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Banned War-Era 'Bugs Bunny' Films to Be Shown 'in Context'

Television: Cartoon Network will present racially and culturally charged shorts left out of a recent Bugs Bunny marathon. The specials are aimed at adults.

June 29, 2001|MARLA MATZER ROSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What's up, doc?

Less than two months ago, the AOL Time Warner-owned Cartoon Network kicked up controversy over its decision not to show 12 Bugs Bunny cartoons considered to be too racially and politically charged as part of an otherwise-complete Bugs Bunny marathon. Now, the cable network is preparing to show at least parts of most of these "banned Bugs" cartoons in two upcoming specials to be seen in the evening and aimed at adults.

The first of these specials, "The Wartime Cartoons,' premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. One cartoon cut from the "June Bugs" marathon, "Herr Meets Hare," is included in its entirety in "Wartime." Another, "Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips," is shown in partial clips, along with the Popeye cartoon "Scrap the Japs."

"We were able to get away with showing these cartoons and clips because we're showing them in context," said Jerry Beck, co-writer of "Wartime" and author of a number of books about classic animation. "With all the attention given to Pearl Harbor now, you can see the kind of feelings that people had at the time after the bombing--I think that, and the way we explain different things like references to wartime rationing, made it possible to do this."

Indeed, "Wartime" goes to great lengths to decry racial stereotyping. "The cartoon medium allowed artists to caricature the enemy in outrageous ways. Stereotypes were established to quickly differentiate between the Allies and the Axis powers," the narrator states about halfway through "Wartime." Over scenes from "Tokio Jokio" showing buck-toothed, bespectacled Japanese soldiers, the narrator intones, "Japanese stereotypes were particularly cruel. In these uncensored scenes--the Japanese were not portrayed fairly or accurately."

It's harder to see why other cartoons were considered too controversial for daytime viewing. "Herr Meets Hare" is relatively innocuous, other than featuring a fat, bumbling Nazi and a brief appearance by a buffoonish Hitler at the end. But animation writers say Nazis have long been banned from kids' cartoons, even as villains.

"We only had to take out one line, that was Japanese related," Beck says of dealing with Cartoon Network brass. "In one scene in the Popeye cartoon 'Scrap the Japs,' Popeye says, 'I've never seen a Jap that wasn't yellow.' Other than that, the network was very supportive of the entire show."

"With 'June Bugs' (the marathon of nearly all Bugs Bunny cartoons), we were running cartoons in their entirety with only minor explanations," said Mike Lazzo, programming chief for the Cartoon Network. "We think it's a far better approach with these cartoons to have lengthy explanations. The only way you can truly do this is in a documentary sense."

The special is part of the network's long-running "Toonheads" series aimed at the one-third of Cartoon Network's audience that is over the age of 18. Cartoon Network already has another special in the works, "The Twelve Missing Hares," focusing exclusively on those 12 cartoons that were barred from the "June Bugs" marathon. It's expected to air in the fall.

Lazzo said the appearance of these specials now has more to do with the network having more money to spend on programming than with changing political sensitivities. "We always knew we wanted to do things like this," Lazzo said, "But we didn't have much money to spend on specific demographic groups such as adult viewers and cartoon buffs. Now, at almost 10 years old, we have more flexibility. We can address these audiences."

Lazzo claimed he welcomed the heated debate that came with the network's last-minute decision not to air the 12 controversial cartoons as part of its recent Bugs Bunny marathon.

Media outlets came down on both sides of the issue regarding the network's decision to bar the 12 Bugs Bunny cartoons. TV Guide said executives did the right thing by pulling cartoons with racial stereotypes that "left TV Guide's editors cringing." A columnist for the Seattle Times, meanwhile, accused Cartoon Network parent AOL Time Warner of only being concerned with the bottom line, rather than being "socially aware." "This is about protecting a prized asset [Bugs Bunny] whose image on merchandise brings in millions," the columnist wrote.

*

The debate also raged on online message boards devoted to animation. On AnimationNation.com, a site for professional animators, the topic inspired dozens of impassioned postings. "Let's not attempt to rewrite history, and let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Eliminating these films will not make racism disappear," posited one member. "It is easy to defend these kinds of films as history, especially when your race isn't the target of the humor," insisted another.

"I love the debate," Lazzo said. "I thought it was interesting and fascinating. In the end, I think we did the exact right thing, and I think most people agreed with us." Lazzo added that the network also plans to put out these specials on video in the future, as it has with other programming.

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