Annecy 2019: Pete Browngardt And Alex Kirwan On Bringing Back The Looney Tunes

by Tito W. James

This year Warner Bothers is bringing audiences 1,000 minutes of high production value cartoonist driven shorts featuring the Looney Tunes in a verity of settings and styles. At the Annecy Animation festival I had the opportunity to chat with executive producer Pete Browngardt, supervising director Alex Kirwan about their vision for these classic characters.

Tito W. James: The looney tunes are some of the most iconic cartoon characters in American history. Other than nostalgia what makes them relevant to contemporary audiences?

Pete Browngardt: They are still relevant because the Looney Tunes are characters and archetypes that transience time. They have personalities that are relatable. No matter what generation you show these classic cartoons to, they still play.

We actually did some research leading up to doing our Looney Tunes cartoons. We did research with the original Looney Tunes cartoons by doing audience and focus testing. We found that the cartoons play better now than ever. The laughter in the room from children to adults—They’re just perfect comedy films.

Alex Kirwan: We’ve done research without our own children as well.

[Both laugh]

AK: I was introduced to the shorts by my father.

PB: I was introduced to them by my brother. We were both exposed at a very early age. Alex actually had cartoons projected over his crib.

AK: My Dad’s a film collector and he taught me that these films were important. I fell in love with them. There’s all I wanted to watch and enjoy. I think that’s because the Looney Tunes only agenda is comedy. Every decision in the Looney Tunes is geared towards making people of all ages laugh. There’s no other agenda of trying to sell toys or trying to be…

PB: (Chips in)Or telling a grand story with a three-act structure. It’s just a scenario, character archetypes, goodguy badguy, go!

AK: Yeah, what do the characters want, how does that lead to conflict, and how is that conflict going to generate laughs? That’s what we are trying to hone in on.

PB: For me this project came up out of love. I had a meeting at Warner Brothers where I asked if I could make one Looney Tunes short—because I love Looney tunes. I just love them and I wanted to enter that arena. I just thought I could do something with these characters, because I understand the history of these characters. I feel like they raised me, my personality comes from these cartoons.

TWJ: You refer to these characters as archetypes. What was interesting about the original Looney Tunes is how each short could take place in a different time or genre. It was like Bugs and Daffy were actors but playing themselves in different films. Is this something you thought about when creating the new series.

PB: Absolutely! For each short it’s almost like you have a dollhouse filled with these amazing characters and each location or setting is its own dollhouse. A lot of the classic shorts are just, Elmer in a barber chair and Bugs giving him a haircut. A simple scenario and maximizing the performance and the gags. Simplicity is key.

AK: It’s great. That’s part of their accessibility because you can drop in at any time. There’s not a larger mythology that you need to know. I love Marvel comics and all that, but you have to versed a little bit. You need to know the origins of the superheroes and their relationships.

If was very important for us when creating these new Looney Tunes shorts to approach them as individual films and not narrative-driven episodes of a TV show. The characters may be living in a different time or location and meeting each other for the first time in each short.

PB: In each short it kind of resets. Sylvester wants to eat Tweety because Sylvester’s hungry every time.

AK: Sylvester has never seen Tweety before. The hunter is looking for a rabbit and the rabbit doesn’t want to be eaten so he plays tricks on the hunter.

PB: And here we are 80 years later and it still works.

AK: We press reset and build the comedy scenario from scratch every time. It’s a comedy tradition that goes all the way to back to Charlie Chaplain, The Three Stooges, and Vaudeville. It’s this rich tradition that always works.

PB: The early Looney Tunes shorts are very Vaudeville. The backgrounds are set like a stage, deep space, and midlevel horizon. It was a stage for two comedy characters to interact in.

TWJ: There’s been a lot of analysis of long form storytelling. Live action film, hero’s journey, and so on. However, there aren’t many references for how to make a cartoon short work. Can you think of any Looney Tunes story principles besides simple scenarios and being self-contained.

PB: It’s the bully scenario. Bugs doesn’t do anything bad to a character without being provoked. He’s not just a jerk. He’s an underdog—a hero. He’s sort of anti-bullying in a way. He gets put upon, hurt, or threatened then he retaliates.

