LULU MILLER: Best of season is almost upon us. And so I am here with a best of list. This is Lulu Miller, by the way. You are listening to Radiolab. And I have with me a best of list that our producer, W Harry Fortuna, brought to our attention recently. It is a best of list that he remembers reading as a kid, published in the Washington Post. They put together a “Best of the Millenium.” So I'm gonna read a couple of the items here. We've got, Best Work of Art: the Sistine Chapel. It's a good work of art. Best scientist: Einstein. Biggest irony? Quote, "The rehabilitation of intuition, faith and emotion as powers of equal or greater import than reason." Greatest genius: Shakespeare. But the surprise of the whole list for Harry and for me too, now that I've read it, is who won Best Actor. From the year 1000 to 2000? Who is it? Bugs Freaking Bunny. And I'm not sure that I agree, but I do know that Bugs Bunny holds a very, very special and rare distinction. He is the only imaginary friend to have literally brought his creator back from the brink of death. Something I learned listening to this episode, which first aired back in 2012. Oh, I should have brought a carrot, but shhh—snap. What's up, Doc? I hope you enjoy.
JAD ABUMRAD: Hey, here we are, post Hurricane . Phew! I'm Jad Abumrad.
ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.
JAD: This is Radiolab. And today...
ROBERT: Well you might call this a character study, I suppose.
JAD: Yeah. It comes from our producer, Sean Cole.
SEAN COLE: Hello!
JAD: Hey! So start us off.
SEAN: Story's about Mel Blanc, man of many—you know who that is.
JAD: No, I don't.
ROBERT: You don't know who Mel Blanc is?
JAD: Why? Should I know who he is?
SEAN: No, you do know who he is because of what he did.
JAD: What did he do?
SEAN: He was the voice of ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bugs Bunny: Eh, what's up, Doc?]
SEAN: ... Bugs Bunny.
SEAN: And ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Daffy Duck: You're despicable.]
SEAN: ... Daffy Duck. Porky Pig.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Porky Pig: Lucky me.]
SEAN: Yosemite Sam.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Yosemite Sam: So long, rabbit!]
SEAN: Pepé Le Pew.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Pepé Le Pew: You smelled me out, you little sandy witch!]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Sylvester: Stand still!]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Tweety Bird: Okay, puddy-tat.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Foghorn Leghorn: I say, go away boy. You're botherin' me.]
SEAN: Foghorn Leghorn.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Egghead Jr.: Give me back my chicken!]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Foghorn Leghorn: Your chicken?]
JAD: That was all one guy?
JAD: Okay, so what's—what's the story that ...?
SEAN: Dude, I'm nowhere near done with this. Woody Woodpecker.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Woody Woodpecker: Guess who?]
SEAN: Mel Blanc. Barney Rubble.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Barney Rubble: Is it safe to come in?]
SEAN: Mel Blanc. Dino the Dinosaur.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dino the Dinosaur: [barks]]
SEAN: Mel Blanc. And on the other side of the anachronistic spectrum ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Mr. Spacely: Oh, you guys won't believe this!]
SEAN: ... he was Mr. Spacely for The Jetsons.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Mr. Spacely: Really?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Mr. Spacely: Where's that Jetson?]
SEAN: Let's see ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Speed Buggy: Who put the antifreeze ...]
SEAN: Speed Buggy.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Speed Buggy: ... in my carburetor?]
SEAN: Secret Squirrel.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Secret Squirrel: Right, chief!]
SEAN: Captain Caveman.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Captain Caveman: Captain Caveman!]
SEAN: And Twiki from Buck Rogers, if you ever watched that.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Twiki: What about the bomb?]
JAD: Holy [bleep]! This guy's like the voice of my childhood.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Twiki: Well, it sounds like a crowd.]
NOEL BLANC: Oh my gosh, my dad got so many requests to do so many voices.
SEAN: This is Noel Blanc, Mel's son—his only kid, actually.
NOEL BLANC: Kids would come to the door literally every single day, and he'd answer the door and talk to the kids. And then up at Big Bear where we are now, when the tour boats come just like they do now, we'd get on the megaphone, do the characters and say hi to all the tourists, you know, 12 times a day.
SEAN: Holy moly.
NOEL BLANC: That's how many tour boats we have.
SEAN: Now and you do voices too.
