The Looney Tunes gang is enjoying a rebirth as of late on Cartoon Network, with not only a new program, 'The Looney Tunes Show', but also the airing of the old classic shorts.
The thing is, though, the old classic shorts are, well, old. Some of the references made in the old cartoons may be downright incomprehensible to modern eyes and ears. The "newer" of the classics aren't any newer than the 1960's.
So, for the benefit of those just growing up with Looney Tunes now, let's go over a couple of them.
WHERE YOU'VE SEEN IT: Fed to Sylvester, causing his mouth to pucker up. Also fed to an opera singer, causing his head to shrink.
The Straight Dope explained alum back in 1999. Alum is used for these gags because it's an astringent- that is to say, it shrinks tissue. Because it's Looney Tunes, though, you don't see alum's alternative effect as an emetic. What's an emetic? Something that induces vomiting. Also, despite being an ingredient in cooking and pickling, you don't want it on the final product, not only because of the vomiting, but because an ounce of the stuff constitutes a lethal dose.
Sylvester and the opera singer got way more than an ounce.
WHERE YOU'VE SEEN IT: Sung by the opera singer while his head shrinks. Also in a couple other cartoons that are basically music videos for classical numbers you mostly don't hear outside of those cartoons.
Obviously, it's an opera reference. Figaro is the name of the main character in a series of three plays by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais: The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro, and The Guilty Mother. The Barber of Seville would go on to be covered by Giovanni Paisiello and Gioachino Rossini; The Marriage of Figaro would be covered by Mozart. Figaro was the namesake barber.
*Come with me to the casbah
WHERE YOU'VE SEEN IT: Said by Pepe le Pew while he's being horny again.
Pepe uses it in reference to a 1938 film called Algiers, the first American film featuring Hedy Lamarr. Pepe himself took his name from the film's main character, Pepe Le Moko. It took four Oscar nominations, though it didn't win any of them. The 'casbah' is the citadel of Algiers and the surrounding area. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site, though degrading because of neglect and due to being a popular terrorist hideout. If someone offers today to come with them to the Casbah, run. Just run. Run far, far away in the opposite direction.
The film's in the public domain, so have a ball.
*Gas House Gorillas
WHERE YOU'VE SEEN IT: The baseball team Bugs beats all by himself in the 1946 short 'Baseball Bugs'.
This is a play on the 'Gas House Gang', a nickname given to the 1934 champion St. Louis Cardinals. Leo Durocher coined the term, saying of the American League "They think we're just a bunch of gas housers." This was in reference to, well, gas houses, factories that produced coal gas, the forerunner to natural gas. They were dirty and smelled bad, much like the Cardinals' uniforms, which didn't go in the wash very often.
WHERE YOU'VE SEEN IT: When Bugs Bunny and a gremlin are in a plane that is about to crash and suddenly stops because it ran out of gas.
This was 'Falling Hare', made in 1943, during World War 2. At that point in time, fuel rationing was in effect. Cards- or stickers, really- were issued to American vehicles permitting them to buy certain amounts of gas. An A sticker was the most common and lowest-grade. It entitled the driver to 3-4 gallons of gas a week and that was it. A B sticker was for people whose driving was deemed essential to the war effort; they could get eight gallons a week. Further up the ladder, C stickers went to more critical people such as doctors and mailmen, T stickers were for truckers, and finally, there was the X sticker, meaning you were so important- police, fire, civil defense, a member of Congress- that it was essential that you get unlimited supplies.
The problem wasn't that we were short on gas. We were short on rubber. The Japanese had seized land in Southeast Asia that had served as our main rubber supply. More driving means more wear on tires means more strain on the rubber supply. Since driving faster also wore tires down, a blanket speed limit of 35 miles per hour was put into play for the duration. Also, you were not allowed to own more than five tires; any excess was confiscated for the war effort.
*Was this trip really necessary?
WHERE YOU'VE SEEN IT: Right after someone crashes into a wall.
The fuel rationing again. You were not supposed to be using the fuel you did get to take leisure drives.
WHERE YOU'VE SEEN IT: Whem Bugs wonders if that's a gremlin, the gremlin screams in his ear 'IT AIN'T VENDELL VILLKIE!'
Wendell Willkie was the Republican candidate for President in 1940- at the time of the cartoon, the most recent election. He was the guy standing in the way of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's unprecedented third term, and was steamrolled 449 electoral votes to 82. Were a similar joke made today, the gremlin would just plug in John McCain's name instead. Or, actually, as Willkie had never held political office before or since, and McCain has been a long-timer in the Senate, he might reference Sarah Palin, or maybe Donald Trump.
Willkie never really had a chance. His campaign was built on Roosevelt breaking the two-term tradition (and warning that Roosevelt would lead the country into war), but given the alternative of the party many still blamed for the Great Depression, the effects of which had not yet fully been shaken, voters were more than willing to try something different. According to his 1971 biography, Wendell Willkie: Fighter for Freedom, Willkie was met with people who threw rotten fruit at him. At one point in Pontiac, Michigan, someone connected with an egg, and the media gleefully splashed across the front page the image of an egg-stained Willkie, or at least his wife. At Grand Rapids, someone chucked a rock through his train car. Both images are shown in an issue of LIFE dated October 14, 1940, respectively on pages 25 and 24. (With bonus picture on page 23 of what someone who's just been skulled by a 5-pound metal wastebasket might look like.)
As for it being pronounced "Vendell Villkie" by the gremlin, that calls back to an incident at the Republican convention where the North Dakota delegate spoke with a Scandinavian accent. His accented pronunciation of Willkie's name went viral (or the 1940 equivalent of viral). As told in Boxing the Kangaroo: A Reporter's Memoir by Robert J. Donovan, the delegate said "North Dakota casts four votes for Senator Taft and four votes for Vendell Villkie." The speaker asked "For who?" The delegate repeated "For Vendell Villkie." The speaker told him to spell it. The joke evidently had enough legs to still be around three years later.
At the 71-year mark, though, it gets a bit stale.