Accessibility links

Breaking News
What It Takes - Chuck Jones
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:41:12 0:00


00:00:00 ALICE WINKLER: The constant companions of my youth were a ragtag bunch of ridiculous, hilarious troublemakers. They were probably yours, too.

00:00:09 BUGS BUNNY: Eh, what you got in the basket, Doc?

00:00:12 ELMER FUDD: I got me a wabbit! I'm going to cook me a wabbit stew!

00:00:16 BUGS BUNNY: Mm-mm! Rabbit stew! Love it, love it!

00:00:20 PEPÉ LE PEW: Hello, young lover, whoever you are. I am Pepé Le Pew. Everyone should have a hobby, don't you think? Mine is making love.

00:00:34 PORKY PIG: Sylvester! I thought I told you if — this is no time for comedy! You take off that — you take off that makeup this minute!

00:00:44 DAFFY DUCK: It's wabbit season!

00:00:46 BUGS BUNNY: Duck season!

00:00:47 DAFFY DUCK: Wabbit season!

00:00:49 BUGS BUNNY: Duck season!

00:00:50 DAFFY DUCK: Wabbit season!

00:00:51 BUGS BUNNY: Duck season!

00:00:52 DAFFY DUCK: Wabbit season!

00:00:54 BUGS BUNNY: Wabbit season!

00:00:55 DAFFY DUCK: Duck season!

00:00:56 BUGS BUNNY: Wabbit season!

00:00:58 DAFFY DUCK: I say it's duck season, and I say fire!

00:01:01 ROADRUNNER: Meep-meep!

00:01:04 ALICE WINKLER: Remember, the original definition of animation isn’t cartooning. It’s the act of “giving life to” — and the person who gave life to all these characters was Chuck Jones. He directed hundreds of cartoons during his life, starting in the 1930s. Some of the characters, like Pepé Le Pew, he invented. Some, like Bugs Bunny, he transformed into the characters we know today.

00:01:31 He drew them. He wrote their stories, and he gave them their comic timing. He inhabited them, and he made us believe, while we were watching, that they were real. This is What It Takes, a podcast about passion, vision, and perseverance from the Academy of Achievement’s vault of recorded interviews. On this episode, artist and animator Chuck Jones. I’m Alice Winkler.

00:02:00 OPRAH WINFREY: "Hattie Mae, this child is gifted," and I heard that enough that I started to believe it.

00:02:06 ROGER BANNISTER: If you have the opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don't take it, you may never have another chance.

00:02:13 LAURYN HILL: It all was so clear. It was just, like, the picture started to form itself.

00:02:17 DESMOND TUTU: There was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.

00:02:25 CAROL BURNETT (quoting CARRIE HAMILTON): “Every day I wake up and decide, today I'm going to love my life. Decide.”

00:02:33 JOHNNY CASH: My advice is, if they're going to break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there.

00:02:37 JAMES MICHENER: And then along come these differential experiences that you don't look for, you don't plan for, but boy, you’d better not miss them.

00:02:49 ALICE WINKLER: In 1994, an animation historian took a poll of a thousand people working in the field of animation. It was for a book called The Fifty Greatest Cartoons, and ten of the fifty selected were made by Chuck Jones.

00:03:04 MUSIC: HIGH NOTE (BUGS BUNNY)

00:03:08 ALICE WINKLER: It’s hard to overstate his stature. When Jones spoke to the Academy of Achievement about his life and his career, he was in his 80s and still working. He was a very talkative guy and was the first to admit that his characters’ foibles reflected his own. Like Bugs or Daffy, he loved to go off on a tangent, but Chuck Jones’s tangents were more than just entertaining. They also landed you somewhere fascinating, somewhere that you could get a glimpse into his unconventional mind. Yes, he was a trained artist, but he started this conversation about his background with interviewer Gail Eichenthal — this was in 1993 — by talking about a cat from his childhood.

00:03:54 CHUCK JONES: Well, there was a cat by the unlikely name of Johnson, the only cat I've ever known who had a last name for a first name. I don't know what — whether it was his first name or his last name, but we were living in Newport Beach, California and — in a house, and this was around 1918. I was six years old, and my brother and I saw this cat. He came to visit us and — or take up residence, rather, as cats do, and it was early in the morning, and he came strolling over the sand dunes.