NOEL BLANC: [Bugs Bunny voice] That's right, Doc. I do a few of the voices [Porky Pig voice] that my daddy does and did. He did 1,500 voices.
NOEL BLANC: Yeah. I copy a few of them.
NOEL BLANC: And there's a bunch of us that do different voices, and we've never been able to really sound like—exactly like him.
SEAN: So it took many of you to be one of him?
NOEL BLANC: Oh, yeah, yeah. Oh, my gosh, yes. I do Bugs, Porky, Daffy, Tweety, Sylvester. But there's other people that do it, too. And all of them sound—you know, if he goes [Bugs Bunny voice] "What's up, Doc?" You know? It can sound real close to him, but then when you start to do sentences, it becomes very difficult for anybody to sound like him because everybody has their own voiceprint. And Mel had his own voiceprint.
SEAN: But this isn't really a story about voices. Or it is, but not in the way that you think. It's really about what it's like to breathe life into a character, and whether that character can breathe life back into you. See, back in 1961 ...
NOEL BLANC: Dad and I had ...
SEAN: ... Mel and Noel went into business together producing radio commercials.
NOEL BLANC: Funny commercials, because humorous commercials weren't really being done at that time. Very few. So we decided to start to do that. We sent out all the brochures, and that's the week, the same week, that Mel had a head-on collision at Dead Man's Curve at UCLA.
SEAN: And where was he—where was he headed?
NOEL BLANC: He had just finished a recording session in San Francisco. He had flown to San Francisco early in the morning, came back, ate dinner with my mom ...
SEAN: And then rushed back out to do another recording session.
NOEL BLANC: ... and a kid in a 98 Oldsmobile—gigantic car—lost control on Dead Man's Curve.
SEAN: Head-on collision.
NOEL BLANC: My dad was in an Aston Martin, which was an aluminum-bodied English car. And it folded right up. They had to cut him out of there. Luckily, he was only a block from the UCLA hospital.
SEAN: Is that like the jaws of life cut him out?
NOEL BLANC: Yeah. Yeah. They gave him a thousand-to-one chance of survival, and he broke virtually every bone in his body.
LOUIS CONWAY: Oh, I think that was more than a slight exaggeration, but from his point of view it probably felt just like that.
SEAN: This is Louis Conway.
LOUIS CONWAY: Louis W. Conway. I do very little these days.
SEAN: He's a doctor.
LOUIS CONWAY: Before I retired, I was a neurosurgeon.
SEAN: And he was on the floor at UCLA Medical Center back then.
LOUIS CONWAY: I was a resident.
SEAN: He was like 29 at the time.
LOUIS CONWAY: I think I was the first one to see Mel Blanc in the emergency room, completely unrecognizable at the time. You know, blood and gore and so forth. So we cleaned him up, and then it became clear that he was gonna be a major celebrity in the place providing I kept him alive.
SEAN: When you show up at the hospital, what's the first—how are you greeted there?
NOEL BLANC: By a lot of flashing cameras. And that—all of a sudden, I knew something was really bad. I met my mom, we went inside. There were a lot of people there, the papers—because they thought he was gonna die. In fact, there was an obituary written in the Honolulu Herald that said, "Bugs Bunny's Dead."
SEAN: That was the headline?
NOEL BLANC: Headline. And ...
SEAN: You must have been really freaked out.
NOEL BLANC: Oh, yeah. Totally. So was my mom. We were just—we couldn't believe it. And he was ashen gray. He didn't look like he was gonna make it at all.
SEAN: The doctors did manage to get him stabilized, but he was unconscious.
NOEL BLANC: He was in a coma. So we just stayed there, ran home, take a shower, come back.
SEAN: For one day, and then the next, and then the next.
NOEL BLANC: We were at the hospital for about two weeks, and ...
SEAN: Trying to talk to him?
NOEL BLANC: Yeah. "Can you hear us?" It was always, "Can you hear me? Dad, can you hear me?"
LOUIS CONWAY: I mean, deeply unconscious. Not responding.
NOEL BLANC: I called him "Dad," "Pop," "Father." Whatever it is. "Mel." We tried to do anything.
LOUIS CONWAY: Not opening his eyes. There was really no response.
SEAN: And it became possible that he would never respond.
NOEL BLANC: But after about 14 days, a doctor came in. He was a resident.
SEAN: Dr. Conway.
LOUIS CONWAY: This is me, the resident.
