A Day At The Zoo is a Warner Brothers/Merrie Melodies cartoon directed by Tex Avery and released in 1939. It shows a trip to a zoo filled with visual puns. I have a lot of fondness for this cartoon, it’s nicely animated and I like visual puns even though I generally dislike puns as verbal jokes.
Considering it is 74 years old, not all of it still connects with a modern audience, but in fairness a lot of it still works, as most the jokes used are sayings which still exist today. It begins with a wolf “in his natural setting”, which they depict as snowy and next to a door – just a door propped up, not connected to a house. It’s referring to “keeping the wolf from the door” in winter. Then there are camels smoking, a reference to Camel brand cigarettes. They also have an ostrich clucking like a chicken, dropping her egg and the contents inside being a box of one dozen hen eggs, which I imagine might be a nod to people comparing the eggs they are most familiar with, which will almost certainly be hen’s eggs, when talking about equivalent sizes in other birds eggs. The cartoon also appears to be playing on similarity between monkeys and humans by having monkeys feed humans peanuts and a baboon swapping with a man who looks like a baboon. A pop culture reference that hasn’t dated is the skunk reading How To Win Friends And Influence People, as people are still using that as a reference joke today.
Some of the jokes are the sort most people will have heard many, many times, playing on the same word meaning different things. An owl hooting is actually asking “Who?”, rabbits “quickly multiply” in that they’re good at mathematics rather than them breeding and so on. An elephant is making a phone call asking about his missing trunk as if he is talking about luggage, but he is talking about his nose.
Sometimes the joke is giving a more literal interpretation of slang terms, which are my personal favourite ones in this cartoon. A “jailbird” is a cage that resembles a prison cell and has black and white plumage similar to a convict uniform, and next to him is a “stool pigeon”, that is a pigeon perched on a stool, saying the jailbird is definitely guilty. Tex Avery later made a whole cartoon of this idea of slang terms visualised literally for MGM in 1951 called Symphony In Slang.
The jokes I scratched my head over were two elks being shown as two men in suits named Bill, which is apparently a reference to an American organisation called the Elks. There’s also a wild cat who is wild because “They called my name at Bank Night and I wasn’t there!”. From what I’ve read, a modern equivalent of that may be something like picking the same lottery numbers every week and not buying a ticket the week all the numbers came up.
The most puzzling one for myself and a lot of people is the panthers muttering “bread and butter” a couple of times. This was referencing a now mostly forgotten superstition where if two friends or a romantic couple were walking and had to physically separate because of a pole (or whatever) then a massive argument may happen to ruin their relationship, so saying “bread and butter” was meant to prevent that, as in they’ll remain as inseparable as butter on bread.
The cartoon has a surreal sort of charm to it, like going to a bizarre otherworldly theme park. A groundhog has his shadow in another cage (this is referencing Groundhog Day). Similarly next to the elephant cage are ghost-like little pink winged elephants “left over from that last New Year’s Eve party”. Most people nowadays probably associate pink elephants with the drunken dream sequence in Disney’s Dumbo, which was released in 1941, but the saying “pink elephants” as an association with being drunk goes back to the early 20th century at least.
While A Day At The Zoo was one of the cartoons that didn’t feature any of the Warner Brothers more recognisable star characters, it does feature one who would become famous later, Egghead. If you haven’t heard of him, he would later evolve into Elmer Fudd. Egghead had a different appearance though, he was bald like Elmer, but he was shorter, had a fatter nose and had a body more like a balloon animal, quite long and stretchy. In this cartoon he has a high pitched voice (though oddly enough the elephant with a missing trunk speaks with Elmer’s speech impediment; “You know those guys have had my twunk for a week!”). Egghead spends this cartoon poking a lion with his cane because he finds it funny to annoy him, but he gets comeuppance at the end when we find the lion resting and revealing he has eaten Egghead. Elmer Fudd would later be eaten by a circus lion at the end of a Bugs Bunny cartoon Hare Do, with very similar character design for the lion and Elmer’s voice echoing inside the lion like Egghead’s in A Day At The Zoo.