By Kevin McCorry
The Tasmanian Devil is one of the most popular Warner Brothers cartoon characters. Merchandise based on him, from calendars to plush toys to T-shirts, is available on at least an equal basis as memorabilia involving any other Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies character. He is the leading personage of a 1990s television series, Taz-Mania, run first on the FOX Network and then in syndication. Yet, the Tasmanian Devil was never a regular performer in cartoon shorts during the classic era of Warner Brothers animation. Only 5 classic era cartoons featured the diminutive but fierce juggernaut from down-under, with a sixth cartoon short produced for Bugs Bunny's Looney Christmas Tales in 1979, a minor role as Yosemite Sam's stooge in the 1983 feature film, Daffy Duck's Fantastic Island, and a few appearances in between-cartoon stage scenes on the 1960-2 Bugs Bunny Show. And even these appearances were not initially popular with critics and audiences. So, why has Taz become a lucrative signature character for Warner Brothers cartoon animation, almost second to Bugs?
The Tasmanian Devil was conceived by director Robert McKimson and writer Sidney Marcus in 1954 as they were brainstorming to find a new opponent for Bugs Bunny. One of them remarked that the combined talents of animators at the cartoon studio had turned practically every animal in existence into a cartoon character and that all that remained was a Tasmanian Devil. Intrigued by this exception to a seeming rule, McKimson designed a creature shorter than Bugs and whose body was dominated by his stomach and mouth cavity- and whose rather feeble-looking legs and arms powered a spinning juggernaut that terrified animals of all shapes and sizes.
Taz's first cartoon, "Devil May Hare" (1954), involves the creature from down-under somehow escaping captivity and instilling frantic fear in the animals of a typical American forest, all of whom stampede past Bugs' rabbit hole. Bugs stops one of the fleeing critters, a turtle, and asks what the commotion is about, and the turtle replies that, "The Tasmanian Devil is on the loose! Run! Run! Run for your lives! Run!" Bugs does not know what a Tasmanian Devil is and to glean the needed facts must consult an encyclopedia, which tells to him that the Tasmanian Devil is a carnivore with no limit to what it eats. Taz casts his eager eyes on Bugs, but Bugs deflects Taz's attention by promising to prepare for the Devil a feast with an animal with more meat on its bones than has Bugs. Bugs exploits Taz's hungry gullibility to trick him into attempting to dig for ground hogs, to slingshot a wooden deer, and to eat a bubble gum chicken and an inflatable raft adjusted by Bugs to look ridiculously like a pig.
This scenario was essentially repeated in "Bedevilled Rabbit" in 1957, the only significant difference being that instead of the Tasmanian Devil wreaking havoc in Bugs' territory, this time Bugs is in Tasmania, airdropped thereto in a crate of carrots. And, of course, the Tasmanian Devil, in his native habitat, is just as ferociously hungry. These two films established the short-lived, very formulaic series, in which nearly every cartoon involves panic of animals or men, all fleeing the on-the-loose Devil, Taz encountering Bugs and craving the bunny as a meal, and Bugs outwitting the not-very-astute beast, usually by appealing to his gastronomic urges for other types of fauna.
The three-year time passage between the first two films was due to the fact that "Devil May Hare" did not attract the hoped-for enthusiastic laughter from theatre audiences, and general producer Eddie Selzer, who among other things did not approve of gags involving bullfights, camels, or French-speaking skunks, ordered McKimson not to direct any more cartoons with the bizarre Tasmanian creature. But in 1956, Selzer was asked by studio mogul Jack Warner what had become of the Tasmanian Devil, and Selzer replied that Taz had been a one-cartoon character. Warner commanded Selzer to produce more films with Taz, and Selzer passed the edict to McKimson, who, with writer Tedd Pierce, resumed Taz's career with "Bedevilled Rabbit" and shortly thereafter with "Ducking the Devil" (1957), pairing Taz with Daffy Duck.
"Ducking the Devil" is one of McKimson's most successful films, because it aptly combines the ferocity of Taz with the cowardliness and avarice of Daffy Duck, who learns that he can collect a cash reward of $5,000 if he can lure the Devil back to a zoo in a city, and Taz can only be rendered docile enough to be lured anywhere by music. The premise works admirably, and the scenes of Daffy scrambling to provide music, first from a radio whose power plug cord is not sufficiently long, next from a trombone that comes apart, then from his own, drying vocal chords, each time finding a solution to his crisis at the last possible moment before Taz devours him, are all superbly animated.
Taz did not appear again, though, until 1962's "Bill of Hare", which returned him to confronting Bugs Bunny, who again deflects the attention of the on-the-loose carnivore by promising to help him to procure meat from other animals. He gulls Taz into hunting for a moose on a train track and into swallowing shish kabob composed of dynamite.
