Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote

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Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote

The Road Runner and Coyote cartoons have endured since 1949, when legendary director Chuck Jones and storyman Michael Maltese created Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner for the Warner Brothers cartoon short "Fast and Furry-Ous." The cartoon established a formula that has continued to entertain audiences for half a century. The hungry Coyote ("Carnivorous Vulgaris") chases the truly wily Road Runner ("Accelleratii Incredibus") across the desert southwest. In escalating frustration, the Coyote resorts to using a boomerang, a rocket, a boulder, jet-propelled tennis shoes, and the first in a long line of Acme products doomed to failure, the Acme Super Outfit. Each scheme backfires, leaving the Coyote on the wrong end of a boulder, falling off a cliff, or simply exploding.

As Jones recalled in Chuck Reducks, studio management, fearful that no one would like the cartoon duo, was reluctant to allow Jones and Maltese to create any more Coyote and Road Runner cartoons. Although it was three years before the release of the second cartoon, "Beep, Beep," Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner proved so popular that they appeared in 35 cartoons together by 1966, with one, "Beep Prepared," nominated for an Academy Award in 1961. The timeless premise and comedy of these cartoons was common to many successful cartoons produced in the forties and fifties: the bungling predator simply can't outwit his smarter or just plain luckier prey. Such classic pairing as Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd (Warner Brothers), Sylvester and Tweety (Warner Brothers), and Tom and Jerry (MGM Studios) thrived on this idea. What set the Coyote and Road Runner cartoons apart was the uniqueness of the characters themselves.

The Road Runner may be one of the most irritating foes any cartoon character has faced. While Bugs, Tweety, and Jerry often display ingenuity, the Road Runner is comparatively oblivious. In the first cartoon, the swift bird displays more aggression, going out of his way to irritate the Coyote. At one point, with the Coyote close on his tail, the Road Runner even looks concerned. In subsequent cartoons, as the Coyote's efforts escalate, the Road Runner generally doesn't seem to even notice his foe. The Road Runner does on occasion take deliberate steps to avoid a trap, but, more commonly, with nothing more than a "beep, beep" and a flick of his tongue, the Road Runner eats the birdseed without setting off traps, runs through rock walls, and stops short at the edges of cliffs while the Coyote goes toppling over.

It is Wile E. Coyote himself who creates the primary appeal of these cartoons. While other predators plow ahead, the Coyote plans, diagrams, and builds. As the cartoons progress and the Coyote's schemes become more and more violent, culminating in a plan involving dynamite or dropping a piano on the Road Runner, the audience realizes that the Coyote's quest is no longer about hunger. With the Coyote, the chase eventually becomes a matter of his wounded pride. Mute, communicating only through the occasional hand-held sign or yelp of pain, his expressive face conveys emotions from cunning to frustration to confusion to fear and back again. He frequently addresses the audience, holding signs that say "Egad" or throwing a sly look toward the camera. Audiences see the effort the Coyote puts into his plans and his doomed hope, making it somehow all the more funny when his plans don't work.

More than anything, the characteristic that truly distinguishes the Coyote is his inability to learn from his mistakes. Despite his diagrams, his schemes fail in often surprising ways. The rocket doesn't take off, it just explodes; the boulder falls backward off the catapult; and the jet-propelled sneakers send him off a cliff. The Coyote often averts one mishap only to find another. When he gets his Acme Bat-Man's Outfit to work only moments before hitting the ground, he smashes into a rock wall. The Coyote faithfully uses Acme products even though, again and again, the explosives, the magnetic birdseed, and the rocket-powered roller skates don't work. The Coyote is surprisingly human in his dogged attempt to attain a goal that doesn't seem to be meant for him. When audiences laugh at the Coyote, it is part slapstick humor and part catharsis, part visual and part mental. People see themselves in the Coyote's continually frustrated attempts to achieve his goal, but no one seems to have it quite as bad as the poor Coyote.

The Road Runner only appeared in cartoons with the Coyote. However, the Coyote proved to be so popular a character, he appeared in other Warner Brothers cartoons. Most notable is a series with Bugs Bunny. In these cartoons, the Coyote is somewhat snooty and introduces himself as "Wile E. Coyote, Genius." Of course, in spite of being a genius, he can't outwit the likes of Bugs Bunny. The Coyote also doubled as a red-nosed wolf, Ralph, in a series of cartoons with Sam the Sheepdog. Again our hero simply cannot seem to catch his dinner. The Coyote is ever the doomed schemer.

Cartoons featuring Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner first appeared as "curtain-raisers" in theatres, eventually moving to television. In September 1966, The Road Runner Show, a repackaged version of the older cartoons, premiered in the CBS Saturday morning lineup. From the sixties through the nineties, the Road Runner and Coyote cartoons have been a staple of children's programming, running on the networks as well as cable stations such as TNT and the Cartoon Network.

—Adrienne Furness

Further Reading:

Friedwald, Will, and Jerry Beck. The Warner Brothers Cartoons. Metuchen, New Jersey, and London, The Scarecrow Press, 1981.

Jones, Chuck. Chuck Reducks: Drawing from the Fun Side of Life. New York, Warner Books, 1996.

Lenburg, Jeff. The Encyclopedia of Animated Cartoons. New York and Oxford, Facts on File, 1991.

Woolery, George W. Children's Television: The First Thirty-Five Years, 1946-1981: Part 1: Animated Cartoon Series. Metuchen, New Jersy, and London, The Scarecrow Press, 1983.