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And Bugs Begat Spongebob…

25 Sep

When I was a kid, I used to watch cartoons. Lots and lots of cartoons.

You too? Small world.

As in many of life’s domains, when it came to cartoon watching, there were choices to be made and rules to be followed.

Just as you can’t be a fan of both the Red Sox and the Yankees… or of both Coke and Pepsi… or of both boxers and briefs… so too did animation aficionados of my generation have a central conundrum to sort out:

Mickey Mouse. Or Bugs Bunny.

The classic Walt Disney and Warner Brothers’ cartoons were created in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. By the time I had grown into full cartoon craziness, those classic animated shorts had been repackaged into TV anthology series.

I laid it all out in an earlier post on this blog:

There was the Wonderful World of Disney, home to Mickey Mouse and other examples of anthropomorphic sweetness and light.

And then there was the Bugs Bunny / Roadrunner Hour, featuring Warners’ misanthropic nastiness and bite.

Today, of course, they’re just two sides of the same lunchbox – part of a multi-billion-dollar, multi-media, multi-logo industry.

But back then, they were two conflicting halves of an unbridgeable psychosocial divide.

Well… something like that…

As a kid, my loyalties resolutely fell on one side of that divide: That of Bugs Bunny and his co-conspirators Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, et al.

While the typical Disney cartoon plot would see Mickey and his pals getting themselves into and out of sugary situations, the Warner Brothers’ cartoons displayed a darker, nastier, more risqué, and more broadly comical edge.

Warner Brothers’ cartoons were full of crazy slapstick, hilarious wordplay, winking double-entendres, and comedic violence.

In fact, the typical Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck or Elmer Fudd cartoon would consist of two characters attempting to murder, consume, or – at the very least – completely humiliate each other.

When I was a kid, there was much handwringing over the violent content of Bugs Bunny cartoons, which at the time were two-to-four decades old, and originally created for a more mature audience.

Elmer Fudd would fire his rifle straight at Daffy Duck’s face, causing Daffy’s bill to spin around to the back of his head. Wile E. Coyote would accidentally blow himself up trying to catch Road Runner. Yosemite Sam, dressed as Lawrence of Arabia, would beat an uncooperative camel into unconsciousness.

You don’t see that level of violence anymore in kids’ cartoons. On the other hand, contemporary kids do have much more ready access to media images that are far more explicit and violent than anything dreamed up by animators half a century ago.

Yet despite all of the handwringing, there is no compelling evidence that my childhood exposure to the Wascally Wabbit did any lasting damage to my psyche or negatively affected my social development, or that of fellow members of my generation.

Just the opposite, I’d argue. At worst, Bugs Bunny was a benign time-waster. At best, it contributed to my cultural education in the same way as did the books I read, the films I watched, and the music I listened to growing up.

Which brings me to one of Bugs’ 21st Century spiritual descendants – SpongeBob Squarepants.

On the off chance you are unfamiliar with the ubiquitous cartoon character, SpongeBob is a cheerful sponge with … yes … square pants. As his theme song recounts, he “lives in a pineapple under the sea” in the underwater community of Bikini Bottom.

The cartoon, aside from being wildly popular on TV screens and lunchboxes of kids around the world, has all of the fast pace, wild slapstick and inspired lunacy of the old Warner Brothers cartoons without nearly as much of the violence.

But SpongeBob, too, has recently been the object of some grownup handwringing. An article in the latest issue of the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics says the cartoon has a negative impact on the concentration levels of young children, as measured right after watching it.

Researchers compared children’s cognitive abilities after watching SpongeBob to those same abilities after watching a notably slower-paced cartoon, “Caillou”. Those who watched SpongeBob scored lower on measurements of focus and concentration.

The measurements came immediately after the viewing. The study did not test for long-term effects.

As a Bugs Bunny veteran and a parent who has happily watched SpongeBob with his children since they were very young, I have one skeptical question about these findings:

Are kids distracted because the cartoon is harmful? Or are kids distracted because the cartoon is just plain interesting?


