Thank You, Tex Avery

Tex Avery is a name you might have heard.  You might even know that he made cartoons.  I’ve been diving back into classic cartoons lately and have come to the conclusion that he’s the most underappreciated artist not just in cartoon comedy, but in American comedy period.

Tex Avery (real name George) was born and raised in, well, Texas.  By the early thirties he was working at the Walter Lantz Studio in California as an animator.  He learned the ropes while there, working on Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons.  It was also there that a stray flying paper clip lodged in his eye, costing him his sight in it.

It wasn’t until he talked Leon Schlesinger at Warner Brothers into letting him have his own animation team that what became known as the “Tex Avery style” began to surface.  His team (including Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones) was put into a small bungalow in the back lot, as to not tip off his predecessor about his imminent firing.  This bungalow became immortalized as “Termite Terrace” because of its endless infestation with the bug.

Up until this point, the major animation studios had copied the style of Disney’s Silly Symphonies.  In the case of Warner Brothers, it was with their Merry Melodies.  In order to distinguish his group from the previous team at the studio, Avery’s crew made cartoons under the title Looney Tunes (in keeping with the musical theme).

Avery convinced Schlesinger to let his team stray from the Disney formula.  Avery knew they couldn’t match the Disney cartoons in terms of budget or production values, so like all great outsiders he chucked the rules aside and did whatever he thought was funny.  Cartoons up until this point had more or less stayed within a slightly exaggerated sense of reality and Avery pushed his boys to take things beyond the point of ridiculousness.  For instance, they spoke right to the audience either through the characters (“Screwy, ain’t he?”) or through signs (a stretch limo pulls up to a night club and keeps going and going until a sign appears on it saying, “Long, huh?”).  Other gags included running over the edge of a cliff and not falling until you realize what happened or running on a carpet so fast that you tear it up.  As these gags are now clichés, it’s easy to forget how insane they seemed when audiences first saw them.

The first feature his team did was Gold Diggers of ’49, which turned the existing character Porky Pig into a star.  Daffy Duck was introduced shortly after in Porky’s Duck Hunt.  In studios such as Termite Terrace, there never is a single creator of a character, but Tex was the chief idea man and the one who had the final say on their creation.  After establishing these reoccurring characters he created the one that would lead to Warner Brothers dethroning Disney as the king of animated shorts.

The Looney Tunes team had already made a couple of cartoons with a rabbit character.  In one, he was essentially Daffy Duck with long ears.  In another, Elmer’s Candid Camera, he’s a sarcastic trickster, but with the voice of a doofus.  Finally, Avery himself directed A Wild Hare, which most folks agree is the first real appearance of Bugs Bunny (and Elmer Fudd).  It’s the first one where he uses the voice we all know and says the greeting Avery brought with him from Texas: “What’s up, doc?” (In his home town, doc was used instead of buddy or pal).

Unfortunately, Avery didn’t stick around to enjoy the success that Bugs would bring.  While working on the fourth Bugs cartoon, he and Schlesinger argued over the ending.  Avery was a perfectionist and couldn’t stand to be questioned on things and he parted company with Warner’s over the issue of how many times Bugs goes off a cliff at the end of the cartoon (Avery wanted it to be three and Schlesinger two). 

From there he went to MGM and it’s here, where he was once again given free reign, that he created the cartoons cementing the “Tex Avery style”.  In these shorts he pushed boundaries again, taking gags even further over the top and pacing them at breakneck speed.  His most popular character was Droopy, but fans of classic cartoons particularly love the Red Hot Riding Hood shorts.  You may think you’re not familiar with these, but you are.  All four are modern variations of the Little Red Riding Hood story in a modern setting.  You probably know them from the nightclub sequences, featuring Red singing on stage and a lust-crazed wolf howling at her while furiously pounding the table with his chair.  Shortly thereafter, his eyes would swell to an enormous size before bursting out of his head.  See, you know the cartoon.

By the way, is it me or does that cartoon just heighten the already-in-there theme of sexual assault in the Little Red Riding Hood story?

Avery left MGM in 1953, burned out and badly needing a break.  He never really enjoyed his success.  Like many perfectionists, he worked hard at reaching a goal that was always just out of reach.  He spent the 60s working in commercials and the 70s writing gags for Hannah Barberra.  Over this time, he was slowly withdrawing from the business and suffering from depression.  From what I can tell, when he died in 1980 he was not a happy guy.  The cartoon style he helped pioneer had gone from lavish theatrical productions to cheap TV shows.  Despite the giant impact he had not just on cartoons, but on American pop culture, he never got to bask in admiration from the general public the way his peers did.

This is mostly because he didn’t live to see the renaissance in animation that took place in the late 1980s.  Not only did animation return to prominence both in theaters and on television, but appreciation for him swelled.  I really wish he had lived to see Who Framed Roger Rabbit?  As much as that movie is a tribute to all classic cartoons, Avery’s style is all over it from the opening short to Jessica Rabbit’s number in the night club.  Maybe then he could’ve seen how much he meant to all the people who had grown up with his work.  Given his temperament, it might not have meant that much to him, but I think he deserved to see that level of gratitude expressed.


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