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I've been reading Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland to my kids at bedtime. We've also watched the 1951 Disney adaptation. My son, who is really coming into his own as a reader, got a kick out of all the puns and double meanings couched in Carroll’s original works. In the cartoon, another type of humor caught my kids by surprise: the slapstick routines.
Kids’ programming today doesn’t use a lot of physical comedy or sound effects the way older cartoons did. My kids found it both surprising and hilarious when Tweedledum and Tweedledee kept bonking themselves on the noggins.
It’s easy to dismiss slapstick as mindless cartoon violence, but the humor is a bit more complex than that. It requires a mix of strong animation, appropriate sound effects, and excellent timing. I’d love to show my kids more slapstick animation, but then I run into the Looney Tunes problem.
You Can't Go Home Again
The Looney Tunes problem is that there’s a lot of racism and other unsavory material in old cartoons. The most blatant examples of this are the Censored Eleven, which haven’t been shown on TV since 1968. But even among the stuff that I loved as a kid, there are plenty of unfortunate elements.
A surprising number of old cartoons used the Sambo image, which…yeah, let’s save that stuff for history class and not Saturday morning entertainment. Suicide becomes a punchline in multiple Looney Tunes classics. Pepé Le Pew becomes a lot less funny in a world where we’re finally starting to treat sexual assault as a serious issue.
In short, many of those cartoons have not aged well. While I watched the heck out of them in my grade school years, they’re now better as pieces of history than kid-friendly entertainment. That’s not to say they all contain objectionable content; they just require some vetting beforehand.
As an example, my son is learning about different adaptations of the classic fable about the tortoise and the hare. I know Bugs Bunny riffed on that a lot. Now I just have to track down those cartoons and hope I didn’t forget out a portion where Bugs breaks into a musical number while in blackface again.
Vetting Old Cartoons
The good news on this front means that I have a new excuse to watch through a bunch of Looney Tunes classics. Thankfully, I’ve determined that “The Rabbit of Seville” is still a go. That and “What’s Opera, Doc?” means I can educate my kids on both opera and slapstick humor at the same time.
I can think of a worse fate than having to re-watch a bunch of old Looney Tunes cartoons before sharing them with my kids. Still, I’m struck by how much humor in kids’ shows has changed…and how poorly a lot of cartoon classics age.
Images: Warner Brothers, John Tenniel
Opinions expressed by parent contributors are their own.