Thursday, July 28, 2005

The "Long-Haired Hare" Formula

(Note: Part of the following is recycled from something I wrote on a message board. For those of you who would prefer something new, well, you get what you pay for, and blogs are free.)

I was recently watching the Bugs Bunny cartoon "Long-Haired Hare" again; it's the cartoon where Bugs gets revenge on an arrogant opera singer, and it's probably one of the most popular of all Bugs cartoons. In watching it, it occurred to me that the formula from this cartoon is probably the best-known formula for Bugs Bunny cartoons -- the one most commonly associated with Bugs -- and yet it wasn't used all that often.

The basic idea behind this formula is to have Bugs taking revenge on an authority figure or otherwise powerful figure who is abusing his or her power. You start off with a big character, in some kind of position of power and influence, acting like an arrogant jerk and making us root for him to be brought down a notch. Bugs, after being pushed around by the big jerk, springs into action (declaring "war") invades the sphere where the big jerk is all-powerful (the concert, the baseball game, the construction site) and gives the big jerk his comeuppance.

There were, as I have said, only a very few cartoons that actually used this formula. The first cartoon to use it was a 1942 Chuck Jones cartoon, "The Case of the Missing Hare," where Bugs finds himself mistreated by an arrogant magician; Bugs then shows up at the magician's act and gives him what for. The formula then lay dormant until a few years later, when writer Mike Maltese came up with a variation of it for Friz Freleng's "Baseball Bugs": we see a baseball team full of big, obnoxious jerks, and when Bugs gets pulled into the game, he torments the big, obnoxious players and manages to beat them single-handed. When Maltese became Jones's full-time writer a couple of years later, they started to use this formula a bit more often; both Jones and Maltese shared a conception of Bugs as a sort of Groucho Marx character who could deflate pomposity and arrogance. So they did one Bugs-vs-jerk cartoon a year for a while: "Rabbit Punch" (1948; Bugs vs. big, jerky boxer), "Long-Haired Hare" (1949; Bugs vs. big, jerky opera singer), "Homeless Hare" (1950; Bugs vs. big, jerky construction foreman), and "Bunny Hugged" (1951; Bugs vs. big, jerky wrestler). But after 1951, they pretty much abandoned this formula, though some of it found its way into "Bully For Bugs" (Bugs vs. big, jerky bull). Also, Bob McKimson and writer Sid Marcus did a sequel to "Homeless Hare" in 1954, "No Parking Hare," which is -- despite McKimson's low reputation -- pretty much as funny as Jones's original. And there's also a little bit of the formula in the cartoons where Bugs battles Wile E. Coyote, genius; Wile E. is a predator but he's also the kind of arrogant know-it-all intellectual who's just begging to have his pretentions deflated by Bugs. But apart from that, Bugs went back to his familiar routine of fending off predators and foiling Yosemite Sam.

And yet the formula survived, even after the Termite Terrace crew abandoned it. Not only is it still very much associated with Bugs in the public mind, despite its relative rarity; it became the basis for many other, later cartoons. For instance, a lot of "Tiny Toons" cartoons use this formula and almost every "Animaniacs" cartoon involving Yakko, Wakko and Dot is based on the concept of jerks getting their just desserts; the "Animaniacs" writers' bible specified that the villain should always be a big jerk and that a writer should start by having the antagonist show what a power-abusing jerk he is, so we can delight in seeing the heroes show him that he's not all that.

This is a very popular formula because it allows us, the audience, to enjoy seeing Bugs stick it to people who annoy us or are more powerful than us in real life. It also allows Bugs to use his abilities on someone who is an actual threat, as opposed to pathetic adversaries like Elmer Fudd or angry-but-tiny adversaries like Yosemite Sam. In most of his early cartoons, Bugs was up against characters who wanted to kill him: the excuse for bamboozling Elmer was that Elmer was out to shoot Bugs. When Friz Freleng created Yosemite Sam, he gave Bugs more of a socially conscious reason to act: Sam wasn't usually a direct threat to Bugs, but he was clearly a bad person, usually a criminal, who deserved to be stopped. But the antagonist in the "Long-Haired Hare" type of cartoon doesn't want to kill or eat Bugs, and he isn't a criminal; he is a respected member of society -- an opera singer, a man building a skyscraper, a star athlete -- and not the sort of person we'd normally expect to see getting pushed around. Which is precisely the point of this kind of cartoon: just as Groucho Marx insulted the people we'd never dare to insult, Bugs gets to beat up on the people who annoy us but whom we are expected to respect.

I'm not sure why this formula went out of WB cartoons after the early '50s. Maybe it's that this kind of Groucho-esque humor depends on the implication of class distinctions (we get revenge, through Bugs, on people who are richer or stronger than we are), and that kind of humor wasn't very big in the '50s? Maybe I'm over-analyzing. Really, the main reason the formula wasn't used often was probably just that starting in 1952 or '53 the cartoons got shorter -- because of budget cuts, the running times of the cartoons were cut by around a minute -- and so there was less time to do the kind of slow buildup that "Long-Haired Hare" or "The Case of the Missing Hare" provide; when you only have six minutes, there's no time to do a prologue where the big jerk displays his jerkery. Also, this formula couldn't be done with Bugs's regular adversaries like Elmer and Sam -- it requires a new, big, powerful character.

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