“Bugs Bunny is an inspiration. How could I fail to admire a character who is equal parts Rex Harrison, D’Artagnan, and Dorothy Parker, packed into a graceful rabbit skin? Daffy is recognition, as is the Coyote.”
“Human beings, of course, in even their most grandiloquent plans, often resemble coyotes.”
~ Chuck Jones
“The first thing Coyote makes, I tell Coyote, is a mistake.” ~ Thomas King, “Coyote Goes West.” One Good Story That One.
A highway. A coyote. A roadrunner. Just a dash of pride, obsession and provocation. A classic story of conflicting desires. Warner Brothers’ road Coyote and Road Runner cartoons represent such a simple discipline and so many possibilities. I’ve been thinking a lot about Coyote while rereading Chuck Jones’ autobiography, Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1999). In it, Jones delightfully recounts stories from his boyhood, including his first muse, Johnson the seafaring, grapefruit-eating cat, as well as from his time working for Schlesinger and Warner Brothers Studios. In fact, I would recommend the book on the basis of his stories of Johnson the cat alone. Jones also shares excellent advice not only for animation, but working in nearly any art form. I admire his economy and his commitment to a discipline, his wit and his timing, his focus on character. Jones writes:
Character always comes first, before the physical representation. Just as it is with all living things, including human beings. We are not what we look like. We are not even what we sound like. We are how we move; in other words, our personalities. And our personalities are shaped by what we think, by where we come from, by what we have experienced. And that personality is unique to each of us.
His statement reminds me of poet Robert Creeley’s assertion, “Form is never more than an extension of content” and is a pretty good whack at Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Existence precedes essence.” But while both Jones and Creeley made more engaging art than Sartre, to be fair, Sarte was talking about something a little different. And I think that Coyote might agree with Sartre “Hell is other people”–or at least road runners and probably rabbits.
If you haven’t watched Chuck Jones’ Coyote and Road Runner cartoons, they are pretty simple on the surface. Coyote is hungry and driven to desperation, usually after an attempt to eat something awful he has worked hard to prepare in some kind of tasty way–stewed tin cans or clay shaped into something more appetizing. Coyote gives up and then Road Runner happens by. A chase and series of machinations–with blue prints and products all shipped in from ACME–ensues.
Jones mentions many of his inspirations in Chuck Amuck–Dorothy Parker, the Marx Bros., Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Jack Benny, Richard Pryor and Robin Williams. But Jones’ writing style is so obviously influenced by Mark Twain it’s no surprise when he describes Coyote’s origin in reading Twain’s Roughing It.
I first became interested in the Coyote while devouring Mark Twain’s Roughing It at the age of seven. I had heard of the coyote only in passing references from passing adults and thought of it—if I thought of it at all—as a sort of dissolute collie. As it turned out, that’s just about what a coyote is, and no one saw it more clearly than Mark Twain. “The coyote is a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton, with a gray wolf-skin stretched over it, a tolerably bushy tail that forever sags down with a despairing expression of forsakenness and misery, a furtive and evil eye, and a long, sharp face, with slightly lifted lip and exposed teeth. He has a general slinking expression all over. The coyote is a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry. He is always poor, out of luck and friendless … even the fleas would desert him for a velocipede … He does not mind going a hundred miles to breakfast, and a hundred and fifty to dinner, because he is sure to have three or four days between meals, and he can just as well be traveling and looking at the scenery as lying around doing nothing and adding to the burdens of his parents.”
Who could resist such an enchanting creature? He and I had so much in common! Rushing to the encyclopedia, I found our measurements to be about the same, too: four feet long in our stocking feet; weight about fifty pounds stripped (fur long and coarse, grizzled buff below and sun-bleached whitish above—a minor detail). But the clincher was this: “Noted for its nightly serenades of short yaps and mournful yowls.” That was me all right, I had been assured too often by parents and siblings alike that my nocturnal serenades consisted of short yaps and mournful yowls. I cannot begin to express the relief I felt at finding a companion to my own unique ineptness. It was so reassuring to find someone else of my own age (another characteristic we shared was our age: between seven and eight) who also could be a burden to his parents. I was beginning to believe that I was a failure in life, and to find a colorfully inept companion was a happy and stunning surprise.
When I was a child lying on the family room carpet watching cartoons on television, I wanted Coyote to catch the Road Runner. Sure, the consenses in my school was that the Road Runner cuter and less compromised by failure. But I shunned the cute and loved monsters, especially werewolves, and Coyote was pretty close to one, certainly closer than than Road Runner was. As I have gotten hopefully wiser and less distracted by surface resemblances, I see how Road Runner is disinterested in Coyote until Coyote makes himself an obstacle on the endless, open highway of Road Runner’s life. And I have come to see how Wile E. Coyote, Super Genius, is trapped by his own pride and his utter and sincere belief in a technological fix. Has there been an antihero more committed than Coyote? Even Ahab only faced one “dismasting” and, well, eventually drowning in a vortex of his own causation. (Poor Ahab must have studied law). Sure, they both get sidetracked by monomania in their respective hunts, though Coyote never has Ahab’s wrath and vindictiveness. Coyote will catch that damn bird, who so provocatively beep-beeps at him. And by god, this time the ACME products he uses in his cunning plans will not fail him as they have before. There is the Road Runner and the idea of the road runner, and it is the idea of the Road Runner that tasks Coyote.
