A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What's the difference between a Looney Tune and a Merrie Melody?

April 4, 1997

Dear Cecil:

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

Cecil replies:

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, even I couldn't keep up a crock like that. Then I figured, this was Hollywood, there's gotta be some mercenary angle to it. Sure enough. While there were differences between Tunes and Melodies, the main reason for having two separate series was that's the way they'd structured the deal.

At the outset, the two series were made under separate agreements between Warner Brothers and producer Leon Schlesinger using different production teams. The Looney Tunes series, created by Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising, was introduced in 1930. A blatant rip-off of Disney's Silly Symphonies series, each Looney Tune was required to have one full chorus from a song from a Warner feature film. The cartoons typically were run prior to the main feature at theaters, and the idea was that they would promote WB product. (Among other things, the company had 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. 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.

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