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"The Looney Tunes Show": The Merry-Go-Round Is Still Broken Down

by on May 3, 2011

Let’s look on the bright side. If Loonatics Unleashed, Warner Bros.’ previous attempt to revive its classic Looney Tunes characters, was appalling, at least we can say that The Looney Tunes Show, its latest attempt, is no worse than dull.

Here’s the thing about classic cartoon shorts from the 1930s and 1940s: Their characters were designed as characters, as rambunctious entertainers who could do their thing in any situation or circumstance. True, some of them, like Foghorn Leghorn, were restricted to particular settings, but the really great ones like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck could show up in the woods, or the city, or the suburbs; in modern or period settings; in domestic situations or in outer space; they could play at either peace or war; and sometimes they needed nothing except a blank screen and a hostile animator. They did not appear in stories or series. They were simply themselves.

This is something they share with stage performers, like stand-up comics, who can go out and do their stuff in a vacuum. (It’s surely not an accident that Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, and Friz Freleng belonged to the last generation to be exposed to vaudeville.) It’s hard for such performers to transition to domestic sitcom (a fact somewhat obscured by the sheer number that try these days). These transitions rarely work because the sitcom format is typically confining and structured, whereas the stage performer is usually about free invention. Sitcoms return over and over again to the same living room/kitchen/bedroom and office/restaurant combinations; most stage performers haven’t the material or the interest to inhabit the same situation and setting for dozens (let alone hundreds) of routines.

So who thought it would be a good idea to put the Looney Tunes characters—who even in domestic settings tend to reduce the house and furniture to matchsticks—into a sitcom? Say what you will about Loonatics Unleashed, but at least it had the courage of its psychopathic convictions. The Looney Tunes Show, from the evidence of its first two episodes, is just bland.

The first episode, for instance, pitches now-housemates Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck onto a game show where they have to prove that they are better “buddies” than the Goofy Gophers. (The format is basically that of The Newlywed Game.) The problem is that Daffy, being utterly self-centered, knows absolutely nothing about Bugs; and after they lose he overcompensates by going psychotically overboard with the “friend” stuff. This is exactly the kind of nonsense you’d see in The Odd Couple or Perfect Strangers or any other moldy old 1970s or 1980s situation comedy. Daffy is a plausible “actor” to play the wacky neurotic, but everything he says or does is dictated by the role, not by his own personality. Bugs, meanwhile, is stuck playing the fussy, over-tired, persecuted partner, which doesn’t suit him at all. (Really, if you were going to cast the part from the Looney Tunes stock of characters, it seems much more a Gabby Goat kind of role.) Bugs is so miscast, in fact, that he can’t even play the part as it is meant to be written. His initial “cool” in the face of Daffy’s provocative stupidity just makes him seem passive; his eventual temper tantrum (necessary to set up Daffy’s groveling apologies) is too snappish and petulant for the rabbit who once stole the locks off the Panama Canal; his discomfort in the last half of the episode is the antithesis of everything the character ever stood for. Looney Tunes, especially in the late 1930s, could set up domestic comedies (usually involving Porky sharing his personal space with Daffy), but they never ended as tamely or tepidly as this one does.

The follow-up episode does better, mostly because it is redeemed by a terrific vocal performance by a guest star. In this episode, Daffy and Bugs wind up crashing a country club, where Bugs quickly falls in love with a comely bunny (Lola), and just as quickly falls out of love with her when she proves an air-headed ninny of almost astronomical proportions. The real heart of the comedy comes from Kristen Wiig’s performance as Lola; she doesn’t say anything intrinsically funny, but Wiig gives her lines a light, bouncy, eccentric reading that keeps you perpetually on the edge of wonderment and delight. Props must also go to the story’s handling of Daffy. The duck famously has two personalities (Clampettesque lunacy and Jonesian neuroticism), and this episode successfully combines the best of each by making his feather-headed idiocy a consequence of his narcissistic self-regard: He is foolish and mischievous because he is too busy thinking of himself to take others’ feelings into account. He’s like a sweeter-tempered version of Seinfeld‘s George Costanza.

The visuals on the show are at least a pleasant surprise. Of course they have none of the solid feel, the supple animation, the subtle characterization, or the mind-bending tooniness of the studio’s output during its heyday, but they do have an angular stylishness that works well, and there is more and smoother movement than one might expect. Certainly these classic characters have a fresher, jazzier air than they got on Tiny Toons. (Though, like others, I’m mystified by the fact that Bugs has suffered a lavender rinse.)

If I were an umpire and The Looney Tunes Show were a ball game, I’d call the first episode a clean strike and the follow-up a ball. And I would harbor serious doubts at its ability to make a solid hit. Still, the show is not fatally embarrassing. If its writers and producers can pry themselves from the delusion that these characters can work inside a structured sitcom, and return to the idea of them as a repertory company of players, they might yet be able to fashion some anarchic television comedy.

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