Saturday, January 26, 2008
My Conversation With Chuck Jones
I knew who Chuck Jones was before I knew the planet was circular. In fact, when I was told that Earth wasn't flat, and that it was a circle which allowed people on the opposite side the ability to not fly off into space, I said it was absurd ( I was five ) and that the concept sounded like 'a Chuck Jones cartoon'. The better part of my childhood was spent studying the Warners cartoons, and Chuck for many years was hands down my favorite animation director of any form animation took.
What led to me actually getting to talk to him came from my love of the newspaper comics and my own geographical good fortune.
When I was twelve my family moved to Sarasota, a town which, among other things, was the habitat for many of the newspaper comics you know. This was attributed to the fact that Jim Davis of "Garfield" fame moved here when he retired from his exhaustive practice of inking heads.*
Soon after, several others followed such as Chris Browne ( "Hagar The Horrible" )
and Brooke McEldowney ( "Nine Chickweed Lane"... Brooke draws great naked chicks )
and the irreverent, living, breathing cartoon of a cartoonist: Mike Peters ( "Mother Goose and Grimm" ).
Mike's wife Marian played tennis with my mother, and so I had an enormous teacher and friend in Mike. There's actually a few features in Manx that were taken from Grimmy. One or two little Mike-isms thrown into the design adopted over the years.
Mike's style was strongly influenced by the same classic cartoon principles that Preston Blair teaches, and I assume this has something to do with how he knew Chuck.
When I graduated the eighth grade Mike and Marian had gotten me a wonderful pair of gifts: a hard cover copy of Chuck's book 'Chuck Amuck' and a sericel from 'Rabbit of Seville', both of which had personalized autographs from Chuck.
This was when I learned that Mike knew Chuck and for many years would be entertained by wonderful tales of Chuck calling Mike up randomly to tell him trivial facts about trivial things he'd discovered, such as extrapolated theories as to how the eye works, perhaps ( eye, works, Iwerks, that's a joke, son! ).
Mike tells me Chuck would be so enthusiastic and amazed by things, like a little kid; an observer, to be sure, like all good animators are.
Several years later, Warner Bros. decided to take their characters and fist fuck them with no Vaseline.
They called this anal rape SPACE JAM, and the worst part is, they only did it to sell basketball shoes. My distaste of the film was heard by all, but Mike seemed to hear it the loudest.
Chuck, in his later years, had made and sold oil painting recreations of some famous works of art featuring the Warner characters, several of which were on display at the Peters' residence.
One day, after enjoying the many Chuck original works hanging in Mike's house ( complete with a Sharpie©-penned mural starring Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner in the guest house ) he started a conversation about 'South Park'. Mike and Marian had just been to the 1998 Aspen Comedy Festival and met Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and so we were discussing that when the conversation, invariably, went back to Chuck.
Apparently, Matt and Trey didn't confuse what they were doing with the talents of the Warner originals ( or Monty Python ), unlike Warner Bros. today. SPACE JAM came up again, and in the middle of the conversation, Mike just gets up and walks out of the room.
This may seem unusual to you, the casual reader, but it was even more so to me, because I know Mike. Mike is excitable and enthusiastic to the point of unbelievability ( we used to tease him about this, impersonating him: "Wow, look guys! Carpet lint! Wow! And all-over-the-carpet-like!" ) so for him to just get up and walk out of the room in the middle of an animation discussion was unusual to say the least.
But it didn't stop the conversation; Marian and I kept talking about animation and the sorry state of it today and how SPACE JAM was an example of it, when all of a sudden Mike hollers at us from across the house in his studio: "Hey guys! Get in here now!"
We run in there, and Mike's cradling the phone, covering up the receiver: "I called one of our friends!" I knew exactly who it was, and it sure as Susan wasn't Trey Parker.
After the initial shock, which was complete with a kneeled phone-worship a la WAYNE'S WORLD, the first thing I had to ask was Chuck's opinion of the JAM. The reason is, Chuck had a way with words which he used very well. If he had something to say regarding a project, why, he was delicate and eloquent.
When he was awarded the Lifetime of Achievement Academy Award in 1998, the sequence they played before he came onstage consisted of his cartoons for Warners and MGM, but it strongly featured 'The Dot And The Line', a cartoon Chuck wasn't very satisfied with creatively.
Instead of saying something discrediting towards the picture, he said this:
"Well, what can I say in the face of such humiliating evidence? I stand guilty before the world. and directing over 300 cartoons in the last fifty or sixty years," he continued and then gestured with his Oscar,
"hopefully, this means you've forgiven me."