NOEL BLANC: He was a resident. And he went over to Mel's bed ...
SEAN: And for whatever reason, maybe just to mix things up ...
LOUIS CONWAY: I said to him, without any real reason to suspect he would know what I was saying, I said to him ...
LOUIS CONWAY: "Bugs Bunny. How are you doing today?"
NOEL BLANC: And I'll be darned if Mel didn't go, [Bugs Bunny voice] "Yeah. What's up, Doc?"
JAD: He responded as Bugs?
LOUIS CONWAY: Quite clearly.
NOEL BLANC: Then he went, "Porky, are you there?" Dad said, [Porky Pig voice] "Yeah, I can hear."
JAD: Oh, my God.
NOEL BLANC: "Tweety, are you here?" [Tweety Bird voice] "Ooh, I tot I taw a puddy-tat!"
SEAN: Foghorn Leghorn.
NOEL BLANC: [Foghorn Leghorn voice] "Pay attention, son. You see that house over there that says D-O-G? That spells chicken."
JAD: He said all that?
NOEL BLANC: Bugs, Daffy, Porky, Tweety, Sylvester.
SEAN: All these characters.
NOEL BLANC: He went through about six characters.
SEAN: Are you standing there watching this?
NOEL BLANC: Yeah. Oh, yeah.
SEAN: And what's going through your mind at this?
NOEL BLANC: Well, I'm so excited that he's able to—that he came out of the coma. How else are you gonna feel when he hasn't done anything for 14 days, really hasn't been conscious? And then all of a sudden, he's conscious doing these characters?
SEAN: And then according to Noel, after doing the characters for a few moments, he just came back.
NOEL BLANC: Where am I? What happened?
SEAN: As Mel.
NOEL BLANC: Oh, okay. “You're at UCLA, you were in a traffic accident.” “Oh, was anybody else hurt?” “No. The boy had a scratched knee.” “I see.”
ROBERT: So wait just a sec here. When he said, "What's up, Doc?"
ROBERT: Was—was that Mel Blanc talking, or was that Bugs Bunny inside Mel Blanc?
SEAN: That's the question, and it's a question that actually came back again 23 years later.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, This Is Your Life: Mr. Mel Blanc? This is your life.]
SEAN: On TV. On this show This Is Your Life, which you've heard of. And they bring out a celebrity and then they talk to the celebrity's family and everybody they work with. And they say, like, "Hey, remember this and remember that?"
[ARCHIVE CLIP, This Is Your Life: Mel's funny voices used to drive our high school principal crazy!]
SEAN: And, you know, it's all very light and airy and fun, until ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, This Is Your Life: It's 8:29 p.m. January 24, 1961. It all comes to a crashing halt.]
SEAN: They start talking about the car accident, and they call the doctor out to the stage.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, This Is Your Life: Neurosurgeon Dr. Louis Conway.]
SEAN: Enter stage right, to tell the whole coma story. And the host says, “Doc, like, what did you think when this all happened?"
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Louis Conway: I was astonished. Mel was dying, and it seemed as though Bugs Bunny was trying to save his life.]
SEAN: That. That is the idea that has survived more than any other part of this story, that's the thing that keeps coming back and back. And it's like, wait a second, like, what?
ROBERT: What does it mean?
SEAN: What does it mean? And it just presents all of these questions like, who is Mel, really? Who is Bugs Bunny, really? When you make somebody up, do they compete with you in some way?
JAD: Compete when?
SEAN: Right, exactly. Is that more deeply in Mel than Mel is? You know what I mean?
JAD: Yeah, totally.
SEAN: I brought Dr. Conway back to that moment.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Louis Conway: It seemed as though Bugs Bunny was trying to save his life.]
LOUIS CONWAY: I don't remember saying that, but I may well have.
SEAN: Do you think there's anything to that?
LOUIS CONWAY: Well, I don't really know that Bugs Bunny was that skillful, but ...
LOUIS CONWAY: So I basically say not much to it, I don't think.
SEAN: So I asked Noel.
NOEL BLANC: It's an interesting headline: "Bugs Bunny saves Mel." He didn't save his life but he certainly got him out of the coma.
SEAN: Then he told me something that does feed into the idea that these characters had minds of their own.
NOEL BLANC: Well …
SEAN: He says as a kid, he would watch his dad perform. And every time ...