Weekend Tune: Food Around The Corner

18 Nov



Mickey Mouse? Or Bugs Bunny?

Which side are you on?

One or the other. No wavering.

Okay… true… in 2007, they’re just two sides of the same lunchbox. Or multi-billion dollar industry. Or something.

But back in the 1930s? And the ’40s? And the ’50s?

There was Walt Disney. Anthropomorphic sweetness and light.

And there was Warner Brothers. Misanthropic nastiness and bite.

I’ll stick with the latter, thanks. Bugs Bunny. Daffy Duck. Porky Pig. Elmer Fudd.

My kind of people.

Not to mention the looney geniuses behind the toons:

• Mel Blanc, the man of a thousand voices, including those of Bugs, Daffy, Porky, Yosemite Sam, Pepé Le Pew, Sylvester the Cat and Foghorn Leghorn.

• Carl Stalling, who composed most of the turn-on-a-dime musical backgrounds to Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series.

And of course, the animators who each brought a distinctive touch to the proceedings. Among them:

• Fritz Freleng, the creator of many of the Warner Brothers’ characters still found on lunchboxes decades later.

• Tex Avery, the much-imitated pioneer of surreal slapstick animation

• Chuck Jones, a master of literate wordplay and brilliant comic timing

• and Bob Clampett, whose hilarious cartoons – more than the others – pushed the boundaries of both propriety and the laws of physics.

An Itch in Time” is a Clampett classic from 1943, starring Elmer Fudd, his dog and “A. Flea”. It includes two instances of Clampett testing the limits of the Hays Code, which governed the censorship of films at the time.

The final image – a feline suicide – was cut out of all televised versions of the cartoon, although it is readily available now in the era of DVDs and YouTube.

An earlier scene – featuring the flea-tortured dog dragging his hindquarters along the floor in pain, then stopping in mid-drag to look at the audience and say “”Hey, I’d better cut this out, I may get to like it!” – was apparently inserted by Clampett in the expectation that it would never survive the censor’s scissors. But it did.

The highlight of the cartoon, though, is A. Flea’s Clampett-penned theme song – “There’s food around the corner!” – which will stick in your head all day like a pesky parasite once you watch the film below.

To underline Clampett’s proto-punk sensibility, the tune was later covered by Green Day.

Weekend Tune: Cab & Boop

30 Sep

In 1933, four years before Walt Disney released “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, his first full-length animated feature, the Fleischer brothers created an entirely different animated version of Snow White, starring Betty Boop.

Instead of “Someday My Prince Will Come”, the Fleischers’ version featured a song that could never possibly find its way into a Disney film: “St. James Infirmary Blues”, a much-recorded folk/blues classic, first made famous by Louis Armstrong, featuring lyrics that… well… could never possibly find their way into a Disney film, dealing as they do with death, disease, drinking and debauchery. (For an impressively complete account of the history and significance of St. James Infirmary Blues, check out this fascinating blog, almost entirely dedicated to this one song).

In the Betty Boop film, the song is sung by the legendary Cab Calloway, who also – via rotoscoping – lent some of his patented dance steps to Koko the Clown, the character who sings it.

The Fleischer cartoon bears no resemblance whatsoever to the more famous feature-length “Snow White”. It’s only about seven minutes long and it’s way more Dali than Disney. You could call it psychedelic, if it hadn’t been made some 35 years before that adjective became popular.

Here’s Cab Calloway’s “performance” of St. James Infirmary Blues from the Fleischers’ Snow White:

You can see the entire film (voted the 19th greatest cartoon of all time in a 1994 poll of animators) here. Two more psychedelic-before-their-time Betty Boop ‘toons featuring Cab Calloway tunes are viewable and downloadable here and here. And another one featuring Louis Armstrong is here. (That last one hasn’t aged as well as the others, featuring as it does Satchmo in the guise of an African cannibal…)