercifully, doesn’t try to do anything new (as in the ill-fated Kids WB series Loonatics Unleashed, which ran from 2005 to 2007 and followed the descendants of the Looney Tunes characters in a far-future sci-fi world). There was a brief hubbub over how it doesn’t feature any guns, but it’s not like the new toons are any less violent — in particular, they showcase an extreme propensity for dynamite (more on that in a bit).

It’s just nice to have a place to watch the original Looney Tunes without having to track them down on the (mostly discontinued) DVD sets Warner Bros. released in the 2000s, or on increasingly shady video platforms. Being able to watch classic Looney Tunes honestly might be half the reason I keep going back to HBO Max.

Eliza, did you watch “Feed the Kitty”? That one is my favorite.

Eliza: Yes. There’s that big brown dog, and the kitty was brown, and it was very small. Remember how the big dog thought she got cooked, because she was in the batter? His mother, she was a human, but she thought [the kitty] was a toy. [The dog] thought [the kitty] got cooked, so she gave him a cat [cookie] that he thought was really the cat.

(Then, abruptly, Eliza added: “He liked to walk around.” Presumably she was referring to how the kitty claws at Marc Antony’s back to make a nice bed to sleep in.)

Emily: Your mom said this is your first experience with these sorts of animated shorts. How do you feel about cartoons?

Eliza: I liked them. They’re shorter. They’re longer than videos, and they’re shorter than shows and movies.

Emily and Eliza on aspect ratios

Emily: One nice thing about HBO Max’s presentation of the classic Looney Tunes cartoons is that they have the proper 1.33:1 aspect ratio right from the first — something that, say, Disney+ couldn’t manage with The Simpsons at launch, which cut off some of that classic series’ best gags as a function of trying to fill HDTV screens. (A brief lesson in what an aspect ratio is: The first number is the width of an image and the second the height, so a 1.33:1 image is just barely wider than it is tall.)

Classic Looney Tunes had such a long afterlife in part because of how well the toons fit on standard-definition TV screens, and it’s wonderful to see these cartoons in their totality, even if they appear in a bit of a box with black squares on either side.

The new series, meanwhile, is presented in widescreen HDTV format of 16:9.

Eliza, how did you feel about the use of the original aspect ratio?

Eliza: They had the black on the screen. I liked it.

Emily and Eliza on gender

Bugs Bunny hangs out with the big red monster.
Bugs Bunny, known woman.

Emily: It’s inescapable that all of the Looney Tunes are male, save for a couple of side characters, like Granny, who owns Tweety Bird (who is a boy). When Space Jam came out in 1996, the filmmakers had to invent a lady Looney Tune to offer something like gender parity (if you can call “one woman” gender parity), but she was the sexpot Lola Bunny, who was not what you might think of as a strong—

Eliza: She’s a girl.

Emily: Who? Lola Bunny? I know that—

Eliza: Bugs Bunny is a girl.

Emily: That’s really not what—

Eliza: She’s a girl.

Emily: This is, as you might expect, huge news. But you heard it here first, folks: Bugs Bunny is a girl, and my esteemed colleague Eliza figured it out. I will endeavor to only use female pronouns for her throughout the rest of this piece, in keeping with this groundbreaking news.

Emily and Eliza on animation

Emily: One thing the new series lacks is the fluid quality of hand-drawn animation. The original cartoons boast an endless series of entertaining visuals and gorgeously drawn characters whose micro-expressions and tiny movements are beautifully rendered by some of the best animation directors in history, including Chuck Jones, Fritz Freleng, and a host of others.

The best example of this fluidity is “Duck Amuck,” in which Daffy attempts to go with the flow when a gigantic pencil descends from the sky to draw new backgrounds that change the setting he exists in, to completely alter how he looks, and even to erase him entirely at one point. And then, the coup de grace: The camera pulls back to reveal Bugs Bunny herself is the gal behind the eraser. “Ain’t I a stinker?” she asks. And, indeed, she is a stinker.