00:04:26 And he was a cat that walked like this, like a prizefighter. You expected him to pull his pants up like a prizefighter does, and he came over, and he had scar tissue over his chest, and one ear was slightly bent. And he had a tarry piece of string around his neck and a little — we didn't use them in those days — a tongue depressor, an old tongue depressor, and on it, in lavender ink, it said, "Johnson."

00:04:52 And with crude lettering — so we called him Johnson, and he answered to that as well as anything else. Of course, like most cats, he doesn't answer to anything. I mean he answered to food. That's what he answered to. How much do you want me to tell you about Johnson?

00:05:07 GAIL EICHENTHAL: Well, it's a very important story.

00:05:09 CHUCK JONES: It's important to me because it established, once and for all, in my mind, that every cat is different than other cats. And a lot of people, I do believe, that are not cat — don't have the knowledge of cats — tend to think that all cats are pretty much the same. And they say — like, they say, "Meow." Of course, they don't. They don't say, “Meow.” Anyway, he came to live with us, and he turned out to be a rather spectacularly different cat because the first morning, when we had breakfast, why, he came in and he spoke.

00:05:39 "G'now." He came up to my mother and — while she was finishing breakfast. And she figured he wanted something to eat, and so she offered him a piece of bacon and a piece of egg white and a piece of toast that's on — all of which he spurned. And finally, in a little spurt of whimsy, which was typical of my mother, she gave him a half a grapefruit that still had quite a bit of grapefruit in it, and it electrified him. It was like he'd taken a hypodermic. And he grabbed at that, and he went at like a —

00:06:08 Suddenly there was this flash of tortoiseshell cat whirling around with this thing, and then he came sliding out of it, and the thing slowly came to a stop, but it was completely cleared out. He cleared out the whole thing, and we looked at him in astonishment. Well, that led to — the four kids that lived in that place, my siblings — my brother and two sisters — and we realized we had something there that we could really enjoy.

00:06:34 So each morning, for a while, we gave him half a grapefruit, so that was nothing to him. I mean he would go through that same thing — that zoom! And the electricity flying through the air, and then sometimes he'd eat it in such a way that he ended up wearing a little space helmet. He was quite a cat. But then the second thing that really amazed us, and I've never heard of a cat like that before, but he was a very congenial cat. He liked to be with people.

00:07:02 And one day we were swimming, and we looked around, and here was Johnson, out there swimming with us. So here's a cat that eats grapefruit and swims in the ocean. And I don't know if you've ever seen a cat swim or not. They can swim. They can swim very well, but they don't like it, or they don't seem to like it, at any rate. He did. I think he really did. But only this much of him shows. He looked like a very pug-nosed alligator with hair, you know.

00:07:31 And his eyes were showing above the water, and then, when he got tired out there, he would come and put his arms up onto our shoulders and sort of hang there for a while. And, well, it was all right as long as it was one of the people in the family, but unfortunately, it wasn't always because if he couldn't find one of us, he'd approach a stranger. And people would come out of the surf there — they always looked pretty disturbed.

00:07:55 MUSIC: HIGH NOTE (BUGS BUNNY)

00:07:58 ALICE WINKLER: So here’s the thing about Johnson the Cat. He taught Chuck Jones that animals were as individual and as unpredictable as people.

00:08:08 CHUCK JONES: Yes, well, that, of course, laid the groundwork, so that when I got to doing things like Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny or Coyote or something, that's not all coyotes. That is the particular coyote, Wile E. Coyote, Genius. That's what he calls himself, at any rate. So he's different than others. He has an overweening ego, which isn't necessarily true of all coyotes.

00:08:31 Mark Twain, in Roughing It, a book that many people don't know about — but I highly recommend to anybody of any age to read it. He and his brother crossed the United States in a stagecoach. How romantic can you get? So then Mark Twain went on to start telling about the first time he met a coyote, and he said that the coyote is so meager and so thin and so scrawny and so unappetizing that, he said, “A flea would leave a coyote to get on a velocipede or a bicycle.”

