Everyone's favorite wascally wabbit is one of the most popular cartoon characters in the history of animation. In one of the very first episodes of the podcast "Drawn: The Story of Animation," host Holly Frey aimed to find out why, talking to luminaries of animation and historians of the genre to figure it out.
One big reason for Bugs' popularity could very well be the writing. Eddy Von Mueller, lecturer of film and media studies at Emory University, told Holly Frey, "When I think about my favorite Bugs cartoons, many of my favorite moments aren't about the visuals, which are often wonderful, it's about the great writing."
Bugs has a razor-sharp wit that's rare for cartoons of his era. While other characters had comedy happening to them, Bugs is practically an insult comic. "That fast-talking, wisecracking, verbal wit, that's a train that Bugs Bunny owns. There are no other great wits in early animation," said Von Mueller.
And then there's the fact that Bugs Bunny wasn't written just for kids. There are jokes and gags in every Bugs cartoon for children and adults, helping the cartoon age well and reflect the culture in which it was created. Warner Bros. cartoons, particularly Bugs cartoons, were entrenched in the real world.
"Kids can learn culture from Bugs Bunny cartoons. He's Groucho Marx with bunny ears," Von Mueller noted.
We can't forget about Bugs' iconic voice when discussing his animation domination. Mel Blanc first beautifully brought Bugs' voice to life. Blanc, who was known as the man of a thousand voices, passed away in 1989, but many have since stepped in to fill the shoes of Bugs Bunny. Since the '90s, Billy West has filled that role. Bugs isn't the only iconic character West voices: He's also the man behind Philip J. Fry, Ren & Stimpy, and even the red "M&M."
West spoke to Frey about the pressure of taking on the role: "Mel Blanc was one of my idols. Back in the dark ages, people like him lit my world up." He explained that in the early days each director of Bugs Bunny cartoons had a slightly different take on the character until they settled on one sort of voice that became the iconic Bugs. It had several different elements to it, from a Jewish Brooklyn feel to a vaudevillian lilt. Ultimately, West had to find his own way because everyone pulls out a different hint in their preference for Bugs, just because the character is so personal to everyone.
George Daugherty, the man behind the musical concert Bugs Bunny at the Symphony, offered Holly Frey another explanation for the enduring nature of Bugs Bunny's popularity: the music married to timeless visuals.
"When I was a little kid on the living room floor watching it, I didn't know it was Wagner, I didn't know it was Franz Liszt. I just knew it was fantastic. We let the kids make the discovery on their own because how you introduce a child to classical music and opera and ballet is a really crucial step in whether they love it or not," said Daugherty.
As far as adults, the technical achievement of the cartoons regarding the music is something that keeps them excited. A real orchestra taking cues from Bugs Bunny conducting the animated orchestra would be able to keep perfect time. "The orchestration for 'What's Opera Doc?' is Wagnerian. These guys really took their art seriously and their music seriously," said Daugherty.
The other thing that might explain Bugs' popularity is his twisted sense of morality. Bugs is always innocent to start and doesn't go for revenge until he's been wronged. Then, more often than not, Bugs exploits the social rules of a system to get that revenge. Jackson Publick, (aka Christopher McCulloch) co-creator of "The Venture Bros.," gave an example from "Long-haired Hare" of how Bugs does this. Impersonating the conductor, Bugs forces the singer who wronged him to hold notes so long and difficult that he practically asphyxiates the singer before the notes literally bring the opera house crashing down around them.
Publick continued, "Usually, someone cross a line with Bugs and then he says, 'OK, I'm going to destroy you now.'" And that sense of justice and rightness coming from Bugs just resonates with people.
The Good Times
More than anything, Bugs is the sort of character who gets people through dark times by making them laugh. Publick summed it up best on Drawn when he describes his happy place: the 1949 Bugs Bunny short film "Hillbilly Hare." It's the Bugs Bunny short that brings him back from the dark. And isn't that what good cartoons are all about?