'In Character' Conversation

Why Bugs? Simple ...

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When word spread about In Character a while back, I knew instantly which character I wanted to do, and I ran down the hall to Elizabeth Blair's office. I was afraid someone else might get there first and steal the best character going: Bugs Bunny.

Bugs Bunny

Trouble on two paws: Bugs Bunny, American wiseguy Warner Bros. hide caption

itoggle caption Warner Bros.

Because one of the things that makes working for NPR the best job ever is that I've just gotten paid — paid real money, mind you — to watch Bugs Bunny cartoons.

Bugs has always been my favorite character in the Looney Tunes pantheon. He's so clever, so quick, so smart. I've always wished that I could be more like him — that when faced with a raging bull, I'd have the quick-wittedness to slap him across the nose and tell him to stop steaming up my tail.

Bugs, to me, is an embodiment of an ideal: The person who breaks all the rules, who mocks the strictures of society, and yet does good at the same time.

He's not a character rooted in the past, but a character almost more relevant today than he was in the '40s. His razor-sharp wit in perilous situations, his ability to never lose his cool — we can all rattle off other characters who owe something to Bugs Bunny's panache, whether they're characters from a Will Smith movie, or a Bill Murray film, or even Bruce Willis's Die Hard flicks. The list goes on, but Bugs is the original, the one that began it all.

And yet he isn't: As Bob Thompson pointed out in my on-air story, Bugs is an American expression of an ancient folkloric archetype, the Trickster. Think of Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, or Coyote in Native American mythology, or Loki in the Norse, or the Monkey King in Chinese tales.

There's something deeply human about the Trickster god, who stands outside any rules, who is slightly frightening, slightly foolish, yet charming and witty at the same time. Bugs is our expression of a piece of the psyche that has been deified in almost every culture on the planet.

That, I thought when I heard about In Character, was something I could sink my teeth into. And get paid to watch Bugs Bunny cartoons. Not bad.



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As a Hollywood animator who has drawn Bugs Bunny in the past, I was thrilled to hear Elizabeth Blair lead off her Series In Character with everyone's favorite Bunny. However it would have been nice if you had paused to mention some of the artists who are the reason why Bugs is so special. Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, Maurice Noble, Mel Blanc and Bugs Hardaway, for whom the
character is named.

All animators dream of creating a living character who is accepted by the public as real as you or me. But it would have been nice to acknowledge some of the people behind the success of this great American character.

Hint for the future: When discussing Huckleberry Finn, be sure to
mention Mark Twain.

Sent by Tom Sito, Animator | 7:30 PM | 1-7-2008

I enjoyed the Bugs Bunny piece but noticed that someone referred to him as a bully, which is not quite accurate.

Several years ago, I heard Chuck Jones (who directed many of Bugs' cartoons) say that he was always very careful to have someone provoke Bugs - then Bugs would have license to do whatever he wanted. But he was very careful never to have Bugs start the trouble, because then he would be a bully and much less sympathetic. There may be exceptions, but probably not in any of Jones' cartoons.

Oddly, a Hell's Angel described their "policy" to me in a very similar way. He claimed they never start any trouble, "but if you start it, we're gonna finish it."

As will Bugs, but with more hilarity.

Sent by Glenn Morgan | 7:39 PM | 1-7-2008

Being one of my favorite cartoon characters of all times, I was very happy to hear this story.

However, I have to disagree a little bit with what Glenn M. said earlier here in regards to Bugs not being a bully.

One needs to keep in mind that since his birth, has been created and recreated by a number of different artists. If you know what to look for, you can even tell who is his artist at the time by observing the style of design and animation used in a specific cartoon.

That being said, the in some of the early cartoons, pre-Chuck Jones, he could in fact be considered a bully.

An example of this can be seen in the cartoon called "Tortoise Wins by a Hare."

(Episode on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X70GiK5OJ1E)

However, in the end of these episodes, Bugs always comes out on the bottom.

Sent by Christina Rivera | 10:29 AM | 1-8-2008

Hi, all — JJ here. Thanks for your responses.

I am definitely aware of all the writers, directors, musicians and voices that went into creating Bugs Bunny, and the entire awe-inspiring Looney Tunes oeuvre. I personally have a framed Friz Freling cell, signed to me, hanging in my home. And Chuck Jones is simply the master.