00:09:01 And then he said how the coyote always looked like he was kind of ashamed of himself. And then he had some wonderful expressions about how the coyote exists in that terrible environment but how fast it is. And he said if you ever want to teach a dog lessons about what an inferior subject it is, let him loose when there's a coyote out there. And he said a city dog will start after the coyote, and the coyote will go off in this kind of very deceiving lope, and the dog will go after him. And he said, "And just when he thinks he has — why, the coyote looks over his shoulder, and he says, ‘Well, Bub, I guess you'll have to excuse me.’ He says, ‘I've got business elsewhere.’"

00:09:38 And then he says there's a flash in the atmosphere, and the dog looks around, and he's all alone. The coyote has completely disappeared.

00:09:47 ALICE WINKLER: So here’s another thing you need to know about Chuck Jones. Mark Twain had an enormous influence on him, on his aesthetic, his storytelling, and his sense of humor. Jones says he first started reading Twain when he was six years old, and he never stopped. And if you haven’t guessed already, yes, Mark Twain’s Roughing It was the inspiration for Wile E. Coyote.

00:10:14 EXCERPT FROM ROADRUNNER

00:10:20 CHUCK JONES: I started reading when I was just about three, I think, three and — a little over three. My father felt that it was best if we did our own reading. He said he had too many things he wanted to read himself to waste his time reading to us. He said, "You want to read? Learn to read." He said, "Hell, you learned to walk in two years, you can certainly learn to read in three," and so we all did. We all learned to read very early, and he helped us by seeing to it that we had plenty of things to read.

00:10:50 Reading was what you did. That's how you found out things. Even radio had not — in 1918 and 1919, when I was 6 or 7 years old, radio was just coming into use in the Great War. And nobody had a radio, and it wasn’t until the 1920s when people began to have that. And in those days, people moved a lot, and very often people left their whole libraries. And we were hardly living, you know, in abject poverty at any time, but we were able to move to houses where they were loaded with books.

00:11:22 And so there were four children and two adults, and we'd move into that house like a pack of locusts and go through all the books there. And then my father would go out and rent another — what he called — a “furnished” house, which meant, it didn't matter whether there was any furniture in it, but it did matter if there were books in it. And the only time we really had a little problem, one time, was when we went into a house, and this man was the world's leading authority on guano, and guano, of course, are bird droppings.

00:11:49 So we had to move to another house, another “furnished” house. And also, the thing about Saturday morning — did I mention that? That my father told each one of us, in turn, that nothing in the entire history of man had ever been said of importance at the breakfast table. He said, "You could trace any bit of wisdom in the world, and you'd find that it never happened at the breakfast table."

00:12:19 So he said, "It's hard enough to wake up, and it's hard enough to bridge waking up to going to work or going to school, without sitting around babbling nonsense at the breakfast table." He said, "Eat your breakfast and bring a book and read, or don't say anything. Just sit here and do it. Hunger is the best gravy, the best seasoning, so just fill in with something that is important to you.”

00:12:48 And it doesn't matter what book. That's another very important thing about reading. It doesn't matter what you read, as long as you read. He didn't tell us not to read the Bobbsey Twins — or the girls not to read the Bobbsey Twins, or me not to read the Rover Boys or anything — which is trash, and you know, supposedly it has good intent, but it's terrible. He said, "If you read bad reading, you'll soon realize what good reading is. And don't seek out bad reading, but when you run into it, don't ignore it."

00:13:17 How the hell do you know what it is unless you've experienced it? So we read everything, and by and by, our desire for good reading went up. And we even got to the point, as I did — well, that took me probably 10 or 12 years — where I began to appreciate reading for its own sake. And then I began to realize something that has solidified in my mind and helped me a great deal as an animation director, and that was that all great books are notable for their characters, not notable for their plots.

00:13:51 Everything is based on character, and I'm not the only one who says that. When you think about it, how thin, terribly thin, all operas are and most of Shakespeare. And nearly all the Shakespeare plots were stolen from somebody else, and nearly all opera is designed so that it can expose certain kinds of song. It doesn't matter if it's ridiculous, which, indeed it is.

00:14:22 I mean when I did What's Opera, Doc?, which was supposed to be a take-off on Wagner, my plot was no sillier than theirs. You can't be sillier than what is already silly, but that doesn't matter. The point of opera isn't what the plot is. It's what the character is and how they express it in song.

00:14:39 ELMER FUDD: Wabbit tracks!

00:14:41 MUSIC: WHAT’S OPERA, DOC?

