Why it’s hard to write for Bugs Bunny

Moments when Bugs loses the upper hand are very rare, and his opponents are almost always morons who pose no serious threat

by Jaime Weinman

Having written enough about The Looney Tunes Show and Looney Tunes reboots in general, I don’t want to say any more about that particular show, which could still eventually turn out to be okay. But I was asked why Daffy Duck, rather than Bugs Bunny, is usually the main character of these reboots (Daffy got more screen time than Bugs in Looney Tunes: Back in Action, and one of the better reboots was Daffy’s Duck Dodgers). Part of the answer, I think, is that Bugs Bunny is extremely hard to write for, and the reason he’s hard to write for goes to the heart of why these characters are so hard to revive effectively.

A Bugs Bunny cartoon goes against all the rules of what we – and writers – now think of as well-made screen storytelling. There are many variations on those rules, but most of them are based on the familiar three-part structure: Give your protagonist a problem, complicate it, and resolve it. This is a structure that is followed in many Daffy Duck cartoons, especially the ones from the ’50s, but even some of the earlier ones where he wasn’t a loser. In the dream sequence that makes up the bulk of Bob Clampett’s “The Great Piggy Bank Robbery,” Daffy’s detective persona Duck Twacy has a problem (stolen piggy banks), faces complications (getting to the gangster hideout and meeting all the gangsters) and resolves it (defeating the bad guys and getting the piggy banks) before waking up.

There are a few Bugs Bunny cartoons that follow this structure, and they all sort of can be broken down into problem-complication-resolution. Except most of them don’t really play that way at all, because Bugs Bunny rarely takes the problems or complications seriously. The classic Bugs Bunny structure is sort of prologue followed by extended resolution: someone bothers Bugs (hunting for him or otherwise pissing him off), and Bugs spends the rest of the cartoon finding escalating ways to display his superiority over the opponent. Moments when Bugs loses the upper hand are very rare, and his opponents are almost always morons who pose no serious threat. (Yosemite Sam was created to be more threatening than Elmer Fudd, but Bugs rarely actually considers him threatening; it’s supposed to show how cool Bugs is that he’s not afraid of Sam, even though everyone else seems to be.)

One of the most famous Bugs Bunny story formulas was created by Chuck Jones for the cartoon “Case of the Missing Hare.” Bugs is minding his own business when an obnoxious magician comes along and treats him bad. Bugs literally declares war, invades the magician’s home turf, and spends the next five minutes dishing out one bit of retribution after another. There is no suspense about the outcome, and once Bugs has declared war, the structure of the film is based more on the pacing and arrangement of the gags, not on the story, which is only going in one direction from here on out.

It’s hard to do a film like that, with an invincible hero, without making the hero obnoxious. (The death of Mel Blanc probably hit Bugs Bunny the hardest out of the characters because while some of the other voices are easy to replicate, Bugs is not – even Blanc couldn’t always get it right after the ’60s – and without being voiced really charmingly, he can be a bully like Woody Woodpecker.) So that contributes to the low success rate of post-1964 Bugs Bunny cartoons: Bugs can come off as a jerk if you write him the way he was written in most films, but if you make him a loser, he just doesn’t seem like the character. (Yes, there were a few cartoons where he lost, but they were either fairly early films or clear changes of pace, like the one with the Gremlin.) But most of his films also belong to a type of comedy – loosely plotted, consequence-free and with no character arc or attempted character depth – that is not currently in favour, particularly on TV.

And yet Bugs Bunny cartoons do need to have a strong story and a strong structure, making them different from Road Runner cartoons, which are fairly easy to do well (even now) because all you need is a succession of good gags of more or less the same type. A Bugs cartoon does need a story, and it needs some variety in the type of punishment he dishes out. Like his first meeting with Yosemite Sam, written by the great cartoon comedy writer Michael Maltese. The outcome is so little in doubt that the ending basically up and admits that any attempt to create suspense is a complete lie. But there is a lot of variety in what Bugs does to Sam and how Sam reacts to it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b9K5L-UgKpc

So the writer of a “traditional” Bugs Bunny cartoon usually has to come up with a strong story where the protagonist’s victory (or even the nature of his victory) is never in doubt, where the protagonist rarely takes the antagonist seriously, and where the story stops moving forward as soon as the protagonist decides he wants to win. There’s not a single aspect of a classic Bugs Bunny cartoon that wouldn’t be thrown out of a screenwriting class, or that would get past an executive giving notes on good story structure. So the classic-style cartoon might be unrevivable, not because there aren’t people who can do it, but because no TV network would accept it in that form.




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Why it’s hard to write for Bugs Bunny

  1. The other perfect example of "bugs minding his own business, gets hassled by a jerk, and retaliates for seven minutes" is "Long Haired Hare", from 1948, also directed by Chuck Jones and written by Michael Maltese.

  2. "There is no suspense about the outcome, and once Bugs has declared war, the structure of the film is based more on the pacing and arrangement of the gags, not on the story, which is only going in one direction from here on out."

    Rabbit Punch?

    • Well, doesn't the ending of "Rabbit Punch" kind of demonstrate (like the end of "Hare Trigger") than even when Bugs seems to be in trouble, he's not actually in trouble?

      It's true though that there are exceptions to the pattern – like "Bully For Bugs" where there's more give-and-take between Bugs and the opponent than usual, with the bull turning the tables on Bugs at least once.

