I wish I could be more enthusiastic about the reboot of Looney Tunes, especially since it was my idea, but, thufferin’ thuccotash, it isn’t very good.
Years ago, when a diaspora of The Simpsons writers was creating a plethora of smart-aleck prime-time animated series for grownups, such as Mission Hill and The Critic, and yet the shows composing the diaspora plethora died quickly, I loudly announced (to myself) that Warner Bros. should dust off the Looney Tunes characters. Why couldn’t they hire some of the hundreds of Simpsons writers who seemed to be up for grabs and give us sophisticated, smart new cartoons starring Bugs Bunny et frères doing fast, dense, allusive, dialogue-based humor in The Simpsons vein?
There have been a few attempts at reboots over the years, notably a Cartoon Network show that ran from 2011 to 2014, but today Warner Bros. is throwing more resources into the idea than before as it desperately carbo-loads its programming to bulk up its new streaming service, HBO Max. My idea seems to have gotten garbled in telepathic transmission out to Burbank, though. I said smart, sophisticated, fellas. What you’ve done is restage the slapstick gags of 1948.
It seems beyond dispute that humor tends to age more like Borden’s than Bordeaux. Drama lasts; comedy fades. From the entire first half of the 20th century, what is still funny? I realize Chaplin and Keaton and the Marx Brothers still have their fans, but this stuff doesn’t exactly light up Comedy Central today. Comedy that endures even 50 years is rare. The early Looney Tunes style of humor is now three-quarters of a century old, and it doesn’t work anymore. The characters still have loads of potential, but you can’t just have them pull wacky props out of thin air, deal each other mortal injuries with them, and call that a day’s work.
Though the Looney Tunes story began in pure slapstick, the later, better cartoons were clearly aimed at sophisticated adults as they ventured into meta-humor such as “Duck Amuck” and satirical spoofs like “Knighty Knight, Bugs” and “What’s Opera, Doc?” There was no impulse to serve the lowest common denominator; the audience was given credit for knowing stories such as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. A contemporary Looney Tunes should be making fun of the genre’s own attraction to violence (à la the Itchy and Scratchy cartoons or the pastiche short contained in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?). It should be taking on Hamilton or the Avengers.
Instead, one short that promises to be a spoof of Raiders of the Lost Ark loses its way with moldy sight gags such as Daffy getting out of a tight spot by pretending to be a girl, putting on a bridal gown and marrying the giant monster who is harassing him. (Porky adapts by becoming a bridesmaid.) In another new one, Sylvester thinks he’s finally eaten Tweety Bird, but his joy turns to remorse. Meanwhile, what he ate was just a cupcake and the real Tweety, who has fallen into a bowl of flour, starts pestering him again. Sylvester thinks the white canary is the ghost of Tweety Bird stalking his conscience, and consternation ensues.
There are 80 episodes coming, packaged in pairs of four- to six-minute shorts with a 30-second gag separating them in the middle. Then (the most contemporary touch) there are way more credits than there used to be. No Simpsons writers on staff, as far as I can tell. Alas.
Apart from random little details here and there (a local mad scientist has a satellite dish on his roof, Yosemite Sam is ripped), these toons could have been made in the Forties. There’s insistent wacky music on the soundtrack, the dumb characters keep getting duped, and the wised-up ones keep pulling weapons out of the ether. Yosemite Sam is arm-wrestling Bugs, but then discovers he’s arm-wrestling several sticks of dynamite arranged in the shape of Bugs.
I hear you saying, “But I liked them the first time around. I want more of the same!” No, you really don’t. If you were at a comedy club and a standup came out and did a 1940s routine, you’d gawp, cringe, and depart, all within about three minutes. “And then Sam gets blown up again” doesn’t work anymore. Comedy has to keep surprising you. When the gags become rote and formulaic, the only reason to laugh is nostalgia. Also, when Daffy Duck chews gum he finds on the sidewalk, that’s just gross. Then he spends four minutes getting tangled up in the gum.