After two years of avoiding the dreaded virus, I finally succumbed to COVID in late April. I knew, by then, what was expected of me: ten days of quarantine, during which I was to lounge in bed swigging shots of cough syrup and binge-watching the latest Netflix or Hulu “content”. But being something of a nonconformist, I decided instead to binge classic Warner Bros. Looney Tunes cartoons, those wacky, anything-goes animated shorts I had spent my childhood devouring on Saturday mornings, summer afternoons, and too-sick-for-school days.
It didn’t take me long to remember why Daffy Duck was my favorite character as a kid. Sure, beloved Bugs Bunny is the Don Draper of the Tunes, a slick-talking male ideal in rabbit form. Tweety is a personal role model, effortlessly averting the determined Sylvester, a tomcat ten times his size. Daffy, however, is my kind of lunatic. Especially in his early years of stardom—from the late 1930s through the ’40s—he reigned supreme as the first completely screwball cartoon creature the world had ever beheld, and there was no one screwier.
Before Warner Bros. relegated him to Bugs’ embittered rival in the 1950s and ’60s, the little black duck was on fire. He seemed to be made of mercury; he practically bounded off the screen right into the audience like Jeff Daniels in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). Fearless, uninhibited, and utterly bonkers, every movement of his feathered frame was fueled by gallons of gleeful abandon and not a single ounce of pretense. Early Daffy owned his daffiness, exhibiting a healthier self-image than most humans I know.
Notoriously irreverent animators Tex Avery and Bob Clampett gave the duck his start, but he was little more than a minor player in Porky’s Duck Hunt, his 1937 screen debut. Too giggly to be much of a threat, he chuckles apologetically to his costar Porky Pig, “I’m just a crazy, darn fool duck,” and somersaulting across a lake with his trademark manic squeals of “Woo-hoo!” before “Woo-hoo” was even a thing. In his follow-up, Daffy took a bolder stance, denying any mental illness. “I’m not crazy,” he tells the camera, audaciously shattering the fourth wall, “I just don’t give a darn!”
By the ’40s, the web-footed wild man was anything but apologetic. He continued to heckle his costars by wise-quacking directly to the viewer, as in 1942’s Conrad the Sailor, when he mimics Conrad the Cat’s singing and confides to the audience, “Pew, is that guy awful. Gee, it makes me sick.” Or in To Duck or Not to Duck (1943), when he pauses in mid-flight to tell the camera, “Confidentially, those hunters couldn’t hit the broad side of a duck.” Whereas initially, he was merely kooky, Daffy’s defining characteristic soon ripened into an insolence so intense it became a preternatural power, enabling him to defy the laws of physics, outwitting and outmaneuvering his opponents like a sardonic superhero. He flips, he swoops, he soars at the speed of light, and he tells you exactly how much your singing sucks.
He did it all while oozing self-confidence. Not a trace of shame or self-consciousness ever descended on this duck, in spite of his small stature and a rather pronounced lisp that frequently caused saliva to spew from his bill like a fountain. If you think about it, he was giving raspberries to the world every time he spoke. That took a lotta nerve. He wasn’t above playing the fame card, either. “I am an ac-tor,” he proudly informs duck-hunting Porky, slapping the gun from his hands. “I got a contract with Warner Brothers!”
Daffy never fit in with the flock. Always dancing to his own drumbeat, he refused to join his fellow ducks as they ritualistically flew south for the winter. Of course, he almost starved to death when the pond froze over, but that’s the price you pay for nonconformity. Without the need for clothes or cars or internet providers or dental plans, Daffy was immune to advertising, consumerism, and peer pressure. What a refreshing anomaly in this age of social media-induced mass conformity: an individual not guided by the need for social approval, with the courage to play by nobody’s rules but his own. Just watching him is liberating, exhilarating, and inspiring! And did I mention hilarious?
“Be careful of those fangs, Lassie. I bruise like a grape,” he tells Porky’s dog while clamped inside the canine’s jaws. Instead of grumbling when he falls through a trap door, he heckles himself, chirping “Was that trip really necessary?” He blasts “I love you, Hortense!” at top volume, planting a big kiss on Porky’s forehead apropos of nothing. He also calls Porky “Fatso” and “Chubby” in this era, but who can blame him for spurning the rules of polite society when he faces a constant onslaught of rifles, shotguns, and hunting dogs? If loaded guns were legally aimed and fired at you every day, you wouldn’t have much use for social norms either.
“I’m a gweat, gweat sportsman,” Elmer Fudd says in To Duck or Not to Duck.
“A great sportsman, eh?” Daffy scoffs. “Listen sport, you don’t know the meaning of fair play. What chance has a poor helpless fluffy little winged creature like me against you and your bullets and your shotgun and your knife?”
