Who is funnier, all-American hero Bugs Bunny, or hapless perma-flop Daffy Duck?
Bugs is your textbook smart-arse. He leans down the barrel of a loaded rifle goading Elmer Fudd because he knows that nothing ever goes wrong for him. Not only does he know this, he revels in it to the point of supreme arrogance. Being Bugs is like playing a video game with the cheat mode on. Victory is assured, but it’s a hollow, boring victory. Where’s the risk? There’s no surprise he’s that lucky though, he does have two rabbit’s feet.
On the other hand, you have to feel sorry for Daffy. Nothing ever goes right for him. He’s arrogant, just like Bugs, but life doesn’t deal him aces, it deals him shotgun facials. He looks at Bugs’s charmed life, adulation and fame and rages at the sheer injustice of it.
But who is funnier? Who do we laugh at more? Or more to the point in a Bugs and Daffy cartoon, say Rabbit Fire, what exactly are we laughing at? Daffy getting his head blown off, or Bugs outsmarting him?
As a comedian, sometimes you have to be Daffy. Comedy is predicated on weakness, vulnerability and failure. All achievement, success, adulation is an ephemeral superstructure existing for no other purpose but collapsing in the most spectacular fashion, leaving nothing but shame, guilt and embarrassment in its wake. And laughs.
Laughs of blessed relief, like waking up from an unspeakable nightmare. We inhabit the wretched butt of the joke’s soul for a second, breathe in their plight then run out screaming, with a maniac grin and a bellowing laugh that says, ‘thank fuck that’s not me!’
I once had a massive argument with a circuit comedian around a dinner table. I asserted that what made a really great comedian was someone who exposed their soul, stripped themselves bare onstage and allowed an audience to see the real them, warts and all. Said antagonist disagreed, saying that what made someone funny was just ‘gags and being funny, innit?’
I never rated his act as great because he never showed any vulnerability. Sure it had some funny lines but everyone else ended up being the butt of his jokes: women, northerners, southerners, gay people, etc. Never him. He was always Bugs and never Daffy. I wondered where his Daffy was.
Back to the question, who is funnier, Bugs or Daffy? It is, of course an oversimplified question. It’s like asking what’s funnier, a setup or a punchline? The simple answer is the punchline, because it immediately precedes and triggers the laugh, but the real answer is that the question doesn’t make sense. The punchline doesn’t exist apart from the setup. One without the other is makes as much sense as a one ended stick. They’re really just labels, parts of a larger, more unified whole.
To wit, Daffy is not funnier than Bugs. Bugs’s unrelenting luck and success exist only to juxtapose Daffy’s failure. They’re archetypes. Winner and loser. All the Looney Tunes characters are. Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. Tweety and Sylvester. This illustrates the comedy/tragedy dichotomy of life that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Sometimes you’re Bugs and sometimes you’re Daffy.
It was interesting that I had such an adverse reaction to the aforementioned comic’s act. In retrospect, looking at my own act, I realized that I didn’t show much vulnerability either. Comedians, like humans in general, are very defensive about admitting weaknesses. As much as I was always trying to add more Daffy, my act was predominantly Bugs. In that light, my dinner-table argument made perfect sense. We always clash with people that remind us of the worst parts of ourselves.
Recently I’ve been forced to face a fair bit of vulnerability. I have recently been diagnosed as having mild autism, something that – although not debilitating - has been quite difficult to come to terms with. It’s something that might not be readily apparent, even to people who know me. I’m hoping that knowing that about myself will lead to better self-understanding for me, and through that, better comedy.
Sociopaths aside, none of us want to upset other people. I never set out to, but since I can sometimes struggle putting myself in other people’s shoes, sometimes I can fail at that quite spectacularly. Which isn’t funny in real life, but when given the comedic treatment can be the best kind of comedy gold (Fawlty Towers and Curb your Enthusiasm anyone?)
As hard as it is to do in real life, confronting the weaknesses in your character will – in my opinion – lead to your best comedy. Since my autism diagnosis I’ve had to face a lot of my Daffy-like struggles that I’d previously Bugsied over.
Surprisingly (initially at least), when I shared these struggles onstage, people reacted brilliantly. Which brought home a truth to me. That the best comedy is knowing when to win, and when to lose. The best comedy is a holistic commentary on the human condition, and that means winning and losing.
I acknowledge that thus far I have been far too Bugs. This year for Edinburgh my show is about discovering I have mild autism at age 33 1/3 through the lens of my lifelong obsession with numbers. This Edinburgh, I’m embracing my Daffyness. This Edinburgh I’m shooting my own beak backwards and dropping an anvil on my head. I encourage everyone else to do the same.