Is Wile E. Coyote really one of the ''nastiest'' TV villains of all time?
TV Guide counted the hapless coyote among classic baddies like the Borg and the Joker. Chuck Jones saw him as a victim.
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Wile E. Coyote will go to pretty much any lengths to catch the Road Runner. His running tab with Acme, the company that supplies all the devices that ultimately fail the coyote, must amount to a small fortune.
But watch literally any coyote and Road Runner cartoon, and you’ll soon understand that even though Wile E. is after the bird, he proves time and again to be his own worst enemy.
So that's why we had to laugh to see Wile E. Coyote included on TV Guide's list of "60 Nastiest Villains of All Time."
The only thing Wile E. ever hurt was his own pride, yet TV Guide counts him among baddies like the Borg, a terrifying humanoid alien species attempting to turn everyone on multiple series of Star Trek into drones, proclaiming "resistance is futile."
The Enterprise crew may have escaped fairly unscathed, but the Borg had many victims, including Federation personnel. Now that is nasty. A coyote repeatedly missing out on a meal? Not so much!
Other classic villains that Wile E. apparently rubs shoulders with on TV Guide's list are sinister characters like Cesar Romero's The Joker (Batman) and the vampire Barnabas Collins (Dark Shadows), as well as malicious jerks like M*A*S*H's Frank Burns.
But consider who Wile E. Coyote is, beyond his many, many attempts to blow up the Road Runner. What drives him?
When animator Chuck Jones dreamed up the cartoon character, he recalled the words of Mark Twain describing coyotes in his book Roughing It. Twain didn't see coyotes as evil, but rather pitiable.
"The coyote is a living, breathing allegory of Want," Twain wrote. "He is always hungry. He is always poor, out of luck, and friendless … He is so spiritless and cowardly that even while his exposed teeth are pretending a threat, the rest of his face is apologizing for it."
Jones saw Wile E. Coyote not as a villain, but instead as "his own worst enemy."
"The Coyote never wins," Jones said in the 2020 book Wild Minds: The Artists and Rivalries That Inspired the Golden Age of Animation. "Never. He's out to get a bird that wouldn't even make a good meal."
So when you watch a coyote and Road Runner cartoon such as "Tired and Feathered," where Wile E. Coyote buys a high-powered motor engine so he can run as fast as the Road Runner, and he still loses, it's hard to root against the hapless dog, even if you do root for the Road Runner.
“He's not at war with the gods, but with the minuscule things of everyday life,” Jones said.
In fact, when the concept of the coyote and Road Runner cartoons came up, Jones and his Wile E. Coyote co-creator Michael Maltese knew they wanted to do a twist on classic chase cartoons. Instead of having the Road Runner outwit the coyote to beat him, they wanted the coyote to forever be defeating himself.
They figured this one-note concept would be enough to fuel one cartoon, but when the first coyote and Road Runner cartoon was a hit, the characters proved this twist created a lasting bit.
And the bit is arguably not even built on the coyote and Road Runner dynamic, but Wile E. Coyote's naïve trust in all the Acme contraptions that he totally bought into, only to find himself on the wrong end of the fuse, again and again.
Weirdly, this was something that a lot of people in the audience sort of identified with.
As new technologies became available, we saw ourselves in Wile E. Coyote! It was hard to know what companies you could trust when they all made unbacked claims as bold as the Acme Corporation.
This was also especially funny for early fans of Looney Tunes, because there actually was a company called Acme Corporation. They were mostly selling anvils — not exploding tennis balls to "Tickle your friends!" or "Surprise your opponent!"
In Chuck Jones' memoir Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist, he said the Road Runner was more a device than a victim, and the real victim was Wile E. Coyote being targeted by Acme's overconfident advertising.
Luckily, no matter how many times the coyote distractedly stepped off a cliff, he always bounced back to chase the Road Runner another day. Nothing kept the coyote down.
"The coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures," Jones said.