By Dan Barry
Published: October 8, 2010
CERTAIN cultural phrases become so embedded in our subconscious that they will interrupt our own final rites. Maybe you hear whispers of Dickinson when sandwiched in a packed subway. (“I’m nobody! Who are you?/Are you nobody, too?”) Maybe a jolt of Shakespearean bravado sounds in your head as you join the line at Dunkin’ Donuts (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”) Or maybe, like me, you stare into the morning mirror to be greeted with: “What a maroon!”
These words are delivered in a nasal, Brooklyn-Bronx blend of a voice that cannot be silenced even in a place of worship. When I pass a nail salon, it says, “My, I’ll bet you monsters lead in-n-n-n-teresting lives.” When I click past “Dancing With the Stars,” it brags, “Look, I’m dancin’!” And when I walk amid the foliage of these autumn days, it begins to quarrel with an excitable sibilating duck: “It’s rabbit season!” “Duck season!” “Rabbit season!” “Duck season!”
If this same voice vexes you, I am both sorry and happy to say that you too suffer from an incurable case of rabbititis. Others may be guided by the words of playwrights and poets; your muse is Bugs Bunny, and there ain’t nothing you can do about it, doc.
In my case it’s poisonal. Exposed as a child to the absurdist art of Mr. Bunny, I used it as a Technicolor portal to the distant world of my father, no matter that our television was black and white. The hardships of the Depression had rendered him mute about much of his past, but these seven-minute masterpieces from the 1940s and ’50s provided clues to his anarchic streak, his contempt for bullies, his fear of falling anvils.
I saw how these cartoons made my father laugh; they had it all. Charlie Chaplin’s balletic grace and command of his physical environment. Groucho Marx’s insinuating crouch and free-associative put-downs. A steadfast defiance of traditional narrative and a gleeful rejection of the basic laws of gravity. (As Mr. Bunny once explained, “I never studied law.”) Those many distinctive voices channeled by Mel Blanc. And most of all, the rabbit’s counterintuitive calm whenever confronted by a double-barreled shotgun; he would nibble his carrot, as one might savor a cigar, then simply tie the gun’s two barrels into a knot.
The cartoons, produced for movie audiences by a wildly imaginative, possibly hallucinating team of animators, directors and gag writers at Warner Brothers, were recycled for television with outdated pop-culture references intact. Here, from the mid-1940s, a mention of Bing Crosby’s horse; there, from the late 1940s, an appearance by Humphrey Bogart’s seedy character from “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” But these animated scraps from the past demanded that I research their historical context so that I too could be in on the joke.
For example, in “Little Red Riding Rabbit,” the annoying bobby-soxer of a heroine finds a note on her grandmother’s door that says Grandma is working the swing shift at Lockheed. In the midst of one of the funniest cartoons ever, a somber reminder is passed on to future generations: It’s 1944, Grandma’s a Rosie the Riveter, and we’re at war.
The humor in these cartoons was so sophisticated, so adult, that I found other cartoons on television to be condescending, from the witless violence of Tom and Jerry at MGM to the dreary escapades of Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear at Hanna-Barbera. Watching a Bugs Bunny cartoon may have come at the expense of homework, but I sensed all the while that I was being educated in how to approach the adulthood that awaited me. Lightly, it seemed.