It Bugs Me That Chuck Jones Hasn't Got a Nobel

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The gaudy fuss everyone made over the millennium may have obscured the real significance of the year 2000: It marks the 50th anniversary of the debut of the Coyote and Roadrunner. As such, 2000 represents a milestone in the career of the greatest living American, Chuck Jones.

Progenitor of Wile E. Coyote, the Roadrunner, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd and the rest, the great animator turned 87 last September and remains (or so he claims, though it sounds like bravado to me) devastatingly attractive to women.

That the Nobel Prize committee has overlooked Chuck Jones tells us what we need to know about the stolidity of the Scandinavian mind. There is no Nobel Prize for Comedy. (If there were, Chuck would have won it four or five times.) That being so, I propose Chuck Jones for the Nobel Prize in Physics, on the basis of his pioneering formulation of the Coyote-Roadrunner Dynamic, illustrated, for example, when Coyote sets in motion giant boulder A, which whistlingly descends into a canyon to strike seesaw lever B, catapulting giant boulder C into orbit... and so on. "Pure mass moving, for perhaps the first time, in pure space," according to another animator, Don Graham. Chuck Jones' work is a bridge that carries Isaac Newton across into Chaos Theory. Or how about Chuck's discovery of "Illudium Phosdex, the shaving cream atom"? How about his miraculous reduction of Wagner's 14-hour "Ring of the Nibelung" to the six-minute "What's Opera, Doc?" during which Elmer Fudd, as Siegfried, sings to Bugs-in-blond-pigtail-drag: "Oh, Bwoonhilduh, you're do wovewy!" How about "One Froggy Evening," in which Michigan J. Frog leaps out of a building's cornerstone singing "The Michigan Rag"? If that is not Nobel material, none exists.

So let us now praise famous geezers. The first time I met Chuck Jones, at a reception in the early '90s, I saw a slender, dandyish man standing with his head cocked and his weight reared back on his right heel, in a quizzical posture that reminded me, unmistakably, of... Bugs! Replace Chuck's glass with a carrot, and behold — "Eh, what's up, Doc?" Chuck had about him an air of the raffishly boyish and the richly amused. If he's in the mood, he can ratchet things up to trickster-as-philosopher. But you have to buy him lunch for that.

Some friends and I formed Chester A. Arthur Post #1 of the Chuck Jones Fan Club of America, meeting sporadically at a round table in a New York restaurant under the gavel of Post Commander Stefan Kanfer, author of a forthcoming Groucho Marx biography.

Visiting from California, Chuck condescends to appear from time to time at these luncheons, usually with his wife, Marian, who, as I told him once, is much too good for him. At the last lunch, a film crew recorded the occasion for a Columbia Artists Management documentary about Chuck, featuring Robin Williams and Whoopi Goldberg, which will be shown on PBS in the fall.

Chuck reminisced and clowned a little and doodled his famous creations on cloth napkins that the rest of us snapped up and preserved like religious relics. Chuck is an anthology of quotes from his hero Mark Twain. His mind is stocked with oddments, like the line from the artist Grant Wood: "All the good ideas I ever had came to me while I was milking a cow."

Chuck has codified what he has learned. His rules, in shortened form:

  • Love what you caricature
  • Respect the impulsive thought and try to implement it
  • Character is all that matters
  • Timing is the essence
Chuck says "the most important and stunning discovery I made at art school was the ability to live by the single line... no shading, no multiple lines, no cross-hatching, no subterfuge. Just that line."

His one-liners have hilarious clarity. He first thought of the Coyote as "a sort of dissolute collie." Or: "It is easier and more believable to humanize animals than it is to humanize humans."

Chuck is an authentic American genius, and the line of his life, I think, has been beautifully drawn.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Time Warner, the owner of TIME and TIME Daily, is also the pawent company of Bugs Bunny, Woad Wunnuh and Wile E. Coyote. That's all, folks!