Daffy challenges his opponent to a fair fight inside the boxing ring, where he proceeds to pulverize Elmer’s pale ass (which is briefly bared when his shorts fall down). Today we think of Bugs Bunny as the go-to purveyor of these pranks, but Daffy was doing them first. Only two years after Daffy dropped, Bugs appeared, using the same techniques but performing them with cooler, calmer aplomb. Let’s face it: the bunny basically stole the duck’s shtick.
Both characters were experts at evading their predators. The scenario is ancient by now, but 85 years ago when Leon Schlesinger’s Looney Tunes pioneered it, the very idea of the prey turning the tables on the hunter was a subversive concept. Yet this was typical of the anti-authoritarian undercurrent that ran through most of the golden age Warner Bros. cartoons.
Warners was the most anti-establishment, pro-working class of the major Hollywood studios, particularly during the Great Depression. Their stable of streetwise stars such as James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, and Glenda Farrell embodied the poor, the underdog, the little fella fighting against the rich and powerful. True to his Depression roots, Daffy was a working-class bird. While Bugs vegged in his rabbit hole munching carrots, Daffy worked as a messenger, toiled in an aircraft factory, was drafted into the Army during World War II, collected scrap metal for the war effort, sold goods door to door, took a gig as a babysitter for 50 cents an hour, and was employed as a hotel bellhop—although he did get drunk on the job once.
In 1943, the same year Cagney picked up an Oscar for Michael Curtiz’s Yankee Doodle Dandy, Daffy was immortalized in the musical tour-de-force Yankee Doodle Daffy. Here, he’s moved on up from low-paying menial jobs and is now a talent agent promoting a juvenile singer who possesses all the charisma of Justin Bieber on flu medicine. The gag is that Daffy obviously has more talent in his little tail-feather than the kiddie crooner has in his whole body. He tirelessly bursts into half a dozen songs, strums a wild banjo solo, dons a cowboy hat and giddy-ups Porky like a horse, juggles, rides a unicycle, flies a plane, dances like Gene Kelly, and performs what may be the finest Carmen Miranda impression ever captured on film. To think the duck was never nominated for an Oscar.
Then again, it’s not surprising that Daffy won no awards or popularity contests. Unfiltered, unfettered individualists rarely do. A walking contradiction, he joyously revels in being misunderstood as “nutsy” and “goony”, but in the very next breath he backpedals: “Just because I’m happy is no sign I’m loony.” Perhaps what he’s saying is that he doesn’t consider himself insane, but he understands if the rest of the world thinks he’s a nut, and he’s okay with it. Similar to his fellow Warners star Bogey, Daffy was “this guy who knows he’s misunderstood in some way, and is kind of happy to be misunderstood,” to quote Bogart biographer Eric Lax. (Schickel, 2008)
The short film Nasty Quacks (1945) was a brave departure for the duck, a villain role on par with Jack Nicholson in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), both protagonist and antagonist in one. If it were released today this cartoon would surely be slapped with a PG-13 rating. Frank Tashlin directs Daffy to new heights of obnoxiousness as a house pet from hell, a hot mess that the audience somehow roots for even though we know we shouldn’t. He terrorizes the innocent family who adopted him. He tries to bludgeon a baby duck with an ax; when it rapidly grows into a sexy lady duck, he mates with it instead—the same duckling he was about to violently murder. There are moments when he really seems, in the words of Globe and Mail journalist Steven Godfrey, “within sputtering distance of an expletive.” (Godfrey, 1979) In Nasty Quacks, Daffy made Walt Disney’s cartoon coterie look tamer than Barney & Friends at a Bible study session.
The following year brought his greatest vehicle, the short film Daffy Doodles. In Robert McKimson’s directorial debut, Daffy dazzles as an obsessive-compulsive graffiti artist determined to paint mustaches on every billboard in the city. But he’s not driven to deface public property by destructive impulses, but rather a heartfelt passion for rendering hair on upper lips. His is a genuine artistic pursuit that asks no monetary remuneration. Halfway through the film, while strung upside-down from his toes and slinging paint a la Jackson Pollock, he warbles a delightful original verse parodying “She Was an Acrobat’s Daughter”, an old tune from the WB music library.
She was an acrobat’s daughter
She swung by her teeth from a noose
Then one matinee, her bridgework gave way
And she flew through the air like a goose– Daffy Doodles
Daffy’s screen persona was perfectly balanced here, equal parts cheeky and charming, a relentless nuisance but a loveable one. In hardcore anti-hero style, he breaks the law throughout the entire toon, yet remains unpunished in the end, Hollywood Production Code be damned! Fortunately, this masterpiece was restored by Warner Bros. to its full Technicolor glory in 2021.