NOEL BLANC: He became those characters. I could turn the sound off in a booth where you couldn't hear him, just turn the speaker's off, and watch him, and know exactly what character he was doing because his whole body would metamorphosize to that character. He looked like Bugs Bunny when he was doing Bugs. He look just like Yosemite Sam when he was doing Yosemite Sam. He became really small and timid when he was doing Tweety.
JAD: So he was sort of like a method actor.
SEAN: Yeah, sort of. I mean, the way Noel described it, it was like these characters momentarily inhabited him.
NOEL BLANC: So I think they were part of him, basically.
JAD: But so what I don't get though is why would he respond to "What's up, Bugs?" rather than, like, "What's up, Mel?" Or "What's up, Dad?" Or "What's up, honey?" You know what I mean?
NOEL BLANC: That's—that's a difficult question. You know, I wish I could answer it.
SEAN: Noel didn't really want to go there.
NOEL BLANC: Anyway, what—what other questions do you have?
NOEL BLANC: I’ve got—you were stuck on that one…
SEAN: I kind of am stuck on it, and I know that it's not a question anybody can ultimately answer, but I called up this guy.
ORRIN DEVINSKY: This is Orrin Devinsky at NYU Medical Center.
SEAN: A neurologist that we sometimes throw questions like this to. And I ran them through the whole scenario.
SEAN: This guy comes into the room and says, "Hi, Bugs Bunny. How are you doing today?" And he says, [Bugs Bunny voice] " What's up, Doc?"
ORRIN DEVINSKY: Interesting.
SEAN: So he batted it around in his head for a while, and then he said, "Well, you know, it might have something to do with cues. Like getting the cues mixed up."
ROBERT: What do you mean?
SEAN: Well, first of all ...
ORRIN DEVINSKY: Being in a coma for a few weeks speaks to a very significant brain injury.
SEAN: And what Orrin often sees with people who've had brain injuries like Mel's is that they lose the ability to read the cues that tell them who they're supposed to be when: dad at home, boss at the office, Bugs in the studio, whatever.
ORRIN DEVINSKY: Here's a man who no longer has his ability to differentiate social cues of right and wrong, of when to be Bugs Bunny and when not to be Bugs Bunny, where he is and where he isn't.
SEAN: You have to keep in mind that when he was working, this is a guy who was getting cued all the time.
NOEL BLANC: He was doing 18 radio shows a week at one time.
NOEL BLANC: So he'd just be running down the street from ABC to CBS to NBC, and they'd hand them a script and he'd run on stage and do it.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Mel Blanc: I'm a lieut—a cap—maj—a Private Sad Sack.]
NOEL BLANC: So he had those characters buried in himself that could come out and surface incredibly fast.
SEAN: On a dime.
NOEL BLANC: Yeah. "Here's the script. That's the character." Boom.
SEAN: So if he's got all these characters hanging around in his head ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Yosemite Sam: This town ain't big enough for the two of us.]
SEAN: ... just waiting for the right cue. And in his head, that part of the brain that interprets the cue is all messed up, maybe in a way when Dr. Conway said ...
LOUIS CONWAY: "Bugs Bunny, how are you doing today?"
SEAN: ... maybe the way Mel heard it was, "Hey Mel, you're on."
LOUIS CONWAY: In his mind, I might have been the director at the time, for all I know.
SEAN: Even the good doctor went along with this one.
LOUIS CONWAY: So he was given permission to talk now because it was his time to talk sort of thing.
SEAN: So on one level, it's obviously crazy to think that Bugs Bunny saved his life because, after all, he was just a cartoon character. But whether or not those characters saved him, I mean, in that moment, they were the most essential part of him, you could say. Because when the rest of Mel was adrift and sort of lost in the ether, Bugs was there. He was ready to go to work. Which makes perfect sense to Orrin Devinsky.
ORRIN DEVINSKY: I mean, that was a rehearsed thing that he did. Once you practice things long enough, they kind of become automatic in lower portions of the brain. And that's why, when the higher brain's injured, sometimes these lower brain functions can come out so—so beautifully because they have been kind of wired in over time. So the Bugs Bunny voice was perfectly preserved deep inside.
SEAN: Bugs Bunny is like crystallized and kept over here in a protective jar away from the rattling cage of the brain.
ORRIN DEVINSKY: Exactly.
ORRIN DEVINSKY: It went down into the safe.
