TV Rewind: Rediscovering the Joy of Looney Tunes

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TV Rewind: Rediscovering the Joy of <i>Looney Tunes</i>

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our new column, TV Rewind. As the pandemic continues to halt television production for new and returning shows, the Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:

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For parents of young kids, the importance of finding bonding activities to do together, games you can play, or TV shows/movies you can watch that engage and entertain both of you despite the considerable age and maturity difference, is vital in building a lasting relationship. Sure, we can pretend to be into Magic School Bus or Octonauts as a personal sacrifice of our time in the name of our child learning about the human body or marine biology. But we also have to remember that kids have an inherent need to be meaninglessly silly and anarchic, and we can certainly benefit from a dose of giddy absurdity to break into our logic and responsibility-driven lives as well. In that sense, HBO Max’s giant and versatile library of old Looney Tunes cartoons is a gift from Bugs.

The UI of the new HBO-on-roids streaming service certainly pushes you to watch their newly produced Looney Tunes cartoons first, which are admittedly wickedly funny and edgy for our time period. But as someone who grew up on old-school Daffy and Bugs, I had to share their timeless and universal genius with my first grader. Consider it my attempt of passing the torch between generations—or the lit stick of dynamite, in this case.

The way HBO Max lays out the cartoons in chronological order offers an opportunity for Tunes nerds like me to study the differences in animation techniques and styles over the decades, as well as to gauge how each character evolved over time. But the main element that results in such a positively silly shared experience with my daughter lies in Looney Tunes powerhouses Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones’ distinct ability to link meticulously constructed over-the-top gags with shoestring premises, ones that give their hero characters a wide berth to torture the major antagonists. Let’s also not forget Mel Blanc’s voice acting for pretty much all of the characters, which iconized them almost more than their visual designs.

Sure, bullies and selfish jerks get their due through well-placed dynamites that transform them into statues made of soot, but the primary directive for Looney Tunes is to make you giggle as if the problems of the outside world don’t exist. The sight of Yosemite Sam constantly running into the gunpowder room every time Bugs Bunny lights a match and throws it in there is hilarious whether you’re six or forty. But where to begin, when dastardly indoctrinating your child to the joys of Looney Tunes, like a sinister Marvin the Martian experiment?

My instant recommendation is to pick out as many Coyote/Road Runner cartoons as possible. The famished Coyote’s Sisyphean mission to catch and eat the non-chalantly superfast Road Runner doesn’t offer any other narrative premise, resulting in the freedom to only link one explosive gag after the other. Sure, there are some callbacks within the same shorts from time to time, but you can pretty much line up any number of gags from any number of random cartoons and play them on shuffle without noticing a break in the “narrative flow.” Thus, the Road Runner/Coyote shorts introduce us to the core of what Looney Tunes is all about.

Also, they contain most of the beloved Looney Tunes tropes, executed with hilarious timing and just the right amount of mean-spirited cartoon violence. The dynamite explosions are a given, but we also get the quintessential gag where the Coyote doesn’t fall off a cliff until he notices that the ground has gone from under him, climaxing with the birds-eye-view shot as he gets smaller and smaller while falling into the canyon. The slide whistle and the quiet “poof” when he hits, the roadblock painted to look like an actual road turning out to be an ACTUAL road, the laws of physics suddenly working backwards for the antagonist—the gags are as classic Looney Tunes as they come.

Now that a baseline for what these cartoons are all about is established, it’s safe to move onto more specific characters, and what they represent. It’s easy to see why Bugs Bunny is still the defining icon of Looney Tunes’ 90-year history: He stands his ground and doesn’t take shit from nobody. Even though we should always reassert to our kids the fact that these cartoons are pure make-believe, and that launching a cannon in retaliation will end in a drastically different result against enemies, there’s something empowering about Bugs’ strict anti-bullying stance. Whether it’s Yosemite Sam or Elmer Fudd, notice that Bugs is always minding his business when these violent thugs come looking for trouble. So, tit for tat, they get exactly what they came to deliver.

On the other hand, the impatience-personified impotent rage of Daffy Duck, who will always be my favorite Looney Tunes character, shows kids the folly of unchecked egotism. But as many social lessons as we can find in them if we search with a fine toothed comb, the point is to laugh until you run out of breath. It’s also refreshing how many literary and artistic references Chuck Jones underlines in his work. “What’s Opera, Doc?” lays out a mini-Wagner epic with gorgeous expressionist backgrounds. “Duck Amuck,” while torturing Daffy through an existential hell, pulls back from the mystique of animation to showcase the basics of the cartoonist’s artistic process.

The versatile beauty of Looney Tunes doesn’t stop with only the established characters, so make sure to play the occasional one-off masterpiece. Consider “One Froggy Evening,” a robust tragedy told in just seven minutes, about a working class man who sacrifices everything to make his singing and dancing frog famous, only to repeatedly find out that the frog won’t perform when other people are around. The short is as famous as it is for a simple reason; it manages to be equally funny and somber, sometimes within the same frame.

Sure, there are some characters who didn’t age well, who you should probably steer away from in modern times. Speedy Gonzales was a racist stereotype when it debuted in 1953, and he’s downright embarrassing now. I wouldn’t touch Pepe Le Pew with a ten-foot pole during our #metoo times. It also goes without saying that some 1930s shorts, which were so blatantly racist that their DVD release prompted a disclaimer by Whoopi Goldberg, should be reserved for an age when your child can absorb their context without emulating them.

Otherwise, if you want to have some carefree fun, head on over to the classic Looney Tunes section of HBO Max. These cartoons are not just for kids—they’re also perfect for adults who want to tune in, kick back, and chill out.

Watch on HBO Max



Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Oregon, with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.

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