Warner Bros Animation’s Jay Bastian on bringing Looney Tunes into podcasts and pre-school

Having launched a successful podcast last year, and with the Bugs Bunny Builders pre-school show on the way, Jay Bastian – Senior Vice President of Series at Warner Bros Animation – tells us why Looney Tunes continues to thrive.

For a brand that’s over 80 years old, Looney Tunes continues to thrive, innovate and embrace new spaces.

Last year saw Bugs Bunny and co return to the big screen in Space Jam: A New Legacy, while Looney Tunes also debuted their first ever podcast, a collaboration with Story Pirates called Bugs & Daffy’s Thanksgiving Roadtrip.

Looking ahead, the brand is getting a pre-school twist with the new show Bugs Bunny Builders, and there’s more episodes of the much loved Looney Tunes Cartoons on the way.

To find out more about how Warner Bros approaches bringing Looney Tunes into fresh areas, we spoke with Jay Bastian, Senior Vice President of Series at Warner Bros Animation.

Jay Bastian, Warner Bros, Looney Tunes
Jay, it’s great to connect. Hope you’re well. To kick us off, how did you find yourself working with these huge animation brands?

Well, as I tell my kids, I’m very fortunate that I get to work in an industry I’ve loved my whole life. I never thought I’d get to work in animation because as a kid, I wanted to be an animator, but then I realised you had to draw every day and really love drawing! I didn’t have that drive, so I started looking into live action and television and that made more sense to me.

But you found yourself drawn back to animation?
Yes. In college I fell back into animation because I was always so passionate about it. I started working for an independent animator and became aware of the amount of jobs in animation that are not one of the Nine Old Men at Disney! So I feel very fortunate to work in animation, even though I could never consider myself an artist in the same way as the amazing people we work with are.

You’re SVP of Series at Warner Bros Animation. What does that entail?
The way I’ve always described my job is that I’m a creative exec – which always sounds like a contradiction of terms! We basically get to be the first audience. We see things at an early stage, all the way to the final stages, and get to weigh in on what’s working or not working.

“The characters feel smart; we always say that Bugs Bunny is probably around 35. He’s not a kid or a dumb naïve guy.”

It’s never our job to try to write it or draw it; it’s more to say which parts are working and which parts are not working. Hopefully you build up a relationship and a trust with the people you’re working with, so when you tell them something’s not working, they take it seriously and try to address it.

Let’s talk about the Looney Tunes podcast that went out towards the end of last year. Where did the idea to bring these characters into the podcast space come from? Why did it make sense?
The reality is that the people that we worked with on it – the team at Story Pirates – had a real passion for it. You could see it immediately.

Bugs Bunny is the most amazing character I know of. We’ve had a lot of different people write for Bugs over the years and they don’t always get the tone right. He’s not easy to write for, and neither is Daffy, but they nailed it right out of the gate. You could tell they were big fans and if we were going do a Looney Tunes podcast, Story Pirates were the right people to do it with.

And this is not something we would normally do; everything with Looney Tunes is normally visual. It would be hard to accomplish a Looney Tunes cartoon where you can’t see what’s going on, let alone a 22-minute Looney Tunes cartoon – because we usually do seven-minute cartoons! It was an amazing feat to me.

And it really does work. We’ll put a link to the first episode above so people can have a listen. It still has that self-aware quality, where things we assume are background music turn out not to be, and things like that. Why do you think it works well as a podcast?
The thing with Looney Tunes is that it never feels like it’s a kids’ cartoon. There’s always a lot in there that appeals to a kid, but there’s also a lot in there that appeals to someone of any age.

The characters feel smart; we always say that Bugs Bunny is probably around 35. He’s not a kid or a dumb naïve guy. He’s an adult and he’s smart. With Daffy, even when he’s being a jerk, he’s really smart.

“It’s an old cliché that no-one wants to listen to the old network guy, but when there is good collaboration where everyone wants to make things better, everyone wins.”

There’s a certain level of respect you have to have for the way these characters have been executed over the years. You have to try and maintain that high standard, and these guys got that straight away. But to your point, yes, some of its meta, but it’s more about keeping the humour and the strong characters.