JAD: So what ended up happening to Mel?
SEAN: Well, he took a long time to recover.
NOEL BLANC: And was in a body cast for gosh, seven months.
SEAN: But he worked the entire time. I mean, he never stopped working.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Barney Rubble: Right, let's go, Fred!]
SEAN: They're bringing the equipment to him?
NOEL BLANC: I brought the equipment in, dangled a mic over the bed. And he started to work there.
SEAN: In fact, the first 65 Flintstones—you would never know this—Barney in real life ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Fred Flintstone: What's on your mind, Barney? I'm kinda busy.]
SEAN: ... was flat on his back in a body cast.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Barney Rubble: Just passing by on my way to see the doctor.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Fred Flintstone: The doctor? What's the matter with you, Barney boy?]
SEAN: And then in 1989, for the first time, Noel and Mel both were starring in this commercial for Oldsmobile. Mel's 81. And the shtick—they did a bunch of these. The shtick was, you know, "Not your father's Oldsmobile."
NOEL BLANC: We did the commercial—it took us all day to do it. And he had just gotten over the flu, so he wasn't feeling that great. And I said, "Dad, why don't you run over to the doctor?" So he goes over to the doctor, and I called the doctor, I said, "What's the story?" He says, "Well, he's fine. I can give him a shot and send him home, but I'd love to clear his lungs out. So why don't we just put him in the hospital overnight, clear his lungs out and then send him home?" So I talked to my dad and I said, "You want to do that?" He says, "Well, okay. What the heck." "I'll see you in the morning, Pop." "Oh, yeah."
NOEL BLANC: Got there the next morning about 7:30. I says, "How do you feel?" He says, "My leg hurts." I say, "Why?" The nurses at the hospital forgot to put up the bed rails on the side of the bed. Well, you know how high a hospital bed is. He had fallen out of the bed and broken his femur. Fat emboli got into the brain by that time, and within 48 hours, he was basically almost brain dead. Yeah.
NOEL BLANC: During the next couple of days, he'd come in and out of his coma, or in and out of his sleep. And I tried to rouse him with the characters like the doctor had 30 years earlier.
SEAN: You would?
NOEL BLANC: Yeah.
SEAN: "Bugs, are you in there?"
NOEL BLANC: Yeah. It was very difficult at that time because he's 30 years older now, he's 81 years old. And it was difficult to revive him after each time that he would fall back to sleep again.
SEAN: And just before his dad passed away, Noel says that Mel looked at him, and in the voice of ...
NOEL BLANC: Yosemite Sam.
SEAN: ... he said ...
NOEL BLANC: [Yosemite Sam voice] "Noel, I love you." And that was about it.
SEAN: Oh, my God!
NOEL BLANC: It was the last character he did. And the last character on film or recorded character ...
SEAN: Which was in that Oldsmobile ad I told you about.
NOEL BLANC: ... was Porky saying, "That's all folks!"
SEAN: And that's what his tombstone says, too, "That's all folks!"
ROBERT: Thank you, Sean Cole.
JAD: Sean does some good voices himself.
ROBERT: He does, but we won't share them with you. Not in the company of Mr. Mel Blanc.
JAD: Very, very big thanks to Noel Blanc, Mel Blanc's son.
ROBERT: And to Dr. Louis Conway, the doctor.
JAD: And to Robert's boyfriend Orrin Devinsky.
JAD: That's an inside joke.
ROBERT: I do like Orrin Devinsky.
JAD: Oh, and a huge thanks to Mel Blanc himself, wherever he may be, for all those voices that populated our youth.
JAD: I’m Jad Abumrad.
ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.
JAD: Thanks for listening.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Porky Pig: That's all, folks!]
LULU: Jingle, jingle, jingle! We're here to tell you… Jingle, jingle, jingle… our holiday merch store is about to open up!
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[LISTENER: Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad, and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, Akedi Foster-Keys, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gebel, Maria Paz Gutiérrez, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Alex Neason, Sarah Qari, Anna Rascouët-Paz, Sarah Sandbach, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Andrew Viñales. Our fact-checkers are Diane Kelly, Emily Krieger and Natalie Middleton.]
[LISTENER: Hi, my name is Jeremiah Barba. I'm calling from San Francisco California. Leadership support for Radiolab's science programming is provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative and the John Templeton Foundation. Foundational support for Radiolab was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.]
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