00:14:45 ELMER FUDD: Kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit!

00:14:51 BUGS BUNNY: Kill the wabbit?

00:14:54 ELMER FUDD: Yo-ho-to-ho! Yo-ho-to-ho! Yo-ho-to-ho! Yo-ho...

00:15:00 BUGS BUNNY: Oh, mighty warrior of great fighting stock, might I inquire to asking, “What's up, Doc?”

00:15:12 ALICE WINKLER: You don’t know how much pleasure it gives me to have an excuse to play that. What a feat to whittle down the fourteen hours of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung to six minutes of highlights, and it’s a great example of the use of music in Chuck Jones’s cartoons. He and his team usually played the music straight with a full orchestra. It was what happened in front of the music that made it funny. If you want to see other examples, watch The Rabbit of Seville or How the Grinch Stole Christmas or George Lucas’s personal favorite, Duck Dodgers in the 24-1/2th Century.

00:15:50 But back to Chuck Jones’s discussion of character versus plot. He learned the virtues of character, yes, from reading books, but also from watching Charlie Chaplin silently portray one of the world’s most beloved characters. Chuck Jones’s family lived for a time on Sunset Boulevard, two blocks from Charlie Chaplin’s studio, so Jones would go down and look through the wired fence that surrounded it as Chaplin, a perfectionist, ran through the scenes again and again and again.

00:16:23 CHUCK JONES: It's funny. As children, you never quite realize that everybody isn't the same as you are, but I could go out and sit on my front porch of our house on Sunset Boulevard and see Mary Pickford ride by on a white horse at the head of the 160th Infantry. She was their honorary colonel, and I could see Tom Mix and Art Acord and all those great cowboys who, on Saturday night, would ride over the Cahuenga Pass and go all, say, into the saloons and have a ritual fight.

00:16:53 I mean they fought each other, and they didn't ever bother anybody else, but they'd fight each other, and that was what they did on Saturday night. And the Hollywood Hotel was at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard. It was just two or three blocks up from Sunset Boulevard, and that's where many of the stars stayed when they were there. And it was kind of an enchanting place, but I didn't know it was special. I just knew that I enjoyed it.

00:17:20 ALICE WINKLER: Maybe a little too much. When it became apparent that Jones wasn’t applying himself in high school, his father took him out and sent him to art school instead. That’s not a story you hear too often, but Jones’s father wanted his son to have a marketable skill. Granted, “marketable” is also not a term you often hear connected with art school. But it was clear that Chuck Jones had a talent for drawing, and in hindsight, his father was clairvoyant. Here’s Jones talking about his formal training to students at an Academy of Achievement Summit in 1991, just a couple of years before he sat for the interview you’ve been listening to.

00:18:00 CHUCK JONES: When I first came into art school — our freshman class — although we weren’t called freshmen. We thought of ourselves as young artists; why would we be in art school if we couldn’t draw? And this wonderful old man got up in front of us, and his name — he must have been terribly old; he was forty-seven or –eight.

00:18:16 And his name was the remarkable name of François Murphy.

00:18:20 And François Murphy looked down at them the way I’m looking down at you, and he said, "Every one of you birds has a hundred thousand bad drawings in you. The sooner you get rid of them, the better it’ll be for everybody."

00:18:35 "Not for you, mind you, for everybody."

00:18:37 Well, some of the guys got up and left, but I didn’t because I had no place to go.

00:18:43 And I was already on my second hundred thousand.

00:18:46 ALICE WINKLER: Not too much later, he got the break that would determine the course of his life.

00:18:52 CHUCK JONES: When I came out of art school, in the middle of the Depression, I thought that, if I were very lucky, I would get a job in a service station. And I had worked my way through school by being a janitor, and I was very good at that, but there were plenty of practicing janitors out there and apprentice janitors. And apprentice garbage men even had trouble. Although I do think it’s wonderful to go from garbage collecting to television. It seems a natural step.

00:19:32 When I came out of school, however — and I said I was hoping to get a job — and a few years before that, Walt Disney had come out to the coast — and this was in Los Angeles, Hollywood — and had come out and formed a studio, and other studios followed. And they were looking for people that could draw a little, and I could draw a little. So that marvelous, incredibly wonderful day happened to me when I was asked to come to work for a studio, and somebody offered to pay me for doing what I enjoyed most.

