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The 'Fresh Air' interview with 'Looney Tunes' animator Chuck Jones

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Although the "Looney Tunes" cartoons date back to the 1930s, they became so popular and remain so entertaining that the characters get revived every few years. "Looney Tunes" superstars Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck are revived in a new podcast called "Bugs And Daffy's Thanksgiving Adventure."

We're going to listen back to our 1989 interview with Chuck Jones, the great animator and director who helped bring to life Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd and Porky Pig. He directed them in some of their finest roles. Jones was the sole creator of Pepe Le Pew, Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. Jones worked at Warner Brothers from 1933 until the studio closed its cartoon division in 1963. Then he formed his own production company and created prime-time TV specials. Chuck Jones died in 2002. I spoke with him in 1989 after the publication of his autobiography, "Chuck Amuck." The title was borrowed from "Duck Amuck," Jones' cartoon about cartooning. In that cartoon, Daffy Duck finds himself at the mercy of a fickle cartoonist. Daffy opens the cartoon as a brave musketeer, but the cartoonist keeps changing the scenery on him to the most inappropriate settings - a farm, the Arctic, Hawaii. The cartoonist eventually erases not only the background, but Daffy himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MERRIE MELODIES")

MEL BLANC: (As Daffy Duck) Would it be too much to ask if we could make up our minds, hmm?

(Singing) Dashing through the snow, ya ha ha ha ha. Through the fields we go, laughing all the way. Farewell to thee, farewell to thee, the wind will carry back our sad refrain. One last embrace, before we say - hmm.

Buster, it may come as a complete surprise to you to find that this is an animated cartoon, and that in animated cartoons they have scenery. And in all the years I - all right, wise guy. Where am I?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Chuck Jones, welcome to FRESH AIR. You changed a lot of the characters who you worked with over the years. Can you describe - when you first started directing Daffy Duck, who was always my favorite - when you started directing Daffy Duck, what was he like? And then maybe you could tell us a little bit of the character changes that you brought to that - to Daffy?

CHUCK JONES: Well, it's a little difficult to isolate them exactly as to what I contributed, but I - all the characters I felt were part of me. Particularly Daffy and the coyote, because they made the kind of mistakes that most of us make only multiplied a bit. Daffy was an interesting character, I think, because he could - he would rush in and fear to tread at the same time, and he also could be fawning and overbearing at the same time. And I think that happens with very many of us when we - sometimes in the reverse, when we go in to talk to the boss and ask for a raise, we're overbearing. When we get inside, we're fawning. But Daffy is both at the same time.

At the beginning he was just crazy, as was Bugs. Even in the first great - the "Wild Hare" that Tex Avery directed, the character was really kind of mad. More like Harpo Marx, perhaps. And I was never comfortable with the character unless I can understand him and I can't understand crazy people. So I always tried to sort of pasteurize my characters to find out what they - who they are. The who is the whole point about character animation is not what - it isn't what a character looks like, or indeed how it's drawn.

GROSS: You sound like a method animator (laughter).

JONES: Well, I guess so. I don't think that I could do it unless I cared about the characters.

GROSS: In your cartoon "Duck Amuck," why did you choose Daffy Duck as the character that was going to be at the whim of the cartoonist?

JONES: Well, I tried it later with Bugs Bunny and it didn't work. Fortunately, I did "Duck Amuck" first, then I did one called "Rabbit Rampage," and he also had the same problem. And he's - the person in this case turned out to be Elmer Fudd that was moving him around. But it didn't work because that's not the kind of person that Bugs is. Bugs is a comic hero, you see, as compared with a comic wimp, which would go back to all the great comedians, starting with Chaplin and Buster Keaton and all the rest of them. They were - they're all kind of semi-losers, aren't they? They're more like us.

And - but I always liked Daffy because he would continue beyond where I would stop, simply because I'd be afraid of what the community would think of me. Daffy continues. So when I've been - when I was working with him, all I had to do is reach down inside of me and bring the Daffy up to the surface and spread it out and take a look at it and see what would I do if I were - if I had Daffy Duck's courage.

