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Tuesday, November 06, 2012 - 04:00 PM

Illustration of a coma-zapping bunny (Daniel Horowitz)

Mel Blanc was known as "the man of 1,000 voices," but the actual number may have been closer to 1,500. Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Tweety, Barney Rubble -- all Mel. His characters made him one of the most beloved men in America. And in 1961, when a car crash left him in a coma, these characters may have saved him.

Mel Blanc wasn't just a voice man. He created entire personalities, each with its own nuances and hilarious quirks. His son Noel Blanc says his dad invested so much into Bugs, Porky, Daffy, Tweety et al that Mel's face and body would transform with every cartoon animal that spoke through him. This summer, our producer Sean Cole interviewed Noel at the Blanc family house on Big Bear Lake outside of LA. Sean had heard a crazy story about Mel nearly dying in a crash on Dead Man's Curve on Hollywood Boulevard -- and about the moment two weeks later when Bugs Bunny emerged from Mel's coma before Mel did. In fact, according to neurosurgeon Louis Conway who attended to Mel at the time, it seemed as though Bugs Bunny was trying to save his life.

Sean, Noel, Dr. Conway and NYU brain scientist Orrin Devinsky weigh over what it might mean to be rescued by a figment of your own imagination, and whether one self can win out over another in a moment of crisis.

"Dead's Man Curve," which Jan and Dean immortalized in song, is just north of UCLA's Drake Stadium on Sunset Boulevard. According to Mel Blanc's autobiography "That's Not All Folks," age-old plans to straighten the curve were finally approved after his accident.


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Guests:

Noel Blanc, Sean Cole and Orrin Devinsky

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Comments [45]

Arthur B Kells from Florida

It's amazing how voice actors can take on so many roles. The interesting part about voice actors is that they can be so passionate, and their passion is conveyed through the animation of the characters. The fact that Mel Blanc is so many classic characters from my childhood is almost weird, but it's amazing. Blanc will leave a legacy and I'm sure many voice actors look up to him and try to mirror his actions.

Nov. 10 2014 11:00 PM
Dylan Berry from Oviedo

This was the most interesting and informative podcast I've heard on this website so far. It is truly amazing how much a character or a persona can influence somebody's life such as Mel Blanc. It is inspiring that even in a time of desperation as he was possibly clinging to the last inch of life he was able to do the voices and respond with such a manner of perfection. Mel Blanc is truly and inspiring man who influenced many other cartoon characters down the way and I will always have deep respect for him.

Nov. 10 2014 07:40 PM
Ender J Hayden from Oviedo, FL

Mel Blanc was an amazing voice and a great part of many people's lives, including mine. It's wonderful how many voices he did, and how they affected so many people. It's cool how they got his son on, and the doctor that worked on him. I find it so interesting that his legacy lived on in his son, who also does voices. It is magical how the characters helped him out into consciousness. How a person can do so many voices so well and perfectly is fantastic to me. I enjoyed this podcast and the interesting discussion about Mel and his life.

Nov. 09 2014 12:44 PM
Maria A

Wow. I cannot believe that Mel did all of those voices for Looney Tunes and various other shows. I used to love watching the Looney Tunes as a kid, I still watch it to this day and it was really cool to learn about how he did every single characters voice, it's really remarkable. It was also mind blowing as to how he answered to What's up Bugs Bunny compared to his own name, I think that his characters really did end up saving his life, I feel like if he hadn't had those characters I don't know if he would've woken up from the coma on his own. Overall great podcast it was super interesting and I can't wait to listen to more.

May. 04 2014 12:14 PM

The Loony Toons was one of my favorite shows as a kid even the very old ones. Finding out he did over 1,500 voices is amazing. His son can do the voices as well as hid dad but not exactly on point. I had never heard the story of his crash but the story was extremely horrible except when he was coming out of his coma and responded in all his character voices. It was like his characters were alive and trying to save his life. It is extremely intriguing to hear his story and how he would act out his characters with the voices.

