Daffy Duck is the greatest character ever created. That’s just a fact, albeit an inconveniently disputable one. There are at least two distinct Daffys, so it’s important to have the right one in mind.
It’s not the Daffy that arrived in the 1930s as a righteous maniac with supernatural powers of mischief. Like Bugs Bunny, he could fabricate costumes and other objects out of thin air and bend reality around his japery. He once bonked Hitler on the head with a mallet, to keep everybody’s spirits up during the war.
Though undeniably patriotic, this Daffy was just a dead-eyed kook, with no identifiable motive other than to be a nuisance. But over time he became more nuanced, and meaner. He shed his kooky scattershot vocal style and learned to speak with a sort of contemptuous eloquence. Though I have no intention of verifying this assertion through research, I’m fairly confident that he’s the only cartoon character ever to have a four-syllable word in his catchphrase (“you’re despicable”). Even Monty Burns can only manage three.
Unusually for a cartoon character, Daffy could play face or heel as the context required, and he was driven by complex human motivations like jealousy, vanity, and profound solipsism, often in conflicting directions. “I may be a craven little coward,” he said in one episode, before embarking on another bruising caper, “but I’m a greedy craven little coward.”
This is the Daffy that appears in The Looney Tunes Show (2011), a genuinely funny Seinfeld-esque animated sitcom starring comedy giants like Fred Armisen and Kristen Wiig in which Daffy and Bugs live together, have girlfriends, earn money, and get into hilarious scrapes. It is here that Daffy reaches the apotheosis of his self-knowledge. “You’re my best friend,” he tells Bugs. “You know me better than anyone. You see what a horrible person I am.”
Unfortunately, the Looney Tunes Show only lasted two seasons before it was cancelled and replaced with Wabbit, a Bugs-centric sketch show in which Daffy appears as his original, zany self, complete with Loki powers. I cannot overstate my disappointment at this move. The Daffy I know is a flawed but relatable person, twisted by a manifestly unjust universe into a resentful, mendacious monster who also happens to be the greatest cartoon character ever created.
When I talk about Daffy Duck, this is the one I mean – the one who was so bitterly determined to beat Bugs Bunny and win the audience’s adulation in Show Biz Bugs (1957) that he killed himself on stage.
This is also the Daffy that became a template for other great screen characters, including Eric Cartman, George Costanza, Basil Fawlty, Richard Richard, Phil Tandy Miller, Dennis Reynolds, and countless others. To some extent the success of those characters is a function of how closely they adhere to the Daffy formula.
What is the Daffy formula? It’s this.
To be a Daffy, a character must first and foremost be like Daffy. Not only must they be congenitally selfish, devious, grandiose, and craven, but all of these characteristics must be magnified to grotesque proportions due to the pointed cruelty of the universe.
Daffy Duck is destined to be humiliated and thwarted in every ambition, so he has no incentive to overcome his negative impulses. He might as well go all in, pursuing every goal with single-minded determination and a total disregard for the rights and feelings of others. Daffy Duck would nuke a city to jump one place in a queue. This is the natural condition of every Daffy.
But to be his best self, a Daffy has to be modulated by two other character archetypes: a Bugs, and a Porky.
Daffy Duck’s relationship with Porky Pig is fairly straightforward. The duck looks down on the pig, and treats him like an ignorant slave. For the most part Porky is willing to put up with Daffy’s contempt because the universe ensures that he will always come out on top anyway, and Daffy will receive his just deserts without Porky having to intervene.
Most of this also applies to Bugs, who is happy to tolerate Daffy’s unbelievably selfish scheming because, at the end of the day, good things will always happen to Bugs and terrible things will always happen to Daffy. The difference is that Daffy looks up to Bugs, not down, and this grudging admiration fills him with jealous rage.
Both Bugs and Porky are necessary for Daffy to express his full spectrum of unenviable characteristics. Bugs brings out his tireless competitive antagonism, and Porky brings out his appalling imperious contempt, while the universe itself keeps him angry and frustrated.
