Daffy Duck, one of America’s preeminent ducks, is 77 today.
If Bugs Bunny is the brightest star in the Looney Tunes sky, surely Daffy Duck is second. But it wasn’t always that way! Before either of them, a pig named Porky occupied the top spot and on April 17, 1937 the sensational swine starred in “Porky’s Duck Hunt.” The Warner Brothers short featured the curly-tailed stutterer loading up his shotgun and setting out to hunt his way into America’s heart, like you do. But then things don’t go as planned—they can’t, you see; Aristotle said so—and Porky comes upon a duck who isn’t like the others. This duck’s got a white ring around his neck and he doesn’t conform, man. He won’t go gently into that good night. He does what he wants. He’s wacky. He flies around the frame in a very un-medicated way. Watch it. (The colorized version is embedded above. Here’s the original black & white.) It’s pretty funny!
Daffy is nameless in this first appearance, but a rose by any other name—or no name at all, a nameless rose—is still a rose. And this duck is still Daffy. Aside from his trademark white ring and lisp—voiced as he would be for 52 years by Mel Blanc—what makes him so essentially Daffy is that he’s, well, nuts. This was his defining characteristic in the beginning. Created by Tex Avery, Daffy was a minor lunatic the established characters could play the foil to.
Over the course of the next decade, however, Daffy grew from being just some prop prey in hunting sketches to a full-blown star. As he became more prominent, his character became more complex. Still wacky, Daffy matured into his most famous role, as Bugs Bunny’s arch-nemesis. (Bugs, the Betty to Daffy’s Veronica, the White Swan to his Black, had been introduced in 1940.) Daffy became the crafty, scheming, plotting back-stabber who, motivated by unrestrained selfishness, will do anything to get what he wants, but in the end always comes up short. His every attempt is foiled, most often by the more moral Bugs, because in Looney Tunes’ moral universe, unrestrained selfishness is a killer.
Part of us empathizes with Daffy because though his defining characteristic is selfishness, his fatal flaw is recklessness. Everyone is a little bit selfish. Selfishness is very banal and very human, and at some age most everyone learns to rein it in. At 77, Daffy still hasn’t reined it in.
Chuck Jones, who created Bugs, drew Daffy from 1951 to 1964 and was responsible for some of his most famous films. In his memoir, Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist, Jones describes the first time he encountered within himself the voice he would one day associate with Daffy. The moment came at his sixth birthday party. After Chuck blew out the candles on his cake, his father handed him a knife and told him to cut as large a piece for himself as he wanted.
At this point Daffy Duck must have had, for me, his earliest beginnings, because I found to my surprise and pleasure that I had no desire to share my cake with anyone. I courteously returned the knife to my mother. I had no need for it, I explained; I would simplify the whole matter by taking the entire cake for myself. Not knowing she had an incipient duck on her hands, she laughed gently and tried to return the knife to my reluctant grasp. I again explained that the knife was superfluous. It was impossible, I pointed out with incontrovertible logic, to cut a cake and still leave it entire for its rightful owner. I had no need and no desire to share.
My father thereupon mounted the hustings (he was nine feet tall and looked like a moose without antlers) and escorted me to my room to contemplate in cakeless solitude the meaning of a word new to me: “selfish.” To me then, and to Daffy Duck now, “selfish” means “honest but antisocial”; “unselfish” means “socially acceptable but often dishonest.” We all want the whole cake, but, unlike Daffy and at least one six-year-old boy, the coward in the rest of us keeps the Daffy Duck, the small boy in us, under control.
“You may cut as large a piece as you want” is a dangerous euphemism. There is a prescribed wedge on every birthday cake that is completely and exactly surrounded by corporal punishment. Exceeding these limits by even a thousandth of an inch brands one as “selfish.” From my seventh birthday on, I learned to approach with judgment sharper than a razor’s edge this line, without cutting the “un” from “unselfish” to “selfish.” I learned very little about social morality but a great deal about survival, and this, after all, is what Daffy Duck is all about.
So, happy birthday, Daffy, America’s most famous animated cautionary tale of avarice!