As movie heroes go, Bugs Bunny always operated at a significant advantage: every enemy that he faced was dumber than the next. The joy in watching Bugs Bunny cartoons is witnessing the constant humiliation of the would-be predators being blown up, pummeled, run over and endlessly humiliated by the crafty and perpetually underestimated rabbit.
But the single dumbest villain to pursue Bugs Bunny was the shabby, spastic Pete Puma. He only appeared in a single Looney Tunes short, the 1952 Rabbit’s Kin, and the character’s imbecility was so pronounced that he became surprisingly lovable.
The beauty of Pete Puma was the vocal performance by an uncredited Stan Freberg (only Mel Blanc warranted on-screen credit for voice work in the Warner Bros. cartoons). Offering an exaggerated imitation of the zany voice given to the punch-drunk John L.C. Silvoney character played by Frank Fontaine on Jack Benny’s radio program (an easily identifiable vocal imitation for 1952, but obscure for today’s viewers), Pete Puma speaks in a drawling, slow-motion voice that signals no great thoughts are ricocheting around in his cranium.
“Rabbit’s Kin” begins with another one-shot character – a diminutive rabbit with a fast, high-pitched voice named Shorty – who is racing frantically from an unseen danger. He takes refuge in Bugs’ subterranean residence and relays his dilemma to Bugs, who is well aware of Pete Puma’s nonsense. Sure enough, Pete’s arm descends into Bugs’ rabbit hole and his hand feels around the tiny rabbit. Bugs creates a rabbit decoy from dynamite, which Pete grabs and pulls from the hole, with a thunderous explosion occurring off-screen.
Outside of the hole, Pete tries to pull a fast one on Bugs by giving him a trick cigar. Bugs realizes the scam when he reads the “El Explodo” label, then pockets the cigar and invites Pete for a cup of tea. With typical Looney Tunes surrealism, a tea set is ready for consumption, and Bugs lifts a sugar bowl before asking Pete how many lumps he wants. Pete, believing Bugs is referring to the sugar in the bowl, cheerfully relies, “Oh, three or four” – at which point Bugs hammers him across his head with large mallet, raising five lumps. Bugs realizes he gave Pete “one too many” and the extra lump is hammered back into his skull – while the El Explodo cigar is shoved into Pete’s mouth and lit, causing an explosion.
Bugs offers to escort Shorty home, but Pete emerges in a ridiculous drag disguise and pretends to be Shorty’s mother. Bugs, of course, is wise to Pete and revives the tea routine. Pete produces a pot of coffee instead, complaining that tea “give me a headache.” Pete falls for the “how many lumps?” question and is hammered yet again.
Pete’s impotence as a threat is so great that Shorty asks to become involved in a new prank on the dumb puma. In this plan, Shorty allows himself to be abducted by Pete, who takes him to his cave. But Bugs is already there, dressed in a crummy puma disguise and pretending to be Pete’s cousin Paul. Bugs volunteers to shovel coal for the stove and asks Pete how many lumps he wants. Pete requests “a whoooooooole lotta lumps,” but quickly realizes what is going to happen. He turns and catches Bugs with an upraised mallet, but then he takes the mallet from Bugs and states, “I’ll help myself” – at which point he mercilessly pounds his head with the mallet as Bugs and Shorty exit laughing.
In many ways, “Rabbit’s Kin” is a lazy endeavor – neither Bugs nor the slightly annoying Shorty are in any peril from their foe, and the too-easy trickery used on Pete becomes cruel thanks to his mental limitations. But Stan Freberg’s vocal performance – especially with Pete’s screechy laugh – is one of the best in an animated short. And despite the hoary nature of the gag, the “how many lumps?” question and its violent answer is always funny to witness.
While the Looney Tunes animators never had further use for Pete Puma, fans of this animated canon kept a niche in their hearts for this dimwitted charm. When the WB Network polled fans for a character from the Warner Bros. line-up to represent their network, Pete Puma was the surprise winner – but the executives were appalled that the symbol of their network would be an idiotic villain last seen hammering himself into oblivion. The fans were ignored and the high-stepping Michigan J. Frog, another one-shot character, was picked instead to represent the network. Who knows, but maybe the WB would have stayed on the air longer if Pete Puma enticed audiences to tune in? Instead, the know-it-all programmers were the ones getting “a whoooooooole lotta lumps.”