I first became interested in the Coyote while devouring Mark Twain’s Roughing It at the age of seven. I had heard of the coyote only in passing references from passing adults and thought of it—if I thought of it at all—as a sort of dissolute collie. As it turned out, that’s just about what a coyote is, and no one saw it more clearly than Mark Twain.
The coyote is a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton, with a gray wolf-skin stretched over it, a tolerably bushy tail that forever sags down with a despairing expression of forsakenness and misery, a furtive and evil eye, and a long, sharp face, with slightly lifted lip and exposed teeth. He has a general slinking expression all over. The coyote is a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry. He is always poor, out of luck and friendless ... even the fleas would desert him for a velocipede ... He does not mind going a hundred miles to breakfast, and a hundred and fifty to dinner, because he is sure to have three or four days between meals, and he can just as well be traveling and looking at the scenery as lying around doing nothing and adding to the burdens of his parents.
Who could resist such an enchanting creature? He and I had so much in common! I cannot begin to express the relief I felt in finding a companion to my own unique ineptness. It was so reassuring to find someone else of my own age (a characteristic we shared was our age, between seven and eight) who could also be a burden to his parents. I was beginning to believe that I was a failure in life; and to find a colorfully inept companion was a happy and stunning surprise.
I wish I had known then what I found to be true many years later: that comedy is nearly always the stuff of the ordinary, concerning itself with simple matters and simple ambitions, with ordinary pursuits and ordinary ambitions.
Charlie Chaplin often, and the Coyote always, is simply trying to get something to eat. Daffy Duck, Jack Benny, and indeed Woody Allen are simply trying for human dignity, recognition, and, with Benny and Daffy, the added need to save or get a little money in the process.
Daffy and Jack will try to explain this need to the audience. Daffy, after betraying Bugs Bunny to a huge forty-foot-high Abominable Snowman, says, “Sure, I know it’s a rotten thing to do, but better it should happen to him than me. I’m different from other people—pain hurts me.”
Think of how simple and recognizable the needs are of all comedians: food, housing, love, the protection of another unfortunate, the eternal battle to find rationality within the establishment… always from the lowliest rung on the ladder.
In all Bugs Bunny films we opened on Bugs in a simple, understandable and rational place for a rabbit to be: in the forest, in the meadow, down a hole, in a carrot patch, or in a pet store… but above all else living peaceably, contemplating an obscure Wang Dynasty dissertation on carrots—a sort of Professor Higgins in sweet solitude.
Then along comes someone with designs on his hide, his foot, his use as a meal or as an outer-space rocket passenger. It is a very simple formula. Bugs resists in every way he can imagine, and he is a very imaginative rabbit. He is also that unusual comedian: a comic hero, and they are very few. Bugs is what I would like to be: debonair, quick-witted, very fast on the comeback, a sort of male Dorothy Parkerish D’Artagnan.
Most of our other characters are not noted for triumph. Inept contenders with the problems of life: Wile E. Coyote, Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, Daffy Duck, Foghorn Leghorn, Sylvester Cat, like Chaplin, Keaton, Woody Allen, Donald Duck, Goofy, Tom (of Tom ‘n’ Jerry) and Richard Pryor, are all mistake-prone, low men on a short and poorly carved totem pole. We recognize their simple ambitions. Their public mistakes, I think, help compensate for or at least make understandable our own private mistakes.
I never had to leave home to develop any character I ever developed or helped to develop. All I had to do was reach down inside my own self and there lurking was the essence of Daffy Duck, the Coyote, or Elmer, or the Martian. It was simply a matter of bringing it to the surface. We are all Daffy Ducks, Woody Allens, Chaplins, and Coyotes inside. We are all haplessly and hopelessly hopeful. We are all to some extent avaricious, mean, traitorous, envious, jealous, but most of these charming characteristics we manage to keep fairly well buried and under control. If one breaks out, we become tragedians. If we keep it under control, we remain comedians. If we are not all of us incipient comedians, why do we laugh at comedy? Why do we love great comedians? Not for what they look like, but for what they do… They are mirrors of what we do, or, in the case of the comic hero, what we would like to be able to do.
Reprinted from Chuck Amuck! (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1989) with permission of the Jones family.
Rules of the Road
rule 01. the road runner cannot harm the coyote except by going “beep-beep.”
rule 02. no outside force can harm the coyote—only his own ineptitude or the failure of the acme products.
rule 03. the coyote could stop anytime—if he were not a fanatic. (repeat: “a fanatic is one who redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim.” –george santayana.)
rule 04. no dialogue ever, except “beep-beep.”
rule 05. the road runner must stay on the road—otherwise, logically, he would not be called road runner.
rule 06. all action must be confined to the natural environment of the two characters—the southwest american desert.
rule 07. all materials, tools, weapons or mechanical conveniences must be obtained from the acme corporation.
rule 08. whenever possible, make gravity the coyote’s greatest enemy.
rule 09. the coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures.