Warner Brothers’ immortal Looney Tunes characters have been American icons and worldwide cartoon favorites for nearly 90 years. Listing only a few, the names and faces of Bugs Bunny, Tweety Pie and Wile E. Coyote have become as familiar to the global culture and human vernacular as heroes of classic literature or centuries-old mythology. What has helped them persist as beloved animation giants and household names is how well their personalities have been defined and refined over the decades.
At their best, the Looney Tunes cartoons of any era are the epitome of character-based comedy. It is easy to say that what makes Looney Tunes funny is the speed of the expressive animation or the painfully implausible slapstick. While those have indeed contributed to their appeal, the real heart of every Looney Tunes cartoon is the identifiability and familiarity of its stars. The comedy comes out of the characters acting upon their firmly established motivations and how their personalities react to conflict. Bugs Bunny relies on his wits to outsmart countless foils to survive another day. Pepe Le Pew is a hopeless romantic oblivious to what the world thinks of him. Wile E. Coyote is a hard-headed, self-proclaimed genius who wants a well-earned, Roadrunner dinner at the expense of many failed traps and constant physical punishment. Seeing Coyote’s traps blow up in his face isn’t funny for the sheer spectacle alone, but because of how self-assured he was in his success and how devastated he was to see it fail. Looney Tunes stories are crafted to best illustrate the Tunes’ motivations and the jokes to demonstrate the content and foil of their character.
The Looney Tunes are agents of their own comedy and have veritably become their own timeless archetypes, but in 2011, Cartoon Network sought to reinvent the wheel by trading in the Tunes’ short-form cartoon format for a half-hour sitcom. Like many franchises before it, The Looney Tunes Show pitched itself as a timely modernization of its classic characters to reintroduce them to a new audience. The Tunes now live in modern suburbia and have substituted their widely animated vaudevillian antics with dialogue-intensive observational comedy akin to shows like Seinfeld or Friends. On paper, this sounds like a betrayal of the Tunes’ traditionally animated schtick, but much like in classic cartoons, the best modern sitcoms root their comedy in character, be it the manic scheming of Kramer or the persnickety social awkwardness of The Big Bang Theory‘s Sheldon Cooper. The show translated the Tunes’ old-fashion archetypes and antics into a relatable fracture of modern relationships and mundanity.
In The Looney Tunes Show, the Tunes’ time-tested personalities were stripped down to their most basic character traits to believably fit into a contemporary sitcom setting, while also maintaining their original likability. The show’s greatest achievement in this was how it turned everyone’s favorite screwy duck into the world’s worst friend.This show’s version of Daffy Duck (Jeff Bergman) is an amalgamation of all the most despicable traits he’s had for most of his career. Daffy Duck in his early days very much lived up to his namesake, meeting every obstacle with a playful insanity and laughing all the way. Over the years and across several directors, he evolved into a glory hound, always proclaiming how much of a talented star he is or deserves to be more than others. He is maniacally opportunist, putting himself before others to succeed and make him look good. The comedy of his cartoons comes out of his inflated sense of self-worth and zealous overconfidence leading to his own downfall. It is by his own hand that he finds himself on the wrong end of Elmer Fudd’s rifle when arguing with Bugs about what season it is. He also takes on roles of leadership and heroism that he blunders every time, biting off more than he can chew. In short, classic Daffy is a self-absorbed underdog who wants to be the center of attention and feels entitled to it.
In The Looney Tunes Show, Daffy was given a new sense of entitlement with none of his original ambition. From underdog to underachiever, he is a selfish slacker who mooches off the fortune and good will of his friends, especially Porky Pig, and expects everything to be handed to him. He is also a pathological liar who will say anything to get what he wants or save his own skin. Daffy is just as much a narcissist here as he has been for years, but this show makes him a much more believable narcissist to fit the show’s observational comedy. This Daffy is made to be identifiable as the kind of toxic friend or roommate one may have had in their life.
Pride has always been Daffy’s worst enemy, but this version’s faults stem from a lack of pride and an abundance of shame. He will undergo plastic surgery to remove a minor bump on his beak someone mentioned in passing and drive around in a literal parade float of his own visage to project confidence that isn’t there. He is still driven by vanity like he’s always been, but is more concerned with being liked by his peers than earning applause as a star. While classic Daffy reaches for glory and stardom, 2011 Daffy perceives a deluded social image of himself and will do anything to achieve and keep it. What makes him the butt of the joke is how pathetic and desperate he is in maintaining his ideal self in the eyes of others. He is motivated by insecurity, not overconfidence.
Daffy Duck has gone from people laughing with him to laughing at him over his various incarnations. He best serves as a comedic foil when he lets his pride drive his actions, but in The Looney Tunes Show, he grew beyond his own archetype and became easier to laugh at but also to empathize with than ever. The combination of pathetic vanity and lazy inhibition made him more human than he’s ever been. Through Daffy Duck, the 2011 series proved that the iconic personalities of the Tunes are adaptable to any kind of story or style of humor because of how identifiable and relatable they are as characters.
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