Why it's hard to write for Bugs Bunny

Moments when Bugs loses the upper hand are very rare, and his opponents are almost always morons who pose no serious threat

Having written enough about The Looney Tunes Show and Looney Tunes reboots in general, I don’t want to say any more about that particular show, which could still eventually turn out to be okay. But I was asked why Daffy Duck, rather than Bugs Bunny, is usually the main character of these reboots (Daffy got more screen time than Bugs in Looney Tunes: Back in Action, and one of the better reboots was Daffy’s Duck Dodgers). Part of the answer, I think, is that Bugs Bunny is extremely hard to write for, and the reason he’s hard to write for goes to the heart of why these characters are so hard to revive effectively.

A Bugs Bunny cartoon goes against all the rules of what we – and writers – now think of as well-made screen storytelling. There are many variations on those rules, but most of them are based on the familiar three-part structure: Give your protagonist a problem, complicate it, and resolve it. This is a structure that is followed in many Daffy Duck cartoons, especially the ones from the ’50s, but even some of the earlier ones where he wasn’t a loser. In the dream sequence that makes up the bulk of Bob Clampett’s “The Great Piggy Bank Robbery,” Daffy’s detective persona Duck Twacy has a problem (stolen piggy banks), faces complications (getting to the gangster hideout and meeting all the gangsters) and resolves it (defeating the bad guys and getting the piggy banks) before waking up.

There are a few Bugs Bunny cartoons that follow this structure, and they all sort of can be broken down into problem-complication-resolution. Except most of them don’t really play that way at all, because Bugs Bunny rarely takes the problems or complications seriously. The classic Bugs Bunny structure is sort of prologue followed by extended resolution: someone bothers Bugs (hunting for him or otherwise pissing him off), and Bugs spends the rest of the cartoon finding escalating ways to display his superiority over the opponent. Moments when Bugs loses the upper hand are very rare, and his opponents are almost always morons who pose no serious threat. (Yosemite Sam was created to be more threatening than Elmer Fudd, but Bugs rarely actually considers him threatening; it’s supposed to show how cool Bugs is that he’s not afraid of Sam, even though everyone else seems to be.)

One of the most famous Bugs Bunny story formulas was created by Chuck Jones for the cartoon “Case of the Missing Hare.” Bugs is minding his own business when an obnoxious magician comes along and treats him bad. Bugs literally declares war, invades the magician’s home turf, and spends the next five minutes dishing out one bit of retribution after another. There is no suspense about the outcome, and once Bugs has declared war, the structure of the film is based more on the pacing and arrangement of the gags, not on the story, which is only going in one direction from here on out.

It’s hard to do a film like that, with an invincible hero, without making the hero obnoxious. (The death of Mel Blanc probably hit Bugs Bunny the hardest out of the characters because while some of the other voices are easy to replicate, Bugs is not – even Blanc couldn’t always get it right after the ’60s – and without being voiced really charmingly, he can be a bully like Woody Woodpecker.) So that contributes to the low success rate of post-1964 Bugs Bunny cartoons: Bugs can come off as a jerk if you write him the way he was written in most films, but if you make him a loser, he just doesn’t seem like the character. (Yes, there were a few cartoons where he lost, but they were either fairly early films or clear changes of pace, like the one with the Gremlin.) But most of his films also belong to a type of comedy – loosely plotted, consequence-free and with no character arc or attempted character depth – that is not currently in favour, particularly on TV.

And yet Bugs Bunny cartoons do need to have a strong story and a strong structure, making them different from Road Runner cartoons, which are fairly easy to do well (even now) because all you need is a succession of good gags of more or less the same type. A Bugs cartoon does need a story, and it needs some variety in the type of punishment he dishes out. Like his first meeting with Yosemite Sam, written by the great cartoon comedy writer Michael Maltese. The outcome is so little in doubt that the ending basically up and admits that any attempt to create suspense is a complete lie. But there is a lot of variety in what Bugs does to Sam and how Sam reacts to it.


So the writer of a “traditional” Bugs Bunny cartoon usually has to come up with a strong story where the protagonist’s victory (or even the nature of his victory) is never in doubt, where the protagonist rarely takes the antagonist seriously, and where the story stops moving forward as soon as the protagonist decides he wants to win. There’s not a single aspect of a classic Bugs Bunny cartoon that wouldn’t be thrown out of a screenwriting class, or that would get past an executive giving notes on good story structure. So the classic-style cartoon might be unrevivable, not because there aren’t people who can do it, but because no TV network would accept it in that form.

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