GROSS: Mmm hmm. You told us a little bit about how you changed Daffy Duck and how you drew him a little differently, different characteristics you gave him. What about Bugs Bunny? What are some of the changes you brought to Bugs' life?

JONES: Well, I think one of the nice things about - there were three units there. After 1946, in fact, all the films that Warner now owns were directed by Friz Freleng or Bob McKimson or me. Bob Clampett left in '46 and Tex around '44. And so we had these wonderful sessions when I would get an idea for a film or my writer and I would get an idea for a film, we'd call in the other directors and writers, and we'd sit down and have this session, which we called a yes session, which meant for two hours, nobody could say anything negative. If you couldn't contribute to the idea, your job was to shut up. But usually the ideas were pretty good when they came in.

The result of this was that we were all involved with each other's picture. Although each director had absolute control of what went into his own pictures. But there was no internecine warfare. We liked each other, and we wanted each other to succeed. But if I gave a great gag to Friz Freleng, and he used it, and it appeared on the screen and got an enormous laugh, naturally I wanted to go out and throw up. But I - because that's human nature. That's Daffy Duck in me.

GROSS: When you did your recording sessions, the voice sessions with Mel Blanc, what kind of suggestions would you make to him about the characteristics that he should try to be getting at through his voice?

JONES: Well, for one thing, I would have completely laid out the picture, all the key drawings that I would be giving to the animators had already been done, and I would already have finished the exact dialogue. Mel never sat in on story things or anything like that, and in no way could we have let any actor, Mel or anybody else, adlib because we had to make pictures exactly to six minutes. So the dialogue was all carefully planned to fit into an exact six-minute format. So when I was ready for the actor, usually Mel, about an hour before we would record, I'd call him in. The marvel of Mel was that he was such a brilliant actor that he could get - immediately get the idea of what you were talking about.

GROSS: All the great characters of the Warner Brothers cartoons were all animals. They're animals with the traits of people, but they're not people. They're ducks and rabbits and skunks. What are some of the advantages of using animals instead of people for the cartoons?

JONES: Well, we had ample precedents to go on. I mean, going back to Aesop's fables and Kipling and even Mark Twain did several things about animals, and of course Beatrix Potter and so many others. But the main thing is that it's easier to humanize animals than it is to humanize humans. And as you know from seeing "Snow White" and the poor princes in all the Disney films that it's very difficult to animate human beings.

And when we did animate them, they didn't look very much like human beings. I mean, Elmer Fudd doesn't look any more like a human being than Bugs Bunny looks like a rabbit. Bugs is obviously not a rabbit. Rabbits look more like - the average rabbit looks very much more like a pillow than anything else. However, I think that taking a rabbit and making him as heroic as Bugs Bunny is a lot more easy than it is to take a human being and make him like Bugs with Bugs' characteristics.

GROSS: You always believe that in a cartoon world that you have to create certain rules of the universe, and the characters always have to live within those rules. Give us an example through, say, the Roadrunner Wile E. Coyote cartoons because you created those characters.

JONES: Yes.

GROSS: What - tell us a little bit about the universe that you created them in.

JONES: Well, there are several things that happen. In all comedy, the more you channelize, the more you narrow the - your character down, the better it gets for some reason. Take Charlie Chaplin when he - once he got that little costume, look how much he was restricted in what he can do. He can only be the little tramp, but he could be the little tramp, and he also limited the little tramp in - pretty much into living in a city.

Well, we felt that when we when we got the Roadrunner and Coyote going, it was evident that they both lived in the Southwestern American desert. And so you immediately say to yourself, they - that's where they live. That's where they got to live. And the fact that the roadrunner is a roadrunner means that he should stay on the road. And there were a number of other rules about that - that the roadrunner can never harm the coyote. The coyote can only harm himself by buying those unfortunate things he gets from the Acme Corporation, so on. So that's what we - and the more rules you apply - and you never hear any other sound except the beep, beep.

