In the 1970s and 1980s, Warner Bros. did not take great care with its animation legacy. The studio spit out a new, clumsily assembled “special” for every remotely notable occasion, with a lack of care and inventiveness that would have shamed Bob Hope. The programs were comprised of 75 percent recycled old cartoons, strung together with unfunny, ugly looking new animation that contained none of the craft and anarchic humor of the source material.
Not so with the The Looney Tunes 50th Anniversary Special. Produced in 1986 to mark the titular occasion (and loosely tied to a Museum of Modern Art retrospective), it too made heavy use of classic Warner Bros. cartoons. The similarities ended there, however, as the 50th anniversary program tapped into the true spirit of the original cartoons and channeled it into something completely new.
I taped this special when it first aired and watched it many times, mostly for the classic cartoons it contained, before forgetting about it. Years later, I sifted through all my old VHS tapes and rewatched the show with more mature eyes. I could barely believe what I was seeing. How had this show been made in the mid-1980s? How had it been made ever? I would describe it breathless to friends and force them to watch it, just to convince them that no, I didn’t just imagine this bizarre thing.
The fact that the 50th anniversary special was produced by Lorne Michaels’ Broadway Video should give you your first clue as to the tone. Near its close, legendary animator Chuck Jones confesses, “Our pictures were never made for children. Our pictures were never made for adults. They were made for us.” The same could have been said of this special: it was clearly done primarily for the enjoyment of the people involved, and if anyone else felt like coming along for the ride, great.
The conceit of the show is that it uses interviews with celebrities who speak of all the Looney Tunes characters as if they were real actors and actresses who had their ups and downs and Hollywood scandals. This “gossip” was punctuated by a perfectly selected array of classic cartoons, edited together for maximum comic effect.
By 1986, the mockumentary genre had already been established (Spinal Tap, The Rutles’ All You Need Is Cash), but I can’t think of another production that took something what was as established and iconic as Looney Tunes and pretended it was “real.” If such a thing did exist at the time, I’m sure it didn’t exist as a prime-time special that aired during a block of family-oriented, holiday season programming on network television. The Looney Tunes 50th Anniversary Special was so ahead of its time in its meta-ness, it’s hard to imagine just how the whole thing was conceived, let alone pulled off.
Prior to the opening credits, we hear Chevy Chase share his opinion that, “Bugs just kind of plays himself; I’ve never really seen him stretch as an actor.” Chase is followed by Bill Murray, who insists in classic Murray deadpan, “Bugs never did anything for anybody that didn’t serve Bugs Bunny. That’s why he’s a star.” (More–much more–on Murray to come.)
The opening credits serve as the next clue that something truly odd is going on here. Celebrity appearances are listed in alphabetical order along with all the Looney Tunes characters mixed in, causing the narrator to intone curious sequences like, “Chuck Jones…Quincy Jones…Foghorn Leghorn….Pepe LePew…”
When it comes to “star-studded” events, the choice of cameos can trap the show in amber and look clunky in future viewings. You would expect the celebrities in a mid-80s production such as this to include some embarrassing choices. (“Frankie Goes to Hollywood! Ed Meese! The cast of Silver Spoons!”) But the personalities seen in The Looney Tunes 50th Anniversary Special are an interesting mix of eras and fields. Old Hollywood types like Danny Thomas and George Burns; new Hollywood royalty like Molly Ringwald and Cher (in Full 80s Cher regalia, spiky hair and all). Broadway actors (Geralidine Page), SNL alumni (Chase, Murray), SNL-adjacent comedians (Steve Martin), musicians (David Bowie, Quincy Jones), directors (Mike Nichols), and many more come together to make an eclectic mix, one that, amazingly, works like a charm.
For a premise like this to succeed, everyone has to be on board. To the credit of everyone involved, not one interviewee allows the slightest crack in its facade, no small feat. Everyone who appears onscreen acts if they are speaking spontaneously, with no hint of teleprompter or cue cards or even a script. In fact, it was scripted by Greg Ford, Tom Gammill, and Max Pross. Ford was both a director and historian for Warner Bros. animation, while Gammill and Pross went on to pen episodes of Seinfeld, Monk, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, and The Critic.
