t was 6:00am this past Saturday morning. My daughter who we normally can’t pry out of bed at 7:00 on a school morning decided she was done sleeping and wanted to come into Mommy and Daddy’s room for some entertainment. As she sat there between us, waiting for us to cave-in and put on whatever PBS show the TiVo had stored, I thought back to my Saturday mornings as a kid. I never came into my parents’ bed and woke them up at 6:00. What had my wife and I done wrong? What key element were we missing in raising our kids that my parents got right? What was different then that we were overlooking now? Then it hit me like an anvil on the head. Saturday morning cartoons. When I was a kid I got up (at 6:00) all by myself and walked right past my parents’ bedroom door to the living room where the TV was. I turned it on myself and plugged in for any number of hours while my parents enjoyed sleeping in on Saturday.
I miss Saturday morning cartoons. In today’s Netflix/YouTube/TiVo on-demand society the notion of sitting down to a Saturday morning full of whatever mindless animated fluff the network saw fit to throw at us seems positively provincial. Seriously though, think about how many pop-cultural events were reinforced, or even spawned entirely by Saturday morning cartoons. Where would today’s 30-somethings be without Schoolhouse Rock? (that was TOTALLY the only way I was able to recite the preamble to the constitution in 6th grade. I stood in front of the class and sang //We the people… in order to form a more perfect union… establish justice, insure domestic tranquility…//). Saturday morning cartoons were where we got to know Tony the Tiger, Snap Crackle and Pop, Toucan Sam, Count Chocula… the list goes on and on. It’s where the images on our lunchboxes and our underoos came from. It’s how we knew what action figures we wanted for Christmas. It’s where we first learned about The Superfriends, making orange juice popsicles with toothpicks in the ice tray (“Time for Timer”) and The Snorks (shudder).
Sadly, those days are gone; and I can’t help but think that my kids (indeed all kids today) have really lost something special. I wax poetic about those days once in a while, but in my heart I think the greatest cultural casualty, the thing that kids don’t realize they’re missing out on, the thing that they really need and don’t have a predictable data-stream for is Looney Tunes.
I joke about passing along to my children the culture of all things “geek”, but this is one I’m very serious about. There has never been anything, or never will be anything that matches the sheer genius of Looney Tunes. The humor, the comedic timing, the music. Oh the music! (more on that later in the post). How else is a kid supposed to be exposed to the major personalities from the golden-age of Hollywood? Even if you don’t know the names “Jimmy Durante”, “Karl Marx” or “Erol Flynn”, you’d certainly recognize their caricatures – most likely from old-time Looney Tunes that were actually produced when those people were still Hollywood elites. To my thinking you NEED to know who those figures were to be culturally literate. If I hadn’t been exposed to them on Saturday mornings through Looney Tunes I can’t imagine how I would have otherwise.
Golden-age Hollywood elites aside, Looney Tunes brings its own elements to the cultural-literacy table. How can you be a fully-functioning member of society with no idea who Yosemite Sam, Foghorn Leghorn or Wiley E. Coyote are? Can you really integrate fully into western society if you can’t catch the reference “Le’ Purr. Le’ meow,” “Acme Roller Skates” or “You’re dithhhhpicable”? (I deliberately didn’t mention the better-known Looney Tunes catchphrases because arguably they’ve worked themselves into the cultural lexicon enough to achieve a shelf-life longer than the cartoons that spawned them). Sadly, I suppose the answer is yes, you can fully integrate with society without Looney Tunes literacy… at least the future-society run by people (our children) who didn’t grow up with a healthy Looney Tunes dose every Saturday morning.
But I have made it my mission to make sure that along with fruits, veggies, protein and grains, my kids get a healthy helping of the cool/geek food group that they wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to, because in this doctor’s opinion it’s essential for strong bones, healthy teeth and firm self-esteem. Looney Tunes falls squarely in that scope.