00:20:06 To this day, to me, that is the only worthwhile way to live, is to get some gullible person to pay you to do what you enjoy doing.

00:20:18 ALICE WINKLER: Chuck Jones’s first job at the studio wasn’t actually drawing, but he knew he was in the right place and that he’d get there soon if he just stayed put and did his work.

00:20:28 CHUCK JONES: But I started out as what they call a cell washer, the celluloids that the paintings eventually end up — that go into the camera. But those cells — and they were really celluloid in those days — they cost seven cents a piece. And so it seemed foolish after you'd finished a picture — and used the three or four thousand drawings that were used in those simple days, in a seven- or eight-minute cartoon — afterward, why, you washed them off and used them again.

00:20:54 One of those black and white Mickey Mouses recently sold at auction in New York for $175,000. And they were washing them off, too. It's ridiculous, but it's just a question of nobody thought to save any of them, and why should they? They weren't worth anything. So that was my first job, was washing that off, and then I became what they call an in-betweener, which is the guy that does the drawing between the drawings that the animator makes.

00:21:25 So, for instance, if I turn my hand over like this, that uses probably fourteen drawings. The animator does this drawing and probably up here and then down here. The in-betweener puts — “in-betweens” them.

When I was a cell washer, though, people thought I worked at a jail, you know, and washed the cells.

00:21:45 ALICE WINKLER: By 1933, at the age of 21, he was hired away by Leon Schlesinger Productions, an independent studio that made the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons for Warner Brothers. This is where he would spend the next almost-30 years doing the work he’s best known for.

00:22:04 CHUCK JONES: Leon had — he looked very much like an old-fashioned song and dance man, but he was a little old for that thing. He was the kind of guy that wore pointy toes, as we say. Pointies, as well. But he — unfortunately, he was very lazy, and all he knew was he made pictures that Warner Brothers bought. Somewhere in the — he was an in-law. I think he was married to one of the Warners’ sisters or something. I don't know.

00:22:30 Anyway, there was a familial relationship there of some kind, and he made pictures and sold them to Warner Brothers. And he didn't care; as long as they bought them, that was fine. But they were going to buy them all anyway, because in those days they had what they called block booking, and that was, if you bought a Warner Brothers feature, you had to take Warner Brothers short subjects that went with it, and you couldn't even look at them. You just took them, and Warner Brothers shoveled them in.

00:22:55 Well, the result, since they were going to be taken that way anyway, why, Leon didn't care as long as they bought them, and Warner Brothers didn't care what they were as long as they provided the product. Because what you needed in those days — and all of our pictures, I said, were made for theatrical release; they all went into theaters. You had to have a feature picture, and you had to have two or three short subjects, which would aggregate into a two-hour program. So you needed a bunch of short subjects.

00:23:24 Animated cartoons were about as reasonable as any at that time. They cost maybe $8,000 to $12,000 apiece.

At any rate, the short subject was a vital thing, and all the major studios had them.

00:23:37 ALICE WINKLER: But in a, shall we say, candid assessment, the kind one feels free to give late in one’s career, here is Chuck Jones talking about the studio heads he once worked for during the Golden Age of Animation. Again, this is from his address to Academy of Achievement students in 1991.

00:23:57 CHUCK JONES: I’d like to say a word in favor of management, though, as it applied to animated cartoons. I had two producers, both of whom were unique in their own way. One of them was a man named Eddie Selzer and, as Wilson Mizner said, he went through life like an untipped waiter.

00:24:19 He said he was always willing to give a helping hand to the man above him.

00:24:26 He gave us — he was so wrong on so many occasions that we began to depend upon him.

00:24:33 And one time he came to the doorway where Mike Maltese, the writer I worked with, was sitting there. And he stood there, and he looked like his suit had been tailored by the same man that tailored Mao Zedong's, you know. The kind that covered your — it came down here. His fingers were so short he only had one knuckle.

00:24:53 But he was a dreadful little man.

00:24:55 But he served his purpose because he stood there one day, and he said, "I don’t want any pictures about bullfights." He said, "There’s nothing funny about bullfights." And he walked out, and Mike and I looked at each other, and we suddenly thought we’d never thought of making a picture about bullfights.