Tweety is innocent and Sylvester want to eat it. That’s just classic cat vs bird. The key that we find is a clever set-up. The set-up is super important.

We have a short called sick as a hare where Elmer captures Bugs. Bugs decides to “play sick” and tells Elmer you can’t eat me if I’m sick because you’ll get sick. Elmer is not the sharpest tool in the shed. So Elmer decides to nurse Bugs to make him better before eating him. And while Elmer is nursing Bugs, Bugs can unload on Elmer.

AK: More important than story is set-up and character. Character really informs all your decisions. The characters are very simple and very broad but it’s important to know why we would use Elmer Fudd in this story instead of Yosemite Sam or the Tasmanian devil. They’re all bullies but in different ways. Elmer Fudd in an idiot bully. Yosemite Sam is this very agro American tough-guy bully. The Tasmanian Devil is a bully but he’s a feral animal who can barely talk or think. We have a character, Pete Puma, who’s an idiot who thinks he’s smart. These one-sentence descriptions or who these characters are will define what gags you are going to use and how they will play out.

TWJ: It’s funny that you mention Pete Puma, because you know there are the main Looney Tunes characters that everybody knows and then there are the obscure characters audiences have never heard of. Are you planning on exploring some of these forgotten characters?

PB: We are digging deep into the obscure. We’re bringing back Beacky Buzzard because he’s a funny character and a great foil/threat to Bugs.

TWJ: Will you be experimenting in multiple art styles or with the art direction remain consistent throughout?

PB: We have a set feel for the overall style of the show. I think the biggest “style” thing is in the directors and writers. The [story]-artists who are writing the shorts. Their sensibilities, their feel for comedy. Some shorts have very violent physical humor and others have more charming humor. You get a different flavor by playing around with style and tone there. It’s like Alex said, we’re treating each short as its own film.

AK: The scenario of each story sets up the art style. One short may have minimalistic backgrounds because the focus of the jokes are on the characters. But if we are doing a location-focused short like in the old west or ancient japan, the backgrounds will be more lush and involved.

Again we are approaching these shorts as individual short films. In a normal TV show you’d have a stock pack; of backgrounds. “These are the set locations and this is how you paint a background.” What’s great about individual films is that you can tailor the art to the indevidule needs of that short.

TWJ: The Looney Tunes are able to do things that you don’t see in contemporary cartoons. You have characters using dynamite, shooting guns, and dressing in drag. What’s it like to bring back these elements and do you see it possibly opening doors for newer cartoons to explore these themes?

PB: I don’t know if other cartoons would be able to do it. I think we’ve been kind of grandfathered in because of the langue of the Looney Tunes and classic slapstick. I feel like if you went in today and tried to pitch a cartoon that was very much like the Looney Tunes… I don’t know how far you would get.

Some people may feel like slapstick is irrelevant but Alex and I don’t feel that way at all. It’s all about how you twist and turn the gag. It’s just funny and timeless in a way. We are definitely pushing the envelope violence-wise. We are often surprised as to what we are able to get away with on this project.

AK: You really have to commend Warner Brothers for allowing us to do what we thought was funny with these shorts and trusting that it would work.

PB: We’d be in these meeting and showing the execs the storybords with some really violent stuff in it. And they were like “yeah go ahead.” And we’d walk out of the meeting like “what’s going on here? When’s the shoe going to drop? And it hasn’t dropped it’s been great.

AK: [laughs] the dynamite explosions and all that is what we fell in love with as kids. That’s what our parents laughed at as kids. There have been multiple versions. There was a period in the 70s where they cut out all the explosions and they weren’t funny anymore. They adults edited out all the violence because even though they grew up on these cartoons they though it would corrupt the next generation. And then they realized that they were wrong.

PB: And the interesting thing is that they’re cartoons. The characters come back to life immediately [snaps fingers].

Looney Tunes was never gruesome. There was never any blood or guts. It was always funny. Funny drawings, funny expressions. And they come back to life. Even when you show little kids that stuff they know it’s ok.

I’d like to thank Pete Browngardt and Alex Kirwan for taking the time to do this interview. Look for more information on the Looney Tunes this coming year.

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