And I found that with - going back then to Bugs Bunny. Bugs Bunny is such a powerful character, and he's a comic hero rather than a loser. He's such a powerful character that he could become a terrible bully. So we always started Bugs - in every picture, we started him in a natural rabbit environment, minding his own business, a quiet-living rabbit, something like Rex Harrison, perhaps, before he got involved with "My Fair Lady" ladies. And then someone comes along and tries to deprive him his food or his life or his - you know, or sending him up on a rocket or something. And then he has to fight back, you see. And once engaged in the war, then he's happily engaged. But without that, he would just be a bully.

And there are some characters, like Heckle and Jeckle and even Woody Woodpecker would sometimes seem to go out and just heckle people for no particular reason. Bugs never did that. And this was vital and necessary if you wanted the character to be believable and for people to care about him.

GROSS: We're listening back to my 1989 interview with cartoon animator and director Chuck Jones. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARL STALLING'S "THERE THEY GO GO GO (1956)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 1989 interview with cartoon animator and director Chuck Jones. He helped create such "Looney Tunes" superstars as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and Elmer Fudd. He was the sole creator of Pepe Le Pew, Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: One of the characters you created was Pepe Le Pew, this skunk who thinks he's very debonair and quite irresistible, but he's really quite repulsive. He has no idea. And he has this great, fractured French that he speaks. As matter of fact, let me just play a little excerpt of Pepe La Pew. And this is from a cartoon that you won an Academy Award for, "Scent-imental Reasons."

(SOUNDBITE OF ANIMATED SHORT, "FOR SCENT-IMENTAL REASONS")

BLANC: (As Pepe Le Pew) Quel est? Ah, the petite femme skunk. The rendezvous, no? Ah, my darling, how beautiful you are. How lonesome it has been that I have without you. Ah, the sweet nothings, ah, the sweet somethings, ah, the tender enrapturement - but I forget - but, of course, the rendezvous.

GROSS: Why did Pepe Le Pew have to be a French skunk?

JONES: 'Cause it's funnier that way. A Bulgarian skunk probably wouldn't have been as interesting or an Egyptian skunk. So I don't know. French - that - the idea that French believe that they are the most desirable men. I don't know if that's still prevalent. But that time, we thought of them that way. But I was a complete wimp in high school, and I was 6 feet 1, weighed 132 pounds. So girls looked right through me and could see other men. So I suppose it was natural for me to find a compensate for that by making a character who, regardless of what he was, believed he was an absolute - the most desirable of all people.

GROSS: Did Maurice Chevalier ever say anything about this character (laughter)?

JONES: I don't really know whether he did or not. I imitated him. A couple of times, we had him sing a couple of songs the way Chevalier would have sung them. We never, ever imitated any character completely.

GROSS: Right.

JONES: But sometimes, we would infuse a little bit of a lot of characters, like George Sanders' eating of chicken wings very much like Bugs Bunny eating a carrot.

GROSS: You know, I grew up on the Warner Bros.' cartoons, and the older I'd get, the more jokes I'd get. But I never realized I was missing anything when I was young, you know, because I always liked them. And now as an adult, I see things that I didn't see when I thought I was getting all the jokes when I was an older kid. Did anyone at Warner Bros. ever give you an argument that certain things there would go over the head of the - the heads of the audience?

JONES: Yeah. Yes, they did. But we didn't pay attention to them. We had - we always had going battles on with our producers, so they would issue edicts like, don't make any pictures about bullfights. Bullfights aren't funny. But, I mean, we would say, well, obviously, the guy has always been wrong. So we made a picture about a bullfight, and it turned out fine. No, we had very little problem. Our - fortunately, our producers were not very bright.

GROSS: Well, who did you have to answer to?

JONES: Nobody, well, because our pictures went out with the Warner Bros. features and they were always played in theaters. And we really didn't know anything about how they were received until eventually we would get word from the exhibitor who, after all, was the one who could his audience's response. So no, we only made them for ourselves. We never made them for anybody else, who - we couldn't preview, and we weren't allowed to. There were no such things as these idiotic demographics and Nielsen ratings and stuff. And the first critic hadn't been born. So we just tried to amuse one another, and it seemed to work.

GROSS: I remember once seeing a short film that was a combination of kind of pornographic cartoons that some of the Disney animators drew in their off hours.

JONES: Yeah.

GROSS: And it ended up getting into circulation. Did you guys ever do anything like that at Warner Bros.?

