Research on global humor indicates one critter has a knack for “quacking” folks up. This would come of little surprise, though, to the animators responsible for Donald and Daffy and other zany bird cartoon characters.
British Psychologist Richard Wiseman, whose studies have revealed the hilarious appeal of the small, waddling waterfowl, says that “if you are going to tell a joke involving an animal, make it a duck” (1). Maybe folks are humored by the way it walks or sounds. Illustrators, of course, know that all sorts of birds—not just ducks—have the potential to bring levity to their comics and cartoons. Hence, we have Woody Woodpecker, Chilly Willy (a penguin), Buzz Buzzard, and Homer Pigeon (all from Walter Lantz Productions); as well as Heckle and Jeckle (a couple of mischievous magpies), Gandy Goose, and—another cartoon duck—Dinky Duck (all from Terrytoons).
The Ducks Have It
Donald and Daffy came onto the scene during the 1930s, but neither was the first cartoon bird on film. For example, a chicken who tries to frame Felix the Cat appeared in the 1928 animated short The Oily Bird (2). However, introduced a few years later in the 1934 Disney classic The Wise Little Hen, Donald made the bigger splash, quickly becoming the foremost major animated avian personality to appeal widely to audiences (3). And Daffy came along three years later in Warner Brothers’ Porky’s Duck Hunt (4). Both characters, the white feathered Donald with his naval uniform sans trousers and the oft unattired black drake Daffy, are now household names throughout the world.
“Being a duck, he likes water,” Walt Disney once explained regarding Donald’s choice of apparel. “Sailors and water go together” (5). By 1942, this irascible, half-clothed waterfowl had garnered Disney’s production studio an Oscar for the animated anti-Nazi propaganda short film Der Fuehrer’s Face (6). (For a detailed and intriguing account of “Donald Duck and Wartime Propaganda,” please check out the link to ArtLark’s blog article.) Of course today, Daisy Duck, Scrooge McDuck, Darkwing Duck, Huey, Dewey, Louie, and a waddling of other family members and friends join Donald, living in the fictional Duckburg. Furthermore, Disney has given flight to a few more fowl since the 1930s, characters such as Owl from Winnie the Pooh, Orville and Wilbur (sibling albatrosses) of The Rescuers movies, and Iago (a parrot) from the Aladdin franchise.
Meanwhile, Daffy and his pals are doing quite well. Today he rivals Bugs Bunny in popularity among the stable of cartoon characters at Warner Brothers. There he also joins other funny-bird personalities, such as Road Runner, Tweety Bird (a canary), Foghorn Leghorn (a rooster), and Henery the Chicken Hawk. I must admit that I have fond memories of watching all these characters on Saturday morning TV as a young child, especially the many escapades involving Daffy and Foghorn.
Still Drawing Applause
Over the years, cartoonists have brought all sorts of feathered entertainers to life. Decades ago, animated short films were common on the big screen, such as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer classics like Jerky Turkey and King-Size Canary. Pixar put its own stamp on this format in 2000 with the studio’s film For the Birds. However, most high-profile animated cinema today consists of feature-length flicks. Recent notable examples include the Penguins of Madagascar; the Antarctic adventures of penguins, skuas, and a puffin in the Happy Feet films; and an assortment of feathered personalities, such as macaws, a toucan, and a cardinal, in the Rio movies.
Not limited to just the motion picture business, birds are also featured in comic books and comic strips. The most iconic of these is Woodstock of Peanuts, a mainstay of newspaper comic sections. While clearly not as famous as Snoopy’s sidekick, Marvel Comics’ Howard the Duck remains a cult favorite in his respective print medium. These are just the biggest names; there are many more. You’ll even find in today’s newspapers several polarizing examples, among them the title character of Mallard Fillmore, a politically conservative comic strip, and Sparky the Wonder Penguin of the left-leaning This Modern World (7).
By the way, comics that delve into political and social issues are nothing new. Pogo, Bloom County, Shoe, and many others, entered that territory long ago. One of the main figures in the swampland setting of Pogo, of course, was an owl (8). Opus the penguin graduated from Bloom County to land a couple of comic-strip sequels (9). Out of these strips, only Shoe still runs in syndication today. It features a cast of avian-anthropomorphized characters, most notably a newspaper-industry osprey named “Cosmo.”
As you can see, all sorts of birds have animated cartoon history. Waddling ducks quacking about are wildly funny. But penguins, chickens, and canaries are more than capable of eliciting their share of chuckles. Don’t expect cartoon birds to flock south anytime soon.
Meanwhile, as the curtains close here briefly, please stay safe and have fun. In other words, that’s all folks—‘til two weeks from now. For those of you in the U.S., have a wonderful upcoming Memorial Day!
- Wiseman, R. “Fun Facts from LaughLab,” RichardWiseman.com: http://www.richardwiseman.com/LaughLab/Documents/funFacts.html.
- Crafton, D.C. Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1898-1928. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. pp. 329, 331.
- Gabler, N. Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. p. 201.
- Hunter, M. “What Makes Daffy Duck? A History of Daffy Duck,” TooLooney: http://toolooney.goldenagecartoons.com/daffy.htm.
- Gabler, N. p. 201.
- Online Awards Database, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: http://www.oscars.org.
- Booker, M.K. (Editor). Comics through Time: A History of Icons, Idols, and Ideas. Volume 1. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, LLC., 2014. pp. 1181–1182.
- Booker, M.K. pp. 719–721.
- Booker, M.K. pp. xxx (introduction), 1501.