My friend Kris recently e-mailed me one of those divertingly silly little 'personality profile' quizzes which purports to categorize you definitively within the space of just 10 questions - and to do so in terms of the traits of a well-known cartoon character.
I don't need to do a silly quiz to tell me that. Quite obviously, I am Wile E. Coyote. I might aspire to the insouciance and suavity and (mostly) triumphing over my enemies of Bugs Bunny or The Pink Panther, but I can't fool myself - I am Wile.
According to the quiz, I am SpongeBob Squarepants. So was Kris. So is just about everybody, I would imagine - that is very much the range where most of the responses are likely to fall. I'm a little pissed off I didn't make it to being Charlie Brown. Just a couple more points and I would have been there. If only I hadn't perversely insisted that a rock gig is a more fun date than a candlelit dinner, I would have been. (But how come Charlie Brown is supposed to be even more strait-laced and neurotic than Spongebob? That doesn't sound right!)
Of course, the problem with this quizlet is that - being fashioned in America - many of the characters are unknown to me. Apparently Kris's husband is 'Elmo'. Who the f*** is Elmo?! And, of course, it shamefully overlooks characters from British cartoons. Dangermouse & Penfold, Wallace & Gromit, Captain Pugwash, Zebedee, Windy Miller - these would all have been useful additions to the range of possible personality types.
Even amongst the American canon, there are some heinous omissions: Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, The Pink Panther, Snoopy, Duckman, Bart and Homer (yes, OK, you could probably run the whole thing on characters from 'The Simpsons').
But how could they miss out Wile E. Coyote? That was, I think, quite simply the greatest cartoon series ever made: such elegant simplicity in its characters, location, and premise; such tireless inventiveness in wringing new gags from the same endlessly repeated situation. Aristotle would have approved: it conforms nicely to his tenets of classical tragedy; the Coyote's 'flaw', his excessive confidence in his ability to overcome any difficulty by using his superior brainpower, is in fact precisely that of Oedipus Rex - though cannily updated by marrying it to the modern world's preoccupation with trying to use technology to solve all its problems.
The Coyote is rather admirable in his resourcefulness, his perseverance, his indomitable spirit - even if his obsessiveness so often blinds him to his own peril. He is, I think, a more completely sympathetic character than Bugs or The Pink Panther, who are both sometimes prone to selfishness and smugness (with Bugs, you often find yourself rooting a little bit for Elmer Fudd or Yosemite Sam, and certainly for Daffy Duck). They, of course, are typically 'unreal' heroes who can breeze through life enjoying almost continual success. The Coyote - this is his great charm - is exaggeratedly fallible, a put-upon Everyman.
And he might not be the first or only cartoon character to use the gag of being able to defy gravity until he notices he is running on thin air - but he made it his own. I never tire of that joke.
There are so many wonderful things about this show: it has resonances far beyond its 10 minutes of apparently trivial chase comedy. The constant misadventures with products purchased by mail-order make a universal connection with the audience: we all know that experience of having the excitement of a new purchase evaporate within seconds of our getting it out of the box - finding that the instructions are inadequate, parts are missing, it's hellishly difficult to assemble, it just doesn't darn well work like it's supposed to. The moment of realisation, of resignation - so brilliantly captured on the Coyote's face - when he sees that there's no longer any ground beneath his feet, or that the Roadrunner has once again bested him, or that his latest ACME contraption is about to backfire on him, reminds us all of the sinking feeling in our stomachs as knowledge of our latest failure or disaster dawns on us. And the long, long fall to the canyon floor, disappearing in a tiny puff of smoke, is the journey that we all make to oblivion.
Yes, in many ways, the Coyote ought to be a profoundly depressing figure for us to identify with: he presents us with a view of life as a Sisyphean round of constant endeavour, constant setback, inevitable failure. And he suffers some appalling violence. Luckily, he is physically indestructible. What makes the show so oddly inspiring, though, is that he is also indestructible in spirit. There is something very touching, very uplifting about the way in which the Coyote is always undaunted by his many misfortunes; getting up, dusting himself off, and trying again after each new calamity.
He also benefits from having such a uniquely unlovable nemesis. The Roadrunner has no redeeming features, almost no character (beyond an apparent brainlessness, and an occasional propensity to taunt the unfortunate Coyote). Its only distinguising trait is its hugely irritating Beep-beep cry. It is a mere cipher, representing everything that annoys us in our lives: every aggravation at work, every goal that eludes us, every problem we can't solve. I can't think of a single other show - cartoon or live action - where audience sympathy lies so exclusively with one character (and a character who lacks obvious attraction himself, at that).
[Well, a former girlfriend of mine, The Buddhist, did once tell me that she preferred the Roadrunner to the Coyote, but I really struggle to believe that; surely she must just have been saying it to wind me up?]
Some 20 years ago, the English 'adult' comic Viz advertised in its back pages a T-shirt (probably unlicensed) featuring the Coyote having finally caught the Roadrunner, picking it up by the throat and leering at it savagely. Although, of course, another key part of the appeal of the show is that it is a 'silent comedy', here - in his improbable moment of triumph - we allow Wile to have a speech bubble. He snarls: "Beep-beep now, you bastard!"
I thought that would make a great jogging shirt for me, but I never did get around to buying it - one of the few regrets in my life.
Yes, I am Wile E Coyote. I may not be quite so obsessive-compulsive as he is, nor do I share his faith in modern technology; but I have made him my role-model - in the elevation of failure to an art-form, and in the refusal ever to be cowed by the world's constant unfairness and unkindness. I may be a failure, but I am a resilient and strangely optimistic failure.