It’s impossible to overstate the influence that Warner Bros.’ classic Looney Tunes cartoons have had on American comedy. Decades before Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, Adult Swim and Community, Bugs Bunny and his cartoon brethren were making ironic wisecracks, breaking the fourth wall and dropping constant pop cultural references.
But the thing about those Looney Tunes pop cultural references is that while they may have been hilarious to our grandparents, a lot of them are absolutely baffling to modern viewers. I’ve always taken pride in being into weird old stuff – even as a teenager, I was a middle-aged grump who listened to old-time radio – and I’ve been stumped by a lot of these things.
People are still enjoying Looney Tunes cartoons despite the constant references to forgotten movie stars and ad campaigns for products that haven’t been manufactured since the Eisenhower administration, and that says a lot about the high quality of the work produced by Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, Tex Avery and other Warner Bros. directors. If you’ve spent your whole life wondering why the characters in these cartoons would sometimes turn to the camera, bug out their eyes and say, “Well, something new has been added!”, this is your lucky day! In this list, we’ll finally get to the bottom of a few of the weird catchphrases that have plagued Looney Tunes fans for generations.
1. “Well, something new has been added!”
This line originally comes from Jerry Colonna, one of Bob Hope’s radio sidekicks. Here it is in a clip from 1942’s “The Hep Cat.”
When the cat in the clip says the line, he doesn’t just say it like Colonna, he briefly takes on a bit of a physical resemblance to Colonna as well. Colonna was a pop-eyed, gap-toothed, walrus-mustached fellow who spoke in a loud, crazy voice with a vaguely foreign accent. A lot of what Colonna said was total nonsense (“Greetings, Gates! Let’s operate!”) but something about his screwy persona was delightful to mid-20th Century America. The animators at Warner Bros. seem to have been particularly crazy for Colonna, employing a number of his catchphrases (“GRUESOME, isn’t it?”) and caricaturing him in a bunch of cartoons. 1946’s “Daffy Doodles” ends with an entire jury composed of Jerry Colonnas.
The Looney Tunes cartoonists even based a recurring character on Colonna, a little worm who starred in a pair of cartoons, “The Wacky Worm” and “Greetings Bait.” In the latter cartoon, the Colonna worm actually meets a Colonna fisherman… it’s like some great Colonna Circle of Life.
2. “Duh, George.”
Lewis Milestone’s 1939 film Of Mice and Men is one of the most gut-wrenching movies you will ever see. Based on John Steinbeck’s classic novella, the film follows two luckless Depression-era migrant workers, George (Burgess Meredith) and Lenny (Lon Chaney, Jr.). Lenny is a large, pure-hearted, mentally-disabled man, a clumsy giant with the mind of a child, and his friend George tries to keep Lenny out of trouble as they travel the American highways desperately searching for work. Poor Lenny loves to hear George tell him over and over again about the ranch they’ll own someday, a beautiful place where Lenny can care for rabbits. Spoiler alert for a 74-year-old movie: the dream fails to come true, and it fails to come true in just about the most horrible, heart-breaking manner imaginable.
Chaney’s performance as the doomed Lenny was widely-acclaimed, and spawned a number of unlikely Looney Tunes catchphrases. “Duh, George,” “Tell me about the rabbits, George,” “I just want to hold him and love him and make him my friend”. All were paraphrases of Chaney’s lines from Of Mice and Men.
Here we see Daffy Duck getting worked over by a Lenny-esque Abominable Snowman in 1961’s “The Abominable Snow Rabbit.”
It’s in really poor taste, when you think about it. In modern terms, imagine a goofball Adult Swim character based on Sean Penn’s performance in I Am Sam. But then again, maybe there’s not much point expecting political correctness from a series of cartoons starring Speedy Gonzalez, a pig with a debilitating stutter and a coyote with obsessive-compulsive disorder. (Real talk, Wile E.: No matter how many Acme gadgets you throw at the problem, you are never gonna catch that freaking road runner.)
3. “(Monkeys/Pussycats/Whatevers) is der cwaziest peoples!”
This one was inspired by Lew Lehr, a comedian who used to wear a lot of silly hats and speak in a fake, phlegmy German accent that I can’t listen to for 10 seconds without needing to clear my throat. One of his most popular short film series was called Dribble Puss Parade, which probably wasn’t nearly as nasty as it sounds.
Lehr was best known for narrating newsreel footage of animals, such as this clip about a newborn giraffe.
You could say that Lehr was kind of the 1940s equivalent of the “Honey badger don’t care” guy. (NSFW, and about two years past its viral video heyday.)
The WB animators seemed to throw in the “cwaziest peoples” references kind of at random, and you get the feeling that sometimes they did it because they just couldn’t come up with a proper ending for a cartoon. This compilation of clips from 1948’s “Scaredy Cat” features a mouse imitating Lehr at the end, and it doesn’t make any more sense in the actual cartoon than it does here.
So, random mouse with a mustache and a Napoleon hat wacks Sylvester with a mallet, and then quotes Lew Lehr for no obvious reason. The end. In this cartoon, even knowing the origin of the catchphrase doesn’t make it any less “cwazy”.
4. “Of course you realize, this means war!”
Whenever Bugs Bunny said this, you knew shit just got real. His enemy had crossed the line, and now Bugs was going to utterly destroy them with a deadly combination of cunning, wisecracks and merciless cockteasing. (When you really stop and think about it, it’s kind of bizarre how often Bugs deployed crossdressing to make his opponents so horny they couldn’t think straight. He’s like some kind of furry Dr. Frank N. Furter.)
