Chuck Jones, one of many creative minds behind the classic Looney Tunes cartoons, learned to read at the tender age of three. He was taught by his father, a struggling entrepreneur, who saw reading as an easy form of childcare: the son would occupy himself with a book while the father went off chasing yet another dubious get-rich-quick scheme. Before Jones was out of short pants, he was reading Roughing It, by Mark Twain. Seared into his precocious young mind was Twain’s description of the coyotes that prowled across America’s fading frontier: “The coyote is a living, breathing allegory of Want…. He is so spiritless and cowardly that even while his exposed teeth are pretending a threat, the rest of his face is apologizing for it.”
Some 30 years later, in the late 1940s, Twain’s description was still stowed away in Jones’s brain when he and the writer Michael Maltese set out to create the Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoons.
The best moments of researching my latest book, Wild Minds: The Artists and Rivalries that Inspired the Golden Age of Animation, came from discovering the origin stories of iconic cartoon characters. Who created them? What inspired them? What meanings were the characters supposed to embody? The answers to these questions were often as interesting as the characters themselves. And the most sophisticated of them often involved Jones, who helped breathe life into Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, and Wile E. Coyote, among others.
With Wile E. Coyote, Jones and Maltese wanted to play with the idea of the classic hero. Their coyote was actually a loser, but the kind of loser we can all identify with. He was never outwitted by the Road Runner, a simpleton whose success was a result of sheer dumb luck, but defeated again and again by his own ineptitude. Despite always being the loser, Coyote was actually the clever one; he was just never clever enough. “The Coyote never wins. Never,” Jones explained. “He’s out to get a bird that wouldn’t even make a good meal.”
It’s easy to see Jones’s father, the struggling entrepreneur, reflected in Wile E. Coyote. He was a caring man, beloved by his son, but business success always eluded him, either because he was just ahead of the times, or just behind. Many of his professional failures sounded like plot setups for his son’s later cartoons. For instance, the elder Jones once tried to start a geranium farm but quit when the ground failed to push up flowers. Only after he sold his option did everyone realize the flowers weren’t growing because the ground was saturated with crude oil. The new owners, through little more than dumb luck, became millionaires.
Wile E. Coyote was actually a loser, but the kind of loser we can all identify with.
In their work, Jones and Maltese had a lot to say about success and failure, lessons applying not just to individuals but also to the nation. By always inhabiting the American West—that great symbol of ceaseless striving—Coyote was well placed to channel Twain and provide commentary on the American Dream, albeit a commentary updated to address the nation’s new postwar economy. Jones required Coyote to always procure his gadgets from Acme, a name used by countless struggling young companies to get themselves placed at the beginning of the Yellow Pages.
The name combined the same mixture of smart entrepreneurship and snake oil that Twain regularly observed on the American frontier. Jones also insisted that Acme’s projects had to be “almost perfect” but still possess some minor yet fatal flaw. This idea was inspired by an article Jones had read about the growing military-industrial complex, and how an unmanned rocket costing half a billion dollars had exploded because of the failure of one small part costing just 35 cents. When Coyote’s bombs and rockets accidentally exploded in his face, however, audiences were never allowed to see the character permanently injured. The message was that death isn’t the worst fate—embarrassment is.
The lessons of Wile E. Coyote were meant to ground audiences, to inject a little humility back into a culture that had just emerged victorious from a war and was enjoying head-spinning, ego-inflating success. The character spoke to both the personal and the universal, providing lessons worth remembering today as a string of embarrassments—political, economic, and cultural, on both the left and the right—that drop on our heads like anvils. Coyote is who we are, more often than we’d like to admit, and a reminder of the precarious balance between success and failure.
Reid Mitenbuler’s Wild Minds: The Artists and Rivalries That Inspired the Golden Age of Animation is out now