  3. I think the question that should be asked is: "Why not change the roles around?" Daffy's much more relatable to the general audience and Bugs is an asshole. Yeah, in a few cases, it's been justified, but nowadays, that character is somewhat relegated to the general supporting cast (ie: Barney from HIMYM) or is shown as the dick they truly are with a sympathetic supporting cast (Dan in Dan Vs…). Like the author stated, Daffy's had enough screentime to allow it to be done before, so why not now? The entire cast has a sense of their popularity and history over the last century, so that could lead to an interesting switch in personalities, or rather, the inevitable change that often comes with such popularity in celebrity culture.

  4. Interesting analysis, but I'm not sure if I agree.

    Bugs is hard to write for because he -is- actually a jerk, but the Jones era pretty much played that down. One is better off watching the McKimson era shorts, where Bugs range of emotions are much more noticeable – he gets happy, annoyed, angry, fooled, tricky, clever, and hurt. (Case in Point: Easter Yeggs). Bugs basic personality was Tex Avery creation, and he was supposed to be akin to a slightly more clever Daffy (the really early shorts showcases a much more wackier wabbit). The difficulty is trying to mimic Jones' changeover, which leaves Bugs a passive character of insane reaction. It's rare to see Bugs actually, you know, have an objective outside of "make evil character X look like a fool".

    I don't think it would be as uncomfortable as everyone thinks it would be if Bugs did come off as a jerk. Think of the moment in Who Framed Roger Rabbit when both Bugs and Mickey let Eddie Valiant fall with merely a gag-based spare tire. Valiant certainly wasn't Bugs antagonist, and he still screwed him over. And the scene was still true to his character.

    • I don't consider it a Chuck Jones changeover exactly. A lot of this obviously goes back to A Wild Hare where his schtick was being calm and collected and in control at all times (that is, Avery perfected the Bugs Bunny character by making him less wacky than the usual "wacky" cartoon character). Also, Mike Maltese in particular was writing this type of cartoon before he even started working for Jones: "Little Red Riding Rabbit" and "Hare Trigger," written for Freleng, are examples of cartoons where Bugs has the upper hand at every point.

      It's true that Clampett and especially early McKimson had their own takes on Bugs, and that McKimson in particular tried to make him a little easier to fool (like "The Windblown Hare," which Warren Foster later rewrote as a Yogi Bear cartoon). But it's still pretty unusual to see Bugs genuinely afraid of an opponent or genuinely wondering how he's going to get out of something. Daffy is terrified when he realizes the wolf is after him in "Book Revue" and it seems like a perfectly natural way for Daffy to be. I'm not saying no one could make that work with Bugs, but it's at least more surprising when someone gets the better of him.

    • I agree, Jones essentially defanged Bugs, for better or worse. It's a lot like Thalberg and the Marx Brothers. Bugs needed a reason to retaliate, whereas before he was just a bully (or, if you read between the lines, a trickster.) Don't mean to blog-pimp, but my friend Chris Stangl wrote an essay about this that I think examines it well. http://explodingkinetoscope.blogspot.com/2006/01/

      • On the other hand, Jones's Bugs was one of the nastiest once he was provoked – he got more passive in the late '50s, as all the characters did, but if you compare Jones's Bugs of the late '40s to the Freleng and McKimson cartoons, Bugs takes the most sheer creative delight in dishing out violence once he has an excuse to do so.

  5. I loved all Looney Tunes growing up, and I agree that Bugs had to have a lot smarter dialogue throughout. Funny thing though…the Wile E Coyote mishaps were the ones that could have me laugh until I was in tears. I put a video in one of my blogs recently, and it about brought me to tears again just watching the cumulative effect of some of his gaffes ;)

  6. So, Ferris Bueller is modeled after Bugs Bunny then?

  7. When I was young, my mother made sure no one talked to me in baby talk so hence I was treated as an adult. The reason Bugs Bunny was my favourite cartoon was he behaved as an adult as well. Instead of wildly screaming and jumping up and down he always maintained his cool and composure as he did the villain in through clever tricks and pranks. He used his mind to overcome obstacles with quick thinking instead of sticks of dynamite. I agree, rebooted as a 'cameo' appearance just pulling pranks without justification misses the mark of who this character was. Bugs Bunny's balance act constantly walked the fine line of straight man and comedian, I can understand why he was so hard to write especially in this day and age where we only do extremes.

  8. The Bugs cartoons that I enjoy the most follow your formula with a few minor tweaks: at the outset Bugs isn't a monumental asshole. Take Bully for Bugs; he's rude to the Bull but the Bull's remedy or escalation is unnecessarily harsh. Or one of the contruction worker ones. Bugs is being evicted from his home.

    The next tweak in the ones I like is that the contest isn't one-sided. We know of course Bugs is going to win (unless it's an opera) but the opponent gets some good licks in; again as in Bully for Bugs or when in a construction worker one where Bugs takes the long piece of metal (probably a word for that) in the face.

    Those to me are the most satsifying. So if I were doing a new one: have Bugs be a smart ass, have the villain over-escalate, have Bugs and the villain each get their licks in, and then end with a Rube Goldberg type device in which Bugs emerges victorious. Easy! (in my next comment I'll explain how to make a Stradivarius violin).

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