"The Looney Tunes Show" Season 1 Vol. 1: Neither Looney nor Toon-y
One of the benefits of reviewing DVDs for this site is the incredible breadth of material available for review, which can sometimes lead to interesting and unexpected juxtapositions. Watching several of the new releases from September 27 led to one of those weird juxtapositions, as I realized that there is far more comedic slapstick mayhem in an average episode of Jake and the Never Land Pirates, a show made by the squeaky-clean Walt Disney Company and targeted at pre-schoolers, than there is in an average episode on Warner Brothers’ The Looney Tunes Show Season 1 Volume 1 DVD.
Something is deeply, fundamentally wrong with this picture, and for the record, it isn’t that there’s comedic cartoon violence in a pre-schooler show.
The Looney Tunes Show casts the iconic Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck as housemates in a suburban sitcom, and I can’t help but feel an echo of how Popeye went from a rough-and-tumble urban sailor to a domesticated suburbanite over time, losing everything that made him an interesting character in the first place. In “Best Friends,” Bugs and Daffy nearly have a rift when Daffy proves he doesn’t know anything about his “best friend” on a game show, and then overcompensates. “Members Only” combines a “bad date” story and a “false identity” story, as Bugs can’t get rid of the annoyingly vapid Lola Bunny while Daffy impersonates a member of an exclusive country club. “Jailbird…and Jailbunny” is probably the best episode on this disc (which says little), as Bugs and Daffy are sent to jail when Daffy litters in the Grand Canyon, and Bugs discovers that he actually likes life in the Big House. “Fish and Visitors” is a “bad houseguest” episode with Yosemite Sam taking advantage of Bugs’ hospitality.
The first and biggest problem with the four episodes on this DVD is that they just aren’t that funny. All these episodes are about as funny as my descriptions of them. If you’ve never encountered oddball housemate jokes before, I suppose the gags in these episodes might strike you as amusing, but for the most part, they’re just recycling gags that were getting stale 40 years ago. True comic genius is not just getting you to laugh once, but getting you to laugh twice or more. The Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, the screwballs of the 1940’s, Lucy and Desi, Monty Python, and the Looney Tunes are all still as funny now as they were when they first debuted (some more than 7 decades ago), even after you know all the pratfalls and (for the talkers) the one-liners by heart. The Looney Tunes Show might be funny once, but once you know the jokes, it’s going to draw a stifled giggle at most.
The second major offense of The Looney Tunes Show is that everybody involved seems to have forgotten that these are cartoon characters. There is nothing of importance that happens in The Looney Tunes Show that couldn’t have been done in live-action with people because every joke relies on one-liners or the scenario. The animation is completely tame with nearly no squash-and-stretch. The original Looney Tunes shorts wrung laughs out of both verbal quipping and slapstick violence, but The Looney Tunes Show does a poor job at the former and eschews the latter entirely. This show didn’t need to be a cartoon. Contrast this with the aforementioned Jake and the Never Land Pirates, which will happily drop a bucket on Captain Hook’s head and then send him rocketing down chutes and ladders made of ships’ hulls and rigging, blind and flailing all the way, before dumping him unceremoniously into the ocean. As another example of humor that still works even after you know the gag, Jake and the Never Land Pirates is still funny when the inevitable happens after a line like, “Good thing that catapult broke your fall.” Considering that Sam Register stated publicly how important anvils getting dropped on heads is to Looney Tunes, I’m left even more baffled how they permitted a complete absence of anvils of any sort in the first four episodes of this show.