JONES: Sure.

GROSS: Yeah?

JONES: Yeah, everybody did that. In fact, sometimes, in a Pepe Le Pew picture, I would - I'd put a little salacious one frame, one-twenty-fourth of a second. I'd actually put it in the picture. And then I'd ask one of the - ask the office manager to come in, and I said, there's a little glitch here. There's sort of a hop at this point. I don't know what it - I can't figure out what it is. Then I'd bring it to a stop in the Moviola, and - you know that thing when you look through and there it would be, you know? Well, I know nobody could ever see it because it was a twenty-fourth of a second. But then he would go into shock, you know, and we always had a frame to replace it just in case. But I enjoyed doing that - kind of put him in his place.

GROSS: So did he make you take that out, or did those frames stay in?

JONES: No, no, no. I told him it was too late. It would cost money to take it out, and nobody would ever see it. But I had already inserted it, and it wasn't there anyway. But I did it to see if I couldn't put him into - as we used to say, reduce him to moccasins.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Were ever - were any of your scenes or any of your language ever censored?

JONES: No, no. That was left to the brilliant people at the networks. And they take out things that make the whole thing incomprehensible.

GROSS: Did that happen a lot - that you felt your cartoons were butchered when they got on TV?

JONES: Oh, yes, they were, both at CBS and ABC, to name a few of the guilty ones. What's curious to me is that they feel it was necessary to chew up those cartoons. But Nickelodeon, which is a program that's supposedly designed for children, sees no need to do that.

GROSS: Well, how did the networks edit the cartoons? What kinds of material would they find offensive?

JONES: Oh, practically everything. I - you know, in the Bugs Bunny and the rabbit season, duck season things, they would take out every shot in which somebody's - you know, those shots where Daffy's bill would be shot around. They'd show him getting ready to shoot. Then they'd cut out the part of the shooting, and then they'd come back. And you'd - the poor child hadn't the remotest idea what happened.

GROSS: Because they thought that it was too violent?

JONES: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: And what years are you talking about?

JONES: You couldn't even hit somebody with a pie, for God's sake.

GROSS: What years are you talking about that this kind of censorship was there?

JONES: Oh, it's true now. You still see the films that way.

GROSS: But when I was growing up in the '50s, I think...

JONES: No, they weren't...

GROSS: ...They were on, fully.

JONES: Yes, they were. They didn't do all that idiotic stuff. Listen. To me, a person who bears the title of program practices means censorship and are people that are too fat to run and too cowardly to fight.

GROSS: I'd imagine that the cartoons that had gotten the most objections because of the violence were the Roadrunner cartoons, since they're all chase.

JONES: Well, that's absurd, though, because the roadrunner and the coyote - the roadrunner never harmed the coyote. The coyote was only a victim of his own ineptitude. So the idea that there was any violence involved there is ridiculous.

GROSS: Did you ever think of yourself as doing a pop kind of surrealism?

JONES: I did some, they tell me. But I never did anything, you know, by sitting down and saying, I'm doing this for a reason.

GROSS: Right.

JONES: What I was trying to do is to develop the characters that I understood and to have fun doing it. And that was the whole secret of Warner Brothers cartoons - is a bunch of people happened to come together from varied walks of life, all of whom were enormously interested in making films that were fun to do.

GROSS: I wish we had more time to talk.

JONES: I do, too.

GROSS: I really want to thank you a lot for talking with us.

My interview with cartoon animator and director Chuck Jones was recorded in 1989. He died in 2002. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our interview with singer, songwriter and guitarist Brandi Carlile. She's nominated for seven Grammys. Her latest album, "In These Silent Days," grew out of her 2021 bestselling memoir. We'll hear about her life, her music and her family. She lives with her wife, their children and their extended family in a compound in Washington state. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF YO-YO MA, EDGAR MEYER, MARK O'CONNOR'S "1B")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. All of us at FRESH AIR hope that you enjoy the rest of the holiday. And for those of you who had to work today, thanks for keeping things going, making it possible for others to take the day off. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF YO-YO MA, EDGAR MEYER, MARK O'CONNOR'S "1B") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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