Thursday, May 05, 2011

Why It's Hard to Write For Bugs Bunny

(Cross-posted from the TV Guidance blog)

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 "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 "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 "Falling Hare." It's still a change of pace when Bugs is genuinely afraid of his opponent or has to struggle to find a way to win, while this is much more a part of the characterization of even the early, crazy Daffy.) 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 Mike 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.

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.


policomic said...

Great insight. Maybe the problem with formulas (like the hero-face-challenge-and-overcomes-it formula) is not that they exist, or even that screenwriters deliberately use them, but that they don't work independent of other considerations, like character.

Dan_Luft said...

With Chuck Jones, Tweety and the Road Runner were also invincible. MOre than half of the humor grew out of characters like Elmer, Daffy, Wiley Coyote, Martians, opera singers and Sylvester not realizing that they were outmatched.

J Lee said...

As noted in several books on Bugs' history, even his creators had a hard time believing at first they could do a continuing series with a supremely confident character who won all the time, which is why the first year or so of rabbit pictures has a pretty high percentage of cartoons where Bugs gets his comeuppance at the end.

One of the other things Warners' directors and writers did do to solve that dilemma was to basically create a mid-cartoon "reboot", so that Bugs would play with his adversary, but then annoy the cartoon gods by offering up either some braggadocio or some disparaging comments about his aversary, which if done in mid-picture was the cue for his opponent to suddenly gain the upper hand, if ever so briefly (Bugs calling his opponent a maroon near the end of the picture was often forgiven by the gods, since it was usually part of a ploy to lure his opponent into one final disaster).

So there is a time-tested template into doing Bugs correctly, and even if the original staffers didn't use it 100 percent ofbthe time, it was always available to fall back on. Many ofbthe newer cartoons either abandon the template, or shy away from it because current standards on cartoon violence make it tougher to come up with a suitable payoff.

David said...

So now Bugs is reduced to a wise-ass jerk sitcom character.

There are some talented people working on the new series (such as Spike Brandt, Tony Cervone, Jessica Borutski) who have all done much better work in the past , but this thing had the wrong concept from the start. It's broken because the characters aren't true to themselves. No amount of cutey-pie girly art redesigns or attempts to infuse the Looney Tunes with doses of Family Guy or pseudo-Seinfeldinan sitcom humor will make them seem "fresh". It's DOA.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

J Lee: One of the cues for that to happen to Bugs is him saying "Well, that's that." It's his equivalent of Batman telling the bad guy "It's over."

ramapith said...


I don't think it's DOA.

It seems to be a success. But even those who (relatively) like it seem to be pointing out its failings. I think it's more that the audience has spent years starved for these characters than that this approach really works for anyone.

(Yes, there have been token revival efforts in the past five years, but few of them have been advertised, given time to build an audience, or programmed in prime viewing hours, so few of them really count...)

David said...

Ramapith -

I guess I meant "creatively DOA".

Yeah, sure they may be able to prop it up and keep the series going for a while and maybe people are starved enough to eat even this over-processed junk food version of the Looney Tunes .

Anonymous said...

Warners is slowly realizing they must consider creative outsourcing for what they think are the family jewels. If Seth MacFarlane pulls off his Flintstones reboot, in other words brings WB a megahit, look for him to be handed all future LT franchise toons in short order. The current LT Show was late, expensive and won't sustain nor justify its ratings over the long haul. WB wants a megahit and they think MacFarlane can deliver the goods.

Anonymous said...

Oh, lord, please don't let McFarland get his rotten hands on Looney Tunes. He'll ruin worse than any reboot of the last two decades. Including that "Extreme" version...

Though, I'm enjoying the Looney Tunes show. It offers the characters up in a new type of humor - the slapstick is mostly gone, but between the situations the main characters find themselves in and the conversations or dialogue between them, it's entertaining on a higher level than before. Or as high of a level as LT can offer.

Bugs doesn't seem to be the huge invincible hero in this series, as most situations end up with Daffy getting knocked down again. Between the embarrassment Daffy gives Bugs in public, the ever clingy Lola who can't take a hint, or simply trying to look good and not get sued by his neighbors, he doesn't seem like he comes out on top by much, if at all. He's struggling harder to have a decent block party without Daffy ruining it than he did in his fights against Yosemite Sam or Elmer Fudd. At the same time, it gives a refreshing new life to an old cast in a new era of cartoons that hopefully works.

It's not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but Bugs Bunny has been beating his adversaries without a sweat in slapstick gags since the 40's. Do we really wanna see the same thing, or watch him and the rest of the LT crew try to adapt to a modern world?

Pokey said...

BY the time of the reboot of DAFFY's[caps intented] status as Jaime himself has said,m by the mid 50s, Daffy, mostly in Robert McMimson cartoons, downright veered from one type to another--beating "Baggye Eyes"---that's Taz to you...or winding up with Mr.and Mrs.Elmer Fudd....or then being a greedy bastard beating Elmer iin the hotel game, or trying similairly to get Bugs to the "Frank Nelson-ish" [Blanc] and "Art Linkletter"-ish [Butler] like TV show hosts, but by the mid 60s, read Daffy vs Speedy, it really didn't matter what case it was with Daffy..the stone was set.\

[Daffy avoided being backed to my and Gumby's Capitol stock music, unlike Bugs, during tyhe musicians strike in 1958.:)]