But this piece wasn't about them; it was about Bugs Bunny. The school of literary criticism I was trained in was called New Criticism, oddly enough. ("Oddly" mainly because it went out of fashion before I was born — but I went to a weird school).

That school of thought (yes, I know, among other things) focuses solely on the text of a piece; everything else is extraneous, including the person who actually created the text. The text itself should stand on its own, and be interpreted on its own. And to me, Bugs is a fascinating text.

Professor-y stuff aside, I think that Bugs has transcended those who created him. They were so good that they truly made a character who seems alive and separate from the shorts he appeared in; those, to the viewer, become simply small episodes in the rabbit's obviously larger life.

So, if you buy all that, I was actually honoring those who created Bugs — for they created something larger than themselves. And isn't that the dream of every parent?

p.s. — I actually do think you could speak quite a bit about Huckleberry Finn without mentioning Mr. Clemens. Sam, also, had a way with words.

Sent by JJ Sutherland | 11:45 AM | 1-8-2008

I'm a Brooklynite (now living in exile in Delaware) who grew up with Warner Brothers cartoons. I take issue with your characterizing Bugs Bunny as a bully. I agree he is a trickster, but he is a trickster who responds to bullies.

Chuck Jones, in an interview with Terry Gross, said something to the effect that the ideal Bugs Bunny cartoon plot involved Bugs minding his own business and being on the receiving end of unwarranted aggression (getting bullied), often motivated by greed or envy. While there are plots that don't follow that formula, Chuck Jones felt they were lacking.

To me Bugs Bunny represents the justified response to people messing with you for no reason, something guaranteed to get a rise out of New Yorkers to this day. By this theory, Bugs could sign on for the war in Afghanistan, but never for the war in Iraq, which seems to have been conceived by someone who never noticed what happened to Elmer Fudd. George the third could learn something about international policy from Bugs.

On the article that followed about the music used in cartoons, I want to relate a brilliant bit of programming done by the New York City Opera back in the '70s. They had an outreach program where they sent young singers into city high schools to do fully staged scenes from operas in English. They used pieces like the "Largo al factotum" from The Barber of Seville, which the kids knew thanks to the Warner Brothers cartoons.

Sent by Giani Siri | 3:51 PM | 1-8-2008

Like the previous posters, I too have always admired and enjoyed Bugs Bunny. Here was a wise-cracking, infinitely inventive character who was always getting the upper hand on those who would try to harm, harass or otherwise tell him what he could or could not do. As a child I was fascinated by Bugs, but only as an adult did I figure out why he was such a compelling and admirable character.

Bugs Bunny is Nietzsche's Überbunny. More than comic's Superman, more than Ayn Rand's John Galt and certainly more than any modern incarnation of the action hero, Bugs Bunny represents the Nietzschian ideal of a creative force that answers only to itself, shaping its reality through a will to power that is unbound and deeply unironic.

Why deeply unironic? Because Bugs cares. He puts no distance between himself and his antagonists or environment. He acts out because of a perceived injustice or slight and he becomes completely invested in both his responses and the outcome. He is thus also superior to all the heroes who maintain an ironic detachment from their world.

This does not mean, however, that Bugs does not use irony, but it is a superior kind of irony only possible through a superior will to power. When Bugs turns to the camera and says, "Ain't I a stinker?" he is simultaneously acknowledging both his authorship of the transpired events and the presence of the audience, but in a manner that is both self-congratulatory (something the ironic hero would never do) and dismissive, not of his actions, but of outside judgement.

Thus Bugs's irony is not one of detachment, but of perspective, one that allows him to see the truth of his world and his place within it, while his hapless antagonists remain defeated by their own, limited philosophies.

Sent by John Brown | 3:34 PM | 1-10-2008

Bugs Bunny was Groucho Marx with fur and long ears. In fact, he even did a couple of Groucho impressions in his cartoons. What made both of them so appealing is that they punctured the pompous and skewered the ridiculous in ways no one else had the courage to do in words. You can't watch either of them and not wish you could be that bold.

Sent by Stu Nicholson | 1:33 PM | 1-11-2008