To add another odd wrinkle to the whole affair, the only people who do refer to the Looney Tunes characters as fictional are three men involved in their creation: Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, and voice artist Mel Blanc. I prefer to think this was not an error of continuity or an oversight, but rather a deliberate choice to make the show even more jarring and weird than it was already.
For instance, Freleng tells us he created Yosemite Sam because he felt Bugs Bunny needed a foil who wasn’t as rock-stupid as Elmer Fudd. This is immediately followed by an amazing testimonial from Bill Murray. Filmed in a pool hall, Murray casually shoots billiards while giving the inside scoop on how Freleng was able to control Yosemite Sam on the set. As far as I’m concerned, this ranks among the top ten greatest things Murray has ever done.
Murray is far and away the star of this piece, but Jeff Goldblum is a distinguished runner-up, presenting himself as an unabashed, evangelical Porky Pig fan. An extended segment details the sad fall of Porky, who (according to the world of this special) demanded to be let go from his Warner Bros. contract and fell on hard times. Whenever someone dismisses Porky, however, we cut to Goldblum, who is eager to defend him with all the fanboy earnestness of a truly devoted nerd.
Penny Marshall calls Porky “washed up,” but Goldblum protests that Porky is “the greatest and most versatile actor to ever work in the business!” Cher tells us Porky is more for “older people,” but Goldblum argues that Porky is, in fact, “hip.” We get a few glimpses of Porky’s “directorial debut” (clips from a typically weird Tex Avery production called “Porky’s Premier”). Widely considered a flop, Goldblum “Porky’s Premier” was “way ahead of its time; I don’t think people understood the movie.”
Throughout the special, a camera pursues David Bowie as he tries to enter a hotel lobby with a model on his arm, desperate to get his thoughts on Bugs Bunny. “Look, I don’t know Bugs Bunny,” Bowie insists, then reconsiders. “Alright, I’ve met him. In fact, I know him pretty well, but I’d never work with him…Except I might be doing an album with him.” Bowie eventually concedes that yes, a lot of things he does onstage are picked up from Bugs Bunny, which leads to this brief but hilarious segment from Steve Martin.
When the subject of Bugs Bunny as ladies man is broached, Billy Dee Williams insists it is not Bugs who turns the ladies on, but in fact, the music of Carl Stalling, who scored so many of his cartoons. His serious, smooth, Colt 45-like reactions in this clip are priceless.
A discussion about Pepe LePew’s exile from Hollywood (he went to make art films in France, apparently) leads to another amazing testimonial from Murray.
We also get a segment on Daffy Duck’s auteur turn, a costume drama production called “The Scarlet Pumpernickel.” (Murray incredulously informs us that the studio originally wanted the title role to be played by Speedy Gonzalez.) This leads us to one more deadpan Murray masterpiece on who he does and does not respect as an actor.
Shamefully (but not surprisingly), the 50th anniversary special was broadcast only once. However, coincidentally or not, Warner Brothers’ care and attention for its animation legacy escalated in the years after it was made. The studio returned to producing new Looney Tunes shorts (such as Daffy Duck’s Quackbusters, directed by Ford) and eventually worked its way up to making half-hour syndicated shows like Animaniacs and Batman that were worthy successors to its distinguished tradition. By extension, you could surmise that the 50th anniversary special is also indirectly responsible for Space Jam, but you have to take the good with the bad. (Though Murray nearly succeeded in making Space Jam watchable.)
After languishing in obscurity for almost 20 years, the 50th Anniversary Special finally received a DVD release of sorts as part of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 2. That set is worth acquiring for the cartoons alone, but the inclusion of the special makes it a required purchase. For some reason, though, the special was split in half and spread it out over two discs, and was also given newly designed captions for the excerpted cartoons and celebrity chyrons. These are all curious decisions to say the least, but then again, could such a strange artifact meet an ordinary end?
Matthew Callan gripes about the Mets at AmazinAvenue.com and about everything else at Scratchbomb.com. You may have seen his writing in McSweeneys, the New York Press, and Best American Non-Required Reading. If so, please return it to him.