Coyote’s fixation on both what he believes his problem is (that jerk Road Runner) and the solution (a subscription to ACME Prime*) is an understandable, dare I say, “relatable” feeling. The Road Runner does taunt him and, possibly worse, reveals Coyote’s limitations to Coyote himself. What starts out as finding something better to eat than tin cans becomes a one-sided war of technological proliferation. Like Icarus, Coyote will accept no limitations. Frankly, Daedalus is a better role model anyway. After all, he respected the working tolerances of the wings he had engineered and he flew just fine. This is why I have often thought that scientists were better off naming things after sensible, effective Daedalus rather than Icarus who believes not listening to his father will somehow render him immune from plummeting into the sea when the wax holding his wings together melts. Of course, my feelings about Icarus now probably are exactly why I don’t root for the Coyote like I used to. Sure, I empathize and laugh, but like Icarus, Wile E. Coyote (Super Genius) keeps doing it to himself. Just as we all do a lot of the time. Well, I guess Icarus only did it once because he was subject to a world with different laws than Coyote does.
Jones delineates some of those laws in describing the discipline he, writer Mike Maltese, and background artists Phil DeGuard and Maurice Noble stuck to in making the cartoons.
RULE 1. THE ROAD RUNNER CANNOT HARM THE COYOTE EXCEPT BY GOING “BEEP-BEEP!”
RULE 2. NO OUTSIDE FORCE CAN HARM THE COYOTE—ONLY HIS OWN INEPTITUDE OR THE FAILURE OF THE ACME PRODUCTS.
RULE 3. THE COYOTE COULD STOP ANYTIME—IF HE WERE NOT A FANATIC. (REPEAT: “A FANATIC IS ONE WHO REDOUBLES HIS EFFORT WHEN HE HAS FORGOTTEN HIS AIM.”—GEORGE SANTAYANA)
RULE 4. NO DIALOGUE EVER, EXCEPT “BEEP-BEEP!”
RULE 5. THE ROAD RUNNER MUST STAY ON THE ROAD—OTHERWISE, LOGICALLY, HE WOULD NOT BE CALLED ROAD RUNNER.
RULE 6. ALL ACTION MUST BE CONFINED TO THE NATURAL ENVIRONMENT OF THE TWO CHARACTERS—THE SOUTHWEST AMERICAN DESERT.
RULE 7. ALL MATERIALS, TOOLS, WEAPONS, OR MECHANICAL CONVENIENCES MUST BE OBTAINED FROM THE ACME CORPORATION.
RULE 8. WHENEVER POSSIBLE, MAKE GRAVITY THE COYOTE’S GREATEST ENEMY.
RULE 9. THE COYOTE IS ALWAYS MORE HUMILIATED THAN HARMED BY HIS FAILURES.
Despite his humiliations, Coyote never gives up. He never loses hope or his ingenuity. And while persistence is admirable, Coyote is spending all his time, energy and money (?) on ACME Rocket Roller Skates and ACME Bird Seed. By 1955, I am certain that the ACME company’s sole source of revenue was one Mr. Wile E. Coyote (Super Genius).
Coyote is also aware of his own mortality even as he is apparently immortal. It’s not just his driving need–hunger–but the look on his face as he realizes his impending doom. If he weren’t persistent and hopeful, it could all go very Werner Herzog**. And Coyote doesn’t live out an Eternal Return, reliving the same events over and over as basically the same person forever. Well, he kind of does, but at least it’s not as depressing an eternal return as he could. It turns out there are infinite possibilities–or close enough–in Jones’ and Company’s rules and the deceptively simple narrative they present. And because believing in these possibilities, in the next invention and the next big chance seems to be enough for Coyote, even if it wouldn’t necessarily be enough for everyone.
One thing I still wonder after reading Jones’ autobiography is whether using Coyote was deliberate beyond a childhood love of an “enchanting creature.” Were Jones and Maltese familiar with Coyote (and Rabbit) as a trickster in Native American traditions? Was it a conscious influence? It seems like a remarkable coincidence. And it seems fitting that trickster that Jones found in himself were Coyote and Bugs Bunny. While traditionally, Coyote often creates and teaches human beings lessons and tricks the unwary, the greedy and the mean, Coyote is also sometimes foolish himself. In Barry Lopez’ collection of Coyote stories, Giving Birth To Thunder, Sleeping With His Daughter: Coyote Builds North America (New York: Avon, 1990), Lopez shares a pretty Looney Tunes Menominee tale, “The Medicines” (28-9). Coyote eats some wild onions because they tell him, “Everybody eats me!” The onions cause Coyote such distress that every time he farts he flies farther into the air .
Wile E. Coyote (Super Genius) is a very modern coyote. Sure, he has the same everyday problems that all coyotes do, mostly that he wants to eat, but other coyotes aren’t vexed by sassy road runners, though I have seen some sassy squirrels in my time. And while all coyotes are clever and many employ tricks, Wile E. Coyote (Coyotius Modernus) is the only one who solves his problems by mail order. Or he thinks he’s solving his problem, because, honestly, he could just order some groceries from ACME Prime Pantry and have himself a lovely dinner. ACME has really fast shipping. But no, that would be the solution if he had decided the problem was that stewed tin cans were unpalatable, which they are. Coyote’s problem is this one particular road runner on this one particular stretch of highway. And how you solve a problem like the road runner is the right combination of explosives, glue, anvils, roller skates, rockets, hang gliders, blue prints, iron pellets, magnets, bird seed and paint.
Or maybe just letting go and getting yourself some of that fine ACME coyote chow.
*Thanks to @TheRedan3553 for the phrase, “ACME Prime.”
**Enjoy #CoyoteHerzog in this Storified collection of tweets from Drive-In Mob’s presentation of Looney Tunes cartoons.
Carol E. Borden, Super Genius. She likes the way that rolls out.
This essay was originally published by the Cultural Gutter on Dec. 1, 2016.