To my knowledge, Chuck hadn't said anything publicly about the movie, so I asked him myself.
"Chuck, I just wanted to know, first of all, what did you think of SPACE JAM?"
"Oh, I thought it was terrible."
He went on to say that, as someone who worked with these characters for upwards of forty years, the story was deeply flawed: "I can tell you, with the utmost confidence," he said, "Porky Pig would never say 'I think I wet myself'".
On the off-chance that Bugs were to be faced with the situation of a basketball game standing between freedom and extraterrestrial domination, he would most certainly not have incorporated the help of the other Looney Tunes characters, least of all Michael Jordan.
He added that Bugs wouldn't have needed anyone's help, and moreover, it wouldn't have taken him an hour and a half. Those aliens, whether they were tiny or colossal, would've been dealt with in short order come the seven minute mark.
Even though Chuck's understandable negative outlook toward SPACE JAM would, if it were publicly stated, be evasive, that still wasn't enough for the humorless worry-wort lawyers that now run Warner Brothers.
While speaking with his holy Chuck-ness I learned that there was a dinner on the lot within a few weeks prior to the talk we were having, and they thought it would be great for Chuck to give a congratulatory speech to the Warner Bros. animators for 'reanimating' their characters and starting a new life for them. Chuck said what any sane person would in that situation, and these cocksuckers actually had the temerity to not only ask him to leave, but they ESCORTED HIM OFF THE LOT!!
The very same lot, by the way, where Chuck, along with his compatriots created the legacies that Warner Bros. were currently ruining.
Once we had moved on from the monstrosity that was the JAM, Chuck asked me if I drew, and Mike confirmed that he had seen and enjoyed my drawings of Manx. Chuck said we could trade, one of my drawings for one of his, which made me feel very talented indeed.
We reminisced about favorite cartoons ( some of which weren't his ), the difference between his Schlesinger cartoons and the post-48 cartoons when Leon sold the studio and the characters to the brothers Warner and the fun of background artists' sight gags ( such as the sign in 'Super Rabbit' that read "Now entering Deepinahearta, Texas ). He also taught me I ought to read up on Mark Twain, his favorite author.
Incidentally, this was the first time that I learned of the connection between Bob Clampett and John Kricfalusi. We were talking about some of the great directors at Schlesinger's when Bob got brought up, and I wondered aloud how much the original directors at Warners were an influence on the new cartoons, that of "Tiny Toons" and "Animaniacs" and Marian said that Clampett was a much bigger influence on cartoons like "Bakshi's Mighty Mouse", "Ren & Stimpy" and anything else J.K. worked on.
There was also a little bit of talk of the apprenticeship John got from Clampett and Ralph Bakshi.
John had a good reputation of tracking down the cartoonists that inspired him, and interviewing them, thereby making friends with them, and Mike suggested I was following form by doing that with him and now Chuck.
The funny thing was, as excited as I remember feeling, the whole time I had a lump in my throat. I couldn't believe it. It was the closest I would ever come to talking to Bugs Bunny, and although Chuck 'ruefully acknowledges' that he's more the duck than the rabbit, you could absolutely hear Bugs' personality in his voice.... and he was talking directly to me.
The man and the rabbit directly responsible for any semblance of confidence I had ever exuded was talking with me, and it wasn't formal like at a book signing or anything, it was completely personal. Today, the desire for decent cartoons grows, and, pun intended, I am often Jonesing for quality.
And I owe a personal debt of gratitude to the incomparably talented and friendly Mike Peters and the late, great Chuck Jones. Good cartoonists have a responsibility to pass the torch and influence other potentially good cartoonists, and we at Booo Tooons have no intention of letting them down.
To quote Chuck: "In that sense, if only in that sense, I am at one with all great comedians." And for a brief moment, so was I and it was a dream come true.
- Trevor Thompson
*This is in reference to the fact that Davis, after a certain point, no longer had any direct involvement with the production of the Garfield strip, instead handing production over to his company, PAWS INC. Chris Browne later confessed to me that sometimes Jim would ink the heads, but that was it. This type of cartooning was sometimes frowned upon, particularly by the likes of Bill Watterson ( "Calvin and Hobbes" ) who foresaw all aspects of production concerning his strip and drew everything, even for promotions, entirely by himself.
Watterson himself chastized Davis and this type of 'factory foreman cartooning' in an interview:
This is also why Watterson retired after fifteen years and why Davis is still, literally, churning out strips.