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.
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.