THE BOOTLEG FILES: “THE BUGS BUNNY/MONKEES KOOL-AID COMMERCIAL”

BOOTLEG FILES 132 “The Bugs Bunny/Monkees Kool-Aid Commercial” (1969 advertisement for that crystal soft drink.

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.com and several other online video sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: Hey, hey, it’s a silly commercial.

CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: Not likely, Doc!

In the real world, the combination of an animated rabbit, a washed-up music group and a tooth rot-generating crystal soft drink mix should not occur. But back in 1969, these unlikely forces converged for a single 30-second slice of insanity which still leaves a wonderfully bad taste in the mouth. I am talking about a TV commercial for Kool-Aid starring Bugs Bunny and the Monkees.

Kool-Aid…Bugs Bunny…the Monkees? I don’t need to ask what’s wrong with this picture. What needs to be asked is how this picture came together. The backstory is quite a tale unto itself.

By 1969, Kool-Aid needed a new advertising approach. The product had been around for 40 years but was seen as being both too square (especially among soda-gulping kids) or too groovy (particularly among Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, whose habit of mixing Kool-Aid with LSD was brilliantly detailed in Tom Wolfe’s best-seller “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”). Kool-Aid needed something that was kool…uh, cool, at least to the little kids who were the target audience for the drink.

Enter Bugs Bunny. In the late 1960s, “The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show” was the top-rated program on Saturday morning television. In a deal with Warner Bros., Bugs Bunny was licensed to be the Kool-Aid spokesman (spokesrabbit?) and his image turned up on packaging, point-of-sale displays and TV commercials (especially on “The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show”). Reportedly, Tex Avery was brought back from semi-retirement to direct the commercials – but that’s hard to believe, since the commercials bear little resemblance to his trademark style.

Inexplicably, Kool-Aid also recruited the Monkees for their marketing purposes. This made little sense, because by 1969 the Monkees were dying on their feet. Their TV show had been off the air (contrary to popular belief, it was never a top rated program), and their attempts to reach beyond the teenybopper crowd for an adult audience (both in their music and their much-maligned feature film “Head”) failed. With record sales plummeting and Peter Tork leaving the group, the Monkees had nothing to do…until Kool-Aid threw them a lifeline. The fact the Monkees had to pitch Kool-Aid to little kids signified a new low in their brief career.

Initially, Kool-Aid kept Bugs Bunny and the Monkees separate for promotional purposes. But for some reason, it was decided to bring them together for a commercial. And, boy, what a commercial it was!

The commercial opens in the middle of a desert. A single palm tree is incongruously placed in the midst of the great sands and the three remaining Monkees (Davy Jones, Mickey Dolenz and Michael Nesmith) are sitting beneath it. Suddenly, Bugs Bunny steps out from behind the palm tree. Or at least it is supposed to be Bugs Bunny – the animation is so crude that Bugs is either suffering from extreme anorexia or his head and feet have swollen to grotesque proportions. Even his voice sounds a bit strange as he utters his first line: “Eh, what’s up, Davy?”

Actually, that turns out to be his only line. It is not clear why Bugs would single out Davy instead of saying “What’s up, Monkees?” Davy answers, in a grumpy manner: “Nothing’s up.” Then there is a close-up of Mickey who exclaims: “Nobody here but us Monkees.” Mickey then laughs a broad chuckle which is half-sarcastic and half-asshole.

Abruptly, there is a quick cut to the contents of a Kool-Aid envelope being emptied into a pitcher of ice water. The soundtrack explodes with bad pop music…hey, hey, it’s the Monkees singing “Make friends with Kook-Aid, make Kool-Aid with friends.” Magically, the desert is alive with dozens of kids who appear via the magic of bad trick photography. They come running down the sand dunes and the Monkees, now inexplicably dressed in tuxedos, serve them Kool-Aid. We then see a small tent in the sand and all of the kids come running out of the tent (sort of the equivalent of the circus clown car routine).

Mickey’s voice is on the soundtrack insisting: “Make some Kool-Aid soft drink mix!” And then comes the final shot with Davy sitting alone, crossed legged, in the sand, looking cute as a button and cheerfully saying: “You can always use another friend!”

If anyone can use another friend, it’s Michael Nesmith. Unlike Davy and Mickey, he has no close-up and no dialogue in this commercial. Not surprisingly, Nesmith would follow Peter Tork out of the group shortly after this commercial aired.

But even if Michael is the silent man here, there are still plenty of questions to ask: what is the point of introducing Bugs Bunny and then having him disappear within seconds of his arrival? Why have the Monkees in subordinate roles to a bunch of kids? Why close it with Davy doing a solo spot instead of having this large gathering in a display of communal love? And since when did a glass of Kool-Aid open the door to new relationships with hitherto total strangers?

Somebody must have liked this commercial, as it appears there were variations of it. There’s a Monkees fan site online which has scripts of two different versions of this, with one featuring a single line of dialogue for Nesmith (“Hey, let’s make some Kool-Aid!”) plus an extended bit of Mickey Dolenz crawling in the sand as a thirsty legionnaire. One version has the Monkees coming out of the small tent dressed like shieks. How all of this could fit into the 30 seconds of running time is not clear, and since this is not available I am wondering whether the script being quoted online was an early draft of the commercial that is available.

Supposedly, there was another Bugs Bunny-Monkees combination that involved the pouring and serving of Kool-Aid in an Old West ghost town. But that commercial is not available for bootleg review.

In any event, the one winning formula here was Bugs Bunny. Yes, even though the character is on screen for mere seconds, his appeal was enough for the continuation of the Kool-Aid promotional effort well into the 1970s. Eventually, Bugs got the boot and was replaced by a giant anthropomorphic version of the Kool-Aid pitcher who starred in a series of Dadaist commercials in which he would crash through walls to answer the call of “Hey, Kool-Aid!” Bugs himself dumped Kool-Aid to promote another powdery drink mix, Tang (rabbit to Kool-Aid: go f**k yourself).

Alas, the Monkees did not survive their brief encounter with Bugs. Kool-Aid dropped them from their promotional efforts in late 1969. After Nesmith left the group, Dolenz and Jones continued briefly as a duet under the Monkees name before going their separate ways. Over the years, occasional attempts were made to bring the pre-fab four back together – but the magic was never there (and, for the most part, neither was Nesmith, who avoided most Monkee reunion efforts – perhaps he was still pissed about his Kool-Aid snubbing).

The commercial in question eventually dropped off the air in late 1969 and vanished from sight. Somehow it has reappeared via the magic of the Internet, turning up in a variety of online video sites (I think the YouTube.com copy is the best). The video presentation is clearly a bootleg from at least three generations of duping, and I assume it may have been used on an earlier bootleg video collection of vintage commercials. In any event, one can easily locate it via a search engine query and enjoy the 30 seconds of Kool-Aid coolness.

Oh, I need to clarify one point. That _expression “Drink the Kool-Aid” is a grievous misnomer. It stems from the 1978 mass suicide of 918 people at the Jonestown cult community in Guyana. The potassium cyanide-laced drink was not (repeat, not) Kool-Aid, but rather an obscure knock-off named Flavor Aid. However, since no one ever heard of Flavor Aid, the notion of drinking the Kool-Aid took root. Which leads me to wonder: did the Bugs Bunny/Monkees commercial inspire this type of suicide? After all, if you were trapped in the middle of the desert with a shoddy Bugs Bunny, a too-cute Davy Jones, an unfunny Mickey Dolenz, a silent Michael Nesmith, and dozen of obnoxious kids running in the dune…wouldn’t you drink the Kool-Aid?

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on June 2, 2006 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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