On the heels of Daffy Doodles came Robert Clampett’s The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (1946), a classic from the height of the film noir movement. In this meta-mystery, our leading duck is a comic-book-obsessed cartoon character, a rabid Dick Tracy fanatic who dreams of nabbing criminals as Duck Twacy, the famous detective. Despite the nod to noir conventions—dimly-lit city streets, fedora hats, and a bout of unconsciousness reminiscent of Dick Powell’s in Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (1944)—Daffy is more traditionally heroic here, off the rails but virtuous. This was the frantic fowl in his golden-boy prime, at the peak of his star power and charisma, like Jude Law in 2003 just before his hair started visibly thinning.
The Daffy of this period has spawned a slew of imitators. When asked what inspired his over-the-top turn as the title character in the 1988 dark comedy Beetlejuice, Michael Keaton replied, “I based the character on Daffy Duck. I’m the Daffy Duck of the afterlife.” (Green, 1987) Also in 1988 came Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit? whose star, despite being the same species as Bugs, was closer to golden-age Daffy in his zany personality and hyperactivity. As executive producer, noted Daffy fan Steven Spielberg made sure the duck scored a swell cameo in the film and then paid homage to him in the 1990s series Tiny Toons and The Plucky Duck Show. With the 2000s explosion of Disney and Pixar films, comic relief characters that owed a debt to Daffy grew too numerous to count.
As the conformist, conservative 1950s dawned, Daffy underwent a radical transformation. Under the direction of Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng, his movements became controlled, his manner supercilious, and his facial expression stuck in sourpuss mode. In short, the fun was over. Ostensibly, according to film critic Leonard Maltin, the Warners animators “seemed to decide in the late ’40s they had gone about as far as they could go with that crazy character. They developed a new Daffy, making him more of a comic foil and that’s what they kept doing with him during the ’50s.” (Bailey, 1987)
Some iconic roles still lay ahead, Chuck Jones’ The Scarlet Pumpernickel (1950) and the brilliant Duck Amuck (ibid, 1953) among them. But the joie de vivre that defined my favorite duck was gone. After his first co-starring role with Bugs Bunny, 1951’s Rabbit Fire(Jones), there was no turning back; now he was pitted against Warners’ number-one son and doomed to play the sore loser. No more gravity-defying bouncing off the walls, giddy laughter, or silly songs. New Daffy was entitled and avaricious, frankly unpleasant, and openly envious of the “de-thpicable” rabbit. A case could be made that this new incarnation has merit, but the fact remains that, like Montgomery Clift after the car accident, Daffy was never quite the same Daffy again. In fact, he was no longer daffy at all. Disgruntled Duck would have been a more appropriate name.
Perhaps not coincidentally, just before this metamorphosis he hits a low point in 1948’s Riff Raffy Daffy (Arthur Davis), reduced to sleeping on park benches, dwelling in trash bins, and breaking into department stores at night to take up residence. Just as postwar prosperity was increasing the standard of living for many Americans, our hero is homeless, penniless, and constantly hounded by the police for simply trying to keep warm. Could it be that this small, vulnerable creature was kicked around one too many times by this big, bad world until his once-boundless spirit was finally broken? Could that explain the dry, bitter new persona that took over?
The key to unlocking Daffy’s baffling psyche may lie in Tex Avery’s 1938 film Daffy Duck & Egghead, when he sings his back story:
My name is Daffy Duck
I worked on a merry-go-round
The job was swell, I did quite well
Till the merry-go-round broke down– Daffy Duck & Egghead
Proceeding to detail how the merry-go-round spun off its axis and raced precariously around in high-speed circles, he explains, “The dizzy pace soon went to my head.”
If we can believe his tale, Daffy was a tragic victim of the system, a carnival employee subjected to a workplace accident that damaged his brain, leaving him in a permanent state of dizziness. Adding insult to injury, he was probably screwed out of a fair settlement by corporate lawyers, and more than likely received no disability benefits or even the workers’ compensation he deserved. No wonder he rejected the laws of man.
This little guy had some legitimate grievances, yet he refused to be victimized, cleverly turning every situation to his advantage, endlessly making lemonade from lemons, and refusing to submit to herd mentality. In the words of the poet E.E. Cummings, “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best—night and day—to make you everybody else, means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.” The same goes for ducks, too.
Daffy waged a noble battle to remain his wild and crazy self. In the end, he lost. But the 50-plus cartoons he made as a pure, unrepentant maniac will live on forever. I love this Daffy because he never fails to put a smile on my face and a laugh in my belly, even in the throes of The Rona. Daffy Duck instinctively knows what it’s taken me over 40 years to learn: Sometimes insanity is the only sane response to a world gone mad.
How about thome rethpect for the little black duck?
Bailey, Moira. “At 50, with a New Picture, Daffy Is Still a Wild Duck.” Orlando Sentinel. 4 December 1987.
Godfrey, Steven. “The Man Behind Bugs, Daffy, and Tweety.” Toronto Globe and Mail. 21 July 1979.
Green, Tom. “Michael Keaton: The Big Kid of Comedy.” USA Today. 16 July 1987.
You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story. Directed by Richard Schickel. Warner Home Video. 2008.