When California tried to ban the sale of violent video games to minors, the Supreme Court mocked its efforts, noting that old Looney Tunes cartoons provoked the same tendency toward violence in children as a Grand Theft Auto–style bloodbath. But just how violent were Looney Tunes? A video compiled by Sam Henderson reminds us that the antics of Bugs Bunny and co. were a lot more brutal than you remember:
As Retro Junk notes points out, many of these so-called “suicide gags” have long been edited out of TV reruns, though some are still included on DVD editions. To modern sensibilities, of course, the gun violence is especially startling—particularly the blasé approach to gun suicide, a rampant problem across the United States. The cartoons’ depictions of firearms as fun toys to be deployed for petty revenge also comes across uncomfortably now, during our years-long epidemic of school shootings.
That’s not to say that Looney Tunes’ violence lacks any artistic merit. In a recent A.V. Club roundtable discussion, the critic Todd VanDerWerff noted:
Watching these cartoons now, I’m struck by their violence. Don’t get me wrong: I think that’s a big part of the cartoons’ charm. … [A] little cartoon violence never hurt anybody, but it’s still a bit shocking to me to watch these things and see the characters basically annihilating each other in ways that would result in death in reality. Yes, that’s part of the joke, but it’s hard to think of anything quite this anarchic and violent in kids’ TV nowadays. I think it works in Looney Tunes, perhaps because of the anarchy …
That sounds about right to me—and I don’t doubt that most children in America are constantly exposed to violence on TV that’s far more disturbing than anything in Looney Tunes. But no kids’ show today would ever treat firearms or gun deaths so lightly, with such zany exuberance, as Looney Tunes once did. That jaunty disregard of the consequences of violence is part of what made the show so bizarrely delightful. In a post-Newtown world, however, what was once strangely funny now registers as appallingly macabre.