I love Bugs Bunny—I haven’t watched a cartoon in ages but his character and his brilliant performances will always stay with me--Bugs dancing in Carmen Miranda drag, Bugs wearing tails, conducting an orchestra. Of course the one with the monster is an all time favorite. The monster’s real name is Gossamer, which is genius, for a big, lumbering, overly hairy orange thug wearing sneakers. In one episode, Bugs gives the monster a hairdo as a means of distracting him—“Such an interesting monster.” He says while combing and teasing the monster’s hair.
I also loved Yosemite Sam—maybe it was my boyish gay self expressing desires that would flourish only years later but, in his western wear, chaps, oversized hat and extravagant, bright red, handle-bar moustache, I guess I had a crush on him. Only now can I recognize that it might also have had something to do with his outsized nature and--any time he was outsmarted by Bugs--his explosive temper and the threat of violence underscored by incoherent mutterings that implied heavy heavy swearing. I was kind of into it.
My favorite episode with Yosemite Sam has Bugs and him running against each other for mayor. They face each other on the bandstand of small town park, red, white and blue bunting hangs from the front of the stage. Yosemite Sam is uncharacteristically dressed up, wearing a clean black topcoat and big black cowboy hat. In a kind of debate, which is really a set up, Bugs says to him, “I can do anything you can do only better.”
Yosemite Sam says, “No you can’t.”
“Yes, I can.”
“Ok then, can you play the pie-anna?”
“Have ya got a pie-anna?”
“Sure have. Wait right here, varmint.”
Varmint is such a great word. It’s wonderful how literate those cartoons were…their use of classical music, allusions to art and literature, bits from Vaudeville and Broadway. I was definitely educated by Looney Tunes.
Yosemite Sam runs off the bandstand, through the park and into an old workshop with a sign that says, piano repair. How convenient. Inside he squats behind an old upright and, while laughing maniacally, plants an explosive device inside the back of the piano. We know the device is explosive thanks to the large TNT painted on its side. Yosemite Sam runs out of the shop with the piano on his back, through the park and up the stairs to the bandstand where he places it on stage.
“There’s yer pie-anna, Rabbit,” he says to a sanguine Bugs Bunny. “Now let’s see ya play it.”
Yosemite Sam then skedaddles off the bandstand and hides behind a big tree.
As Bugs approaches the pie-anna, we notice two things, first: the sheet music on the stand above the keys, it’s the old Irish song Believe Me, If all The Endearing Young Charms, a song that would have been familiar to a large part of the population at the time. Second, we see a small detonation device just under the keyboard, wired to one specific key and we figure this small device must be connected to the TNT that Yosemite Sam built into the back of the piano, making us understand that when Bugs plays the song on the provided sheet music, he will eventually hit the rigged key and the piano will explode. Bugs will be vanquished, Yosemite Sam will emerge triumphant.
The opening melody of the old song goes like this:
Duh duh duh duh---
But when Bugs plays it, he plays it like this:
Duh Dug Duh dee
And hits the wrong note.
“No, that’s not it,” yells Yosemite Sam, running out from behind the tree and quickly running back.
Bugs plays it again.
Duh duh duh duh duh duh dh duh duh duh dee.
Again he hits the wrong note and avoids the detonation device.
Yosemite Sam appears next to him, enraged and, shoving him out of the way, he says, “Ooh, ya stupid rabbit! Like this!”
Yosemite Sam turns to the keys and plunks out the melody and when he hits the right key, the one that Bugs kept getting wrong, purposefully, of course, the piano explodes and the screen fills with voluminous puffs of smoke. When the smoke clears the piano is in pieces and Yosemite Sam is charred, yes, to a crisp. All of his hair is gone, his topcoat in tatters, cowboy hat gone--he teeters momentarily and then slowly falls on to his back. Dead, once again.
The Looney Tunes guys used this same gag with the same song several times over the years. One had Bugs with Daffy Duck trying the same thing, except the exploding instrument was a xylophone. Another had Wile E. Coyote trying to fool the Roadrunner with a piano he sets up by the side of the road in the middle of the desert, but the coyote ends up exploded.
All of these enraged characters, trying to blow other characters up—god, I loved them, even with their despicable natures, they made me laugh.
Years later I’d learn that these beloved cartoons had seriously offensive racist overtones, and Bugs would often lisp and perform a kind of gay stereotype, limp wristed, coy, when he wanted to disarm anyone of his attackers.
How has that impacted my love of him and his creators? Sadness, acceptance, wistfulness, an older understanding of how life is underlies my enjoyment, my laughter.
Here in the woods, where I’ve been staying at home for six weeks now, it’s nearly May and things are blooming, beauty is everywhere, and yet when I listen more deeply to the world, sour notes hang in the air, death, crisis, loss, grief.
As we grow up, we’re asked to let go of our love for simple harmony; where notes meet easily, creating a complimentary sound. We’re invited instead to train our ear toward a more complex composition.