Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies were two series of theatrical cartoon shorts running from 1930 to 1969. Warner Bros. initially distributed the cartoons for independent producer Leon Schlesinger before buying the studio in 1944 and moving it in-house in 1955.
Originally, as the names indicate, these cartoons were meant to riff off the sweet, sentimental musical shorts then in vogue: for instance, Disney's Silly Symphonies. That basing cartoons around popular public-domain songs — or, even better, ones the studio already owned — was a fast and relatively cheap way of producing them didn't hurt any, either.
The first set, Looney Tunes, was introduced with 1930's "Sinkin' in the Bathtub" featuring minstrel-like mascot Bosko, the Talk-Ink Kid, and for its first decade relied more heavily on recurring characters and thus lower budgets. Merrie Melodies, introduced in 1931's "Lady, Play Your Mandolin!" featuring the (suspiciously Mickey Mouse-esque) character "Foxy", were initially intended as the music videos of their day, basically animated commercials for the Warners-owned sheet-music library.
When Looney Tunes switched to color in 1942, and the Merrie Melodies line ditched the music around the same time in favor of its own rising star — one Bugs Bunny — differences between the two were limited to their distinctive theme songs, until 1964 (when both series wound up using the same theme music as a result of using a modernized, and slightly bizarre, opening/closing sequence).
Over the course of their tenures at 'Termite Terrace', as the WB animation studio was informally known, the legendary directors Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Friz Freleng, Frank Tashlin, Art Davis, and Robert McKimson — assisted by talented animators such as Ken Harris, Emery Hawkins, Abe Levitow, Bill Melendez, Virgil Ross, and Rod Scribner; brilliant writers like Warren Foster, Michael Maltese, and Tedd Pierce; ace musical arrangers Carl Stalling and Milt Franklyn, sound effects whiz Treg Brown; and of course the incomparable Mel Blanc — created and refined a large and diverse cast of characters, the most famous of which include (listed in chronological order of introduction):
- Porky Pig — "I Haven't Got a Hat", 1935, Freleng. The Everyman and Straight Man to the rest of the cast, known for his ridiculously thick stutter. Also a Deadpan Snarker, usually when paired with Chuck Jones' pompous Daffy or a Butt-Monkey when paired with the crazy, hyperactive screwball Daffy. Either way, he does not like being paired up with Daffy.
- Daffy Duck — "Porky's Duck Hunt": 1937, Avery. Was originally a screwball/Cloud Cuckoo Lander, later Flanderized into a jerkass with an enormous ego. In this incarnation, he's used either to parody action-adventure heroes, or paired up and serving as a foil for Bugs in an Odd Couple scenario. Later also joined Sylvester on the hunt for Speedy Gonzales. First named in the short "Daffy Duck and Egghead".
- Granny — "Little Red Walking Hood" 1937, Avery. A kind, elderly woman most remembered as Tweety's owner, and who packed a hidden amount of badass-ery when inflicting pain on Sylvester when he tried to catch Tweety.
- Elmer Fudd — "Elmer's Candid Camera", 1940, Jones. One of only three humans in the regular cast, the others being Yosemite Sam and Tweety's owner Granny. The Butt-Monkey, often Too Dumb to Live. An avid hunter, thus Jones' favourite adversary for both Bugs & Daffy, reaching a peak in the iconic Rabbit Season trilogy. Less popular with the other directors — particularly Freleng — who found him too wimpy. To compensate, the other directors often made Elmer crafty in their pictures; see "Quack Shot" by Robert McKimson, where he's one step ahead of Daffy the entire cartoon, and "Hare Brush" by Friz Freleng, where it's debatable that he faked being insane in order to both avoid the IRS and get revenge on Bugs Bunny. Surprisingly, Elmer didn't appear as frequently as most people think, only encountering Bugs in over 30 pictures out of Bugs' 168 short lineup.
- Bugs Bunny — "A Wild Hare", 1940, various, notably Avery. A famous, snide, Brookyln/Bronx-accented Karmic Trickster and cultural icon. For decades, always considered the "main character" and "star" of the core cast.
- Tweety Bird — "A Tale of Two Kitties", 1942, Clampett. "I tawt I taw a puddy tat!" In Bob Clampett's hands, Tweety was a pink, sadistic trickster who used his wits to get rid of cats. Under Friz Freleng, Tweety became yellow (the Hays Office balked because the pink made him look naked), found a recurring adversary in Sylvester, and often depended on an umbrella-wielding Granny or an angry bulldog to get rid of the "bad old puddy tat". Time has seen modern generations often mistake Tweety for a female (this doesn't happen in Spanish-speaking countries, as its local name, "Piolín", is unequivocally male).
