Even amidst a pandemic and worldwide protests against systemic racism, online headlines on June 8, 2020 was dominated by... an 80-year-old cartoon series.

The Looney Tunes, one of the longest-running properties in the history of animation, was suddenly back in the news because the creators of the series’ latest iteration — a new batch of shorts titled Looney Tunes Cartoons that recently premiered on HBO Max— revealed in a New York Times profile that their new Tunes contained no guns whatsoever. “Cartoony violence” was okay, said executive producer Peter Browngardt. But Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam would no longer chase Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck with hunting rifles or six-shooters.

The announcement was a dream come true for internet headline writers, who know that few things spark outraged clicks faster than a pop-culture classic everyone knows and loves getting “ruined” by political correctness run amok. A Twitter search turns up dozens of angry tweets insisting that without guns the new Looney Tunes will suck.” One article claimed Looney Tunes without guns “makes no sense” because (and yes, this was a real argument against the change) “Elmer Fudd is a hunter, not a wheat farmer, after all.”

While I am a stickler for extremely accurate depictions of hunters in cartoons about talking rabbits, I finally decided to check out the new Looney Tunes this weekend. They are, without question, the best anything made with Bugs, Daffy, and the rest in decades. Even without the guns, they’re also the most authentic Looney Tunes since the glory days of Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng.

HBO Max

I know because I’ve been watching them with my kids on HBO Max, which has an entire subsection of Looney Tunes as part of its streaming library. After my two young daughters showed an interest in slapstick comedy — first in The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking, and then in Home Alone — my wife and I decided to let them watch some Looney Tunes. And sure enough, they were an immediate hit.

After sampling a few of the dozens of classic Looney Tunes on HBO Max, I started trying some of the other series and films the site had available. They were moderately entertained by The Looney Tunes Show, a buddy sitcom starring Bugs and Daffy that aired in the early 2010s on Cartoon Network. They got a couple chuckles out of Tweety’s High-Flying Adventure, a direct-to-video feature from 2000 about Tweety (their favorite Looney Tune) on a trip around the world. We didn’t even make it 15 minutes into 2003’s Looney Tunes: Back In Action before they asked to turn it off.

After that, we stuck with the shorts — both the originals and the new ones by Peter Browngardt and his team. Surprisingly, my kids’ favorite Looney Tunes short out of the dozens they’ve watched so far is a new one: “Boo! AppeTweet,” where Sylvester mistakes a cupcake that looks like Tweety for the real thing, eats it, and then thinks a flour-covered Tweety is a ghost haunting him. Hilarious hijinks ensue:

The ironic part of some fans’ freakout about the lack of guns is that the current Looney Tunes Cartoons are among the bleakest in the franchise’s history. While “Boo! AppeTweet” begins with Sylvester mistaking a flour-covered Tweety for a ghost, it ends with the cat’s accidental suicide, followed by the actual ghosts of his nine lives attacking him, followed by Tweety delivering his “I tawt I taw a puddy tat!” catchphrase with his eyes stark-white with terror. Several other shorts feature gags where the characters get flayed alive, leaving just their skeletons behind.

For another example, check out “Wet Cement,” where Daffy Duck — who hasn’t been this “daffy” in many years — begins messing Porky Pig as he tries to smooth a fresh square of pavement. The end of this short is like something out of a mob movie.

The new toons’ twisted sense of humor and rubbery animation remind me of underground comics, so it’s not completely shocking to see that the Looney Tunes Cartoons’ story editor is Johnny Ryan, the creator of notably f—ed-up books like Angry Youth Comix and Prison Pit. They may look cute, but these Cartoons have some serious edge. That’s why, guns or no guns, Looney Tunes Cartoons is one of the best reboots of an old property in years and years. If anything, these shorts are more subversive without guns — because removing that one potentially controversial aspect has given the creators cover to do all kinds of “inappropriate” content beneath the veneer of family-friendly entertainment.

Browngardt told the Times that his pitch for the series was “What if Warner Bros. had never stopped making ‘Looney Tunes’ cartoons?’” If my kids’ reactions are any indication, they achieved their goal. As far as they’re concerned, there’s no discernible difference between “old” Looney Tunes and “new” Looney Tunes; to them, they’re all just Looney Tunes. (If they’ve taken note that Elmer doesn’t have a gun anymore, they haven’t mentioned it.) That’s probably the highest compliment I can give the new Cartoons: They feel like a seamless continuation of the old, updated for 2020 tastes. Browngardt and his team hit the nail right on the head — and then dropped an anvil on it.

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