Looking at the wider Warner Bros portfolio, has it opened your eyes to bringing other characters into the podcast space?
This was us dipping our toe in the water and seeing if it works and if people like it. If it does resonate, maybe we’ll do more with the Looney Tunes, maybe with Teen Titans Go, it all depends on the appetite for this. We’re really happy with how this came out and the reaction to it so far, so it would make sense to do more.

As well as the podcast, last year also saw Looney Tunes return to the big screen in Space Jam: A New Legacy. Not many animation brands have been able to stretch across so many mediums, and product categories, over such a long time. What is it about Looney Tunes that means it has enjoyed success on screen – and shelves – for so long?
It’s hard to pinpoint what makes Bugs Bunny so much better than many other characters – or any other character in my opinion! He’s smart, he’s funny, you root for him.

At Cartoon Network we used to say, you want to put complex characters into simple situations. Bugs or Dexter from Dexter’s Lab are interesting, deep characters that you want to follow into different situations. You want to try and predict how they’ll react in different situations.

Bugs is such a good everyman. He’s like a cross between you and James Bond. He reacts the way you’d love to react yourself. He’s a hero and so damn funny. To me, you can’t get better than Bugs and Daffy.

The Looney Tunes characters have been around for so long, they’ve naturally had different directors, different voice artists and even in their heyday, you’d have a Chuck Jones cartoon and a Frank Tashlin cartoon and a Bob Clampett cartoon… They all had different takes on these characters, but watching them over the years, it’s all still just Bugs Bunny.

Jay Bastian, Warner Bros, Looney Tunes
Yes, it doesn’t clang at all. It all feels authentically Looney Tunes. Are there any other areas you’re itching to take these characters into?

Right now, we have an amazing artist, Pete Browngardt, who is making our current Looney Tunes series, Looney Tunes Cartoons for HBO Max with his amazing team. These are incredible cartoons that really haven’t been done in a long, long time. That, to me, is the purest, best use of these characters.

That said, of course it’s cool to see them in a movie, it’s cool to see them in a podcast; it’s great to see them enter mediums that didn’t exist before. To me, the meat and potatoes is a seven or five minute cartoon with these characters in beautiful 2D animation.

Jay Bastian, Warner Bros, Looney Tunes
Absolutely – although as a child of the Nineties, I have fond memories of playing Bugs Bunny: Lost in Time; that might be my own Looney Tunes pinnacle, but that could be the rose-tinted glasses talking!

Ha! Well, they used to also make Looney Tunes comic books and they were horrible, but you love the characters enough to read this horrible Bugs Bunny comic. Your love carries you through it!

Ha! I’ll have to check those out now! We’re chatting at the start of 2022 – as well as new Looney Tunes Cartoons, is there anything else we should keep our eyes peeled for from you guys?
Yes, we have a new pre-school show on the way called Bugs Bunny Builders!

Like the podcast, it sounds like another interesting challenge, translating this world into a pre-school show?
I can’t tell you how much I love Bugs and these characters, and I have so much respect for them, so when you put them into a pre-school show, you’re nervous and worried that it could be beneath them. It could be weird, right?

But the people we have making this show – from our creative exec who’s a pre-school expert, to the writers, producers and animators – they’re all doing a great job of being true to the characters while also talking to an audience we don’t normally talk to. It’s a fun show with cool music and great visuals, and every once in a while, the characters get to be a little naughty in the way they usually are, without going too far!

I don’t feel like we’re betraying the characters. We’re doing a cool thing with them and it will hopefully reach an audience that is too young to see someone get hit in the face with a frying pan.

Jay Bastian, Warner Bros, Looney Tunes
It sounds great. Jay, this has been a lot of fun. Before I let you go, you’re working with animators and all kind of creative people all the time. What’s the key to successful creative collaboration?

Well, here’s an insight into the process. Someone will turn in A, so a script, a storyboard, an animatic or whatever. I’ll tell them what’s not working with A and ask if it could be a little bit more like B. Then, the best creators I work with come back with C, which is far better than A or B. That’s the best kind of creative relationship.

There also has to be a level of trust. It’s an old cliché that no-one wants to listen to the old network guy, but when there is good collaboration where everyone wants to make things better, everyone wins. I never want to give feedback for the sake of it. I give feedback if I think it really matters and will make things better. I want them to make it the best it can be.

Jay, thanks again for making time! And good luck with the launch of Bugs Bunny Builders.

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