- Pepé Le Pew — "Odor-Able Kitty", 1945, Jones. A Funny Foreigner and Handsome Lech, completely oblivious to his body odor problem... and thus to why all the pretty 'young ladiee skonks' keep running from him in disgust. Of course, the fact that they're nearly all actually cats, unaware that they've had white stripes painted on their backs, doesn't help either. Can at times be a Depraved Bisexual: Pepé has gone after a male cat who was painted up as a skunk in his first cartoon, a white-striped Sylvester at the end of 1954's "Dog Pounded", and accidentally made out with a man on a Tunnel of Love ride in 1951's "Scent-imental Romeo." Based in part on characters made famous by actor Charles Boyer.
- Sylvester the Cat — "Life with Feathers", 1945, Freleng. A cat with a speech impediment who usually tries to eat Tweety or Speedy Gonzales, with little success, making him a mild version of the Villain Protagonist. One of the most versatile of the ensemble, prone to neuroses and usually the star of the comic melodramas. In Robert McKimson's hands, slobby Sylvester has a hyper-articulate son named Sylvester, Jr., whom Dad tries to impress by chasing what turns out to be a baby kangaroo; when he retreats gibbering at the "giant mouse!" Junior is mortified. Also known for a trio of spooky cartoons in which he is Porky Pig's pet, where, despite being The Voiceless for these shorts, Sylvester attempts to convey to his master that their lives are in danger (twice from murderous mice, once from a curious alien); unfortunately, Porky is Captain Oblivious for most of this, believing Sylvester to be cowardly and paranoid, and only in the first short of the trio does he realize the truth.
- Yosemite Sam — "Hare Trigger", 1945, Freleng. A brash little outlaw with handlebar mustachios and a severe temper problem, introduced as 'a more worthy adversary' for Bugs than the meek Elmer. Said to be a caricature of his short, brash, redheaded creator. Introduced as a Wild West bandit, he eventually became the stock blowhard villain character: Civil War general, Viking, pirate, Black Knight (no Python references please), politician, Arab sheik, etc. Oddly enough, he wears his bandit mask no matter what role he plays. Said to have been inspired by Chuck Jones' great-uncle, a short, redheaded retired Texas Ranger.
- Foghorn Leghorn — "Walky Talky Hawky", 1946, McKimson. A loud, obnoxious rooster with a Southern accent, based on Kenny Delmar's 'Senator Claghorn' radio character. Considers himself the life of the party; demonstrates by tricking little Henery Hawk out of capturing him, abusing the barnyard dog by whomping his ass with a wooden board and painting his tongue green, or babysitting a genius chick named Egghead, Jr. in order to cozy up to his widow hen mother.
- Marvin The Martian — "Haredevil Hare", 1948, Jones. An Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain who wants to see an Earth-Shattering Kaboom, and is the Trope Namer thereof. Invariably foiled by Bugs. Like the Tasmanian Devil, he only appeared in a handful of shorts from the original shorts, but became popular enough to be featured in nearly every adaptation thereafter. His universe was expanded in the 2000s animated show Duck Dodgers. A CGI film starring Mike Myers as Marvin was planned in 2008 and ultimately shelved.
- Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner — "Fast and Furry-ous", 1949, Jones. A speedy bird and the coyote who uses a variety of backfiring Acme Company traps and mail-order gadgets to try to catch him — 'try' being the operative word. The coyote was named in his first face-off against Bugs (Operation: Rabbit), where he became "Wile E. Coyote, Super Genius". The Road Runner remains mute (aside from his iconic "beep beep!") to this day. Incidentally, Time Warner Cable for a long time used them as the mascot for their "Road Runner" internet service; no longer the case since the company was spun off as independent from Time Warner in 2009.
- Speedy Gonzales — "Cat-Tails for Two", 1953, McKimson. Another Funny Foreigner and good-natured Trickster who moves at Super Speed to help his poor Mexican mouse friends get cheese from "el gringo pussygato" (usually Sylvester). Has a lethargic cousin named (inevitably) "Slowpoke Rodriguez" who uses a gun to incapacitate cats instead. For obvious reasons, the Speedy shorts — particularly the late 1960s ones with Daffy as his antagonist — tend not to be received well by animation fans and historians. Ironically, despite being blacklisted for a while in the U.S. for stereotyping, he's the most popular Looney Tunes character in Mexico.
- The Tasmanian Devil — "Devil May Hare", 1954, McKimson. The destructive, hurricane-spinning, Extreme Omnivore who talks in Hulk Speak when he talks at all. Though he only appeared in five Golden Age-era cartoons, he is nowadays considered as popular as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, having been nicknamed Taz and often appearing in merchandise, comic book stories, and even his own TV spinoff (Taz-Mania).
- Witch Hazel — "Bewitched Bunny", 1954. A parody of the Wicked Witch trope who was always in a delightfully flighty mood, and who was interested in cooking, fashion, and gossip. Usually acted as a Big Bad for Bugs and/or Daffy when trying to cook them into her soup cauldron.