Apr. 18 2014 08:06 PM
JohnGalt

This was a very interesting podcast. First of all, I think this man is amazingly talented, to do so many voices that are all different in personality and tone. It must have been very alarming for his fans when he was in the car crash. I thought it was interesting how they believe that Bugs saved his life. When they mentioned that Mel would become like Bugs or Tweety, it reminded me of multiple personality disorder for some reason. However in Mel's case, those characters might have become a part of him because that was his life. When they mentioned the part about Bugs coming back before Mel did from the coma, that sounded very unrealistic but fascinating at the same time because people would talk to him and Bugs would respond. They said it was because he forgot how to distinguish himself from being a dad when he's at home or Bugs at work. Maybe Mel only remembered how to be Bugs, since it was his life. Overall, I think this is interesting to think about the fact that Mel totally changed into his characters

Apr. 04 2014 05:31 PM
Brian from New York, NY

If you need to channel some invincibility, inhabiting a cartoon character is a good way to survive.

Mar. 11 2014 01:25 PM
t crok from Pgh

If I recall correctly, the questioner was either his son, or one specific Dr.

Oct. 05 2013 10:22 PM
kolby from alabama

you mixed up foghorn legorn with tweety!why guys why?

Oct. 04 2013 09:13 PM
L. Lerma

AWESOME episode! Very Twilight Zone-ish. We just discovered that Mel Blanc has a fan page on Facebook too: http://www.facebook.com/MelBlancTheLooneyGuy?ref=hl

Jul. 12 2013 07:41 PM
Neil Barrett from Nottingham

This short comes down more on the story side than the science side. I don't see why that is a reason to bash it. If you want science on reduced consciousness, then I suggest you get some journals out. If you want science-themed entertainment, this episode is one of Radiolab's best.

Mar. 10 2013 10:21 AM
Dawn from Charlotte, NC

As someone who loves doing cartoon voices and whose dream job is to be a voiceover artist, this episode hit home. Mel Blanc is a pop icon!

Feb. 27 2013 11:31 PM
WestLAGuy from Los Angeles

To: Colin in Los Angeles,

Mel always gave credit to Grace Stafford as the voice of Woody Woodpecker. But, in stating that Mel only did the first three or four cartoons as Woody, you are missing the point. Mel CREATED the voice of Woody, but had to give it up when Warner Bros. wanted him to sign an exclusive contract with them for cartoons.Walt Disney also lost Mel's services at the same time.

Woody's laugh was something Mel Blanc first did as a teenager in Portland, Oregon. It seems the hallways of his high school had a tremendous echo and so you can imagine what the Woody Woodpecker laugh sounded like bouncing off the walls. And everyone including the school principal knew who was responsible.

Feb. 17 2013 04:31 PM
Ellen Girardeau Kempler from Laguna Beach, CA

Thanks to all of you wonderful Radio Lab folks for providing many hours of entertainment as I walk, garden and keep up with household chores. Unfortunately, I can't listen when I write (because I would if I could). I love your scientific stories, but the ones that really stand out are about people, like this one and the one about Alan Turing (which made me cry). My all-time favorite is your story about the divers who cut a trapped whale out of a tangle of rope, and the whale's seeming acknowledgement of their life-saving act before he swam away. (That one also made me cry. Guess that's a pattern.) Happy sails from Gold Boat Journeys: Live. Write. Travel. Explore.

Dec. 28 2012 02:52 PM
Priscilla VdL from Dominican Republic

This was a really interesting story, so glad I found out about radiolab...
I feel like watching some looney toons right now, really rekindled my appreciation

Dec. 26 2012 09:25 PM
Rachel from Humboldt County, California

I have always wondered if the part of the brain controlling the ego is "closer to the surface." As an ambulance EMT, I was once treating a young man who had been in (caused) a bad head-on accident. He was unconscious and several of us were asking him repeated questions. Can you hear me? What is your name? Hello, do you know where you are? We got no response until another EMT said, oh, your tongue is pierced. At that point he thrust his tongue far out of his mouth. He didn't open his eyes or begin taking, but his sense of vanity was apparently alert.

