Bugs at 70: Still Crazy After All These Years

We all could use a return to rabbit season.

It went by in a flash, like the Road Runner at full throttle, so you could be forgiven for not noticing that Bugs Bunny turned 70 this week.

There was little fanfare to mark the anniversary of the cartoon that’s considered the rabbit’s official debut: “A Wild Hare,” which premiered July 27, 1940. The lack of a celebration is a shame, but not startling given Bug’s slide down the rabbit hole of obscurity in recent years.

Let’s take this opportunity to remember that Bugs, at his best, was Groucho with a carrot, instead of a cigar – a wiseacre who delivered his barbs with an old-school Bronx-Brooklyn hybrid accent.

He tormented hunters long before PETA, and used verbal and physical speed to outwit the morons – or, as he called them, maroons. He was a proud cross dresser years before it was even remotely acceptable, proved himself a Renaissance rabbit with his embrace of the opera and was a sportsman who could play all nine baseball positions – at once.

Somewhere, though, Bugs took a wrong turn at more than just Albuquerque.

By the 1960s, Bugs’ classic bits were being repackaged, often with inferior animation, for Saturday morning TV. Pairing him with Michael Jordan in “Space Jam,” might have generated some box office success in 1996, but was an air ball for Bugs purists.

The last gasp of glory came two decades ago with a couple shorts tied his 50th anniversary – “Box Office Bunny” and “Blooper Bunny” – which captured the anarchic, irreverent spirit of those first two decades, when animation greats like Tex Avery, Robert McKimson and Chuck Jones made sure it was always rabbit season.

The early Bugs cartoons played on levels that appealed to all ages – and still do. Bugs is, at heart, an anti-authoritarian inducer of comic chaos, much like the Marx Brothers. We can see the Wascally Wabbit’s influence everywhere from "Sesame Street" to "The Daily Show."

It’s somewhat surprising that Warner Brothers didn’t make more of the 70th anniversary, particularly given that a new Bugs series, “The Looney Tunes Show,” is slated to hit Cartoon Network this fall.

The program, which will pair Bugs and Daffy Duck as roommates in a community with some familiar neighbors, is part of what The New York Times calls a “five-alarm rescue effort” for the Looney Tunes franchise, which is all but unknown to today’s youngsters. (At least Warner Brothers is trying: a new, 3-D Road Runner cartoon hits theaters with the new "Cats & Dogs" installment Friday).

Frankly, the set-up of the TV show sounds formulaic, but we’ll hope for a return to the old Bugs, whose sardonic wit would be welcome at a time when absurdity surrounds us. We all could use a rabbit who's not afraid to stir things up with a simple question: What's up, Doc?

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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