In 1997, when Space Jam premiered, Michael Jordan was an international star of unparalleled proportions. But you know what? So were his costars, the Looney Tunes.
While they were first created by Warner Bros. between the 1930s and ’50s, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the rest of the ensemble of zany cartoon animals were celebrating a new golden age of popularity in the 1990s. Driven by an unexpected comeback in streetwear, the mainstream public (not just children!) began wearing clothing and accessories with Marvin the Martian or the Tasmanian Devil on them.
But of course, the Looney Tunes seven-minute shorts (which originally played before full-length films in movie theaters) were also always on TV, in syndication on some channel or other. So everyone knew the Looney Tunes. Today, that’s not the case.
It wasn’t until last weekend, when I rewatched the original Space Jam with my family, that I realized my own kids, ages 3 and 7, had never experienced the Looney Tunes characters. My son’s mind was blown by their slapstick antics, and he laughed a solid 10 minutes straight after he was introduced to Daffy Duck.
So as you and, perhaps, some loved ones prepare to watch LeBron James’s Space Jam: A New Legacy when it’s released in theaters and on HBO Max this weekend, I put together a list of some of the must-see Looney Tunes classics to get everyone caught up on the cartoon canon. And I tapped Andrew Farago, curator of the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco and the author of The Looney Tunes Treasury, to offer some suggestions and contextualize what’s given these cartoons such a long shelf life.
Because, yes, 80 years later, these cartoons are still hilarious.
The Hunting Trilogy
The two biggest stars of Looney Tunes are the smooth-talking Bugs Bunny and the often enraged Daffy Duck. As Chuck Jones, the legendary director, writer, and animator behind the Looney Tunes, put it, “Bugs is an aspiration. Daffy is a realization. You know that Daffy is within you and, if allowed to get loose, you would be just like Daffy. But with Bugs . . . you hope to be like that.”
These three shorts from The Hunting Trilogy celebrate Bugs and Daffy going head-to-head, trying to convince the hunter Elmer Fudd to hunt the other.
To save his own tail, Daffy claims it’s rabbit season. So Bugs, who was otherwise minding his own business, says it’s duck season. The shorts feature gags such as Daffy dressing up like Bugs, and Bugs dressing up like Daffy, driving brain-bending wordplay. It’s a classic Shakespearean-style joke born from costuming and identity.
“There were certain rules they had for storytelling, including, Bugs shouldn’t be the aggressor,” Farago explains. “A great Bugs Bunny story will start when someone wrongs him in some way . . . and once that happens, he’s allowed to do whatever it takes to defend himself, or have a little fun with whomever is after him.”
The first two shorts of this trilogy are on HBO Max. My personal favorite moment is when Elmer Fudd, ever teetering between useless dimwit and murderous gunman, admits the superficiality of his entire quest as a character. “Im sowwy guys, but I’m a vegetarian,” says Fudd. “I just hunt for the sport of it!”
Before Bugs Bunny played basketball with Jordan or James, he played baseball with . . . himself. That’s why Farago calls Baseball Bugs a must-see for anyone tuning into Space Jam. It’s basically a prequel.
In this short, a beefy team of antagonists called the Gas-House Gorillas is pummeling a team of seniors who seem to be on the field for a friendly game. Bugs doesn’t like this one-sided competition, so he steps in, and pits himself—playing every position on the field—against the Gorillas.
“We know, going back to the 1940s, Bugs is an incredible athlete,” Farago says. “And he will gladly use any trick at his disposal to come out on top.” Even if it takes a few exploding cigars.
Haredevil Hare and Duck Dodgers
Most Looney Tunes cartoons happen in a few reused settings: farms and fields, the big city, or the desert. But for Haredevil Hare and Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century, the studio expanded its scope to tell a couple of stories in space, before humankind had even landed on the moon.
“Obviously, Space Jam owes a debt to [them],” says Farago of these two shorts. “They opened up the cast and the storytelling potential exponentially, by opening it up to outer space as a venue.”
In Haredevil Hare, Bugs is sent in a rocket like a lab animal. In Duck Dodgers, Daffy emulates Buck Rogers, the sci-fi explorer of the early 20th century. In both cases, our protagonists encounter Marvin the Martian and alien landscapes.
The pacing of these shorts isn’t like a lot of Looney Tunes cartoons. They are slower, more deliberate, and almost cinematic in their patience.
As Farago explains, designer and artist Maurice Noble was a close collaborator to Jones, and despite all the incredible work they did together, it was rare for Noble to have free rein to just imagine.
“When [Noble] got to really cut loose on something like that, you could see how much fun they were having, designing Martian landscapes, and pushing his imagination [in] directions he might not get to on a Brooklyn street or grassy meadow,” Farago says.