00:25:10 But Mike said, "There must be something there because Eddie — "

00:25:14 So he served many purposes, and it shows that you can trust management.

00:25:25 The other one was a man by the name of Leon Schlesinger, and Leon looked like a soft destroyer, and he always walked that way. He walked like this, you know — a destroyer putting out to sea. He was very stupid, and he had a slight —

00:25:41 Which was helpful. And he had a slight lisp, and he’d come back and say — and we were sitting around, a bunch of us sitting around talking, and he’d say, "Whatcha working on, fellas?" And, well, we knew he wasn’t listening to us, so we’d say, "Well, we’re working on a picture about Daffy Duck," and it turns out Daffy isn’t a duck at all; he’s a transvestite chicken.

00:26:01 And so, he said, "That’s it, boys. Put in lots of jokes. I’m off to the rathes." Have you —

00:26:10 Well, if you don’t know what a rathe is, it’s where horthes run.

00:26:15 So he went off to the rathes, and Cal Howard turned to Tex Avery, who was directing a picture called Porky’s Duck Hunt, and he says, "Why don’t you use Leon’s voice on that duck?" And — because the voice he was using at that time was kind of a “woo-woo” kind of a voice and not particularly funny. So we called in Mel Blanc and asked him if he can imitate Leon Schlesinger, and he says, "Oh, thure I can." You know —

00:26:40 "Why the hell not, if you’ll pay me?" And tho — and so, we paid him, and he did, and then, about halfway through the picture, we realized that there would come the day when that picture would be shown on the screen, and Leon would hear his own voice coming out of the duck.

00:26:56 So we all wrote our resignations and were prepared for the worst. Now the room that they showed it in was not as big as this one. It was something similar to that, and so Leon would come in the back, walk down the aisle here, and he had a huge throne there that Cleopatra — I mean, Theda Bara or somebody — sat on. Her beautiful buns graced it, and his ugly buns disgraced it.

00:27:21 And he’d down, and then, in order to encourage us, you know — the picture's all finished — he’d say, "Roll the garbage!"

00:27:28 And that was sort of — you know, it made you feel like he really cared and —

00:27:35 So they rolled the garbage, and it was that picture. The duck was all the way through it, and at the end of it, why — and nobody, of course, made any sound. You could hear crickets in the background because we knew — it was like a death knell, you know.

00:27:46 But Leon never paid any attention to what anybody was doing. He didn’t care whether they laughed or not because it was only whether he laughed that mattered. So at the end, why, he jumped up and he looked angrily around the room; we thought it was anger. At any rate, he said, "Jesus Christ, that’s a funny voice! Where’d you get that voice?"

00:28:05 ALICE WINKLER: And as Chuck Jones added when he retold this story to interviewer Gail Eichenthal, as long as Daffy Duck lives, Leon Schlesinger lives, too, in his own little corner of cartoon heaven.

00:28:18 DAFFY DUCK: The great sportsman, eh? Huh! Hm! Huh-huh! Hm! Hmph! Huh! Hmph! Hmph! Huh! Hm! Huh! Huh-huh! Huh-hoo-hm! Huh-huh-huh! Sportsman.

00:28:32 GAIL EICHENTHAL: You said that Daffy represents all the character traits the rest of us try to keep subdued.

00:28:38 CHUCK JONES: Yes, of course, and you can get pretty frustrated not being able to exhibit them. We're all greedy, and we all have great avidity. We want the whole thing. Sigmund Freud was quite willing to agree that this is so and that anybody who loves jewels would be quite capable, if they knew they could do it without being apprehended, of breaking the glass at Tiffany's — without having had breakfast — and helping yourself.

00:29:13 But think about it. When you go back through the entire history of great comedians, going clear back to Keaton and Chaplin and Harold Lloyd and — all those people are losers. Nearly all great comedians are losers. So when we come up to Elmer Fudd and Donald Duck and Daffy Duck and all of these, these are ordinary people, but the thing we mustn't think is they're separate from us. They're not. We're losers, too. Everybody is more familiar with failure than they are with success.

00:29:44 How many successes do we know in our lifetime, and how long do they last? People think that you're striving toward a successful thing, like winning an Academy Award, for instance. Well, very bashfully, I'll agree that I was very contemptuous about Academy Awards until I won one.

