In “Dynamite Dance,” Elmer Fudd comes at Bugs Bunny with a scythe, prompting the hare to jam a stick of lit dynamite in Elmer’s mouth.
Over the course of the brief animated video, the explosives get larger and extra plentiful, as Bugs jams dynamite in Elmer’s ears, atop his bald head, and down his pants. The relentless assault strikes from rowboat to unicycle to biplane, every blast timed to the spirited melody of Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours.”
The short has the look, feel and unabashed mayhem of a classic “Looney Tunes” cartoon, circa the early 1940s. But “Dynamite Dance” is of much more recent vintage, one of scores of episodes created by a new crop of Warner Bros. animators over the past two years.
The resulting series, “Looney Tunes Cartoons,” is a throwback effort being used to help fill out a shiny new platform. It premiered this week as part of HBO Max, the new streaming service combining shows and movies from the Time Warner entertainment empire, which includes HBO, TNT, TBS, CNN and Warner Bros. film and television, among other properties. (AT&T, which bought Time Warner in 2018, controls the entire portfolio.)
While “Looney Tunes” has been brought back repeatedly over the years, it has almost always been with an eye toward modernizing the franchise. But in both form and function, “Looney Tunes Cartoons” hearkens back to the franchise’s roots.
The shorts range from one to six minutes in length and star some of Warner Bros.’s most enduring properties (Bugs is still the studio’s official mascot). The fact that they’re on a streaming platform means viewers can watch one or two before a movie, as the original audiences enjoyed them in the days before TV, or binge watch dozens at a time. Aesthetically, the shorts take their cues from the “Looney Tunes” glory years of the 1940s and ’50s, more revival than reboot.
“I always thought, ‘What if Warner Bros. had never stopped making “Looney Tunes” cartoons?’” said Peter Browngardt, the series executive producer and showrunner. “As much as we possibly could, we treated the production in that way.”
The original cartoons are now considered among the greatest in animated comedy. Launched in 1930, the film shorts were created to run before features in movie theaters before moving to TV in 1960. Over the years, “Looney Tunes,” combined with their sister series “Merrie Melodies,” have been nominated for 22 Academy Awards, winning five; four have been inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.
Since the original run of “Looney Tunes” shorts ended in 1969, Warner Bros. has taken considerable liberties with the franchise. “Looney Tunes” characters have cavorted with pint-size versions of themselves (“Tiny Toon Adventures,” which ran from 1990 to 1992); played basketball alongside Michael Jordan (1996’s “Space Jam,” and they’ll join LeBron James in the forthcoming sequel “Space Jam: A New Legacy”); been transformed into futuristic superheroes (“Loonatics Unleashed,” 2005-07); and moved to the suburbs (“The Looney Tunes Show,” 2011-14).
The creators of the new series hope to do justice to the directors, animators and voice artists of the so-called Termite Terrace, a pest-ridden animation facility on Sunset Boulevard where many of the franchise’s most beloved characters were born.
“There was something about the energy of those early cartoons,” Browngardt said. “And those five directors: Frank Tashlin, Bob Clampett, Tex Avery before he left for MGM, Chuck Jones, and Friz Freleng. They literally invented a language of cinema.”
This latest run began in the fall of 2017, when Browngardt met the Warner Bros. executive Audrey Diehl over lunch about a possible new series. That one doesn’t quite seem right for me, Browngardt told her, but could I maybe direct a Looney Tunes short? He didn’t know it at the time, but an initiative was already in play to revive the classic franchise.
“She said, ‘How about 1,000 minutes of Looney Tunes shorts?’” he recalled. “And I was like, well, that is impossible.”
After a meeting between Browngardt and Sam Register, the president of Warner Bros. Animation, the project began in earnest. Browngardt quickly began assembling a crew of true believers, dogged fans who had watched the originals on syndicated TV. He enlisted the animator Jim Soper for character design (“I’ve been waiting my whole life for this call,” he told Browngardt) as well as the storyboard artist Ryan Khatam. A lifelong fan, Khatam had collected and cataloged QuickTime versions of every “Looney Tunes” short since their beginnings in 1930 — something the studio itself had neglected to do.
