Pepe Le Pew, a one-trick skunk

Trevor Soderstrum

Poor Pepe Le Pew, another victim of cancel culture after being cut from Warner Brothers' movie “Space Jam 2: Wasn’t One Space Jam One Too Many?” Pepe’s fate, just another dead skunk on the side of America’s culture wars highway. One problem, Pepe was not canceled. People just did not bother to read anything and would rather be outraged than informed.

Pepe is the Foster Brooks of the Looney Tunes cartoon universe. If you don’t remember Foster Brooks, he was a comedian who built an entire career on routines where he pretended to be a lovable drunk. Brooks was a one trick pony. When a more serious attitude toward alcoholism took hold in the culture and America grew a little tired of seeing the same routine over and over again, Foster’s act became dated and his career eventually faded away.

Trevor Soderstrum

Pepe’s whole shtick is a send up of French singer and actor Maurice Chevalier’s romantic public image. Chevalier is most famously today remembered for singing “Thank Heaven For Little Girls” in the movie “Gigi.” In today’s world, if an elderly gentleman sang about how delightfully little girls grow up in a public park, the song would end with two police officer thrusting him to the ground and handcuffing his arms behind his back. 

Much like how the Coen brothers found humor in the noir genre by replacing the Sam Spade-like hard boiled detective in a trench coat with a lazy slacker in “The Big Lebowski,” the creators of Pepe were clearly poking fun of the French lover stereotype that was a popular cultural trope. Instead of a wine-drinking, pencil-thin mustached French dude who is romancing all the ladies, they picked a creature that was repellent to everyone, a skunk.

Oh, I am sure there are skunk fans out there, people who enjoy their vehicles smelling like Donald Trump’s underwear on wash day when they run over one on a darkened highway. For the most part, nobody looks around and says, “You know what we need around here? More skunks! I don’t get to bathe my dogs in tomato juice enough.” 

Pepe’s set ups are always the same. A black feline, Penelope Pussycat, somehow gets a white stripe painted down the center of her back, usually by walking under a just painted fence or something like that. Pepe mistakes her for a skunk and is in love. Let the unwanted hugging and arm kissing begin. In today’s world, he would probably be using a Governor Andrew Cuomo move of asking Penelope to help him with his cell phone.

It was creepy in the ‘50s, but it was meant to be creepy. That was the humor of Pepe. There is a humor and sadness in creepiness. Like a lot of middle aged men who cannot understand that a young woman in her 20s might not want someone who could be their father or grandfather hitting on them, Pepe is a narcissist. He would be running for Congress today.

In a world where everything is serious and women are finally starting to be heard, Pepe’s idiocy struggles, especially when one remembers Chevalier. Foster Brooks is funny until you are with a woman who has buried a child thanks to a drunk driver. Donald Trump embarrassing himself in his tighty-whities, Cuomo’s lame moves, or fill in the blank with the latest example of a middle-aged man’s creepy behavior is not funny in and of itself. The way you beat them is the way of Mel Brooks when it comes to Nazis in “The Producers.” You find the humor and laugh at them, reducing them to the sad figures they really are. That is the humor in Pepe, even if kids are too young to understand it.

Pepe’s scene in “Space Jam 2” was supposed to be the French animated skunk approaches actress Greice Santo in a bar. He starts kissing on her arm. She pours a drink on him and slaps him, sending his bar stool spinning. This allows LeBron James a chance to give Pepe a Captain Planet-like lecture on how his conduct is not appropriate. Allowing everyone involved and in the audience to feel good about themselves about how enlightened they are.

It was cut, hopefully, because it wasn’t funny. Pepe is a skunk. He mistakenly romances cats, not real human beings. He does not hang out in real bars. If Elmer Fudd shot LeBron in the face and the basketball legend pushed his nose from the front of his face to the back, it would not be funny. It works with Daffy Duck because they are cartoons.

Pepe is not a victim of cancel culture, nor does he affirm rape culture. He is just a one-trick skunk. It is just extremely hard to find new ways to make that trick not seem stale. When Warner Brothers does, he will be back.

Columnist Trevor Soderstrum was born and raised in Story City. He can be reached at tjsode@gmail.com.