00:30:04 And then I thought, "Oh boy, this is the — you bet, boy! This is a big thing." But then I realized that having won it didn't mean a thing. It was nice to know that your peers responded to you that year, but there's another year coming.

00:30:20 GAIL EICHENTHAL: What, looking back, are you most proud of, as far as your contribution?

00:30:27 CHUCK JONES: Well, I'm not proud of any part of it. I mean any time I run one of my pictures, at least for the first five years after I've made it, all I can see are the mistakes. All writers are familiar with this, and all artists are familiar with it. I think Somerset Maugham had the best answer to that. You know, if you've got writer's block, it'll last your lifetime, unless you're able to say what he said: "This is the best I can do now. Not forever, but now."

00:30:55 And so, when he got to that point, he'd say, "That's it. I'll try to correct any errors I made in the next thing that I write, but now is what you have to live with." And when you make a drawing, when you're drawing — oh, you know, drawing the human figure and painting, like I do, it's a terrible thing because you can continue a painting for the rest of your life. But you have to stop, and you have to say, "This is the best I can do now."

00:31:18 So that may sound like an evasion. And I'm not basically, essentially, modest or — I don't try to avoid that feeling of satisfaction when something goes right. But the only time that I see that it goes right is when somebody — the effect on somebody else — like when students come to me and say how much they enjoyed the films, and they didn't harm them any, you know. And they laugh just as hard today as they did when they were kids.

00:31:49 Actually, the first time they saw them, they didn't laugh at all. The most frightening audience to me is children below five. They're dreadful. They're frightening. They don't laugh in the right places if they laugh at all. They twist around in their chairs. They get upside down and look under their knees at things. They get into positions nobody could get into.

00:32:07 No, I keep away from them. If you really want to find out where you stand in the modesty level or the accomplishment level, take your top accomplishment under your arm and watch the children, and you try to entertain them and see what happens.

No, they're wonderful, but they're terrible, too.

00:32:29 GAIL EICHENTHAL: You know, one thing that you wrote that really meant a lot to me was that we do laugh at ourselves when we laugh at Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny and that that laughter can be quite therapeutic because it makes people feel less alone. And I think surely you have a sense of doing that for people.

00:32:52 CHUCK JONES: It's a marvelous thing when it happens, yes. I mean I've never gotten used to the idea that I can do anything that way, and when people laugh, you know, and respond, it's a gift. Let me give you an example of that, and it may seem to be a deviation, but it has real meaning. A young man came from Columbia University who had studied to write. They don't call it poetry, but to write lyric stuff, and he'd written some, and he was, like, 22 years old, and somebody introduced him to Robert Frost.

00:33:26 And he went to Frost and took some of his writings, and showed it to Frost, and Frost looked through some of it, and then he looked up — and his little white eyebrows — and he said, "What do you do?" And the boy, wanting to be one with this giant, said, "I'm a poet." And Frost looked up at him again, his craggy old face, and he said, "The term poet is a gift word. You can't give it to yourself."

00:33:53 And that's what I mean. If somebody tells me I'm an animator, you know — an animator, that is a gift word, but it comes from the outside. There's one rule that I feel is vital, and that thing was set down by G. K. Chesterton, who said, "I don't take myself seriously, but I take my work deadly seriously." Comedy is a very, very, very stringent business, and Jackie Gleason said, "It's probably the most difficult and demanding of any form of drama because you have an instant critic, laughter."

00:34:31 ALICE WINKLER: If he had written tragedies, Chuck Jones said, he would have had no way of knowing whether his audience was suffering enough, but in comedy, he knew when he got it right, and the key to comedy, according to Jones, was timing and attitude, not words.

00:34:47 CHUCK JONES: A comedian is successful because of what he does. Jack Benny would cross his arms and look around at the audience and say, "Well — " and he'd get laughter. His timing was beautiful, and our characters, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and so on, their bodily action was what made them.

00:35:07 Think about it, our characters — and indeed, the best Disney short subject characters — none of them are funny to look at, with one or two exceptions. But basically, they're not funny, not like a comic strip.

In the comic strip, the only thing you have to work with is what a character looks like and what he says, and animation is how a character moves that makes him what he is, so he belongs to the great school of acting.

