Bugs Bunny at 75: Wabbit who calls the toon

What's up Doc? Picture: TSPL
What's up Doc? Picture: TSPL
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Sociopathic prankster or furry sophisticate, even at 75, Bugs Bunny has yet to meet his match, writes Emma Cowing

WHAT’S UP Doc? Well, let’s start with narcissistic ­personality disorder, mild sociopathic tendencies and a total inability to empathise.

Bugs Bunny, that Looney Tunes favourite, is 75 years old this week. And while he has enchanted generations of children with his carrot nibbling, tunnel digging, Elmer Fudd evading insouciance, there’s no getting away from the fact that Mr B Bunny has a few, well, issues.

Think about it. There’s the cheeky New Yoik patter, which can often diverge into nasty taunting of less intelligent victims. There is the manipulation of others for the good of himself – particularly in the pursuit of carrots, carrot sticks, and other carrot-related products. There is the disturbing lack of morality (pushing people into ovens; handcuffing them to bombs; cutting their beards with a lawnmower and so on) in order to save his own skin. And then there are the guns. And the digging. And let’s not even mention those dreadful eating habits.

Send Bugs Bunny off to a psychiatrist’s office these days and he’d probably emerge with a fistful of Ritalin and an appointment for a long-term residential stay at The Priory.

Perhaps it’s due to having so many different creators. Bugs Bunny first appeared on screen in a cartoon named Porky’s Hare Hunt, released on 30 April 1938. He was, at the time, almost unrecognisable as the Bugs we know today, a white, unnamed hare whose big line was a Groucho Marx quote: “Of course you realise, this means war!”

By 1940, however, the grey wabbit with the buck teeth and the ready quip was beginning to carve out a niche for himself, starring in his own cartoons under the care of legendary directors Tex Avery and Chuck Jones, and squaring up to his great nemeses Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam, who would go to extraordinary, if almost always unsuccessful lengths, to hunt down Bugs for the cooking pot.

Behavioural psychologist Jo Hemmings reckons that as a personality, Bugs probably does have “a few issues”.

“He’s quite successful in his manipulation, but he’s also quite endearing,” she points out. “He’s got that charm that manipulative people often have, where he seems so convincing. People will tend to go along with what he wants, and to be that manipulative you have to be charming and endearing.”

Indeed Bugs could, frequently did, and probably still does charm the birds out of the trees. In a 1946 cartoon named Racketeer Rabbit he steals money from the Mafia, gets caught, is backed into a corner by a gangster wielding a gun, throws a custard pie in his face, pretends to be the police looking for said gangster, then reappears as himself promising, out of the goodness of his own heart, to hide the gangster from the cops. In less than one minute flat, the gangster has gone from trying to shoot him, to crying “what a pal! what a pal! what a pal!” ­Notorious conman Bernie Madoff could not have done better.

“The thing about Bugs Bunny is he makes us feel good about ourselves,” says Hemmings. “He does certain things that make us feel special. He puts on the charm offensive and we allow him to get away with it. That buffers some of the nastiness that he is no doubt capable of. He doesn’t seem to come at it from a deliberately mean or conniving way. There is almost an innocence about the way he behaves.”

It’s an innocence he’s still peddling, even at the advanced age of 75. He is still a regular on the Cartoon Network’s The Looney Tunes Show, and will shortly appear in a new movie, named simply Looney Tunes. You’ve got to admit, the wabbit’s got a work ethic.

According to his own autobiography (yes really, its title involves a bad joke about only having one grey hare), Bugs Bunny was born in Brooklyn, New York, in a warren under Ebbets Field, home of the now defunct American football team Brooklyn Dodgers. Details of his early life are sketchy, but he does not have any discernible source of income yet seems to own a vast panoply of clothes, weapons and carrots, suggesting he may have a trust fund stashed away somewhere.

He can be cultured at times – he plays the piano and sings, and owns an eclectic wardrobe – when he can be bothered getting dressed at all, that is. And of course his ego is often pandered to. In 1985, he became only the second fictional character, after Mickey Mouse, to receive his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, while Warner Bros have used his image as an icon of the studio for decades.

During the Second World War in particular, Bugs’ upbeat stance and occasional one-to-ones with the audience became popular. He was even seen confronting Adolf Hitler himself (dressed as Josef Stalin), in Herr Meets Hare, a cartoon also notable for its first use of the famous phrase “I knew I shoulda made that left turn in Albuquerque”.

Warner Bros animator Bob Clampett, who sometimes wrote in Bugs Bunny’s own voice, put his appeal like this. “Some people call me cocky and brash, but actually I am just self-assured. I’m nonchalant, im­perturbable, contemplative. I play it cool, but I can get hot under the collar.”

Hemmings however, suspects she’d have a lot of work to do if Bugs came strolling into her office looking for therapy. “I’d say someone like Bugs Bunny had a degree of narcissistic personality disorder, where they’re convinced they are invincible and have very little empathy or emotional intelligence,” she says. “He also seems to have slight sociopathic tendencies as well. With someone like that you need to get them to see things from someone else’s point of view – how would you feel if that happened to them? Because they don’t understand the impact of things on someone else.”

Yet the thought of Bugs putting himself in Yosemite Sam’s shoes, even for a moment, is an unlikely one – unless he was planning on running off with them.

Sociopathic tendencies aside, there has always been something touchingly brave about Bugs. From squaring up to the Nazis to refusing to back down to those who want him dead, he stands as a potent, long-eared, carrot-eating metaphor for freedom.

“It’s almost like he’s out there being both naughty and brave for us,” says Hemmings. “That’s one of the reasons he’s so popular, he provides a release. He does the things we can’t do ourselves.”

So happy birthday, Bugs. Have a slice of carrot cake on us. «

Twitter: @emmacowing