Dec. 05 2012 08:28 PM
sarah

@ddfx

There is a difference between carefully testing hypotheses about subatomic particles, all the while maintaining skepticism about their existence until overwhelming, reproducible evidence is presented, and speculating about Bugs Bunny 'coming alive' inside a person's brain after hearing one story about a coma patient.

This is EXACTLY the sort of conclusion I worry about people drawing when a usually outstanding program like Radiolab entertains the barest superstition and tells people that it's "science." When ghost stories are presented as science, people cease to be able to tell the difference.

Nov. 27 2012 10:47 AM
Adam

Bob Bergen does most of the voices now - a truly amazing artist and protege of Mel.

Nov. 26 2012 01:40 AM
Brett from CA

Great story, but blaming the nurse for his demise hit me the wrong way. In fact, the current thought is that leaving four bed rails up for a patient who is cognoscente of their actions puts them at greater risk of a fall because when they try to climb over the rail they are more likely to get caught up. He should have called and asked for assistance if needed. The truth is it was an accident, he fell getting out of the bed. No ones fault.

Sorry if that was too off topic.

Nov. 19 2012 07:43 PM
Mary from Columbus, OH

One thing I'd love to know, though it's not directly pertinent to the story told here - what about the kid who hit him? Did he become the Kid Who Almost Killed Mel Blanc? Did he have to change universities? Did his friends and family rip him to shreds? What did the media have to say about him?

Nov. 19 2012 06:13 PM
wayne from nj

grew up with mel, def one of the most iconic characters of the 20th century. he will love forever!!

Nov. 19 2012 11:24 AM
Bob from Kentucky

Really good one. Similar to the last story on the "Lost" episode.

Nov. 19 2012 09:11 AM
Mr. Spooky in Tokyo

If anyone was going to save someone from a coma I'd put my money on Bugs!

Nov. 17 2012 12:21 AM
MVD from CT

One of the only lifetime realizations that the guy who did the voices of the characters I grew up with was real was his appearance in an American Express commercial! See his name typed out on that credit card made me look up his name in every credit I saw for every Looney Tunes presentation from that moment onward!

Nov. 15 2012 11:50 PM

@ Ann: Thank you for sharing that.

@ Sarah: Science speculates about a lot of things, such as virtual (fictional) particles, imaginary (fictional) numbers, and parallel (fictional) universes, doesn't it? Can the form of a fictional character not have an effect on our psyche?

Nov. 13 2012 02:24 PM
Ann Jacob from Victoria, Canada

Radio Labs - your style is wonderful - so glad to find you.

We too work with people in Coma,following the cues that are presenting, and experience deep connection and at times shocking awakenings. The communication techniques were developed 30 years ago by Arnold Mindell. "Coma: The Dreaming Body" - it shares stories and theory on how to connect with people in coma and other remote and altered states of consciousness. Amy Mindell's book: "Coma: A Healing Journey" - provides detailed information on working also with longer term brain injury. We have taught this work to 1000's of people: families and facilities, volunteers, nurses, doctors, social workers and chaplains. There is a profound possibility to connect with people in remote and comatose states of consciousness - including delirium and forgetfulness and dementia's of all kinds. Here science, spirituality and psychology come together to provide ways of thriving in the most difficult of circumstances.

We are very grateful that you share Mel's story. You help to awaken the consciousness of people to the awareness that there are parts of the brain and consciousness that are always present as long as there is still breath - and it is for us to find the way in. That is 'what's up' with us, Doc. See our web www.comacommunication and Stan and Tom's book "An Alzheimer's Surprise Party". Thank You again. Ann

Nov. 13 2012 12:18 PM
sarah

What IS this episode?! A podcast that supposedly is communicating science to the public is now speculating about fictional characters coming alive inside a person's brain. Come on, Radiolab! You're better than this.

Nov. 13 2012 11:20 AM
Lindsey from Chicago

I think the ONLY bad thing about this short is that Jad had no idea who Mel Blanc was.

