Don’t Look Now, Doc, but America’s Original Influencer Bugs Bunny Just Turned 80

Merch and new opportunities keep popping up for the trickster rabbit

bugs bunny in a superman outfit with notes about his teeth and fur
Happy 80th birthday, Bugs Bunny. Courtesy of Warner Bros

It was the second week of February 1961, and Mel Blanc was in deep trouble.

Two weeks earlier, the “man of a thousand voices” who’d given breath to a slew of cartoon characters ranging from Porky Pig to Speedy Gonzalez, had been driving his Aston Martin down Hollywood Boulevard when a college kid in an Oldsmobile struck him head-on. Now, the 53-year-old actor was at the UCLA Medical Center in a coma.

Out of options, the attending physician decided to speak to his patient, addressing him not as Blanc but as his most famous character. “Bugs Bunny,” the doctor whispered, “how are you doing today?”

Blanc stirred, then spoke for the first time since the accident: “Eeeeh, what’s up Doc?”

That story, told by Blanc’s son Noel, has been around for a long time now. And even though younger generations may not know the name of Mel Blanc, they certainly know Bugs.

It’s no small honor for the U.S. Postal Service to honor someone with a postage stamp, but Bugs Bunny has been honored twice. The first time didn’t go so well. When the USPS put Bugs on a 32-cent stamp in 1997, a minor backlash ensued. Nonetheless, the series sold well, and now 23 years later, the government’s doing it again.
Courtesy of USPS

Bugs recently turned 80 on July 27. But unlike most Hollywood stars in their golden years, Bugs is still enjoying the limelight. Aside from having starred in 175 films and having a star on the Walk of Fame, Bugs also starred in his own video game franchise and still sells more merch than your average boy band.

On July 12, clothing retailer Kith rolled out a birthday collection for the rabbit—including a $220 Bugs Bunny crew neck sweater—and everything sold out in 24 hours. HBO Max has put most of the Bugs Bunny archive on its platform. Even the United States Postal Service is saluting Bugs with a series of stamps.

In fact, aside from that mouse from Disney, Bugs Bunny is the most famous cartoon character in history. An influencer decades before influencers were even a thing.

“He’s a cultural icon for any time and everyone,” said Maryellen Zarakas, Warner Bros.’ svp of franchise management and marketing. “There are not many [characters] out there that are truly cross-generational. We refer to Bugs as being timeless and timely.”

Throughout the 1930s, Warner Bros. toyed with several rabbits for its Looney Tunes animated shorts, which ran in theaters prior to the feature film showing that night. But in 1940, illustrator Ben “Bugs” Hardaway drew a rabbit that producer Leon Schlesinger really liked. Lacking a name, the animators just called him Bugs’ Bunny. Mel Blanc stepped in to voice the rabbit, rendering wisecracking humor in a thick Brooklyn accent.

Bugs debuted in a short called A Wild Hare, and when audiences watched him munching a carrot while delivering the line “What’s up, Doc?” the rest was history. “It got such a laugh,” director Tex Avery recalled, “that we said, ‘Let’s use that every chance we get.’”

Bugs has been using that line ever since and so, of course, have the rest of us. Warner Bros.’ recent TikTok challenge invited fans to deliver their own rendering of the rabbit’s signature line. Some of them even munched on a carrot.

Released on July 27, 1940, A Wild Hare (1) marked Bugs' debut with "man of a thousand voices" Mel Blanc (2) supplying a Brooklyn accent. Like any brand mascot, Bugs has changed with the times (3), growing taller and more svelte with each decade. Surprisingly athletic for a 56-year-old, Bugs played basketball with Michael Jordan in 1996's Space Jam (4) and sported his own branded sweater from Kith this year (5).
1. Courtesy of HBO; 2. Getty Images; 3. Getty Images; 4. Courtesy of HBO; 5. Courtesy of Kith
This story first appeared in the Aug. 10, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.