00:35:29 That started with the Three Little Pigs in 1933. Here were three characters that looked alike and acted differently, and that was what — at that point, animation changed completely. It became acting.

And so Bugs moves differently than Daffy, in the same situation, the same kind of danger that all the characters are involved with — he would act differently. Pepé Le Pew would always act differently, much more controlled, but Pepé was always moving in, no matter what the situation is, rather elegantly.

00:35:58 PEPÉ LE PEW: You are a girl. I am a boy. We have all that in common, darling. May I call you darling? You may call me Streetcar because of my desire for —

00:36:21 Hey, Lolita! Intimacy is difficult at this range!

00:36:28 ALICE WINKLER: I loved Pepé Le Pew when I was a kid, but there’s no way I could have appreciated all the layers of the humor back then. It’s the same for Bugs and other characters, and that was by design. A children’s film, like a children’s book, Chuck Jones believed, can only be great if it appeals to adults as well. Otherwise, it doesn’t have a chance.

00:36:51 CHUCK JONES: You’ve got to do the best you can. You have no right to pull back. You have no right to write for children. And you do the best thing that you can do, and if the audience is for children, all the more so because you're building the child's expectation to what is good and what is bad. And how are you going to build children up by writing down to them?

00:37:11 I don't think about the audience. I think about me, and I think about how grateful I am that I blundered into that group of whimsical, wild, otterish-type people that are in there, all of them nutty and all of them intense. Because don't forget that we talked a lot about how free times were then, but every one of us had to turn out ten pictures a year in order to get the 30 that Warner Brothers needed.

00:37:39 And so it was frivolous, to be sure, but — and plenty of frivolity and plenty of laughter, but for every bit of laughter, there has to be 90% of work. I might draw 50 drawings trying to get one expression so that it looked right for Bugs and — or Daffy or something like this. Sometimes it came quickly, but like writing, sometimes it — you come to a dead stop, and I'd have to haul off and go — I'd have to go and do something because I couldn't break through, couldn't find what the guy was supposed to be doing.

00:38:11 And that's all. You don't have to worry about drawing. After a while, it's as easy to draw Daffy or Bugs or anything as just a movement. If I'm wanting to move him there, I know how to do that, but what's he thinking about? And I have to get that expression that'll indicate what he's thinking about. Again, with Bugs Bunny, you dream about being Bugs Bunny; you wake up, and you're Daffy Duck. Bugs is a hero. That's why, when you use Bugs in a film, he's got to take some knocks.

00:38:38 Otherwise, he'd be insufferable, and he'd be a big bully is what he'd be. And so you can't let him do that, but he's a comic hero, which is unusual.

00:38:48 GAIL EICHENTHAL: You talk about animation as invoking life, bringing these characters to life, and you talk about them — and I suppose we feel about them — as if they are real.

00:38:59 CHUCK JONES: Well, if they're not real, you can't do them. You can't — any more than Olivier can become either King Lear or Henry the Fifth or the Entertainer. He can't get it from the outside. He has to get it from the inside, and he has to believe in the character.

00:39:15 ALICE WINKLER: And it’s all the more true in animation, where the director has to believe, and make us believe, that a coyote with TNT is outsmarted by a roadrunner every time; that a fuming skunk speaks with a French accent; and that a skinny rabbit, who holds a carrot in his hand like a cigar, is our all-time favorite hero. Chuck Jones spoke to the Academy of Achievement in 1991 and '93. In 1996, he received an Honorary Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement.

00:39:48 It was presented by Robin Williams. Chuck Jones died in 2002 at the age of 89, leaving the world smiling.

00:39:57 MUSIC: BEDROCK BALLET

00:40:14 ALICE WINKLER: I’m Alice Winkler and this is What It Takes from the Academy of Achievement. Tell your friends about this episode and any of the others that have inspired you or sparked your creativity. Our twitter handle is #WhatItTakesNow. Our podcast is made possible with funding from the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation. Thanks for listening.

00:40:34 MUSIC: BEDROCK BALLET

END OF FILE

What It Takes is a podcast of conversations with well-known people in almost every field. The interviews have been recorded over the past 25 years by the American Academy of Achievement. They offer life stories of people who have had a huge impact on the world. They offer insights you can apply to your own life.

XS
SM
MD
LG