Thursday, April 14, 2005

The Untold Coolness of Shirley the Loon

"Besides, in your next lives, you're all coming back as avocados. So there."

For reasons I could never explain, I can't stop thinking about Shirley the Loon today. You remember her, of course. She's the psychic waterfowl from "Tiny Toons." She has blonde hair and a pink shirt and she meditates and levitates and speaks like a valley girl.

Shirley is also the romantic interest for Plucky, the Daffy Duck analogue, which is strange because the metaphysically minded loon seems to have little in common with the petty Plucky. (Less often, I remember Shirley being pursued by Fowl Mouth, the Foghorn Leghorn analogue, who'd lace everything he'd say with bleeped profanities.)

Anyway, I can't imagine how the creators of "Tiny Toons" ever conceived of Shirley as a good character for a children's show. She was, it turns out, but the idea of her kind of baffles me. A psychic bird who likes to shop and talks like a ditz. When you really think about it, it's interesting social commentary that the character who cares most about materialistic matters and who peppers her speech with teeny-bopper jargon is the one who best understands the workings of the world. It's a mashing of extremes that's actually interesting from a literary standpoint — and all the more impressive because she's on a cartoon.

But Shirley is also an inside joke that most kids probably never got.

I can remember that once or twice the characters on the show referred to Shirley not as "Shirley the Loon" but as "Shirley McLoon." This, of course, is a reference to Shirley MacLaine, who became a bit of a new age guru in the 80s. MacLaine led some self-actualization seminars and wrote a book in which she discussed her past lives. I actually only put this together after flipping through a "Far Side" collection years ago and becoming puzzled by a cartoon in which a lizard sitting on a rock in the desert says to another lizard something like, "There it is again, that weird feeling that somehow in a past life I was somebody named Shirley MacLaine." My mom had to fill me in on MacLaine's extracurriculars.

Making a reference to celebrities that children might not recognize certainly isn't unusual for Warner Bros. cartoons — "Looney Tunes" does it a lot and "Animaniacs" did too — but I still think it's odd that a fairly central character on "Tiny Toons" would be such a clear homage-parody to Shirley MacLaine.

On top of that, I like that her name is a pun on her "out there" status. She thinks she's psychic. She's a loon. She's Shirley the Loon.

I did a little research on Shirl and found out something else interesting. She was voiced by Gail Matthius. Matthius doesn't have an extensive filmography, but what's there is interesting. Apparently, when all the founding "Saturday Night Live" cast members left the show in 1980, Matthius took over co-hosting duties with Charles Rocket. That makes her the second female "Weekend Update" host and a kind of forerunner to Tina Fey, whose glasses I want to lick in a sexual fashion. (The other female "Weekend Update" hosts are Jane Curtain, Mary Gross, Christine Ebersole and, of course, Amy Poehler.)

Aside from "SNL," though, Matthius' work has consisted almost exclusively of doing cartoon voices — stuff like "The Tick" and "The Snorks." She's also the voice of Martha Generic, the valley girl sister on "Bobby's World," who, if you'll remember, talked exactly like Shirley the Loon. It's interesting, I guess. She can introduce herself at parties by saying "Hi. My name is Gail Matthius and though I used to be on 'Saturday Night Live,' I've made a career almost entirely out of my perfect valley girl accent."

I also found out that Shirley doesn't, as I have long suspected, suffer from "Skeeter Syndrome." You all might remember Skeeter as the other female character on "Muppet Babies." She's basically Scooter in drag and she doesn't really do anything besides balance out the nursery room gender ratio. (Honestly, you'd think Miss Piggy alone would have been woman enough. I will also point out that Mario Kart racer Toadette suffers from Skeeter Syndome and I hate her for it.) I had always suspected that Shirley had been born in a similar manner because she rounds out the corresponding group of girls — Babs, Fifi, Elmyra and herself — that matches up with the show's main male characters — Buster, Hampton, Montana Max and Plucky. The handy-dandy internet, however, teaches me that Shirley actually does have an analogue in the proper "Looney Toons" universe, albeit one of the most obscure ones: Melissa Duck.

No one has ever heard of Melissa Duck. She hardly even pops up on Google — and she's nowhere to be found on Google image search.

This makes sense, though. The She only appears in two episodes, "The Scarlet Pumpernickel" — an Errol Flynn parody — and "Muscle Tussle" — a short about the politics of dating on the beach. Both feature Melissa as Daffy's exasperated girlfriend. (And in that way, Melissa is kind of an avian Petunia Pig.) Like Shirley, Melissa is a blond waterfowl, which is really about as much most of the Tiny Toons have in common with their antecedents.

The Warner Bros. people recently saved Melissa from total obscurity by including here in "Baby Looney Tunes,"a downright abominable show that I watched part of while coasting through a hungover weekday morning. It's basically "Muppet Babies" with bland, large-pupiled versions of Bugs, Daffy and the rest. The toddler toons also wear diapers, even if most of them never wore clothes to begin with. And, as you can imagine, Melissa's only there to balance out the gender ratio.

So, there's that.

Finally, all the online rummaging I did today turned up this, the character breakdowns that the applying voice actors read when the various roles in "Tiny Toons" were being cast. (Annoyingly, you have to navigate by clicking "next" to scroll through the various profiles.) A highlight: a description of Elmyra as "sweetness to the point of dementia." This whole post might seem like ridiculous overanalysis of something completely insignificant — and it probably is — but if you actually read about these characters — these variations of "Looney Toons" characters, obscure or not, that some people decided to repackage and offer to children not old enough to remember the original animated antics — you'll realize people put a lot of effort into creating these characters. They drew on Bugs Bunny and that group, but they pulled on Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin. Even though the backgrounds didn't always manifest in the final versions of the characters, the people who thought them up took the time to explain why the characters should be funny.

Read Shirley's profile and it's all there. "A juxtaposition of extremes," the text reads. Even though it's only a children's show, there's a lot going on beneath the surface. There are motives and thought and a creative process that leads me to believe that these things I remember from when I was younger actually have a certain value. They're not just vehicles for jokes. They're not just stupid cartoons. There's more there and thinking about it isn't a waste of time.

Now I'm thinking about that.