The show fares better in its shorter interstitial segments: three “Merrie Melodie” music videos and one Road Runner/Coyote CGI short. The “Merrie Melodie” shorts manage to capture more of the anarchic, madcap spirit of the original Looney Tunes shorts while freshening them up a bit for more modern sensibilities. They’re much more successful at what the show itself set out to do. I’m rather amused by “Grilled Cheese,” which features Elmer Fudd crooning a Barry White-ish soul ballad to his favorite lunchtime sandwich; it’s got the same transgressive subversiveness I’ve come to expect from Looney Tunes and Billy West wrings quite a few yuks out of Elmer’s lisp. I also enjoyed “Blow My Stack,” as Yosemite Sam sings about his anger management issues in one of the few sequences on this DVD that really exploit the medium effectively. The best thing I can say about “Bubble Trouble,” the one Road Runner/Coyote short, is that it captures the formula beautifully and understands that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Sure, it’s a one trick pony but it’s still a pretty good trick.
Some may argue that it’s not fair to compare this show to its forerunner, but this argument falls on its face from first principles. There is no point at all to reviving a property if you are not ready, willing, and able to invite comparison to the earlier versions. The show’s creators have even indicated that the sitcom format was selected at least partially to avoid competing with the much-beloved original Looney Tunes shorts. If this is so, then this would be the worst kind of “TV show by committee” decision imaginable because the entire show is being oriented around trying NOT to be something instead of trying to BE something. The Looney Tunes Show is successful in not being like the older shorts, in that its overly tame and unfunny where the originals were not housebroken and hilarious, but has nothing to substitute for what was taken away except worn-out sitcom clichés. They’ve taken the Looney Tunes characters and dropped them in a Disney or Nickelodeon tweener sitcom, and the results are about as unbearable. To their credit, they do get Daffy’s mixture of insecurity and arrogance almost exactly right in the writing and in Jeff Bergman’s vocal performance, and Porky Pig’s stutter is used to augment his personality as the group’s neurotic nervous nellie (even if the show insists on milking the “not wearing pants” joke too much). I must also add that Lola Bunny is a lot more interesting here as a loopy wacko than she ever was in Space Jam, and a good deal of the credit for that belongs to Kristen Wiig’s hilariously daft vocal performance. However, the sitcom format all but forces Bugs Bunny into the straight man role, making him the most boring character on Earth. It’s exactly backwards to have Yosemite Sam driving Bugs nuts in “Fish and Visitors” rather than the other way around, and if that’s the writers’ idea of doing something surprising or unexpected, then Warner Brothers should have just packed it in and milked the merchandise instead of attempting this show.
I can’t even muster much praise for the presentation of this cartoon on DVD. It’s got the minimal expectations for a modern-era TV cartoon: an excellent anamorphic widescreen presentation and a solid Dolby Digital stereo soundtrack. It even avoids one of my big pet peeves by including ample chapter stops within an episode. However, with only 4 episodes and no extras except trailers, it’s extremely lightweight. Even in this regard, The Looney Tunes Show suffers in comparison to Jake and the Never Land Pirates, since the latter show’s DVD yielded 7 episodes plus bonus features, a soundtrack CD, and a pirate eye patch. The DVD release of Adventure Time packs almost an hour more on its running time, and that’s not even the promised season set release. If you’re a fan of The Looney Tunes Show, then you’re going to feel completely stiffed by the stinginess of this DVD. The best I can say about it is that at least it was over pretty quickly.
There is nothing about The Looney Tunes Show Season 1 Volume 1 that doesn’t stink of a cash grab, from the show itself milking a franchise that it has no idea what to do with, to the too-short DVD for those who like it. Given how Warner Home Video handled the DVD releases of Batman: The Brave and the Bold, I also can’t help but feel like these “soccer mom” releases are going to be abandoned for season sets shortly. If this does come to pass, I can’t decide whether this should be interpreted as excess greed or excess stupidity. I find The Looney Tunes Show Season 1 Volume 1 has absolutely nothing to recommend it, offering little of value to anyone. If you were thinking of owning this DVD, I’d suggest taking the cash and directing it to either of the other two shows mentioned in this review instead. They were all released at the same time, but Adventure Time and Jake and the Never Land Pirates are both are infinitely better values for the money.