You stand among Bugs and Daffy and Porky and Pepe.
Ah, yes, The ever-romantic Pepe Le Pew, who has been a part of your life since, well, when? Since you can remember — really remember — laughing? Since you first watched the fuse blow up in Wile E. Coyote’s face while the Roadrunner zooms by?
Or could it be the realization that though the characters and gags haven’t changed through the years, your understanding of them has? That’s when it hits you, when you realize Chuck Jones’ Looney Tunes characters are a part of your life. No, it runs deeper than that. They’re as much a part of you as they are Craig Kausen.
This is saying a lot, because Kausen is Jones’ grandson. He grew up watching his grandfather draw the characters that appear in Warner Bros.’ animated short films, the same characters that are occupying the LSU Student Union Art Gallery in the exhibit What’s Up Doc? The Animated Art of Chuck Jones.
The show runs through Sunday, July 29, and features more than 100 original pieces by Jones, including the preliminary drawings for his animation of the 1966 animated Dr. Seuss classic, How The Grinch Stole Christmas.
What’s Up Doc? is on loan from the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity in Cosa Mesa, Calif. Kausen is the board chairman for the center, as well as president of Chuck Jones Art Companies.
It’s the center’s mission not only to share Jones’ artwork but inspire creativity in others, no matter how young or old.
“Chuck knew there was a creative side to everybody,” Kausen said.
“He never wanted a legacy. He’d say, ‘Don’t walk in my footsteps, embrace and engage in what you do.’ The idea was that hopefully, people would come and see what he did, then go out and create something of their own.”
Late author Ray Bradbury used to give his readers the same advice at his lectures and book signings.
“And Chuck and Ray Bradbury were very close,” Kausen said. “They had a terrific friendship.”
Kausen speaks from his office at the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity. He won’t make the trip to Baton Rouge to see his grandfather’s work in the Union Art Gallery, but he’s excited that the exhibit is hanging at LSU.
It’s a chance for people of all ages not only to say, “I remember that,” but to learn about the man behind the characters.
The man from whom Whoopi Goldberg learned about comedy.
“She learned it by watching Chuck Jones cartoons,” Kausen said. “She learned things like three beats is funny, but four beats isn’t. She often says that if she were to come back, she’d want to be a Chuck Jones creation.”
Goldberg was one of many in Jones’ broad spectrum of friends, which also included nuclear scientists in New Mexico who would watch Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes cartoons when ideas wouldn’t come together.
They relaxed in the laughter generated by the gag of Bugs Bunny looking into the camera at just the right moment, and the ideas would flow.
“They’d tell Chuck that when they were stuck, they’d watch cartoons,” Kausen said.
And though Jones didn’t aspire to leave a legacy, his work touched people. And still does.
Jones was born Sept. 21, 1913, in Spokane, Wash., and grew up in Hollywood, Calif., where he was exposed to comedy and cinema from an early age. He quickly developed an appreciation for the works of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, not only for their comic performances but also their professional dedication.
“Armed with an endless supply of paper, the encouragement of his parents, and the eccentric observations of a beloved uncle, Jones devoted himself to developing his own artistic abilities and sharp wit,” the exhibit biography stated. “His parents eventually enrolled him in Chouinard Art Institute, after which he worked for a short time in downtown Los Angeles, drawing portraits on Olvera Street.”
Jones began working in the animation industry in 1932 as a cel washer for former Disney animator Ubbe Iwerks. Friz Freleng later hired him as an animator under the Leon Schlesinger Studio, and in 1938, Jones directed his first short animated film, The Night Watchman.
He continued during the period known as the Golden Age of Animation, becoming an integral part of the Looney Tunes program during the height of its popularity.
“After the studio closed in 1962, Jones established his own production company and began working with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, creating adaptations of popular children’s stories, such as Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” the biography stated.
And the biography continued: “With a career spanning over sixty years and three hundred films, Jones has become one of the most recognized animators of all time, helping to develop a large cast of memorable characters, including his own original creations — the Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote, Marvin the Martian, Pepé le Pew and Michigan J. Frog, among others — as well as the collaborative characters of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, and Porky Pig.”
Jones was awarded four Academy Awards for his films and three of his animations have been inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry as among the most important films of the 20th century.
“People often asked Chuck which of his characters was his favorite,” Kausen said. “He always said that if you have children, one of them is likely your favorite, but it would be best to never say which one. That’s how he saw his characters, like his children.”
Now, Kausen isn’t being presumptive in referring to his grandfather as Chuck. It’s simply how Jones wanted to be known.
He didn’t want to be called grandpa or grandfather. Everyone simply knew him as Chuck, so why not his grandchildren?
Now, exactly a decade after his grandfather’s death, Chuck’s presence is still strong in Kausen’s life, and he’s passing it along to his 7-year-old daughter. She’s the youngest of his four children, the only one who didn’t have a chance to meet and know Chuck in life.
But she is learning about him through Kausen’s stories. And through Jones’ animated cartoons, as are so many children around the world.
“We have a television here, and we’ll be streaming some of his cartoons during the exhibit,” Judi Stahl said. “We’re also organizing programming throughout the duration of the exhibit, including a character mask station.”
She’s the gallery’s director, and she watched on this day before the opening as gallery staffers Hugh O’Connor and Santiago Pineda carefully installed Jones’ work.
Add enthusiastically to that phrase, because both staffers couldn’t mask their amazement at what they were handling.
For these were the beginnings of the cartoons they remember watching on Saturday mornings, drawings with Jones’ handwritten explanations as to why characters should be drawn in certain ways.
“He explains that if you want Marvin to look scared, you will draw him this way,” Pineda said. “That’s what I love about this exhibit.”
“He does the same with Bugs Bunny,” O’Connor said. “He explains how to draw Bugs Bunny when he’s happy and when he’s dejected.”
And again, there’s that timelessness, a comedy that has made everyone laugh through years of cultural, political and technological changes.
“Chuck and his fellow animators had to create cartoons that didn’t address current events,” Kausen said. “These were designed to show in movie theaters before the movie began, and sometimes it would be two years before they were actually shown.”
So, the comedy had to rely on cleverness and human nature. Well, human nature as played out by rabbits, ducks, pigs, skunks, dogs, cats, birds and Martians.
It’s the kind of stuff everyone understands; the kind of stuff that makes everyone laugh.
It’s simple enough for the smallest child to understand, yet it’s injected with a high level of wit that becomes more apparent as those same children grow into adults.
And it becomes a part of their lives.