“I was like, you’re hired,” Browngardt said.
For the position of story editor, Browngardt brought on the Los Angeles-based indie comics artist Johnny Ryan. Before his “Looney Tunes” gig, Ryan was perhaps best known for his work on the indie comic books “Angry Youth Comix” and “Prison Pit,” which feature frequent scenes of nudity, torture, bodily excretions and random violence. “I thought it would be fun,” Ryan said.
After the initial high, the gravity of the project set in. “It’s hard, any time you have to work on your favorite thing,” said Alex Kirwan, a writer and supervising producer. “It’s like someone saying, ‘All right everybody, we’re writing new Beatles songs! Everyone get to work writing Beatles songs.’”
“I’d say there was a good month of just terror,” he added.
To prepare, the crew read classic texts about the show (“Bugs Bunny: 50 Years and Only One Grey Hare”) and watched the sorts of vaudeville-inspired acts the original artists had drawn from (The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy). Most of all, they watched the original cartoons, more than 1,000 in all.
“I remember watching those as a kid and being like, who’s this Humphrey Bogart character that wants Elmer Fudd to make him a sandwich?” Ryan said. “What is this weird, secret world? As a child, it’s your window to history, to great music, to amazing comedy. It all comes through cartoons.”
The original Termite Terrace became legendary for its excessive workload, abundance of pranks and its general lack of studio oversight. The directors placed a great deal of emphasis on art (like Browngardt, a CalArts graduate, those early directors came from art backgrounds and often art schools) and music (hence “Looney Tunes” and “Merrie Melodies”), and less on formal plots.
“In a short cartoon, simplicity is key,” said Andrew Farago, the curator of the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco and the co-author, with Ruth Clampett, of “The Looney Tunes Treasury.”
“Elmer Fudd wants to go to sleep. Bugs Bunny needs a snack,” he said. “If you can explain the plot in three seconds, anyone in the world can relate to it.”
And then there’s the impeccable comic timing. “For directors like Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng and Tex Avery, it was an art and a science,” Farago continued. “They knew this is how many seconds it should take after the coyote hits the ground before a puff of smoke comes up.”
For “Looney Tunes Cartoons,” Browngardt and company followed in the footsteps of the masters. In their Burbank writers room, the artists threw out ideas based on the simplest of premises, which were documented on Post-it notes and dry erase boards.
“We don’t do scripts,” Browngardt said. “I hired cartoonists. So we get them together in a room and we just draw pictures and gags.” Fans of the originals will recognize classic characters (perennials like Daffy Duck and Bugs, of course, but also lesser-seen figures like Gossamer, a large orange beast created by Chuck Jones in 1946, and the odd couple mice Hubie and Bertie) and gags (Bugs dressed as a woman; the physics and gravity-defying falls).
The old “Looney Tunes” violence is here, too: the sticks of dynamite, the intricate booby traps, the anvils and bank safes dropped on unsuspecting heads.
“We’re not doing guns,” Browngardt said. “But we can do cartoony violence — TNT, the Acme stuff. All that was kind of grandfathered in.”
The crew is currently working remotely, wrapping up production on the first 1,000 minutes of cartoons from home. That comes to about 200 cartoons in all; the first batch on HBO Max features Porky vigorously sucking snake venom out of Daffy’s leg; Sylvester haunted by the “ghost” of Tweety; and a cameo from Satan. A few of the cartoons, said the creators, are still in limbo.
“Some of them have maybe gone a little too far, so they might come out in a different format,” Browngardt said. “Maybe they’ll come out packaged for an Adult Swim type of thing.” (Cartoon Network, home of the gleefully absurd Adult Swim programming block, is part of the Warner Bros. empire.)
In many ways, Ryan said, the toons are both timeless, and not of this time. “We’re going through this wave of anti-bullying, everybody needs to be friends, everybody needs to get along,” he said.
“‘Looney Tunes’ is pretty much the antithesis of that,” he continued. “It’s two characters in conflict, sometimes getting pretty violent.”