Saturday, 20 July 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Taz-Mania

I just finished this great read about Robert McKimson called "I Say, I Say...Son!", written by Robert's son, Robert McKimson Jr. I knew it previous to finishing the book, but can confirm now more than ever that Robert McKimson's contributions to the cartoon world (in addition to his brothers', Tom and Chuck) are incredibly under-appreciated. There are lots of things I didn't know about him - many of which I wanted to get into here, but a) I don't want to discourage you from picking up the book yourself, which is filled with tons of cool artwork, and b) I didn't want to end up plagiarizing everything I had just learned. But what I thought I'd touch on today, inspired by the book, is my renewed interest in a fascinating creation of Bob's, called the Tasmanian Devil.

What's always fascinated me about Taz is his ongoing popularity. Back in the 1990's, I can recall going into department stores and seeing countless t-shirts with Taz on them, endorsing every sports franchise known to man. 

I believe he also receives payouts from Harley Davidson.

And Chevrolet.

Taz was everywhere! And he's still a surprisingly strong pop culture icon. But why? I don't think I can answer that without somehow insulting us and our baser instincts. But I can tell you why I think his longevity is amazing. For starters, he really only appeared in 5 classic cartoons. Compare that to the likes of another t-shirt mainstay like Bugs Bunny, who had 171 classics under his belt by the end of the same time period.

Taz was late to the Looney Tunes game, but can be considered the last of the classic Warner Bros. cartoon creations.

Back in 1954, Robert (Bob) McKimson came across 'Tasmanian Devil' as a clue in a crossword puzzle he was doing. He was on the hunt for something new, outside of the usual funny animals like cats, mice and rabbits. He asked his animators to start sketching the Aussie carnivore, and apparently they all came up with similar designs, which he fine-tuned into one official drawing.

According to National Geographic, the personality of the animated Tasmanian Devil is not that far off from the real thing. Early European settlers nicknamed the animal "devil" upon seeing its seething rage on display when protecting its food and/or mate.

Taz debuted in a 1954 short entitled 'Devil May Hare' co-starring Bugs Bunny, and audiences fell in love with the spinning, slobbering baggy-eyed beast.

This love was not shared by then-Warner Bros. cartoon producer Eddie Selzer, who was notoriously humourless and asked Robert to stop making cartoons featuring that "obnoxious" Tasmanian Devil. Robert complied, until numerous fan letters started flooding into Warner Bros., which prompted one of those very Warner Bros. to confront Selzer about the subject. Upon hearing Selzer's decision, Jack Warner reportedly said, "To hell with that, let's get going and make some more."

Four more Tasmanian Devil shorts followed. The first brought Bugs Bunny to Taz's homeland in 1957's 'Bedevilled Rabbit'.

That same year, the Tasmanian Devil was also pitted against a "greedy, craven little coward' named Daffy in 'Ducking The Devil'.

In 1962's 'Bill Of Hare', Bugs Bunny was back to take on more of a Tasmanian Devil-of-the-sea.

And in his last theatrical short, 1964's 'Dr. Devil and Mr. Hare', Taz was taken on by another quack, but this time not Daffy.

Taz didn't make another appearance until 1979, when he was featured in a CBS TV special called Bugs Bunny's Looney Christmas Tales. The first segment starred Taz and was later released as a separate short called 'Fright Before Christmas', directed by Friz Freleng.

Taz was also a major character in Friz Freleng's feature-length "Daffy Duck's Fantastic Island" from 1983, where he played first mate to pirate Yosemite Sam. He also played defence alongside Air Jordan in 1996's "Space Jam".

Taz was even given his own TV series called Taz-Mania, which featured a catchy theme song and Taz's extended family, who owned a hotel. The show ran on Fox from 1991 to 1993. Here's the first episode which showcased the identity crisis of Taz's pet, in 'The Dog The Turtle Story', which was written by famous cartoon guy, Bill Kopp.

Taz was also recently given a makeover for The Looney Tunes Show, which is now in its second season on Cartoon Network/Teletoon. In 'Devil Dog', we first see Taz in a familiar snarling, uncivilized state, but later he becomes the domesticized house pet of Bugs and Daffy.

Ironically, as the cartoon Taz continues to flourish, the real Tasmanian Devil is on the verge of becoming instinct, due to a rare condition called Devil Facial Tumour Disease. (DFTD)  Discovered in the 1990's, the contagious cancer creates large lumps in and around the animal's mouth and face, making it difficult for it to eat and eventually resulting in starvation. The spread of DFTD wiped out thousands of Tasmanian Devils, and efforts are now being made to try to contain healthy animals for the purposes of repopulating.

To raise awareness for this and provide funding for research, Taz (the cartoon character) and Warner Bros. teamed up with Tourism Tasmania to produce special edition plush toys, with all proceeds from sales going to the University of Tasmania's 'Tassie Devil Appeal'. A total of 5,000 stuffed animals were produced, each wearing special clothing bearing the slogan 'Save My Tassie Mates'.

Maybe that baggy-eyed beast isn't such a bad guy after all. I take back every mean thing I said about him. 

Taz you were.

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