Friday, August 13, 2004

Daffy Duck, Comeback Kid

All this talk of Looney Tunes (see below) has got me to thinking: of all the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies characters, the one whose popularity has gotten the biggest boost in the last ten years or so is Daffy Duck. While Daffy's slightly underrepresented on the new DVD collection -- they're hopefully saving some of the classics like "Duck Rabbit Duck" and the wartime stuff for volume 3 -- he's considered enough of a draw to get his mug on the cover, right next to Bugs. Indeed, when WB advertises Looney Tunes, Bugs and Daffy are likely to be shown together, whereas when I was growing up, it was likely to be just Bugs, or Bugs with some other popular series character: the Saturday morning compilation show was called "The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show," then "The Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show," but never "Bugs and Daffy."

Daffy was originally a character whose popularity started going downhill in the '40s, perhaps even right after the War (when he was perhaps the most active WB star in terms of conking Nazis with mallets, collecting scrap metal, and so on). By the late '40s or early '50s, audiences seemed to be tiring of crazy/obnoxious characters like Daffy, and mild-mannered characters like Porky; what was "in" was the violent chase cartoon, epitomized by Tom and Jerry at MGM and later by Tweety and Sylvester and the Road Runner at Warner Brothers. Unlike Bugs Bunny, who was aggressive but didn't have to be too aggressive if the story didn't call for it, Daffy was basically a wild, inherently aggressive loudmouth, respecting no bounds of propriety or decency. (The wartime cartoons were an exception, but even during the war effort, Daffy could be a jerk, like Bob Clampett's "Draftee Daffy," where a cowardly Daffy goes to every length possible, even attempted murder, to escape the little man from the draft board.) The cartoons of the postwar era, whether at WB or other studios, were less crazy, a bit more observant of decorum, and Daffy didn't completely fit in. Fewer Daffy cartoons were being made by the early '50s, and the WB directors started looking around for new things to do with him, presumably to keep the character going: Chuck Jones came up with the two most popular solutions, namely a) Teaming him with Bugs Bunny, where Daffy's aggressiveness could be a foil to Bugs' infernal self-control; b) Putting Daffy in genre parodies, where he tries, unsuccessfully, to play the role of a classic hero. These things kept Daffy going, but there's no question that Daffy was nowhere near as popular in the '50s as he once had been. At least he was luckier than mild-mannered Porky, who never got another solo vehicle after 1951's "The Wearing of the Grin."

By 1960, when Bugs Bunny got his own TV show ("The Bugs Bunny Show," an example of which can be found on the first Looney Tunes DVD set), Daffy was getting hardly any solo cartoons at all; his main function was just to be the bitter, resentful foil to Bugs. (This started in two cartoons Friz Freleng made in the '50s: "A Star is Bored" and "Show Biz Bugs," where Daffy is jealous of Bugs' stardom and tries to upstage him or bump him off.) Whereas Daffy had retained traces of his "crazy" persona even into the mid-'50s -- he was doing his hoo-hoo routine as late as "Quack Shot," a 1954 cartoon directed by Bob McKimson -- that was all gone by the '60s; he was basically just a greedy jerk who always got his comeuppance. When the WB cartoon studio shut down and Friz Freleng's own company (Depatie/Freleng) started making new, cheaper cartoons using the WB characters, Daffy was somehow transformed into an adversary for Speedy Gonzales. Why a duck would chase a mouse was never really explained, but then, most of those cartoons are so bad that I never watched them long enough to listen for an explanation.

Anyway, that's where Daffy stood by the '60s, a utility character, a foil for Bugs, a second banana, not really a star. But by the mid-'90s, something seemed to have changed. Space Jam was awful, but it did give Daffy a pretty big role, and gave him back traces of his "crazy" personality. Daffy guest-starred in a combination live-action/animation sequence of The Drew Carey Show. In the late '90s, the WB network was intrigued enough by Daffy's popularity that it commissioned Paul Rugg, of Animaniacs and Freakazoid, to create a new show for Daffy; the show didn't get off the ground (the WB had lost interest in cartoons by the time the show was ready to be pitched), but it may have eventually led to Daffy's starring role in the Duck Dodgers series on Cartoon Network. And in the recent movie Looney Tunes: Back in Action, created in an attempt to re-introduce the Looney Tunes "brand name" to the younger generation, Daffy, not Bugs, is the character who gets the most screen time.

What happened to get Daffy back to his old level of popularity? I would guess it had something to do with Ted Turner's Cartoon Network, which used to (not anymore, alas) show a lot of WB cartoons; I think their block of WB cartoons was called "Bugs and Daffy," and it included a lot of the old '40s cartoons from the height of Daffy's popularity -- reintroducing audiences to the well-rounded Daffy rather than the one-dimensional Snidely Whiplash of the late '50s and early '60s. It also helps that Daffy is an exceptionally useful character, because he's so versatile: he can be a good guy, a bad guy, a winner, a loser, crazy, sensible, and everything in between. Bugs Bunny is a great character too, but because his popularity depends on him being a winner almost every time, he's more restricted in terms of what you can do with him. Therefore, starting in the late '80s (with the cartoon shorts "The Duxorcist" and "Night of the Living Duck," both co-directed by cartoon historian Greg Ford), Daffy became the go-to character for WB in attempting to re-establish the viability of the Looney Tunes characters.

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