Some of my earliest and most enduring memories involve Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and the rest of the classic Warner Brothers cartoon characters. Like a lot of my peers, I basically grew up in front of a TV. I was always into Deputy Dawg, classic Mighty Mouse and black-and-white Popeye (back when he constantly mumbled to himself). I had access to early English-dubbed anime like Space Battleship Yamato. And although they weren’t cartoons, I also had a thing for Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp, Land of the Lost and Electra Woman and Dyna Girl (oh, that theme song).

The classic Warner Brothers cartoons, however, were Important To My Life in a special way.

 

Considering what fandom has become over the years (e.g. Fandom), I feel I should clarify. I’ve never been that kind of fan of cartoons. I don’t collect. I don’t research the arcana and trade tips and join groups (I save that level of nerdery for other subjects). In my case, the fact that I can recite long passages from memory, from hundreds of different cartoons, is based strictly on good old fashioned early-childhood repetition.

These cartoons are fully embedded in my personality - running in a constant loop in the back of my mind, waiting to jump whenever my referential, pattern-matching brain gives them a chance.

Every time I hear three or four consecutive notes from “Ride of the Valkyries,” I don’t think of Richard Wagner or even Apocalypse Now. My brain goes straight to “Kill the Wabbit!”

And I can’t tell you how many times in my life that I’ve held the same proverbial doorknob as Daffy Duck in “The Stupor Salesman.”

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There are hundreds of Looney Tunes catch phrases, puns and tropes stuck in my soul, but looking back on things, 1955's “All Fowled Up” was the single most important cartoon I ever saw.

It stars Foghorn Leghorn, the barnyard cock of the walk with the corny, faux-genteel Southern accent. He reminded me a lot of my step-grandfather, John Moore.

John Moore's accent was certainly NOT corny or faux-anything, but if you heard him speak, you would find the similarity uncanny. He wore a Colonel Sanders bow tie over a white shirt almost like a uniform. He had a foul mouth that he constantly had to “watch” while kids were around. He kept Playboys in the magazine rack beside His Recliner. (No really, you did not sit there).

John Moore was a sweetheart, though, and I knew it. All bark. A lot of barking… Just like his cartoon doppelganger, Foghorn Leghorn.

Toward the end of “All Fowled Up,” Foghorn Leghorn says one particular line, in one particular situation, with one particular context that sent my six or seven year old brain in a new direction.

“This is gonna cause more confusion than a mouse at a burlesque show.”

I had no idea what that meant. I had never heard the word “burlesque” in my life. At some point, I asked my mom what it meant, and her answer was the classic no-answer, “Where did you hear that word?”

But I knew cartoons. I understood their structure, even though I lacked the language to explain it. I knew a simile when I heard it, even though I didn’t yet know it was called a simile. I knew nothing about linguistics, but I knew that particular phrase was supposed to be funny.

And so I broke it down, inasmuch as I was able to at the time - lacking as I was in the finer nuances of sentence construction.

The cartoon is a series of escalating pranks. Foghorn has previously set up - and tested - the elaborate pipe work you see, chuckling to himself fiendishly the entire time. He’s about to blow up Dawg and feeling all clever and superior, and then…

“This is gonna cause more confusion than a mouse at a burlesque show.”

OK, I said to myself, so what do mice do?

According to early 20th Century Cartoon Logic - which by now you should also understand is the same thing as Dave at Seven Years Old Logic - mice do only these three things:

So what could a mouse do to cause a lot of confusion - so much that when Foghorn Leghorn does his firecracker thing, it causes MORE confusion?

Well, let’s see, said my kid brain, pestering cats certainly causes confusion in the cartoon world, as does scaring women. Cheese, not so much.

Down to two options. Assuming, of course, that the internal logic of the Warner Brothers Cartoon Cinematic Universe was consistent and predictable.

Back to the main question at hand, “What does ‘burlesque’ mean?”

Now I shift into a new gear in my analysis. Which of my two options create the kind of comedy that would interest Mr. Leghorn? Sylvester stopped by the barnyard from time to time and Foghorn constantly harassed him, causing extreme levels of confusion.

So a “burlesque” show is a cat show? When Foghorn drops that firecracker, it’s going to cause more confusion than a mouse at a cat show. That follows. Problem solved, right?

For a reason I’ll get into in a second, this was not my conclusion. I understood that a burlesque show had something to do with women and that it was probably an adult thing. It’s all about Foghorn's fiendish chuckle, and my Mom's non-answer.

 

Let’s pause for a moment of context. I must have seen “All Fowled Up” a dozen times by the time I was seven. It was 1975 and at my house, we had the three major networks, a public access channel and, if we wanted to take the time to fiddle with it, PBS. I had to physically change the channel until I was around 9 or 10 years old. I didn’t get cable until just after my 13th birthday.

I’m guessing that an average seven year-old in 2022 consumes more media than I did at the same age, but I would not expect it to be drastically different. (I would actually like to see the numbers on that…)* The main difference, as I see it, is one of density.

I received media through the narrow-mouth funnel of three networks and just one device. Today, media is more like unending rain. It’s everywhere on anything with a screen, and a few other places, too.

Those of us raised in the 70s have an incredibly “dense” set of pop-cultural references. We all know the same commercial jingles, the same pop songs, the same TV shows. In simple numbers, there were LESS bits of entertainment then, but the same number of hours in a day and if my math is correct, that means higher density. Or something like that... (I’m pretty sure if you’re still reading this, you know what I mean.)

Because of this density - the constant repetition of the same set of cartoons over many years - a lot of references are buried deep deep in my psyche, nearly inseparable from my personality. I can only assume this is true for much of the Generation X.

 

Finally, I’ll get to the point of this essay.

It’s widely understood that the classic Warner Brothers cartoons were made for adults. The style of humor, the language, the references to contemporary pop-culture - this stuff was never really intended as Saturday morning fodder for seven year-olds.

For me, that fodder was manna. I was constantly trying to answer the question, “Why, exactly, is this funny?” to all of the adult jokes sprinkled among the absurdities, puns, sight gags and pratfalls.

“This is gonna cause more confusion than a mouse at a burlesque show.”

The clues were there. My mother’s non-answer was its own kind of answer. The analysis added up and I finally arrived at a conclusion that was, more or less, a seven year-old’s understanding of the word “burlesque.”

The process I went through to solve the puzzle was the first purely intellectual challenge I ever tasked myself to solve. I tinkered with it, mentally - first taking it apart, then analyzing and understanding each piece, then reassembling it with this new knowledge of its structure and flow.

After all of that investigation and discovery, the next time I saw the cartoon, I laughed. But it was a forced laugh and I knew it immediately. It was a laugh meant to pay the debt of ignorance I owed to the joke.

I was on the inside of the joke now. I had taken it apart and put it back together all by myself. I had investigated its clues and uncovered its secrets. I had shifted my perspective to the “other side of the camera” and tried to get in the heads of its creators, even if only to figure out just what the actual hell “burlesque” meant.

This inquisitive and investigative part of me is fundamental to who I am today. This kind of mental tinkering is the way I have learned nearly everything of value in my life.

And it’s all because of Foghorn Leghorn.

 

PS: I encourage you to watch the three cartoons posted on this page carefully. I think you'll see a few other bits that have made their way into my life. For example, I think Looney Tunes certainly influenced by style as a designer...