"Dr. Devil and Mr. Hare" in 1964 reused the idea of a stampede of animals, all fleeing the wrath of the ravenous Tasmanian Devil, and the setting this time is a jungle of unnamed location. Most of the gags in this cartoon transpire in a medical hut, where Bugs pretends to be a doctor concerned for Taz's health and gives to him nitroglycerin medicine and a Freudian psychoanalysis ("Now, just relaxing und tell me about your id vhen you vas a kid, ya?").
Senior director Friz Freleng always felt that Taz was a one-dimensional
character who only howled and growled and craved any kind of food. There was, to
Freleng, no other way to utilise the Tasmanian Devil than to repeat the premise
of McKimson's five films. Yet, if the setting and situation were bizarre enough,
Freleng knew that Taz could be relied upon to garner some laughter. And when he
was looking for a character to pair with Bugs in the third cartoon short in
Bugs Bunny's Looney Christmas Tales (1979), Freleng decided to use Taz,
perhaps also as a tribute to McKimson, who died two years before.
"Fright Before Christmas" is a hilarious variation on Clement Moore's "The Night Before Christmas". Taz frees himself from a crate aboard a cargo aeroplane flying a transpolar route to Australia from North America (a very strange route to travel as it would be quicker to just fly across the Pacific Ocean to Australia from the U.S.A.) and parachutes into Santa Claus' clothes, which are being hung outside the Claus abode to freeze-dry, then is slingshot upward by the clothesline into Santa's sleigh. The frightened reindeer transport the Devil away from the North Pole, into American suburbia, and atop Bugs Bunny's house, in which Bugs is reading Clement Moore's poem to little Clyde Rabbit. After Clyde goes to bed, Bugs receives a soot-covered visitor, who has arrived via the chimney. Recognising Taz immediately, Bugs acts as though he thinks that Taz is really Saint Nick and offers to the red-garbed Devil milk and cookies, which Taz eats along with plate and dining table, and reads Clyde's Christmas want list, which includes controlling interest in IBM, Frank Sinatra's old address book, a "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" chemical set, a second-hand diver, and a partridge in a pear tree. Bugs gives to Taz a wrapped gift, which Taz swallows whole. It is a rubber life raft that self-inflates inside of Taz's stomach and lifts him into the sky.
It was a short, rather unvaried, and mostly unremarkable career, compared to that of other Looney Tune characters, who starred in from 30 to more than 100 classic cartoons. So, the question remains. Why has Taz become an icon, a signature character for Warner Brothers' cartoons, and popular enough to have all 6 of his cartoons released on one home videotape, while three of said cartoons were already on other videotapes? Probably because of the animal energy displayed by him during his forages through forests or jungles in search of food. Unlike any other semi-regular character in the Warner Brothers cartoons, Taz is the most brutally destructive. Spinning like a tornado, he can shear through trees, rocks, and mountains. Only the earthquaking Wile E. Coyote in "Hopalong Casualty" ever comes close to Taz's destructive power. Taz does not need guns or bombs to destroy; he does it with his own brute strength, big mouth, and chainsaw-sharp teeth. Taz is blissfully unaware that there is anything wrong with this destructive power. He is a brute with an all-consuming urge to consume, and he will eat anything: animal, vegetable, or mineral. However, he is not a schemer. He does not plot the demise of others like Yosemite Sam does. He has no evil machinations. He is not greedy in the sense of wanting power, monetary or political, over others. He just wants to eat, by all and any means.
Taz is an innocent savage. He never rose to a civilised state and then reverted. He never fell from grace because he never had it. He has remained in a state of nature as its most powerful force. And unlike the lion in "Tweety's Circus" that offends Sylvester's pride by reminding the putty tat that he descended from the wildcat and causes him to project his loathing of the animal within himself onto the lion, Taz evokes no such visceral reaction in viewers. He is so outlandish as to not remind viewers of the brutes from which they evolved. Rather, Taz makes the beast of instinct look completely external, lovably innocent, and easy to outwit.
He has a big mouth but says very little. He is ravenous in his quest for food but can be easily duped by Bugs Bunny or pacified with music, even with the banal lyrics of a greedy Daffy Duck. What is so very lovable about such a character is his purity. An uninhibited brute that is not evil. A creature from an untamed region of Earth who can be easily tricked by Bugs into eating a phony chicken dinner, trying to slingshot at a wooden deer, hunting moose on a train track, or swallowing a dynamite shish kabob. He can survive the explosion of bombs fed to him by Bugs, as his stomach is strong enough to withstand three-fold stretching. He eats anything and is never poisoned. He eats and eats- and gains no weight. How most people must envy that! Bugs may be what people most aspire to be, but Taz is what they wish would represent "the other side of the coin", a fearsome but ultimately harmless brute, fun to watch and to have around. The ultimate party animal!
Tasmanian Devil Filmography