I don’t have Thanksgiving plans, but I know exactly what I’m doing the day after. I’m bundling up my three-year-old and taking her to the Michigan Theater to watch their annual screening of Warner Bros. cartoons. Packed with kids, the theater vibrates with a boisterous energy. There’s a massive Christmas tree in the lobby, and the organist plays a festive mix of seasonal chestnuts and family-friendly favorites. Long before I became a parent, I discovered that this event is one of the best ways to introduce out-of-towners to the infectious charm of the Michigan Theater, and by extension, Ann Arbor.
In cartoonishly arbitrary fashion, I’ve decided that enjoying cartoons is mostly about empathy. If you’re on Team Bugs, you’ll be having a roaring good time. But if, like my juvenile self, you root for the striver, then prepare to wince. Much of the humor in the old toons is of the slapstick variety, with starving predators like Wile E. Coyote and Sylvester bearing the brunt of the violence. Of course, cartoons never die, but that doesn’t mean some shouldn’t. At the 2009 screening, I saw one about a family of bears with an abusive papa bear. It’s not one that’s lasted in popular memory of the Warner Bros. series, and for good reason. Most on the docket since then have been lasting favorites that deserve another watch.
Last year, I voiced a bona fide guffaw during “What’s Opera, Doc?”—the one in which Elmer Fudd in a Viking helmet sings, “Kill the wabbit!” Since he’s the perennial “stinker,” Bugs’s M.O. is to mess with people, but he goes to great lengths in this one, dressing in drag to court Fudd—who sees him and sings, “Oh, Brünhilde, you’re so lovely.” To which Bugs replies, in his classic twangy nasal (is he part Michigander?), “Yes, I know it. I can’t help it.” As I grow older, Bugs’s superlative confidence seems more charming than pathological.
It’s nearly impossible to say what makes for lasting comedy, but I think one aspect is a joke’s ability to work on multiple levels. Maybe that’s why my favorite Warner Bros. character is Michigan J. Frog, who was featured in exactly one classic cartoon, which has played every year I’ve attended the Michigan Theater event. First of all, he’s a dancing frog. He goes from soporific ribbit to “Hello, My Baby” in 0.1 seconds, so even the tykes who haven’t yet mastered irony have something to laugh at. But he won’t perform for just anyone. He shares his magic only with the greedy schlub who unearths him and hopes to profit from the discovery. It’s poetic justice at its finest, and there’s a moral to boot: appreciate what you have. Or, in terms more appropriate to cartoons, laugh when the laughing’s good. Th-th-th-th-that’s all folks!