“Of course you realize, this means war!” was originally said by Groucho Marx in the Marx Brothers film Duck Soup. By some accounts, Bugs’ wisecracking, fourth wall-breaking character was partially inspired by Groucho. Bugs certainly imitated Groucho a lot, even going so far as to disguise himself as Groucho for a scene in “Slick Hare.”
It’s kind of sad that you probably didn’t know that “Of course you realize, this means war!” was a Groucho line. The Marx Brothers have become a lot less well-known in recent decades, and that’s something that must be corrected as soon as possible. So go watch Duck Soup right now, and as soon as you’re done, come back and finish this article. We’ll wait.
5. “Come with me to the Casbah.”
While a number of sources cite the 1938 movie Algiers as the origin of Pep? Le Pew’s favorite come-on, the line was featured in the trailer but was never actually said in the film itself. Le Pew himself was a spoof of Algiers‘ protagonist, Pep? le Moko, a French jewel thief portrayed by Charles Boyer.
The amorous French skunk relentlessly pursued Penelope, an uninterested and frequently terrified girl cat, through over a dozen basically identical cartoons. As great as Chuck Jones was, if you’ve seen one Pep? Le Pew cartoon, you’ve basically seen them all. In the clip below we see Pep? hit Penelope with a variation on his usual pickup line: “You do not have to come with me to the Casbah… We are already here!” That’s about as close as Jones’ Lew Pew cartoons came to shaking up the formula.
Pep?’s schtick apparently seemed harmless and charming to audiences of the time, but these days it comes across as weird and creepy and sometimes even kind of… well, rapey. (“I pierce you with the ack-ack of love, flowerpot.”) Non means non, Pep?!
This 2009 AT&T cartoon depicts Penelope being madly in love with Pep?.
Stockholm Syndrome, no doubt.
6. “Well, now, I wouldn’t say that…”
Some Looney Tunes catchphrases don’t sound that familiar out of context. In order to recognize them, you really need to hear them spoken in the original goofy cartoon voice. Case in point: “Well, now, I wouldn’t say that.”
In the following clip from the cartoon “Draftee Daffy,” it’s said by a little creep from the draft board who has spent a whole cartoon harassing Daffy Duck.
Now you recognize it, right?
“Well now, I wouldn’t say that” was the catchphrase of Richard Q. Peavey, a nebbishy druggist portrayed by Richard LeGrand on the long-running radio comedy, The Great Gildersleeve. The series is all but forgotten now but it was enormously popular back in the day, so much so that it spawned a TV series and four feature films. Peavey blazed the trail for a thousand wacky sitcom neighbors to follow, by dutifully showing up once an episode to say his inexplicably popular catchphrase with little justification, and then getting the heck out of there.
You might say that “Well now, I wouldn’t say that” was the “Giggity-giggity” of its day.
7. “He don’t know me vewy well, do he?”
Red Skelton is a good example of how somebody can be a huge star in his lifetime, and yet be nearly forgotten within a generation or two.
Skelton was a popular radio and TV comedian for decades, but time has not been kind to his broad, corny comedy, full of vaudevillian gags, hobo clowns and characters with names like Clem Kadiddlehopper and Freddie the Freeloader. If modern audiences recognize Skelton at all, it’s probably as the voice of Father Time in the seasonal TV favorite Rudolph’s Shiny New Year.
A few of Skelton’s catchphrases will live on forever, thanks to Looney Tunes reruns. “He don’t know me vewy well, do he?”, “You bwoke my widdle arm!” and “I dood it!” were all taken from Junior, Skelton’s “Mean Widdle Kid” character. But if Skelton’s comedy has dated poorly in general, Junior’s antics look particularly dire to modern eyes. (I’m afraid all those clips of portly middle-aged men wearing baby bonnets on The Jerry Springer Show have made us all see “adult babies” very differently than our grandparents did.)
Here’s a clip of Junior in action.
Yikes. Hopefully Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler will learn from Skelton’s example that comedians can only do these silly babytalk characters for so long before they start to read less as impish man-children and more like sad grandpas who’ve wandered away from the rest home again.
8. “TURN OUT THAT LIGHT!”
You hear this one a lot in WB cartoons from the 1940s, always shouted in the angriest, most intimidating voice Mel Blanc could muster. It was a reference to the WWII air raid drills, when leaving your lights on at the wrong time could bring a furious air raid warden pounding on your door. While Japanese Zeros never bombed the continental US, Americans had good reason to worry that an attack could come at any time. So understandably, leaving your lights during an air raid drill on was seen as not merely unpatriotic, but also dickish.
In “Elmer’s Pet Rabbit,” the cartoon below, Bugs Bunny hollers the line at the very end.
1940s Warner Bros. cartoons were full of wartime references like that, including a whole lot of stuff about the scarcity and deliciousness of meat. For example, here’s a hillbilly flea singing a little ditty called “Food Around the Corner” in the 1943 cartoon “An Itch in Time.”
This was when meat was rationed, and “Meatless Tuesdays” were a real thing. So it’s not unlikely that a lot of the audience watching this cartoon had more sympathy for the hungry flea than they did for the poor dog.
It kind of puts our current troubles in perspective, huh? Sure, maybe the economy is in the crapper and the government shutdown was annoying as hell, but at least we’ve got Fatburgers to eat and we don’t have to worry about anybody dropping bombs on our heads while we’re playing Angry Birds Star Wars II.