By Michelle Trauring
For longer than he’d care to admit, a young Peter Browngardt once thought the creators of the classic “Looney Tunes” cartoons were not much older than him — not to mention members of his own family.
At the center of the prank was his eldest brother, Carl, known as the jokester of the five Browngardt siblings, who grew up in Sag Harbor. Whenever the opening credits would roll, he took advantage of their 12-year age gap and said, “Oh, I worked on this one,” pointing to the name of composer Carl Stalling as his own.
Between muffled laughs, his second oldest brother, Tom, would follow suit, if he happened to share his name with an animator of the short.
“I could read Carl’s and Tom’s first names as a child, but I never could pronounce or read our last name,” Peter Browngardt said. “So I was like, ‘Oh my God, my brothers are making cartoons. So that’s what they’re doing when they leave every day.’
“They were going to school, but they would lie to me and tell me they made them,” he continued. “I thought I had the most amazing siblings in the world.”
While the illusion was devastatingly shattered once Browngardt learned how to read, a key lesson remained: Cartoons aren’t real, but created. And it shaped his life from that point onward.
“That probably helped me realize that somebody makes cartoons, because when you’re a kid, you think it’s real. You think it’s a real thing, but not in my family,” he said with a laugh from his home in Los Angeles. “It was lying. It was just lies.”
Today, Browngardt is closer to his cartoon childhood heroes than most have ever gotten. Perhaps most notably known as the creator of Cartoon Network’s “Uncle Grandpa,” his 20-year animation career now includes “Looney Tunes Cartoons,” which premiered this past May as part of the HBO Max launch.
Composed of 80 11-minute episodes, the animated shorts present adapted storylines for a more modern audience, explained the series executive producer and showrunner — a pair of roles that cast Browngardt as the prime candidate to supervise an adjacent project that marks one of the greatest moments of his career.
In a collaboration between the U.S. Postal Service and Warner Bros. Consumer Products, Browngardt and his team of designers and painters recently created a series of commemorative Forever stamps celebrating Bugs Bunny’s 80th anniversary. Now available for purchase, the 20-stamp pane — which features 10 designs of Bugs Bunny in his most memorable getups — comes at a time when the USPS is not only at risk, Browngardt noted, but is also poised to play a crucial role in the upcoming presidential election.
“It’s one of the highlights of my career, for sure, to be involved with this postage stamp,” he said. “The Postal Service is part of our history as a country and, right now, it’s a big deal what’s going on politically with the postal service, so it’s kind of cool and important, and it was awesome.”
The artistic process started by not-so-simply choosing which Bugs Bunny performances would make the cut, which proved to be a grueling task given the character’s unbelievable range over the last eight decades. Since his debut as a short-subject cartoon, “A Wild Hare,” in 1940, Bugs has become a master of disguise with endless talent — and costume choices — that have helped him thwart his foes time and time again.
Known for breaking the fourth wall, the “wascally wabbit” was able to speak directly to the audience, evolving from a zany, crazy cartoon character into the Bugs everyone knows today: witty, sharp and cool, calm and collected against his adversaries.
“Bugs is a unique character because unlike Mickey Mouse, or some of the other really famous characters out there, Bugs literally went to war for our country in World War II,” Browngardt said. “He was a huge spokesperson and because of the style of ‘Looney Tunes,’ he was able to be really irreverent, to make propaganda cartoons in favor of the United States and also against the axis of evil.”
The stamps include a depiction of Bugs in his finest combat uniform as a World War II U.S. Army staff sergeant, up against an American flag backdrop, juxtaposed against his roles as a mermaid with a curly 1940s up-do, a basketball player on a brink of a slam dunk, a barber with a white smock and scissors, and a jester in a fool’s cap.
He also appears as a debonair screen idol in his Hollywood digs, and sits at the piano in a white tie and tails. He does a diva turn as an operatic Brunhilde in blonde braids and winged helmet, heroically poses as the carrot-powered Super-Rabbit in his blue suit and red cape, and warms up to pitch a big league ballgame, for which Browngardt is responsible for the original pencil drawing.
Then, the artists created thumbnail paintings from each pencil drawing, which mocked up the colors and contrasts, before completing the final paintings of each stamp that were compiled and printed by the USPS.
“We did it, we pulled it off. I couldn’t be more proud to just have a little involvement and oversee the whole thing and assign things,” Browngardt said. “Everybody involved is blown away by being able to do this. We’re really proud of it.”
For the Pierson High School graduate, the project is a dream come true, he said. After all, when his brothers weren’t busy toying with him, they were exposing him to classic animators and the art of film, which piqued his interest and eventually led him to study at the California Institute of the Arts.
From there, his path into the industry was secured, he said. But he never imagined he would make it this far.
“I’m in the, hopefully not the peak, but I’m at a very high point in my career, which is awesome,” Browngardt said. “Doing ‘Looney Tunes,’ if you told me that, I would be like, ‘You’re such a liar, I’ll never be able to do that.’ It’s took a lot of …” He paused.
“There was a lot of fear going into this,” he said. “You’re literally dealing with the greatest cartoon characters of all time, and those classic shorts, they’re masterpieces of American filmmaking and comedy. So it’s like, I know we’ll never reach that level, but just to be associated in some aspect is pretty incredible.”