So in anticipation of my first child’s birth (and with a not-so-subtle suggestion to Santa Claus) one Christmas I received the Looney Tunes definitive DVD collection. With some ridiculous amount of DVD’s in the collection (more than 20?), this was the treasure trove of Looney Tunes cartoons I knew my children and I would spend countless hours guffawing to until our sides hurt. Of course the reality of it all turned out quite different.
First and foremost, like most responsible parents the idea of plopping my child down for a prolonged TV-fest just sits wrong with me. Don’t get me wrong, we all have to plug our kids in from time to time just for a freakin’ sanity break. But I think most parents would agree that those events should be kept to a minimum. When push comes to shove, and I NEED my kids to do something that doesn’t my direct supervision, I’d rather send them to play outside than plop them in front of the DVD player… even if it is a soul-nourishing dosage of Looney Tunes.
There’s another mitigating factor that I didn’t anticipate. Let’s face it, Looney Tunes are rather violent. Someone is always getting punched, poked, kicked, shot, smacked or blown up. A lot of the comedy comes from one character mistreating another. It’s hard to teach empathy to a 5-year-old when you’re endorsing (by laughing hysterically at) Daffy Duck getting tricked into shouting “Duck Season!” **//BLAM!!!//**
“Ha, ha, ha, ha… er, um. That wasn’t very nice of Buggs Bunny to trick Daffy Duck, was it? No. Are playing with guns and shooting people good thing to do? No.”
Then there are the inappropriate cultural references, most notably to Blacks and Japanese (remember, many Looney Tunes shorts were actually made to play on the big-screen before major motion-pictures during World War II). To Warner Brothers’ credit the DVD collection addresses those issues with a forward by Whoopie Goldberg who tactfully acknowledges them as a product of the times they were created in. And while they are certainly inappropriate in a modern society they are deliberately included, unedited, to preserve the original cartoons as works of art.
For my part I watched countless hours of Looney Tunes when I was a kid, and I turned out fine (arguably). But my wife is especially sensitive to the violence and racial undertones. And you know what? She’s right of course. I’m glad she’s there to temper my “Naw, They’ll be fine” attitude on dropping pianos on people’s heads. Let’s not forget that Looney Tunes were originally intended for an adult audience at the theater, not 5-year-olds still clutching their teddy bears.
Perhaps Looney Tunes are better appreciated from an adult, almost academic perspective, when our sense of humor is better tuned and our sensabilities are mature enough to appreciate the antics in their fullest. I have sadly resigned myself to the fact that my children will not look back on their childhood and associate Looney Tunes as a major player as I do mine. That’s OK. They may never have the fluency that comes with weekly Saturday morning doses, but there will be enough rainy days later in their childhood when they sit down on the sofa with a big bowl of popcorn and their daddy to laugh at a DVD or two of Looney Tunes cartoons. That in itself will have its own benefits.
For those of you who miss Looney Tunes like I do allow me to make a shameful product endorsement. If you want to tap into the soul of Looney Tunes and feel the pure innocent joy of watching them without actually sitting down in front of your flat-screen, try to get your hands on the following 3 CD’s.
You may not know who Carl Stalling is, but you will recognize his work in an instant. He wrote the music to almost all of the classic Looney Tunes shorts. You don’t realize how much his music has worked its way into the fabric of our culture until you hear these CD’s. On an academic level it’s an AMAZING lesson on integrating visuals and music. On a personal level it’s a magic doorway to a simpler time in life. You can shut your eyes when listening to these CD’s and be transported back to your childhood living room couch.
This is all the stuff that didn’t make it into the two Carl Stalling volumes. It’s got a lot of the classic songs that are actually sung in various Looney Tunes shorts. But the greatest gem of them all is track 7. It’s got the full-versions of “What’s Opera Doc”…. “Kill the wabbit! Kill The Wabbit! KILL THE WAAAABIT!” “Spear and magic helmet! Magic helmet? Magic helmet! Magic helmet? Yes! And I’ll give you a SAAAAAMple!”
With that I take my leave for Saturday morning, 8:00am, 1979. See you in 7 minutes.