“Duck Amuck” is the kind of wildly metatextual storytelling that could only exist in the world of animation, where everything can change at a moment’s notice. It is one of the most significant short films ever made, and even if it were the only thing Jones had ever directed, it would cement him as a great.

Eliza, you love to draw. Did you know animation is just a bunch of drawings put together like a flipbook?

Eliza: (stony silence, then:) I could probably make a cartoon. I really like drawing. I’ve got so many drawings on my mom’s desk.

Emily and Eliza on who her various family members are in the Looney Tunes universe

Emily: Hey, Eliza, who do you think I am most like out of the Looney Tunes characters?

Eliza: I don’t know.

Jen, Eliza’s mom: I could see our writing-editing relationship being a lot like Daffy Duck and Porky Pig, actually.

Emily: Wow, thanks? I think? Who are you most like, Eliza?

Eliza: Bugs Bunny! Carrots are tasty. And I win games a lot. One day when me and mom were playing Mancala, I won a bunch of times, and she won like two times.

Emily: Agreed. How about your sister? Who’s she like?

Eliza: Elmer Fudd!

Emily: Wow. And your dad?

Eliza: I think my dad is like Elmer Fudd, because he has short hair, too.

Emily: I have seen your father’s lustrous head of hair, and it is nowhere near like Elmer Fudd’s balding pate.

Okay, here’s the tough one: How about your mom?

Yosemite Sam and Bugs Bunny square off.
Yosemite Sam looks nothing like my boss.

Eliza: (looks with concern toward her mother) I don’t know.

Jen: No, I want to hear your answer.

Eliza: The one guy with the long red hair.

Jen: The big hairy monster?

Eliza: No, he did arm-wrestling with Bugs.

Emily: Yosemite Sam?!

Eliza: Yeah! He has long, red hair.

Emily: You keep comparing your mom to characters with long, red hair. Why is that?

Eliza: My mom’s hair is long, but it’s not red.

Emily: Right.

Emily and Eliza on dynamite

Emily: An inescapable fact of the cartoon universe is that the Looney Tunes can blow each other up, cut each other to pieces, and blast each other in the face, and never suffer any lasting harm. Wile E. Coyote can smack right into a wall and get back up. A character can run over the edge of a cliff and hover in midair before gravity asserts itself. It’s all carnage, all the time.

But because the removal from reality is so extreme — there’s no attempt at photo-realism here! — everything can be funny without any 4.75-year-olds deciding that what they really need to get is dynamite to blow up their little sisters.

Eliza, I hear you didn’t know what dynamite was before watching this. Now do you know what it does?

Eliza: It blows up people, and then the other thing that’s funny about it is when Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny were having a big fight about a swimming pool, he had that dynamite and it blew up him.

Emily: Sure. Do you think we should use dynamite to solve our problems?

Eliza: You’re not supposed to do that and make people die when you’re mad at them. It’s kind of silly because they don’t do that in real life, but it’s just a cartoon. Cartoons are made up.

Emily: And in real life?

Eliza: We use our words.

Emily: Any further thoughts on dynamite?

Eliza: Sometimes Looney Tunes remind me of Star Wars, because the Empire blew up a whole planet. I didn’t like the Empire, even though I haven’t watched it. I didn’t like the Empire, because I didn’t like how he blew up R2-D2’s aunt’s and uncle’s house, and they died. His wife or something is Dark Vader?

Emily: We’re getting a little off-track here.

Eliza: I think sometimes the [Looney Tunes] animals are sometimes worried when they think they’re gonna get blown up. When they blow them up, and they’re just okay, I think that’s funny.

Emily: Right, the divide between reality and surreality is so often what drives the—

Eliza: If I hurt someone, sometimes I don’t get to read stories at bedtime, and sometimes I can’t have dessert after dinner.

Emily: Does your mom make you do that?

Eliza: Yes. She’s always right.

Emily: Well, she’s my editor, and we occasionally disagree on whether the things I have written are, indeed, perfect, or if they require adjustments that will make them not as good. So I don’t know that she’s always

(A giant eraser descends from the sky and erases the conclusion of this article. We’re so sorry for the technical difficulties.)