Our hero rips down the road at blinding speed, kicking up a vapor trail of sand that lingers in the hot heavy air of the Nevada desert. He’s running for his life you know… being chased by a relentless predator who wants to eat him for lunch. He suddenly stops on a dime in front of a stone wall, painted to look like the road disappearing into the horizon. He ain’t fallin’ for it.
He turns to face the predator, barreling down on him at breakneck speed. He literally has his back against the wall, but demonstrates defiance in his last seconds on this earth. He sticks out his tongue, sadistically mocking the predator and his stupid trap, then turns and runs impossibly into the painted scene. The predator tries to put on the foot brakes, but his momentum carries him straight into the now solid wall, flattening his snout like a pancake. But does he give up? No! Does he lay down and die? No!! He pulls out his face with a loud “sproing!” and then walks off to plan his next attack with his ACME catalog and seemingly endless supply of coyote currency.
Saturday morning morality was not always so cut and dried. Was I supposed to be cheering for the Roadrunner, who had super speed and enough intelligence to avoid the perpetual traps that were set for him? Or was I supposed to admire Wile E. Coyote… who never gave up, even after suffering humiliating defeat after defeat in his attempt to get some food. I mean… maybe he had a coyote family back at his cave and little cubs who were starving too?
Perhaps this cartoon was more sophisticated than we thought. Was Chuck Jones showing us the futility of chasing after something we know we’ll probably never get? (But wait… don’t give up because your next bright idea might just work.) Or was he just trying to make us feel a little bit better about our own pain? (Gee I had a rough day, but at least I didn’t fall off a cliff and crash in a tiny puff of smoke at the bottom of the canyon.)
Whatever the director’s intent, I think the Roadrunner cartoons were really about the entertainment value of humiliation. It’s the same magnetic trainwreck effect that drives the popularity of reality contest shows like American Idol today. Humiliation sells. But is it really just harmless fun to watch the poor untalented coyote candidates get mocked by the roadrunner judges and sent home crying? Can’t we just start the show after the good ones are selected?
As the lines blur between hero and villain, between civility and cruelty, I ask… who do you identify with more – the gleefully talented Roadrunner, or the tragic Wile E. Coyote?
Me? I gotta run. I’m hungry and I can’t find my ACME catalog.