The Tasmanian Devil, often referred to as Taz, is an animated cartoon character featured in the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes series of cartoons. The character appeared in only five shorts before Warner Bros. Animation closed down in 1964, but marketing and television appearances later propelled the character to new popularity in the 1990s.
As the youngest of the Looney Tunes, the Tasmanian Devil, or 'Taz' as he has come to be known, is generally portrayed as a dim-witted teenager-type with a notoriously short temper and little patience. He will eat anything and everything, with an appetite that seems to know no bounds. He is best known for his speech consisting mostly of grunts, growls and rasps, and his ability to spin and bite through just about anything.
In 1991, Taz got his own show, Taz-Mania, which ran for three seasons, in which he was the protagonist. He was shown to be unusual amongst his family for his wild behaviour. Though being the oldest of three children, he appeared to be the least intelligent, and was generally treated by his family as having a developmental disability. Despite this, Taz can read and write, play computer games, and is capable of maintaining hobbies such as the collection of bottle caps and comic books.
Although the show Taz-Mania has ceased its re-runs, this is still the most popular interpretation of Taz, and he is portrayed regularly as alternately hero and villain in his more recent appearances. He is often portrayed as being too dim-witted to fool with clever traps, but too strong to capture with conventional traps.
Creation and first appearance
Robert McKimson based the character on the real-life Tasmanian Devil, or more specifically its carnivorous nature and voracious appetite. Owen and Pemberton suggest that the character of the Tasmanian Devil was inspired by Errol Flynn. The most noticeable resemblance between the Australian marsupial and McKimson's creation is their ravenous appetites and crazed behavior. Although the bipedal Tasmanian Devil's appearance does not resemble its marsupial inspiration, it contains multilayered references to other "devils": he has horn-shaped fur on his head (similar to the Devil's appearance) and whirls about like a dust devil (similar in appearance to a tornado) which sounds like several motors whirring in unison. Taz is constantly voracious. His efforts to find more food (animate or inanimate) are always a central plot device of his cartoons. His hydrophobia serves as an internal antagonist quite often.
In fact, this appetite serves as the impetus for McKimson's Devil May Hare (first released on June 19, 1954). In the short, Taz stalks Bugs Bunny, but due to his dim wits and inability to frame complete sentences, he serves as little more than a nuisance. Bugs eventually gets rid of him in the most logical way possible: matching him up with an equally insatiable female Tasmanian Devil. The character's speech, peppered with growls, screeches, and raspberries, is provided by Mel Blanc. Only occasionally would Taz actually speak, usually to utter some incongruous punchline, (e.g. "What for you bury me in the cold, cold ground?") and yet the character is capable of writing and reading. A running gag is that when Bugs Bunny hears of the approach of "Taz" and looks him up in an encyclopedia and starts reading off a list of animals that "Taz" eats—Bugs finds "rabbits" not listed—until "Taz" either points out that "rabbits" are listed-or writes Rabbits on the list!
After the short entered theaters, producer Eddie Selzer, head of the Warner Bros. animation studio, ordered McKimson to shelve the character, feeling it was too violent for children and parents disliked this. After a time with no new Taz shorts, studio head Jack Warner asked what had happened to the character. Warner saved Taz's career when he told Selzer that he had received "boxes and boxes" of letters from people who liked the character and wanted to see more of him.
McKimson would go on to direct four more Tasmanian Devil cartoons, beginning with Bedeviled Rabbit (released on April 13, 1957). The she-devil returns in this cartoon, now as Mrs. Tasmanian Devil, but Taz's attraction for the female of his species is again exploited by Bugs when he uses a sexy female-devil costume to deliver some explosives to him. McKimson would also pair the Devil with Daffy Duck in Ducking the Devil (August 17, 1957) before pitting him once again against Bugs in Bill of Hare (June 9, 1962) and Dr. Devil and Mr. Hare (March 28, 1964). His final appearance done by the classic Warner Brothers directors, writers, and voice actors was in Bugs Bunny's Looney Christmas Tales appearing in The Fright Before Christmas segment and at the very end eating the sleigh full of presents.
Relationship with the Tasmanian Government
In 1997, a newspaper report noted that Warner Brothers had "trademarked the character and registered the name Tasmanian Devil", and that this trademark "was policed", including an eight year legal case to allow a Tasmanian company to call a fishing lure the Tasmanian Devil. Debate followed, and a delegation from the Tasmanian government met with Warner Bros. Ray Groom, the Tourism Minister, later announced that a "verbal agreement" had been reached. An annual fee would be paid to Warner Bros. in return for the Government of Tasmania being able to use the image of Taz for "marketing purposes". This agreement later disappeared.
After much lobbying from the Tasmanian state government in Australia, Warner Bros. decided to assist the fight against extinction of the Tasmanian Devil due to devil facial tumour disease. Tasmanian Environment Minister Judy Jackson, prior to the company's support, heavily criticised Warner Bros., stating that the company had made millions of dollars from the character, but did not put up any money when other companies had.
The deal with Warner Bros. allows the Tasmanian Government to manufacture and sell up to 5000 special edition Taz plush toys with all profit going towards funding scientific research into the Devil Facial Tumour Disease. The deal also aims to increase public attention towards the threatening disease.
The Tasmanian Government and Warner Bros. have previously disputed the government's right to use the character as a tourism promotion, which Warner Bros. offered if they paid for it. The government refused this offer.
Taz and Developmental Disabilities
In Taz's three-season stint in the cartoon Taz-Mania, because of his difficulty communicating, inhibited social skills and low intelligence when compared to the other members of his family and other animals, Taz was commonly interpreted as being a teenage boy with Down syndrome. Despite this, he could still perform activities such as reading and writing, playing computer games, and maintain simple hobbies such as collecting bottle caps.
The Down Syndrome Society of South Australia took offense to Taz's ability to go from speaking in grunts and noises to speaking normally. Judy Opolski, president of the Down Syndrome Society of South Australia stated "It's obvious that Warner Brothers finds it 'funny' to portray the Taz Manian devil as a boy with Down Syndrome, making jokes at the expense of his inability to communicate."
Warner Brothers declined to comment, but Bruce Morris, a writer for the show, sent a letter of apology after the show went off the air.