Bugs Bunny, the smart-aleck cartoon rabbit, known equally well for his carrots, his quips, and his trademark question—"Eh, what's up, Doc?"—is one of the most popular animated characters ever created.
The rascally rabbit's origins gave no hint of the greatness to come. He first appeared in Porky's Hare Hunt, a 1938 Warner Brothers cartoon. He was drawn smaller than he would later become and was also completely white. In his debut, Bugs was given no name; he was simply an unidentified rabbit who turned Porky Pig's hunting expedition into a farce.
The character's appearance and attitude evolved through several more cartoon appearances. Bugs Bunny finally reached the form for which he is best known in 1940's A Wild Hare. Directed by Tex Avery (1908–1980), this was the first cartoon to use the line "What's up, Doc?" The tall, gray-and-white rabbit remained unnamed.
That anonymity changed in 1941, when the name "Bugs Bunny" was used for the first time in Elmer's Pet Rabbit, directed by Chuck Jones (1912–2002). The name came from Ben "Bugs" Hardaway (1896–1957), an animator at Warner Brothers who had invented the rabbit for Porky's Hare Hunt. The cartoonists at Warner had been informally referring to the character as "Bugs' Bunny" for years. The name was now official.
The voice of Bugs Bunny was that of famous voice actor Mel Blanc (1908–1989). Blanc was also responsible for the voices of such characters as Woody Woodpecker, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, and Barney Rubble.
Bugs Bunny was gaining popularity at about the same time that the United States entered World War II (1939–45), following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. Like many characters at Warner, Disney (see entry under 1920s—Film and Theater in volume 2), and the other animation studios, Bugs was used in cartoons that combined entertainment with propaganda. In the two-minute cartoon Any Bonds Today? (1942), Bugs is dressed in a Revolutionary War (1775–81) uniform while singing about the benefits of buying war bonds. The year 1944 brought the full-length cartoon Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips. As the title suggests, this production was an example of the blatant racism that was widely used to depict the Japanese to American audiences during the war years. Here, Bugs washes up on a Pacific island that is occupied by Japanese troops who try to capture him. Bugs easily makes fools of them all. In 1945, Herr Meets Hare has Bugs popping up in Nazi Germany, where he torments and mocks Nazi official Hermann Göring (1893–1946), and then does the same to Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) himself.
However, Bugs Bunny's greatest contribution to national pride during the war may have been less direct: Bugs always won. Even though he lacked superpowers or big muscles, the rabbit always found a way to prevail over his enemies. Bugs was the cartoon equivalent of a character common in many films produced during the war: a brash young guy, usually working-class and full of "street smarts," who always won out in the end. The message embodied in both characters was the same: attitude, quick wits, and "good old American know-how" would always come out on top. This was a comforting message to American audiences, especially when the war was going badly for the United States during 1942 and 1943.
Bugs Bunny's popularity did not decline after the war ended in 1945. He won an Oscar in 1948 for Knighty-Knight Bugs (having been nominated twice before). Among theater owners, it was widely believed that a phrase like "2 New Bugs Bunny Cartoons" on a sign was enough to bring in legions of customers, regardless of what the main feature might be.
The carrot that Bugs was often shown munching soon became part of his trademark. The image was so well known that the Utah Celery Company tried to persuade Warner Brothers to substitute Bugs's favorite vegetable with its product. The studio declined politely, just as it did when made a similar offer from the Broccoli Institute of America. Bugs Bunny would keep his carrot.
Television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3) came into America's homes in the 1950s. Bugs made the transition easily, along with his other Warner Brothers costars like Daffy Duck, Sylvester the Cat, and Elmer Fudd. The cartoons that had been seen only in movie theaters were repackaged and sold to TV stations for broadcast on Saturday mornings (although new Bugs Bunny cartoons continued to appear in theaters until 1964). In addition, The Bugs Bunny Show was the first nationally broadcast cartoon program. Shown on Tuesday evenings from 1960 to 1962 (and revived for the 1971–72 season), it combined vintage Warner Brothers cartoons with new animation.
Bugs Bunny returned to the big screen in 1996 with the feature-length film Space Jam, which combined animation with live action. In the film, Bugs and his friends have been kidnapped by aliens. Their captors agree to release them only if Bugs and the other Warner characters can beat the aliens at basketball. Bugs and his team seek help from basketball superstar Michael Jordan (1963–; see entry under 1990s—Sports and Games in volume 5) and eventually play their way to freedom.
The spot that Bugs Bunny occupies in American popular culture is so prominent that, in 1998, the U.S. Post Office honored him with his own commemorative stamp.
For More Information
Adamson, Joe. Bugs Bunny: Fifty Years and Only One Grey Hare. New York: Henry Holt, 1990.
"Bugs Bunny." Looney Tunes: Stars of the Show.http://looneytunes.warnerbros.com/web/stars_of_the_show/bugs_bunny/home.jsp (accessed February 22, 2002).
Evanier, Mark. Bugs Bunny and Friends: A Comic Celebration. New York: DC Comics, 1998.
Preller, James, Leo Benvenuti, and Steve Rudnick. Bugs Bunny's 'SpaceJam' Scrapbook: How I Saved the World. New York: Scholastic Press, 1996.
Sandler, Kevin S. Reading the Rabbit: Explorations in Warner BrothersAnimation. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998.