The Looney Tunes really are quite unlike most other American mass media.

Looney Tunes -1I just spent two hours in a plane. And for most of that time, the five year old in front of me was watching the Looney Tunes on Cartoon Network, so I (naturally) stared over the top of the seat at his screen and watched along. Which prompted several thoughts. First, the Looney Tunes is extremely resilient! What other American television has endured–not as an art object or through ironic revival or by highbrow appropriation, but as something that’s genuinely enjoyed by ordinary people–for more than fifty years? When I was a kid, I watched Looney Tunes, and when my parents’ generation* were kids, they also watched Looney Tunes, and it’s not at all impossible that my own children will someday watch the Looney Tunes.

That’s pretty cool.

Secondly, the Looney Tunes are much more abstract and surreal than most American pop culture. Although they have narratives, the narrative is quite often very barebones and is centered on a premise that’s extremely absurd, like a sex-crazed skunk who’s chasing a cat, or technophile coyote who chases a simple-minded roadrunner.

Frequently, an individual cartoon’s raison d’être will be provided by its setting. For instance, while looking over the kid’s shoulder, I saw a Tom and Jerry cartoon that took place entirely on a dock setting. In these cases, it’s interesting to see how startling and fertile the settings can be. They’re like well-constructed video games: the camera is always panning over to show you something very distinct, very recognizable, and very fun.

There’s also a minimalism to the Looney Tunes. Most of the meaning is carried by expression and gesture. The cartoons resist the temptation to oversignify their meaning. Instead, they use just enough to get the point across.

Furthermore, the characters talk really funny.

 

*Although not my actual parents, obviously, because they grew up in India and didn’t have TVs.