Animation's surprisingly boozy legacy, from Daffy Duck's drinking problem to Dumbo's pink elephants.
For generations of American children, Saturday mornings have been synonymous with slurping down heaping bowls of sugar-laced cereal, wearing dinosaur-themed footie pajamas and—most importantly—watching cartoons. This animated sunrise ritual is nothing short of a transcendent experience for any child under the age of 10, hypnotizing even the bounciest kid into a slack-jawed trace.
Similarly, even the mere mention of Loony Tunes or Hanna-Barbera is enough to illicit wistful, nostalgic sighs from most grown adults.
"Ah, yes, the cartoons of my youth," a Baby Boomer might muse, visions of Porky Pig dancing in his or her head. "Those shows were full of goofy antics, silly misadventure, mild political commentary … and copious amounts of alcohol."
Wait, what? Alcohol?
The majority of us might more clearly remember Wile E. Coyote running off the side of cliffs and Bugs Bunny escaping the (fumblingly pitiful) Elmer Fudd, but America’s classic cartoon canon—from Walt Disney to Merry Melodies—is rife with instances of drinking and drunkenness. Whether or not we were aware of it as children, cartoons have long been just as much for adults as for kids, with tongue-in-cheek humor, satirical pop culture references, and illicit behaviors like drinking and smoking that (likely) sailed over our heads as impressionable youths.
... animators had free reign to make their cartoons as sopped with gin, beer, and whiskey as their hearts desired.
From the first time moving illustrations merged with sound during the "golden age" of animation in the late 1920s, drinking quickly became as classic a cartoon trope as slipping on a banana peel. The surprisingly adult themes broached by cartoons reflected a need to appeal to both a slapstick-loving child and a (slightly jaded) adult, as escape-hungry moviegoers young and old flocked to the theater.
Until the 1970s, the highs and lows of drinking were approached from a number of perspectives in cartoons, with anthropomorphic animals and goofy-looking humans alike imbibing with equal fervor. Unchecked by the Motion Picture Production Code (which served as a set of "moral" guidelines for the film industry from 1930 to 1968), animators had free reign to make their cartoons as sopped with gin, beer, and whiskey as their hearts desired.
One of the first cartoons to feature drinking hit the silver screen in 1929, just a year after seminal animation classic Steamboat Willie. The Gallopin' Gaucho (the second-ever film to feature Mickey Mouse) shows Mickey drinking a comically large, frothy mug of beer at a cantina, guzzling it down before attempting to woo the high-heel clad Minnie.
Later in the cartoon, Mickey finds his trusty steed—an ostrich—has overindulged in beer, the spaghetti-like bird wriggling, collapsing and hiccupping much to Mickey’s chagrin. This trend of Mickey’s animal companions hitting the sauce continues during Mickey in Arabia (1937), when our hero’s pet camel slurps down the entirety of a beer barrel.
Disney also included a fair number of drinking montages in feature films, from Pinocchio’s boozy, cigar-happy visit to Pleasure Island, to the most terrifying drunk-dreaming sequence ever committed to celluloid: the "pink elephants on parade" march from Dumbo (1941). In the film, the circus’ water bucket becomes tainted with Champagne, causing both Dumbo and his rodent sidekick to see visions of terrifying pink elephants engaged in trippy shapeshifting, morphing into musical instruments, and forming a giant super-elephant made up of elephant heads.
... out of all animals presented in animations, cats are most likely to indulge in liquor.
Cartoons occasionally ventured into dark territory on the small screen as well. In 1948’s Western-themed Wild and Woody!, Woody Woodpecker engages in a drinking contest with Buzz Buzzard and—eventually—blows him up with dynamite. A less violent (but still shadowy) trope visited time and again by animator Tex Avery is a fairy godmother who neglects her wish-granting duties because she’s saddled up to the bar. Much like in real life, drunkenness in cartoons is both a cause of (and solution to) myriad problems.
On a less ominous front, hiccupping and loss of coordination are the humorous stereotypes about drinking primarily riffed on in cartoons. From a film about a sloshed, stumbling cat called Pickled Puss, to a drunk stork—modeled after actor Jimmy Durante—who falls behind on the job in Baby Bottleneck, the physical manifestations of being buzzed never cease to amuse animators (and their audiences).
