For cartoon fans of a certain age, Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies are sacred brand names and the news of a revival and 21st century makeover sounds like an emotional anvil dropping down on their collective heads and hearts. But here’s a funny twist — the people behind the show admit the idea didn’t sound so great to them, either.
“Come up with a sitcom out of Looney Tunes? It sounds kind of terrible,” says Tony Cervone, producer of of “The Looney Tunes Show,” which premieres tonight on Cartoon Network. His head writer, Hugh Davidson, didn’t sound much sunnier about the starting point of the project. “I don’t think anyone wanted to do it. If I was on the outside, I’d think it was a terrible idea. I think I would hate it. But since I was on the inside I only thought it was a half-terrible idea and I only half hate it.”
That wry bit of candor suggests that Davidson might actually be the right guy for the job when it comes to capturing the droll sarcasm of Bugs Bunny and the pessimism of Daffy Duck. The show that he and the rest of the team have come up with is an animated sitcom set in the contemporary world; Daffy is the seemingly permanent houseguest at the home of Bugs and, yes, Davidson mentioned both “The Odd Couple” and ”Seinfeld” as compass points for a series that will take the bickering buddies to the DMV, the grocery store, a cruise ship, a game show, etc. Daffy even gets a new no-nonsense girlfriend named Tina who could make George Costanza seize up with anxiety and longing even though she’s a, y’know, cartoon — not that’s there anything wrong that.
“We have something,” Davidson said, “that feels like it could work.”
Davidson said the corporate push by Warner Bros. to put the two iconic properties back into action on television led to a writers brainstorming conference and some ideas that were dead on arrival. A variety show motif (think of Bugs as big-eared stand-in for Kermit the Frog and skits and the backstage hijinks of “The Muppet Show“) was considered and scrapped, for instance, as was any toon-town equivalent to “The Larry Sanders Show“ that would present them wandering the Warner lot in Burbank or dialing up their agents. Davidson said there was also no way to go with any after-school-special spirit without losing the sardonic, old-school edge: “These characters are not great for teaching lessons.”
The framing concept that finally clicked was a sitcom in which the characters might find some new kind of emotional traction and the creators could avoid competing directly with the past somewhat by steering away from seven-minute shorts format. The 30-minute episodes will break away from the sitcom setting for ”Merrie Melodies,” animated music videos of original songs with escapades of Elmer Fudd, Pepe Le Pew and other characters, as well as “Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote,” who continue to be locked in their desert duels of mute, ballet-like mayhem.
For Cervone, the sitcom portion of the show recalls “The Flintstones” in a way because Bugs and Daffy “have men’s issues, they think adult thoughts” and he said there’s “some Hope-Crosby in there, some Jack Benny — you know, we have fresh new ideas, like Jack Benny and other things that were popular 60 years ago.”
The series will be peppered with appearances by the wide gallery of classic Warner Bros. characters — Porky Pig, Yosemite Sam, Foghorn Leghorn, the Tasmanian Devil, Marvin the Martian, etc. — but all of them look a bit different. As you might expect, just as Bugs, Daffy and the rest of the characters have evolved visually through the decades, this new iteration comes with a redesign that is intended to connect with the aesthetic of a new generation of viewers.
Cervone said the sleeker new visuals are only a few degrees different: ”We wanted to change the font. It’s the same alphabet but a different font.” Of course any change will risk the wrath of animation purists and old-school fans (as well as the groans of some reviewers) but the producer and his team know that’s par for the course with the brand names they have dared to take on. The first 26 episodes are locked in and Cervone is clearly proud of them, but he knows that the ambitions of the series will make for a loopy first date with some audience members. “It’s like any series, like any sitcom, it takes a little while to get used to and to find itself.”
– Geoff Boucher
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