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A Brief History of Bugs Bunny

June 10, 2015

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Who's your favorite cartoon character? Ears ours.

Bug Bunny is the world's most popular rabbit:

* Since 1939, he has starred in more than 175 films.

* He's been nominated for three Oscars, and won one -in 1958, for "Knighty Knight, Bugs" (with Yosemite Sam).

* Every year from 1945 to 1961, he was voted "top animated character" by movie theater owners (when they still showed cartoons in theaters).

* In 1985 he became only the 2nd cartoon character to be given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (Mickey Mouse was the first).


For almost 30 years, starting in 1960, he had one of the top-rated shows in Saturday morning TV. * In 1976, when researchers polled Americans on their favorite characters, real and imaginary, Bugs came in second ...behind Abraham Lincoln.

Bugs was born in the 1930s, but cartoon historians say his ancestry goes further back. A few direct antecedents:

* Zomo. You may not have heard of this African folk-rabbit. but he's world famous. Joe Adamson writes in Bugs Bunny: Fifty Years and Only One Grey Hare:

Like jazz and rock'n'roll, Bugs has at least some of his roots in black culture. Zomo is the trickster rabbit from Central and Eastern Africa who gained audience sympathy by being smaller than his oppressors and turning the tables on them through cleverness -thousands of years before Eastman invented film. A con artist, a masquerader, ruthless and suave, in control of the situation. Specialized in impersonating women.

* Charlie Chaplin. "It was Chaplin who established that 'gestures and actions expressing attitude' give a screen character life." Adamson writes. The Looney Tunes directors, all fans of Chaplin, even stole many of his gags. For example:

The abrupt and shocking kiss Charlie plants [on] someone who's getting too closse for comfort in The Floorwalker went on to become one of Bugs' favorite ways to upset his adversaries. [And] the walking broomstick in Bewitched Bunny does Chaplin's trademark turn, with one foot in the air, at every corner.

There are literally dozens of other Chaplin rip-offs. Bugs also lifted bits from silent comedians Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton.

* Groucho Marx. "Bugs uses his carrot as a prop, just as Groucho used his cigar," points out Stefan Kanfer in Serious Business. "Eventually Bugs even stole Marx's response to an insult: 'Of course you know, this means war!' "

1937: Warner Bros. animation director Tex Avery makes "Porky's Duck Hunt." Porky Pig hunted a screwball duck named Daffy -"who didn't get scared and run run away when somebody pointed a gun at him, but leapt and hopped all over the place like a maniac." "When it hit the theaters," recalls another director, "it was like an explosion."

1938: Warner Bros. director Ben "Bugs" Hardaway remakes the cartoon with a rabbit instead of a duck, as "Porky's Hare Hunt". Says one of Bugs' creators: "That rabbit was just Daffy Duck in a rabbit suit."

1939: Bugs Hardaway decides to remake "Porky's Hare Hunt" with a new rabbit (as "Hare-um Scare-um"). Cartoonist Charlie Thorson comes up with a gray and white rabbit with large buck teeth. He labels his sketch "Bugs' Bunny".

1940: Director Tex Avery becomes the real father of Bugs Bunny with "A Wild Hare". Bugs is changed from a Daffyesque lunatic to a streetsmart wiseass. "We decided he was going to be a smart alec rabbit, but casual about it," Avery recalled. "His opening linewas 'What's up, Doc? ...It floored 'em! ...Here's a guy with a gun in his face! ...They expected the rabbit to scream, or anything but make a casual remark... It got such a laugh that we said, 'Let's use that every chance we get.' It became a series of 'What's up, Docs?' That set his entire character, He was always in command, in the face of all types of dangers."

* Bugs also gets his voice in "A Wild Hare". Mel Blanc, who did most Looney Tunes voices, had been having a hard time finding one for the rabbit... until Bugs Hardaway showed him the latest sketch for "A Wild Hare". Blanc wrote:

He'd obviously had some work done. His posture had improved, he'd shed some weight, and his protruding front teeth weren't as pronounced. The most significant change, however, was in his facial expression. No longer just goofy, he was a sly looking rascal.

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"A tough little stinker, isn't he?" Hardaway commented... and the light went on in Blanc's brain.

A tough little stinker... In my mind I heard a Brooklyn accent... To anyone living west of the Hudson River at that time, Brooklynites were associated with con artists and crooks... Consequently, the new, improved Bugs Bunny wouldn't say jerk, he'd say joik.

