Bugs Bunny: The Trickster, American Style In this installment of NPR's In Character series, JJ Sutherland asks what makes Bugs Bugs — and decides that the bunny's mercurial nature is essential to his appeal.
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Bugs Bunny: The Trickster, American Style

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Bugs Bunny: The Trickster, American Style

Bugs Bunny: The Trickster, American Style

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

And we do have Pollyanna coming up in a few weeks.

But coming up right now is NPR's JJ Sutherland with a character that has influenced all of us, and with the story that best begins with a question. What's up, Doc?

(Soundbite of Looney Tunes clip)

BUGS BUNNY (Cartoon Character): Start talking. It's your nickel. Who? This is Associated Press. The public has been demanding my life story? Oh, I can a tell few right over the phone.

JJ SUTHERLAND: Bugs Bunny is one of the most popular, most enduring and most recognizable characters in the world. His trademark smirk and ever-present carrot were born in the late 1930s, exploded into fame during World War II, and became an indelible part of American culture ever after.

Bugs is an aspirational character; the person with a comeback to every situation; the coolest kid in the class. Robert Thompson - let's call him Bob -is the director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. He says Bugs was a departure from rabbits like Peter Cottontail.

Professor ROBERT THOMPSON (Director, Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture, Syracuse University): Bugs Bunny was a very different kind of bunny. He was a wise guy. He was aggressively defiant, and that was very appealing. At the same time, there was something actually a little bit threatening about Bugs Bunny because he did always win. He was such a wise guy.

(Soundbite of Looney Tunes clip)

BUGS BUNNY: It's true, Doc. I'm a rabbit all right. Would you like to shoot me now or wait until you get home?

DAFFY DUCK (Cartoon Character): Shoot him now, shoot him now.

BUGS BUNNY: You keep out of this. He doesn't have to shoot you now.

DAFFY DUCK: He does so have to shoot me now. I command that you shoot me now.

(Soundbite of gunshot)

SUTHERLAND: After the smoke clears and Daffy puts his bill back on, he realizes how Bugs took him in - pronoun trouble.

Billy West is one of the current voices of Bugs Bunny.

Mr. BILLY WEST (Voice Talent, Bugs Bunny): He is charming. He is very, very smart, you know? I mean, he can quote Shakespeare and then he'll tell you where a bar room in Brooklyn was, you know?

(Soundbite of Looney Tunes clip)

BUGS BUNNY: Oh, it's down in 2020, Doc.

SUTHERLAND: He's pointing out the contradictions inherent in Bugs Bunny. He's nice but a bit of a bully, appealing and scary, high culture and low. He morphs from one to the other seamlessly. And Bugs, they aren't antithetical - that very materialness is what makes Bugs, Bugs. An example, in one short "Water, Water Every Hare," Bugs is being chased through an evil scientist castle. At one point, Bugs is trapped between the tip of man or rabbit-eating alligators and a humungous monster who seems to be made solely of a mass of orange hair.

(Soundbite of Looney Tunes short "Water, Water Every Hare")

BUGS BUNNY: Uh, oh, think fast, rabbit. My stars, where did you ever get that awful hairdo? It doesn't become you at all. If I'm going to say, let me fix it up.

SUTHERLAND: A transformation into a hairdresser is complete, instantaneous and of course totally takes in with his adversary with predictable results.

(Soundbite of Looney Tunes clip)

BUGS BUNNY: But I'll be back before you're done.

(Soundbite of gunshot)

SUTHERLAND: Bob Thompson, the professor, says Bugs is a uniquely American expression of an ancient archetype, the trickster.

Prof THOMPSON: If you want to teach a course in folklore 101, and you need an example for a trickster, Bugs Bunny is a perfect example of it. He defies authority. He goes against the rules. But he does it in a way that's often lovable, and that often results in good things for the culture at large.

SUTHERLAND: Perhaps this is best demonstrated by Bugs Bunny's emblematic adoption in World War II. The representative of the culture, the epitome of the American character was used in propaganda, painted on bombers and sewn on paratroopers' patches. Bugs' rule-breaking was helping win the war.

Puck in "A Midsummer's Night's Dream" is also a trickster, as this coyote in Native American mythology, anansi in West African stories, or the monkey king in Chinese culture. They're all characters who defy every convention of their society, heck, of reality itself.

(Soundbite of Looney Tunes clip)

BUGS BUNNY: I know this defies the law of gravity but, you see, I never studied law.

SUTHERLAND: Bugs' defiance of everything - his refusal to be bound by any rules extended to his, well, extensive cross-dressing.

Mr. WEST: Which was just strange, but I loved it when he would just dress up, like, to hide out from somebody like Elmer Fudd.

(Soundbite of Looney Tunes clip)

ELMER FUDD: Oh, I wonder where the wabbit went.

BUGS BUNNY: I'm over here, doc. Muah.

Mr. WEST: You know, and he plant one on Elmer Fudd's head. And I never thought there was anything weird about it. I just thought it was like, this guy will do anything.

SUTHERLAND: That was Billy West again, the voice guy.

(Soundbite of Looney Tunes clip)

ELMER FUDD: (Singing) Oh, where do I get the wabbit?

BUGS BUNNY: (Singing) What would you want with a wabbit? Can't you see that I'm much sweeter? I'm your little senoriter.

Mr. WEST: I'm not so sure - much sure, though, that he was getting sexual stimulation about dressing as a woman as he was getting sexual stimulation because dressing as a woman was making other people crazy.

SUTHERLAND: And that is perhaps why Bugs Bunny lasts. He doesn't seem like a character of the '40s. He seems like a character of today. He's wise-cracking. He's gender-bending. He's rule-breaking - broke around long before punk rock or Davie Bowie of Jerry Seinfeld. He is impossible to pin down in any specific sense. In a way - the only way to describe Bugs Bunny is to simply show one of his cartoons. Point at the rascally rabbit and see him in total, not in parts. From high opera to bullfights, from Shakespeare to Brooklyn, from men to women, he is all of those and yet none.

(Soundbite of Looney Tunes clip)

DAFFY DUCK: Who is responsible for this? This - I demand that you show yourself. Who are you? Huh?

(Soundbite of door closing)

SUTHERLAND: JJ Sutherland, NPR News.

BUGS BUNNY: Aim high, you stinker.

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