Nov. 12 2012 12:03 PM
Colin from Los Angeles

Not to in any way diminish Mel Blanc's accomplishments, but for the sake of accuracy it was Walter Lantz's wife, Gracie, provided what was to provide the generally-accepted and popularly-known voice of Woody Woodpecker. Mel did only the first four recordings as the character.

Nov. 12 2012 11:42 AM
Meredith from Norman, Oklahoma

As always, I love the show. This one was really enchanting.

I preach the gospel of Radiolab with all my friends but no one ever gives it a chance. They have this notion stuck in their heads that public radio is dull and stiff, and I can't seem to convince them to listen! So frustrating.

This episode got ONE person to try Radiolab and subsequently love it. So, thank you. :-) I said, "Oh, so you like Looney Toons? You should check out this episode of Radiolab!" *casually hands over usb drive*

Thank you for the podcast version, too. I really only listen via podcast.

Nov. 12 2012 11:27 AM
A from Los Angeles

Being in the medical industry, and seeing that so many people die because of lazy, careless or overworked doctors and nurses, I was disappointed that Radiolab left out one of the most important things; was the nurse who left Mr. Blank's rails down charged with manslaughter for the negligence that caused his death?

And has dead man's curve been fixed?

Nov. 10 2012 10:46 PM
Jeff A from Edmonton

I was working in sales once and had a seizure, apparently when I was semi concious (I don't remember it) I was running through my sales routine with the firemen and medics that came to take me to the hospital.

The point being is that when you have something so engrained in you, such as Mel and his voices, they become automatic, just as they say in the queueing part of the story.

Nov. 10 2012 11:35 AM

Is it just me or has RadioLab seemed kinda lame since the Yellow Rain fiasco?
It could just be that I am now seeing it through a jaundiced eye because that episode altered my opinion of the show.

Nov. 09 2012 12:15 PM
SM from San Antonio

This is an amazing story, I believe that our soul exists in our thoughts/mind, and in Mel Blanc lived all the characters that he gave life – their souls; even thought Mel was physically hurt the other character we just fine. Just incredible story…

Nov. 09 2012 11:35 AM
Cannon from Williamsburg

Well, I always thought I was laughing to Mel's character voices, but hey, must admit at my tender age, clearly I was often digging Bugs Jr. "I'm tellin ya, Daffy, I heard the Warner Brothers say that you were their best duck." BB Jr?

Nov. 08 2012 09:03 PM
Michael

Here is a drawing done by Darryl Van Citters that was printed in various newspapers after the death of Mel Blanc, it is name "speechless". http://i.imgur.com/Wbf5T.jpg

Nov. 08 2012 03:01 PM
Douglas Ward from Raleigh, NC

I've been listening to your podcast for awhile now. I must say that this one has been my hands down favorite. Well done! I can't wait for the next one!

Nov. 08 2012 08:34 AM
Denise from Northern California

Great story, well told, well edited punctuated with wonderful sound bites. This will be in my favorites! I don't often stop to write comments, but felt compelled to applaud you. Thank you for a delightful, engaging 20 minutes.

Nov. 07 2012 11:04 PM
Chris Lasko

That was great. How had I never heard that story before?

Nov. 07 2012 04:52 PM
Nicole McLernon from MA

Stunning. Absolutely fantastic.

Nov. 07 2012 11:26 AM
Anne from Cameron, SC

I love you guys.

Nov. 07 2012 08:14 AM

This episode gave me chills. I can't believe I haven't heard this story before. Thank you RadioLab!

I feel the need to watch some classic WB now.

Nov. 07 2012 06:19 AM
Sloppy from Stockholm, Sweden

The science aspect of this story was quite interesting but the story itself, due to growing up with all those voices, grabbed me like Mel was my own grandfather or uncle or something like that. I guess I just really appreciate this story from a personal level and I doubt I'm alone in that. Thanks

Nov. 07 2012 05:06 AM
jim gardner from Imperial Beach, CA

I love seeing and hearing him on "The Jack Benny Show". Antenna TV runs the show week nights.

Nov. 06 2012 05:23 PM
Andrew from Tulsa

good stuff guys. ready and waiting for the next hour long episode!

Nov. 06 2012 05:05 PM

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