Fast and Furry-ous
Meet Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote in their first-ever short, Fast and Furry-ous. (And, no, this 1949 cartoon is not named after the Vin Diesel franchise!)
For all the cleverness inside Looney Tunes shorts, the truth is that Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote represent the simplest formula of the series. Coyote is hungry. Road Runner is dinner.
“Even Chuck Jones, the driving force behind those, would gladly tell you they only had one real plot behind them,” Farago says. “Road Runner is going from point A to B. And Coyote is trying to catch him. There are obviously a million ways to do that.”
Episode one features at least a dozen gags on this formula, in which Coyote injures himself again and again, trying to capture the elusive Road Runner. Some injuries are from Road Runner’s guile, and others, his speed. But many mistakes are born sheerly from the Coyote’s own ineptitude at building Rube Goldberg-esque gadgets and handling explosives.
Road Runner and Coyote went on to appear in dozens of shorts together, but my favorite gag is in this particular cartoon. Coyote paints a tunnel on the side of the mountain, hoping Road Runner will strike the rock by mistake. Miraculously, Road Runner somehow runs into the painting. Coyote tries, and immediately hurts himself. The gag is a tacit admission to the audience, and even to Coyote himself, that this entire cartoon universe has been set up against him.
Sylvester is a hungry cat. Tweety Bird is a (seemingly) innocent canary.
Dog Pounded is one of many shorts starring the two characters. Sylvester is starving. All the trash cans filled with old fish bones are occupied. And that’s when he spots Tweety in a tree . . . that sits directly in the middle of a dog pound. Sylvester tries to sneak his way in.
One of the best parts of this animation, though, is how basically all of the fighting happens off-screen. In a rare Looney Tunes moment, the injuries are inferred rather than explicitly shown. And they are funnier for it.
Eventually, Sylvester paints himself like a skunk. He chases away the dogs who are scared to be sprayed, but he’s soon grabbed by the amorous skunk Pepé Le Pew (a cartoon figure deemed too inappropriate in the #MeToo era to be in the new Space Jam).
But the main reason I enjoy Dog Pounded is the question it leaves in my head: Why did Tweety choose this tree, in the middle of this wild dog pound, to make a nest? Was it just to screw with Sylvester?
Looney Tunes are loony. And so they need Porky Pig to play the straight man, the supporting role who’s the perfect stand-in for anyone in the audience. Porky’s episodes don’t necessarily stand out as classics, but he makes a superb wall for characters like Daffy Duck to bounce off of.
Fool Coverage is one of several entertaining Daffy-Porky mashups. It begins with Porky, as always, simply minding his own business. Then Daffy, here playing an insurance salesman, knocks on his door. Countless injuries ensue as Daffy demonstrates how dangerous everyday domestic life can be. And while it doesn’t always work out for Porky—some of his episodes can end quite dark!—when it comes to his insurance policy, Porky lands the upper hand.
The Foghorn Leghorn
Who is Foghorn Leghorn, you ask? That’s the entire joke of the short The Foghorn Leghorn . . . in a plot convoluted enough that I’m not going to even try to unpack it here.
Ultimately, Foghorn is a giant rooster who has the gift of gab. He’s proven to be one of the most resilient Looney Tunes characters 80 years later, even though he wasn’t actually completely original. Foghorn is based upon an amalgamation of two old radio characters. One was simply known as the Sheriff, a rude loudmouth who’d talk over people saying “I say . . . I say . . .” from a West Coast radio program that ran in the ’30s. The other was Senator Claghorn, a long-winded Southern politician played by Kenny Delmar in the ’40s. Put the two together and you get the surprisingly polite, and loquacious, Foghorn.
“It’s funny that, by virtue of outlasting all these other things, we will attribute certain things to Looney Tunes, where we don’t think of the original source material,” Farago says. “[But] look at who is still standing . . . who made it to streaming channels. It’s funny that the Looney Tunes end up owning these jokes, when someone in the 1940s would have said, ‘That’s just imitating this character!’”
With apologies to Bugs Bunny, Daffy is the funniest Looney Tune. And Daffy’s greatest moment is in this fabulous short. Duck Amuck is one of the most famous cartoons in animation and storytelling, period. Why? It’s a postmodernist masterpiece, in which the medium itself—animation—becomes the driving force of the plot.
Daffy is just trying to put on a show for his audience (us), when the scenery goes to a white piece of paper because the animator has yet to draw the scene for him. What follows is Daffy becoming justifiably frustrated, as the animator begins painting and erasing parts of the scene (and Daffy himself!) specifically to annoy, embarrass, and even harm Daffy. The more miserable Daffy is, the funnier it gets.
And in case you haven’t ever watched Duck Amuck before, I won’t spoil its perfect final joke, which makes sense of the cartoon’s own madness.