Tonight’s short under the microscope was the Bugs and Elmer short The Wacky Wabbit, a 1942 cartoon (complete with war bonds ad) by Bob Clampett. I sat down and wrote out 291 short descriptions of what was going on on-screen at any given time, trying to summarise the cartoon from action to action.
What awes me is that the summary notes make me laugh. Even dissected on a table like a pinned rat, this material is still funny. Pretty amazing. I hope I can write something that funny one day.
Again, spoilers follow. Watch it first.
Plotwise, there’s not much to write about – Elmer is introduced as a gold-seeking, ill-tempered buffoon and Bugs is introduced as a cocky, nonchalant troublemaker. It should be noted that this is a Bob Clampett’s cartoon, so Bugs doesn’t need Elmer to cross him before he starts making mischief. Bob’s Bugs is happy to just entertain himself at the expense of fools. (Buckaroo Bunny is a more extreme example where Bugs is an actual outlaw.) You might also not recognise Elmer because they were trialling a different model of him.
So. The analysis.
Like Bad Luck Blackie yesterday, I spotted riffs in this. There’s a character riff set up early on with Elmer where he’ll see something, realise what it is, then respond – except very slowly. Sometimes between seeing and realising, he’ll act completely incongruously with how you’d expect someone to act under the circumstances, which makes the ensuing overreaction (either anger or terror) even funnier.
There’s also progressive escalation – Bugs starts out pretty cocky but he just gets sillier and sillier – by the end of the short he’s dancing and singing to himself, completely secure in the knowledge he’s got Elmer licked – until, in a twist of events, he hasn’t. Elmer’s stupidity by contrast stays about constant.
Bad Luck Blackie more or less winds up its premise and sets it going at a rapid-fire pace; Wacky Wabbit works with longer cycles of set-ups, anticipations and pay-offs. It’s more patient. It milks the audience’s anticipation much more because its main comedy hook is a dim-witted character, and dimwits by their nature take their time to pay off. There is another instance of a rhythm being established, then being played over and over again, faster and faster, until it stops midway through – only to be concluded after a pause. (That would be the scene with the dynamite, where Bugs himself supplies the BLAM noise.)
Elmer is sublimely stupid in this short. He politely greets a talking skull as he walks past. He sings a duet with Bugs without realising it until Bugs showboats one last time before disappearing. He braces himself against a spiny cactus while waiting for dynamite to go off. He rips out his own gold tooth at the end of the short and considers his quest for gold a rousing success.
Aside from the characters’ own personalities, the comedy in the short plays off subverted expectations (dynamite goes pffrt), exaggeration (Elmer and Bugs doing gravity-defying wild takes), misplacedness (witness the electric elevator that brings Bugs to the surface), unexpected symmetry (Elmer dives into the ground and Bugs is pushed up out of it), allegory (Elmer diving into a rabbit hole like a swimming pool), sudden surprises (Bugs suddenly snogging Elmer out of nowhere), sarcasm (Bugs says to the audience about Elmer: “Smart boy!”) and general contrariness/absurdity (while holding a stick of dynamite that’s about to go off, Bugs puts a finger in the ear furthest from the hand holding the dynamite). Elmer gets humiliated with kissing, having his clothes cut off at a vulnerable moment, being wolf whistled at and other unkind behaviour from Bugs.
It’s got me thinking mostly about what it is that allows a character to be so productively funny. WIth Elmer in this short, his slowness to catch on finds itself in the presence of someone who has no trouble outwitting him. Part of this comes from Elmer’s own personal character riff.
Bugs didn’t seem to have a riff in the analysis – Bugs feels more like a reagent. Some have referred to him as a mischievous pixie. That description seems to work here – at least until he gets the crap beaten out of him. Pixies don’t cop that sort of abuse usually.
Bugs still prevails in the end after all hope seems lost for him, so I guess that makes this a weird cartoon which kind of starts with Elmer and finishes with Bugs – Elmer becomes too aggro to fit the role of the protagonist. In one possible reading, the antagonist and protagonist roles almost switch midway through the story.
Warner Brothers animation fans will know that Elmer’s stupidify became so vexing for Friz Freleng that Yosemite Sam was born to give Bugs a bit more of a challenge – and fair enough too.
Anyway. It’s interesting to see comedic principles at play in different ways between different directors. I’m looking forward to doing more analyses and I hope someone out there is getting something out of them, even though I don’t claim for a second to really know much about what I’m talking about.