Some Warner Brothers cartoons are called Looney Tunes; some are called Merrie Melodies. What’s the difference between the two?

–Arnold Wright Blan, Sugar Hill, Georgia

Just when you think you’ve answered all the truly vital questions, along comes something to make you realize you’ve barely scratched the surface. My initial idea was to tell you that Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies reflected the dichotomy between the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses or, if you will, the classical and romantic modes of creative expression. However, this suffered from the obvious methodological defect of being a total crock. Not necessarily a fatal drawback in my line of work, but you try sustaining the above line of baloney for more than one sentence.

Next I decided to look at it from a purely mercenary point of view, which, given that we were talking about Hollywood, appeared to be a guaranteed route to success. The initial results were promising. At the outset, at least, the two series were made under separate agreements between Warner Brothers and producer Leon Schlesinger using separate production teams. The Looney Tunes series, created by Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising, was introduced in 1930. Blatant rip-offs of Disney’s Silly Symphonies series, Looney Tunes were required to have one full chorus from a song from a Warner feature film. The cartoons typically were run prior to the main feature, and the idea was that they would promote WB product. (Among other things, the company owned various music-publishing concerns.) The schedule called for a new cartoon approximately once a month.

The Tunes were immediately popular, and the following year Warner commissioned Schlesinger to produce a sister series called Merrie Melodies, which also appeared monthly. (The volume of cartoons fluctuated in later years, but the two series were always produced in roughly equal numbers.) At this point Harman and Ising divided responsibilities, with Harman in charge of Looney Tunes and Ising handling the Melodies. Merrie Melodies also featured Warner songs, but where Tunes had regular characters, Melodies for the most part were one-shots, without continuing characters. Another difference was that Melodies were shot in color starting in 1934, while Tunes stayed black and white.

In my younger days I would have stopped right there. However, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in this business it’s that you can never overestimate the anality of film and animation buffs. Someone would inevitably have made the following observations:

(1) By the late 1930s regular characters started appearing in Merrie Melodies, and by the 1940s the same characters were appearing interchangeably in both series.

(2) Some of Schlesinger’s production people switched freely back and forth between series.

(3) Looney Tunes were shot in color after 1943.

(4) Leon Schlesinger retired in 1944 and Warner Brothers began doing cartoon production in-house, after which time (and probably long before which time) there was no reason to maintain any distinction between Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. The two separate series titles persisted because, you know, there’d always been two separate series titles, and they had different theme music, and why rock the boat?

(5) Nyaah nyaah nyaah nyaah.

So childish. Nonetheless the fact remains that the difference between Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies was pretty much an existential thing. They say Sartre was influenced by it. On a practical level it prepares us to deal with the many meaningless distinctions of life–e.g., Pepsi versus Coke, MasterCard versus Visa, and the Democrats versus the GOP. The Saturday morning ‘toons just a way to kill time? Please. They’re Introduction to Reality 101.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration by Slug Signorino.