originally published December 24, 2012
As a symbol of unrelenting persistence in the face of a seemingly unconquerable goal, you’d be hard-pressed to find a greater role model than Wile E. Coyote. My dad used to tell me this, and though he passed away before ever having achieved his own ultimate goal (total dominion over the world’s supply of pelicans), I think the lesson is valid.
Wile E. wasn’t the underdog – he was the dog completely devoid of hope. We know he’ll never achieve his goal: the capture and subsequent butchering of the one lone Road Runner who haunts his dreams and taunts his soul. Yet we know he’ll continue to try.
So who do we root for? The Road Runner is the cock-sure jock, sure-footed and impossibly agile, flicking his tongue at his nemesis and out-maneuvering him at every turn. Wile E. is slower, but methodical and elaborate in his schemes, intent on demonstrating his mental dominance over his foe, yet always neglecting that one tiny detail, that microscopic loophole through which the Road Runner inevitably prevails. I rooted for the coyote. I wanted him to win – not because I wanted the Road Runner to die, but because I wanted to see smarts prevail over flashy speed.
Chuck Jones, the Warner Brothers animator who taught me to love cartoons as a kid (not in person – though that would make a fantastic story, maybe even a good cross-country buddy flick, like Midnight Run but with better sound effects), created the famous duo. The template was already out there – Tom and Jerry was a hit, and Chuck wanted the same kind of endless-chase scenario in these two, only played for goofier laughs.
The model for Wile E. (whose original proposed name was Don Coyote, a clever play on the name Don Quixote) came not from a literal rendering of the animal, but from the Mark Twain book Roughing It, in which the coyote was described as “a living, breathing allegory of want.”
(just like Lindsay Lohan)
The first Coyote-Road Runner cartoon short debuted on September 17, 1949. Most every short contains three mini-stories that build to their own little punchlines, totaling six or seven minutes per entry. 48 shorts were produced, including a trio released along with various Warner kids’ flicks in 2010. The pair also snagged a half-hour TV special in 1962 and a prominent role in 2003’s Looney Tunes: Back In Action.
The first thing that stands out in a Coyote-Road Runner cartoon is the scenery. Aficionados of the western film might be quick to identify the desert-and-rock landscape as Monument Valley, an area of five square miles along the Arizona-Utah border that director John Ford used for several of his greatest old-west masterpieces. In The Wild Chase, a 1964 cartoon in which the Road Runner races against Speedy Gonzalez, he is described as being from Texas. I’m thinking somewhere in the Arizona-Utah-New Mexico area sounds about right; .
Of course most of the early cartoons feature Wile E. purchasing some kind of contraption from the mysterious Acme corporation. A lot of these products work quite well: their rocket-powered roller skates looked like a lot of fun, and their anvils were dependably solid. I’m wondering if their repeated failure (most often because something backfired in the Coyote’s execution of his plan) came from Wile E. not properly reading the instruction books. Could it be that the same cockiness the Road Runner displays with his pop-cork fluttering tongue might be reflected in the Coyote’s hard-headed insistence that he alone can figure out the workings of Acme products with no help? Might they be a reflection of one another? Am I reading too far into this?
In Looney Tunes: Back In Action the Coyote is described as an employee of Acme. This could explain his ability to afford so many of their toys; maybe Acme’s employee discount is simply tremendous.
(perhaps he’s in quality control)
Chuck Jones claimed there were eleven sacred rules to which every artist working in the Coyote-Road Runner realm must adhere:
- The Road Runner cannot harm the Coyote, he can only taunt him dickishly.
- No outside force, apart from careless speeding trucks or trains (usually emerging from a painted-on tunnel) may harm the Coyote, only his own schlemiel-ness.
- The Coyote could stop anytime and just grab a bite of something else, but he is a fanatic, and therefore will not.
- No dialog, apart from “OW” and “Beep-Beep”. Wile E. occasionally appeared with Bugs Bunny, and he spoke with a crisp and proper English accent, voiced by Mel Blanc. Also, a nearly identical creature named Ralph Wolf clocked in and tried to steal sheep from under a sheepdog’s nose in another series of cartoons. But Wile E.? Once he’s on his own, he keeps his mouth shut.
- The Road Runner must stay on the road. This rule got bent a couple of times, but why the hell call him a Road Runner if he can take short cuts through the sand?
- All action must take place in this mysterious southwestern desert. No ‘this time they’re in Australia’ crap, and no Very Special Episodes at Niagara Falls.
- All tools must come from the Acme Corporation. This is probably because of some complicated sponsorship arrangement featuring cartoon sacks of money with dollar-signs on the side.
- Whenever possible, gravity should be Wile E.’s biggest nemesis. I mean come on, the guy goes to the effort to write all those little “BYE” signs and stash them on his person – let’s give him a reason to use them.
- The Coyote should always be more humiliated than harmed. Because nothing is more embarrassing than becoming an accordion after hitting the underside of a slab of rock.
- The audience must always sympathize with the Coyote. This is a comfort to me – I was worried I just had a tendency to back the loser. I always rooted for Potsie to steal Fonzie’s girls on Happy Days too.
- The Coyote is not allowed to catch or eat the Road Runner. Well, no shit.
When Saturday morning cartoons would enter their final hour back in those colorful days of my youth, I would always tune in to The Bugs Bunny & Tweety Show, and the Coyote-Road Runner shorts always seemed to be my favorites. It’s pure silent comedy, but with the skewed laws of physics and effective side-stepping of consequence that can only be found in a cartoon.
And I learned a lot from Wile E.’s perseverance. He taught me never to give up, because the world needs my unflinching dedication. Also, I should find a nemesis and strive to kill it, because fuck that guy.