How Looney Tunes Animator Chuck Jones Became a Master of Visual Comedy

By  · Published on July 20th, 2015

In 2006, Roger Ebert wrote this about Chuck Jones’ cartoons in his “Great Movie” column:

These cartoons, and all the cartoons from the same tradition, seemed doomed to play for a week and then disappear (although sometimes there would be a collection of “Five Color Cartoons” before a kiddie matinee, and London’s Piccadilly Circus had a theater that played only cartoons). Then, just as the studios pulled the plug on cartoon shorts, color TV came along to give them a new life, and now on cable and DVD they seem immortal.

There are two ways to regard them: As silly little entertainments, or as an art form that in its own small way, its limitations permitting an infinity of imagination, approaches perfection.

“Limitations permitting an infinity of imagination” is a beautiful way to describe the craftsmanship behind Jones’ classic cartoons. From the beginning of cinema history, animation was plagued by its total freedom in a way we seem to reserve solely for CGI these days. The ability to do anything inevitably becomes the context by which we judge the finished product – a reversal from the bulk of movies that have to be forgiven their trespasses due to financial constraints. They only had so much money, they only had so much time, you can’t expect the mechanical dragon to look better than it does.

That mindset is one of many reasons for the duality of animation that Ebert mentions. Plenty of people see those brief shots of joy as frivolous, but Looney Tunes characters haven’t endured 85 years on accident.

In his latest Every Frame a Painting video essay, Tony Zhou breaks the format in order to explore the evolution of Jones’ style and skill. Both seem born from the self-imposed restrictions Jones placed on his work and his one-two punch comedic formula.

That formula owes a lot to Vaudevillian and silent film humor, particularly physical comedy from greats like Charles Grapewin, Buster Keaton and Harpo Marx. Expectation + Reality = The Funny was a major equation in early 20th century entertainment, and Jones capitalized on the exaggeration possible in animation to ramp that physicality up to 11. This wasn’t a simple case of copying and pasting; Jones was a comic master who served to push comedy forward in a medium that is unfortunately regarded by some as kids’ stuff.

This is another stellar video from Zhou, who explores Jones’ genius with gusto and clear reverence, ending on one of the most hopeful, artistic notes about inspiration that Every Frame a Painting has ever seen.

What I find most interesting – particularly in the video’s focus on limitations – is that those restrictions are both wisely manufactured by Jones and inherent in the freedom of animation itself. Animation allows you to create a character with no face, which offers the limitations of telling a story with a character with no face. Jones rightly recognized that sometimes those natural restrictions weren’t enough to keep the storyteller focused on the best possible gags and situations. There had to be more.

It’s within that framework that Jones and the Looney Tunes team were able to craft characters with singular goals who nonetheless felt fully realized and rounded. Oh, and hilarious.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.