- Michigan J. Frog — "One Froggy Evening": 1955, Jones. A frog from The Gay '90s is discovered by a man in modern times. Unfortunately, the frog acts as his Not-So-Imaginary Friend. Listed here as an honorable mention, as he only ever appeared in two cartoons (one a direct sequel to the other) which he didn't share with any other iconic characters, and was never really iconic himself until he became the mascot for the WB Network in the 90's.
...along with dozens of lesser known and one-shot characters. Quite nearly all of these were voiced by Mel Blanc, the Man of a Thousand Voices; in fact, that was used as a gag in at least one short. Other WB voice artists included Stan Freberg, June Foray, Daws Butler, Bea Benaderet, Billy Bletcher, Arthur Q. Bryan (the voice of Elmer Fudd), and Robert C. Bruce (who narrated most of the "travelogue" and "newsreel" shorts).
For more detailed information on the recurring cast, refer to the franchise's character sheet.
The cartoons starring this pantheon originated many of the classic Animation Tropes, co-opting or perfecting most of the rest. Being primarily character-driven comedy, with the various stars working and reworking their shticks solo or in combination, their comedic style is firmly rooted in vaudeville, early Broadway, and silent-film slapstick — an ancestry they cheerfully acknowledged: as in Robert McKimson's 1950 short "What's Up Doc?", an Animated Actors look at Bugs's rise to stardom by way of Elmer Fudd's vaudeville act.
The freewheeling house style was also heavily influenced by, well, the house movies. Answering accusations of excessive violence from parental action groups in later years, Jones noted that these shorts were originally intended to ride with such sweet, wholesome family fare as Little Caesar and The Public Enemy. "We didn't make them for kids," he explained. "We made them for ourselves."
Helping the anarchistic spirit along were a succession of humourless bosses that more or less invited open rebellion. Founder Schlesinger won unwitting immortality as the inspiration for Daffy Duck's trademark lisp: "You're dethpicable!". However, as much as a cheapskate Schlesinger was, the dilapidated studio he provided wasn't called "Termite Terrace" for nothing, he largely stayed out of creative affairs as long as the films made money. By contrast, the Warner Bros. themselves really didn't know or care what was going on in their animation unit, apparently studio head, Jack L. Warner thought they produced Mickey Mouse cartoons, leaving hands-on oversight to bean counter Eddie Selzer, whom the animators considered an interfering bore. Recounting the genesis of the classic "Bully for Bugs", Jones recalled the day Selzer showed up at his door as he and writer Mike Maltese were hashing out story ideas, and bellowed: "I don't want any pictures about bullfights! Bullfights aren't funny!" Then Selzer marched off, leaving his dumbfounded staff staring at each other. "Well," Maltese said, "Eddie's never been right yet..."
Warners ceased production of the classic series in 1963 and outsourced new cartoons to other entities in something of a Dork Age until 1969; a Revival of new production of the classic cartoons occurred during the '90s. Moving to television in 1960 with the original incarnation of the The Bugs Bunny Show, the Warners' shorts took a level in ubiquity. Various repackagings became staples of the American Saturday morning schedule for the next forty years, reintroducing themselves through the generations, until they had permanently entered the collective consciousness.
"Looney Tunes", the generic term by which all Warners animation is now known and sold, is a brand name more than anything nowadays, but is most heavily associated with the "classic" theatrical shorts. The Tunes have been the mascots of the Six Flags theme parks for years.
The merchandising for Looney Tunes products ceased production when AOL ended its merger with Time Warner in order to save money (it did the complete opposite), and Cartoon Network hasn't been kind to the Tunes until November 2009, when they began running the classic shorts again.
It is impossible to discuss the impact of animation on any culture in the world without mentioning these characters and their famous shorts. They have a global influence equaled only by the Classic Disney Shorts. Not only by dint of their quality and originality, but by the scope of their exposure, Looney Tunes have influenced every corner of the animated world. In the 1940's in particular, nearly everybody copied their antics—even Disney tried their hands at Warners-esque comedy from time to time!
For a complete filmography of the original cartoons, visit this page. For a taste of the best shorts the series has to offer, refer to The 50 Greatest Cartoons list, as well as The 100 Greatest Looney Tunes list. For the 2011 animated sitcom that premiered on Cartoon Network, go here. For an index of related Looney Tunes media outside of the main shorts (including films, TV shows, and video games), go here.
Looney Tunes Tropes (Troperifficus Merriemelodieus):
- Tropes A to C
- Tropes D to F
- Tropes G to I
- Tropes J to L
- Tropes M to O
- Tropes P to R
- Tropes S to U
- Tropes V to Z
Th-th-the-th-th-the-th-th-That's All, Folks!