The only one Wile E. Coyote is tricking is himself

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While reading other people’s articles as a way of procrastinating writing my own, I started to add a comment on comics editor Carol Borden’s A Very Modern Coyote, and two paragraphs in I realized I was actually writing my article. Brains are sneaky that way. I’d kind of forgotten how much I loved Road Runner cartoons as a kid until her article reminded me. They were like my favorite marshmallow in the cereal box, in part because I always knew I was going to enjoy them. Most of the other Looney Tunes cartoons had different storylines each time, and while there were specific episodes I loved, I found others less entertaining. But Road Runner was a brilliant spiral, an endless series of clever permutations on a single theme which never failed to entertain.

As I understand it, we’re supposed to sympathize with Wile E. Coyote, and I do remember rooting for him. I think it wasn’t so much because I liked him as because I found Road Runner’s beep-beeps infuriatingly insolent and his ability to get away without even trying irritating in comparison to Wile’s monumental and byzantine efforts. Now, after many years of meditation practice, I think maybe Wile is the embodiment of attachment and Road Runner is what happens when you let go. Road Runner is always curious and calm, always moving along the road, flying like the wind. He lives in a perpetual state of non-attachment, where everything is interesting but nothing snags you, even coyotes. Wile, on the other hand, is so single-mindedly focused on catching this one particular bird that he fails to consider any other possibilities and traps himself in an endless loop of suffering. As Carol points out, he could easily have spent all his cash on take out rather than yet another Acme gadget no doubt “guaranteed” to work, but instead he keeps running at the same wall and cracking his noggin over and over again.

He can’t let go of the idea that he really should be able to catch the Road Runner. He’s sure he’s a super genius. He’s sure he understands the laws of physics. He’s sure that meticulous planning and scientific prowess are the keys to success. He’s positive that the next Acme gadget will work. And I can’t help but feel that he fails every time, and that the universe fairly bends around his ears to prevent him from succeeding, because he’s fundamentally misunderstood something about certainty.

In his autobiography, Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist, Chuck Jones talks about the 9 rules of the Road Runner universe that defined how the show was constructed. In an interview for Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, another of the show’s creators, Michael Maltese, claimed to have never heard these rules so it’s possible that they were more implied than fully articulated. For How Wile E. Coyote Explains The World, Albert Burneko re-watched all of the episodes and confirmed that every rule is broken at some point. And all of that feels true to life for me: a world that operates on a series of unspoken rules that are unclear to its inhabitants, are plausibly deniable due to never being explicitly confirmed, and which, even if they are understood, occasionally fail.

Wile’s mind produces an endless series of ideas for how to achieve his goal with no awareness that it is literally unattainable within the laws of the universe.  As a kid, I felt like he deserved to win based on effort even if he didn’t really deserve to win due to being very foolish and never appearing to learn. Now I think that it wasn’t so much an inability to learn as an inability to believe that the universe didn’t work the way he thought it did, or let go of his own vision of it even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The only one Wile E. Coyote is tricking is himself.

In his Deadspin article, How Wile E. Coyote Explains The World, Albert Burneko does an excellent job of describing one of the core principles of what makes people laugh (it’s worth checking out for the video of the dinosaur mascot failing to roller skate and subsequent commentary alone):

In day-to-day real life, a surprising thing happens, defying your expectations and transforming a familiar-seeming situation, and you recognize that the sense it makes is different from the sense you expected it to make, and you laugh. It’s funny because you had an idea of the world to be scrambled.

That idea of the world is the setup. That setup is everywhere at all times… What’s funny is your startled recognition that this outcome was the obvious one all along—that the idea of the world that set this plan into motion had at least one huge, but understandable, blind spot.

Wile thinks that he lives in our world, but really, he lives in a cartoon version of the Southwest American desert where space and time do not behave according to the established laws of physics. His expectations are our real world expectations, and it just wouldn’t be funny if he ever stopped expecting things to behave as they should. Our expectations are simultaneously that things will behave as they should, making it funny when they don’t, and that of course they won’t behave as they should because we’ve learned the rules of Wile’s universe. It’s a sign of how good the writing is that they still manage to surprise us and make us laugh.

I felt bad for Wile, but of course if he ever did catch Road Runner, he’d eat him, and then no more show. It was actually pretty high stakes for Road Runner, but he never seemed to sweat it at all. Standing casually by, just watching Wile assemble his traps, he seemed completely secure, as if Wile appeared to him to be moving in slow motion, like in The Matrix or Kung Fu movies where bullets float by at the pace of butterflies. It almost seems to me now as if it was all a big joke that only Wile wasn’t in on. That Road Runner had read the script, knew the rules of the universe, and was perfectly well aware that Wile could never catch him, so he could afford to stand and watch whatever Wile was doing with curiosity.

And Wile is basically Sisyphus, but at least in the myth the boulder always predictably came back to hit him and never rolled him flat, or knocked him off a cliff, or somehow defied the laws of physics to boomerang around the dark side of the moon and land on his head. Admittedly, Sisyphus did lots of terrible things while Wile is merely trying to catch his dinner (albeit a very specific dinner, and arguably as the attempts progress, for personal reasons), but since the main reason Sisyphus is tasked with eternally rolling his boulder uphill is that he believed that his cleverness exceeded that of Zeus, I think a Sisyphean task is fitting for Wile E Coyote, Super Genius.

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alex MacFadyen acknowledges that an enlightened state of non-attachment doesn’t usually involve sticking one’s tongue out and obnoxiously saying beep-beep when other people fail.

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