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).
But the classic Warner Brothers cartoons were Important To My Life in a very 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 to the front whenever my referential, pattern-matching brain gives them a chance.
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.
It stars Foghorn Leghorn, the barnyard cock of the walk with the corny, faux-genteel Southern accent.
Toward the end of “All Fowled Up,” he 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.
I had never heard the word “burlesque” in my life and so, later that evening, I asked my mom what it meant.
“Where did you hear that word?” she non-answered.
So she was no help, 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.
So I broke it down.
The cartoon is a series of escalating pranks. Leghorn set up and elaborate maze of pipes, chuckling to himself fiendishly the entire time. He’s about to blow up Dawg and feeling all clever and superior about it.
"OK then," I asked myself, "so what do mice have to do with all of this?"
According to early 20th Century Cartoon Logic – which is the same thing as Dave's Seven-Year-Old Logic – mice do only these three things:
With that information in hand, I asked myself "What could a mouse do to cause a lot of confusion?"
DSYOL dictates that pestering cats certainly causes confusion in the cartoon world, as does scaring women. Cheese, not so much.
My young mind shifted into a new analytic gear, asking "Which of the two options create the kind of comedy that would interest Mr. Leghorn?"
The answer was that Sylvester (a cat) 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?" I asked.
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.
It’s widely understood today 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, however, that fodder was actually more like 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. And thanks to the funnel of 3-network TV in the 70's, and their penchant for filling Saturday mornings and weekday afternoons with (as yet unedited) Looney Tunes, these mature themes seeped into my awareness with steady progress.
The clues were there. My brain was fully primed. Mom's non-answer was its own kind of answer. I finally arrived at a seven year-old understanding of "burlesque" as ladies in their underwear putting on a show.
So not exactly the proper definition, but close enough for 1970's me.
The important part was the process I went through to solve the puzzle. It 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. 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.