Most mornings before I work I turn on a show that runs classic cartoons, mostly Looney Tunes with the occasional Popeye or even Betty Boop thrown in. It’s a bit of a throwback to my childhood in more ways than one, since it’s not just cartoons I’ve been watching as long as I can remember but these days I could easily choose from an overwhelming number of things to watch, but the cartoon show is something that just happens to be on early in the morning while I’m having my coffee and getting ready for another day in the salt mine. And the show usually ends with a Looney Toon cartoon which is a high note—they’re not only great but they’re also my favorites, especially the Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons. I always liked the Coyote especially, and felt sorry for him. Some people might think that’s wrong—maybe they think the Roadrunner, who’s the pursued, after all, is the real hero, but watch enough of them and the Roadrunner turns out to be a pretty meanspirited character who sneaks up behind Wile E. Coyote, scaring him over cliffs or even just pushing him, and, occasionally, turns out to be the driver of a truck or train that runs over him. Maybe that’s why it took a little of the magic out of them when Wile E. Coyote broke the fourth wall and talked to us or, worse, when he went after Bugs Bunny. But that was okay. There’d be a classic one later on.
The Coyote’s endless pursuit of the Roadrunner seems especially poignant and more meaningful the older I get, although I first realized just how really smart they are decades ago when I was in college and reading a lot of Samuel Beckett plays. Never mind Waiting For Godot—what really got me was Beckett’s Act Without Words I, a play in which a person is trapped in the middle of the stage designed to look like a desert and is given various objects—scissors, a rope, boxes, and is taunted with a bottle of water. The only thing missing is none of the items are, as far as we know, made by the Acme Company. It would be years after that before I’d find Ian Frazier’s “Coyote vs. Acme”, about Wile E. Coyote suing the Acme company for selling faulty products, and which is being turned into a feature film, but that’s another story.
It’s not all that surprising that Chuck Jones, who dreamed up the first Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons, would draw inspiration from Beckett plays, or maybe just the Absurdist theater that was permeating the culture of the time. Jones was a very hip guy, as was the entire Termite Terrace gang—even the backgrounds of Looney Tunes cartoons were influenced by Cubism and Surrealism, and once I could read, I finally got why the “scientific” names for Roadrunner and Wile—like “Speedipus rex” and “Famishius fantasticus” were so funny.
Also, surprisingly, Samuel Beckett’s Act Without Words wasn’t written until 1956—nine years after “Fast And Furry-ous” premiered. And yet Beckett never thanked Wile E. Coyote in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
Beckett’s play—spoiler alert—ends with the unnamed person giving up. After numerous attempts to get the water it finally settles in that it’s a pointless pursuit, there is no hope.
Wile E. Coyote, on the other hand, never stops. No matter how many cliffs he goes over, no matter how many times he’s mashed into an accordion, no matter how many Acme products blow up in his face he never stops.
He is the hero we all need.