How Tex Avery shaped Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the language of cartoons

When it pertains to the masters of the Golden era of animation, Tex Avery doesn’t get pointed out as typically as Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Max Flesicher, or Walt Disney. However possibly he should. Avery made what are thought about the very first animations to include Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny. The expression “What’s up, Doc?” was his contribution — it’s a stating from his native Texas. He developed the character Egghead, who later on developed into Elmer Fudd. He lost weight the at first massive Porky Pig into something more like his adorable existing look. And he’s perhaps the designer of the Looney Tunes / Merrie Melodies design — the one who assisted make the series more than a clone of Disney’s animations, generally by getting the speed and including an air of anything-goes mayhem. When he relocated to MGM, he developed Droopy along with his provocative take on the fairy-tale Wolf, who doesn’t wish to consume Red Riding Hood even get her in the sack.

However Avery is more than simply a leader and origin point for a couple of cultural examples. He was a particular artist. HBO Max’s animation collection and the animation banner Boomerang have actually made his work more available now than ever. When his name appears onscreen, it’s a tip that what’s ahead is originating from a particular state of mind that consists of unrelenting gags, visual puns, meta asides, and a heavy dosage of surrealism, all provided with warp speed. He’s not attempting to play good, like Disney, who he typically buffooned in his animations.

In among Avery’s animations, 1944’s Huge Heel-Watha — among a variety of Avery shorts with regrettable racist gags — a character relies on the audience and states, “In a cartoon, you can do anything.” That may also have actually been Avery’s objective declaration. Characters talk with the audience, to the storyteller, or to Avery himself. In split-screen scenes, the characters will connect to each other, going beyond area. They’ll break into pieces, like damaged vases, or split in 2 like Dutch doors. In 1946’s The Hick Chick, 2 characters enter a battle, and among them leaps inside the other’s body, punching at him from inside his stomach. The majority of animations still have a foot in truth. Tex Avery’s tend to not have either foot in our world.

The Big Bad Wolf, having cornered Little Red Riding Hood, stops the fight to complain about the silhouettes of people taking their seats in the theater

The Huge Bad Wolf challenge theater latecomers in 1937’s Little Red Strolling Hood
Image: Warner Bros. through Polygon

Avery lied his method into his very first gig. In 1935, as a previous inker and an animator who had actually never ever directed, he scored a directing job at Leon Schlesinger Productions, whose animations were launched by Warner Bros. Photos. In the beginning, he played ball with your home design, not wishing to be fired. However he had grand concepts about making animations more manic, meta, and enjoyable. Disney shorts certainly weren’t always fun; the Silly Symphonies, often built around classical music, were cute and serious, even pretentious. Schlesinger cartoons were their slightly dirtier rivals, often based around jazz songs (Smile, Darn Ya, Smile!; I Haven’t Got a Hat, etc.), though they still struggled to find their voice.

Tex Avery helped them find it. His solution? Stress that the company’s cartoons were comedies. He didn’t want to charm people, he wanted to make them laugh. He gradually started imposing his own concepts about pacing and jokes, resulting in dense yuk-fests like The Village Smithy and Porky’s Duck Hunt, which introduced a deranged, bouncing, whooping duck soon to be named Daffy. (It would take about a decade for Daffy to become the arrogant, dumped-on fool of, say, Chuck Jones’ Duck Amuck.) Avery was also the one who developed a rabbit who’d been making the animation rounds, and found his true character in 1940’s A Wild Hare. That rabbit would soon be named Bugs.

It was a Bugs picture that led to Avery’s end with Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. He and Schlesinger quarreled over the finale of 1941’s Bugs-led The Heckling Hare, which he wanted to end with Bugs and his canine adversary repeatedly falling off a cliff, surviving, then doing it again and again. Schlesinger ordered him to end it after only one near-fatal fall. A furious Avery either was fired or quit, depending on who’s telling the story.

Bugs and his dog enemy cover their eyes as they fall from a cliff

Bugs and dog, about to break the fourth wall
Image: Warner Bros. via Polygon

Avery quickly rebounded at MGM, where he had carte blanche to create what he wanted. He took it. His MGM animations are Tex Avery unbound. He no longer had to answer to anyone, and as a result, all the things he’d been sneaking into Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts — the rapid-fire gags, the Brechtian asides, the subversion of anything cute and Disneyfied — was greatly and richly amplified.

Some of Avery’s old Schlesinger unit buddies felt Avery’s MGM work was too cold, and it’s true that those shorts lack the finesse and the deeper characterizations of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies work. (Droopy, Avery’s most famous MGM creation, is maybe a two-joke character. They’re spectacular jokes, though.) But by then, both companies were doing their own thing. Post-Avery, Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies evolved even further, hitting their peak powers in the late ’40s through the early ’60s. But they wouldn’t have gotten there without Avery. He’d greatly sped up their evolution toward more lunatic comedy. Directors like Jones, Freleng, and Robert McKimson slowed down the pacing, but just enough that they had their own distinct, game-changing pace.

Meanwhile, over at MGM, Avery was making his fastest, densest, and in a way, most personal work. Take the 1946 Droopy vehicle Northwest Hounded Police, one of Avery’s tightest works, in which he’s a Mountie hunting a fugitive version of the Wolf. The villain escapes from prison by drawing a door on the wall with a pencil, then sliding through it. Later, he runs so fast that when he tries to make a hairpin turn, he runs straight out of the film frame. And there are endless variations on one joke: wherever the Wolf goes, there Droopy is, no matter how improbably. Michael Barrier, author of Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in its Golden Age, described it as one of the Averys in which he “ruthlessly pursues a single crazy idea.” That, though, could describe any number of his most demented works.