Even so, it is the invisible hand of the anti-Daffy universe that makes his relationships possible. Nobody can resent Daffy’s unmerited victories, because he never secures any. Daffy’s friends understand that there’s no malice in Daffy’s malice. It’s clear that he has no choice but to be himself, because being like Daffy is not a choice that a rational agent would make.
When Daffy Duck gives up his own life for applause at the end of Show Biz Bugs, his good-natured rival offers him some encouragement as he ascends to the rafters as a ghost. “That’s terrific Daffy! They loved it. They want more.”
“I know, I know,” says a plaintive Daffy. “But I can only do it once.” You can’t help but feel sorry for him.
If you run through a list of characters based on the Daffy Duck template you’ll find they generally satisfy all three criteria, or at least two of them.
George Costanza has the basic personality of Daffy, but he lives in a world of Bugs Bunnys, including Jerry Seinfeld, who is Bugs Bunny incarnate. However, there are no Porkys in his life–nobody he looks down on. Nor is he particularly resentful or jealous, though he will stop at nothing to achieve his goals, however petty and selfish.
Incidentally, Larry David – the template for George Costanza – is another passable Daffy, though he’s too well-meaning to really qualify.
In the first season of Last Man on Earth, protagonist Phil Tandy Miller is a textbook Daffy Duck. He treats most people like Porkys, as means to ends rather than ends in themselves, and he will go to extraordinary lengths to get what he wants irrespective of the effect it has on those around him. He even has a literal Porky, in the form of Todd, and he’s at his funniest when he also has a Bugs to set off his jealousy and competitiveness. Phil Miller (2) is the first of these, followed by his brother Mike (Jason Sudeikis–like Jerry Seinfeld, a quintessential Bugs.)
Jason Sudeikis gets another opportunity to fulfil the Bugs role when he appears as Schmitty in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, coming up against Dennis Reynolds, Glenn Howerton’s version of Daffy. Here the issue is that Dennis has only ever lived among Porkys, and while it would be untrue to suggest that Schmitty is a true Bugs to Dennis, because Dennis doesn’t actually look up to him, his breezy confidence and unwillingness to follow orders has a destabilising effect on the group.
Basil Fawlty is another Daffy, consumed by selfishness, jealousy, and single-minded determination to get his own way at all costs (to other people). Polly, Manuel, and the majority of his downmarket, iniquitous guests are his Porkys, while every so often a Bugs comes along in the form of a guest with an elevated social status, such as a doctor or a lord. Such guests completely change Basil’s personality, turning him from an imperious bully into a snivelling supplicant and then a neurotic maniac–classic Daffy moves.
Of course, his greatest opponent is Sybil, and she is neither a Bugs nor a Porky, but rather a monster, or perhaps the gigantic, acid-drinking cowboy in Drip-Along Daffy (1951).
Along with the season 1 version of Phil Tandy Miller, the most perfectly archetypal Daffy is Richard Richard, or Rich, co-protagonist of the sitcom Bottom. Rich has all the scheming, self-serving amorality of Daffy Duck, and the same delusional grandiosity, which is starkly at odds with his real status as an unemployed, perpetually filthy virgin. His primary Bugs figure is Eddie Hitler, and though, like Daffy’s wartime incarnation, Rich frequently bonks Hitler on the head, he is never able to escape swift and brutal retaliation in the form of getting hit with a pan or kicked right in the nuts.
Like Daffy, each of these characters is, “a kind of unleashed id”. If fiction is an outlet for wish fulfilment, then Daffy reflects our truest wishes. We may want to be selfless and brave like Luke Skywalker, but even more than that we want to be ourselves – selfish and cowardly – without constraint. It’s just plain easier. To self-centred creatures like us, watching Daffy on a caper evokes the sensation that a domestic dog must feel watching a wolf on the hunt: sheer awe at the spectacle of one’s own nature finding perfect expression in an infinitely superior relative.