* The rabbit is now so popular he needs a name. According to some sources, he is about to be dubbed "Happy Rabbit". Tex Avery wants "Jack E. Rabbit". But when Thorson's year-old drawing labeled "Bugs' Bunny" is turned up, producer Leon Schlesinger chooses that. Avery hates it. "That's sissy," he complains. "Mine's a rabbit. A tall, lanky, mean rabbit. He isn't a fuzzy little bunny!" But the name sticks.

1941: Bugs Bunny becomes competitive. Four extremely talented directors -Avery, Fritz Freleng, Bob Clampett, and Chuck Jones- try to top each other with new gags and aspects of Bugs' personality. It's the key to the character's success -he's constantly growing. "As each director added new levels to this character," Adamson explains, "it was picked up by others and became part of the mix."

1943: Animator Robert McKimson (later a director himself), working for Bob Clampett, refines Bugs' features into what they are today. "We made him cuter, brought his head and cheeks out a little more and gave him just a little nose," McKimson says. He looks more "elfin" and less "ratlike" now.

1945: During World War II, Bugs has become a "sort of a national mascot." Critic Richard Schickel writes: "In the war years, when he flourished most gloriously, Bugs Bunny embodied the cocky humor of a nation that had survived its economic crisis [in surprisingly good shape], and was facing a terrible war with grace, gallantry, humor and and solidarity that was equally surprising." By the end of the war, Bugs isn't just a cartoon character, but an American icon.

Saved by a Hare. The inspiration for the original rabbit came from Walt Disney. In 1935 Disney put out a cartoon featuring a character called Max Hare. Hardaway's rabbit looks suspiciously like Max.

Trademarks. Where did Bugs' carrot-crunching and "What's up, Doc?" come from? No one's sure, but experts have suggested they might have been inspired by a couple of popular films.

* In Frank Capra's 1934 Oscar-winning comedy, It Happened One Night, Clark Gable nervously munches on carrots.

* In the classic 1939 screwball comedy My Man Godfrey, William Powqell uses the line, "What's up, Doc?" repeatedly.

On the other hand, Tex Avery had a habit of calling everyone Doc -so he may have inspired the phrase. (Mel Blanc -Bugs' voice- also claims in his autobiography that he ad-libbed the line, but he seems to take credit for everything- so we don't believe him.)

Tough Act. Blanc said that recording the "What's up, Doc?" line turned out to be the most physically challenging part of doing the voice:

"What's up, Doc?" was incomplete without the sound of the rabbit nibbling on the carrot, which presented problems. First of all, I don't especially like carrots, at least not raw. [Ed note: In another BR, we erroneously reported that he was allergic to carrots. Oops.] And second, I found it impossible to chew, swallow, and be ready to say my next line. We tried substituting other vegetables, including apples and celery, with unsatisfactory results. The solution was to stop recording so that I could spit out the carrot into the wastebasket and then proceed with the script. In the course of a recording session I usually went through enough carrots to fill several wastebaskets. Bugs Bunny did for carrots what Popeye did for spinach. How many...children were coerced into eating their carrots by mothers cooing... "but Bugs Bunny eats his carrots." If only they had known.

Eat Your Veggies. Actually, there were pressures to switch from carrots. "The Utah Celery Company of Salt Lake City offered to keep all the studio's staffers well supplied with their product if Bugs would only switch from carrots to celery," Adamson reports. "[And] later, the Broccoli Institute of America strongly urged Bugs Bunny to sample their product once in a while... Mel Blanc would have been happy to switch... but carrots were Bugs's trademark."

Surprise Hit. To his creators, Bugs Bunny was just another character that would probably run in a few cartoons and fade unnoticed into obscurity. "We didn't feel that we had anything," Avery recounted years later, "until we got it on the screen and it got a few laughs. After we ran it and previewed it and so forth, Warner liked it, the exhibitors liked it, and so of course [the producer] ran down and said, 'Boy, give me as many of these as you can!' Which we did."

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Bug Bunny became so popular with the public that he got laughs even when he didn't deserve them. "He could do no wrong," remembers dialog writer Michael Maltese. "We had quite a few lousy Bugs Bunnies. We'd say, 'Well he haven't got time. Let's do it.' And we'd do it, and the audience would laugh. They loved that rabbit."

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