Though Avery was at MGM at the same time as William Hanna and Joseph Barbera were cranking out Tom and Jerry cartoons, the two groups were very different. Tom and Jerry took cartoon violence to the next level, but no matter what damage was done to them, they constantly rebounded by the next scene. Avery wasn’t interested in violence for violence’s sake. To him, cartoon bodies were elastic, in a constant state of flux, and not only because of what’s being done to them with weapons. They were extensions of emotions and sensations. Characters change colors or burst into pieces when they’re surprised, scared, or even aroused. In Red Hot Riding Hood — in some ways Avery’s signature short — when the Wolf sees the object of his desire, his eyes burst out of its sockets, becoming huge saucers, bigger than his whole body, or simply rolling around like marbles.

The Wolf stares at Red Hot Riding Hood with eyes much bigger than his head

Thirsty like the Wolf
Image: Warner Bros. via Polygon

The Wolf cartoons tend to not get slipped into children’s cartoon programming. After all, they’re unambiguously thirsty. They’re also reminders that cartoons from the ’30s to the ’60s weren’t strictly kiddie fare. They played in movie theaters, before the features. They had to appeal to everyone. Only when they wound up on television, typically as Saturday-morning-cartoon fodder, were classic Looney Tunes and the like rebranded as children’s entertainment. But Avery more than most leaned toward the adult portion of the theatrical audience. The scholar Jane Gaines argues that Avery, who moonlit drawing training films for the U.S. Army Air Corp, made the Thirsty Wolf cartoons for sex-starved soldiers fighting overseas during World War II. (It also played gangbusters for sex-starved people back home.) Warner Archive’s recent collections of Avery’s MGM work even come with a curious warning, declaring that these cartoons “may not be suitable for children.”

Avery’s career ended prematurely. By the mid-’50s, he had left MGM, but he never had such a good home. By the ’60s and ’70s, he was doing animated TV commercials, and his final employers were his old colleagues Hanna and Barbera, who hired him to write gags for their cheapskate Saturday-morning cartoons. He still left a huge body of work, rich and strange, revealing a voice as distinctive as any iconoclastic auteur. Tex Avery was one of cinema’s great pyromaniacs, like Luis Buñuel, Maya Deren, and Jean-Luc Godard, gleefully destroying narrative convention and mores, pushing the boundaries of what cinema can do.

One of Avery’s favorite gags — and he had many, repeated ad nauseum over shorts cranked out quickly — was to depict an audience member, watching the same cartoon you’re watching, pop into the frame in silhouette, then interact with the characters onscreen. Maybe the best version of this is in 1939’s Thugs with Dirty Mugs, where a viewer tries to help the frustrated cop who’s trying to bust a crime ring. “I sat through this picture twice,” he says, then tells the officer where to find their hideout. In cartoons, you can do anything, and Avery knew it.

Elmer Fudd leans underground into Bugs Bunny’s lair, and Bugs plants a fat smackeroo on his lips

A distorted Bugs Bunny flings his hands up toward the camera

Elmer Fudd sadly holds Bugs, who’s pretending at great length that he’s dying

Image: Warner Bros. via Polygon

Bugs winds up for a big spinning kick to Elmer Fudd’s oblivious butt

Stills from 1941’s The Heckling Hare

Ten Tex Avery shorts to get started, and where to find them:

  1. The Village Smithy (1937): The first Tex Avery that really feels like he’s at the wheel. Porky squares off against a blacksmith, and there’s an interfering narrator, characters joking about being in a cartoon, and a climax that’s nearly as wild as the finale in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. (HBO Max)
  2. Porky’s Duck Hunt (1937): Daffy Duck bursts onto the scene in his original mad hooting and hollering version, torturing his future bud Porky. (HBO Max)
  3. A Bear’s Tale (1940): The most manic of Avery’s fairy-tale parodies from his Warners era, this one dismantles the Goldilocks tale till it’s almost unrecognizable. (HBO Max)
  4. Tortoise Beats Hare (1941): Bugs is the baddie in one of his first efforts, which is teeming with meta gags, starting with our antihero reading the opening title card, then berating the filmmakers for having him lose. (HBO Max)
  5. The Screwy Truant (1945): Screwy Squirrel, one of Avery’s MGM creations, never really took off, maybe because his cartoons are essentially deconstructions of what people expect from cartoons about adorable cartoon characters. Dense and bizarre and hilarious. (Boomerang)
  6. Northwest Hounded Police (1946): The tightest of the Droopy-vs.-Wolf outings, with great interplay between the quickness of the cartoon and its hero’s molasses slo-mo. (Boomerang)
  7. King-Size Canary (1947): A one-off in which Avery purses a crazy idea, involving hungry animals getting their hands on a powerful growth elixir. A joke ending for the ages. (Boomerang)
  8. The Cat That Hated People (1948): In which a besieged feline who sounds like Jimmy Durante makes an excellent case about the inherent evilness of humankind, with an unexpected journey into space. (HBO Max)
  9. Little Rural Riding Hood (1949): For my money, this is the best of the Thirsty Wolf animations, roping in Pinto Colvig — a.k.a. the voice of Goofy — as a country boy who’s got to have actually it. (Boomerang)
  10. Symphony in Slang (1950): The many unique of Avery’s one-offs, in which a slang-obsessed man inspires one amusing visual pun after another. (Boomerang)

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.