Chalk it up to their feline wiles or perceived aloofness, but out of all animals presented in animations, cats are most likely to indulge in liquor. The (undeniably soused) poster child for this is Felix the Cat, who is presented as something of a hard partying bad boy time and again. In 1928’s Woos Whoopee, Felix downs copious bottles of booze during a night out at the Whoopee Club—then proceeds to drive home drunk—while his wife angrily watches the clock at home. Continuing into the 1940s, Daffy Duck grabbed Felix’s torch as the cartoon character most likely to have a drinking problem, overindulging in film after film and serving as a kind of anti-hero foil to the (less intoxicated) Bugs Bunny.
Since the 1980s, regulations have tightened around what can and can’t be shown to children both on television and in film, with drinking absent from the majority of new cartoons and edited out of the classics. Cigarette and cigar smoking—present in cartoons from The Flinstones to Tom and Jerry—is also now banned from G-rated animated films, and completely cut out of any programming that airs on family-friendly stations like the Disney Channel and Hallmark Channel. It’s downright impossible to imagine Dora the Explorer indulging in a nip of rum or Arthur (you know, the aardvark) casually smoking a stogie in the style of their their animated ancestors.
The Harvard School of Public Health confirmed this trend as part of a 2001 study. Researchers watched every G-rated movie created between 1937 and 2000, tracking the instances of alcohol consumption in each film. Of the 81 films reviewed, a whopping 47 percent depicted alcohol use, with Sleeping Beauty taking the prize for booziest, full-length animated feature (alcohol is present for 174 seconds). Furthermore, the data supported that as the decades have clacked on, the frequency of drinking in animated films has decreased to almost non-existent levels.
Researchers watched every G-rated movie created between 1937 and 2000 ... 47 percent depicted alcohol use, with Sleeping Beauty taking the prize for booziest ...
A similar study by Frontiers in Public Health took up the task of studying "1,221 animated cartoons … to determine the prevalence of alcohol-related content; how, if at all, the prevalence changed between 1930 and 1996." This deep dive investigation revealed that 9.3 percent of cartoons from the era have some form of alcohol-related content, but that liquor’s presence has been on a steady decline over the years. The data also shed light on how alcohol was most frequently depicted in cartoons, with almost half of animated characters drinking alone and showing no physical side effects to their drinking.
As cartoon programming becomes more specialized and able to cater to hyper-specific audiences, the dueling forces of witty and wacky have become increasingly harder to find. On one hand, such laser-focusing has given rise to a whole new school of alcohol-tinged, primetime grown up cartoons—from Family Guy to Bob’s Burgers—led by cartoon elder statesman, The Simpsons. Entire episodes of The Simpsons revolve around liquor, including the time bartender Moe Szyslak created a hip new cocktail ("The Flaming Moe") and a failed second coming of Prohibition in Springfield. After all, where would Homer Simpson be without Duff Beer?
Further off the beaten path is Cartoon Network’s late night programming block, Adult Swim. These shows have allowed animators to push the creative boundaries of just how dark, quirky and (frequently) boozy cartoons can go, from Space Ghost’s love of tallboys to an episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force in which a seemingly innocent banana named Bert drinks copious amounts of rum.
At its core, there’s something that’s innately cartoon-like about being inebriated.
On the other hand, the sterilization of children’s cartoons can—at times—seem a little overzealous. Glorifying drunkenness is assuredly not kosher, but "naughty" items (like alcohol) from cartoons has seemingly gone hand-in-hand with watering down the deeply satisfying esoteric and intellectual undercurrents of animation. I can only imagine how brain-meltingly boring it must be to watch the (largely edgeless) cartoons of today on an endless loop. (One notable exception to this is Adventure Time, which has been able to simultaneously appeal to children and adults while even inspiring its own fair share of drinking games.)
At its core, there’s something that’s innately cartoon-like about being inebriated. There have been times after one-bourbon-too-many that I’ve felt as if I was Porky Pig wobbling my way home, each hiccup a tiny bubble ready to pop in front of my (blurry) nose. When inebriated, things are sillier and wonkier, as if we’re once again finding our sea legs like a cartoonish, disproportioned foal.
Perhaps a nostalgic Saturday morning spent watching boozy cartoons is a way for adults to feel every bit as giggly and giddy as a few glasses of Champagne on a Friday night—minus the hangover.