Bugs Bunny is the reason people think that rabbits eat carrots, but it was just a movie spoof
Bugs' carrot chomping was a Clark Gable parody, not based on nature.
Today, director Frank Capra is best remembered by his perennial Christmas favorite It's a Wonderful Life. At the time of its release, however, in 1946, the film was a bit of a bomb. The studio lost money on the movie at the box office. At the peak of his career, Capra was far better known for his earlier comedy It Happened One Night.
That screwball romantic road trip swept at the 7th Annual Academy Awards, becoming the first film to ever win all five Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Writing. It was the highest-grossing picture of 1934. Clark Gable, the handsome star, became a household name.
In short, what we're saying is, just about all of America knew about It Happened One Night. Like any smash comedy, it was quoted and copied. Gable's character, the out-of-work reporter Peter Warne, had a quick-talking wit — and a few particular quirks. In one scene, he eagerly chomped carrots while explaining how to hitchhike to Claudette Colbert. He chewed and gabbed with his mouth full of vegetable.
Jump forward to 1940. Tex Avery produced one of his most important pieces of animation, A Wild Hare. This Merrie Melodies short is now considered the official debut of the fully realized Bugs Bunny (early iterations of the "Happy Rabbit" character had appeared in earlier Looney Tunes cartoons). Here was the Bugs we all know and love — gray, chomping on a carrot, and asking, "What's up, Doc?"
Here's the thing — the carrot, the voice and even the line "What's up, Doc?" were all references to It Happened One Night. Yes, Bugs Bunny was essentially a movie spoof.
In an early scene of It Happened One Night, Colbert's upper-crust character, Ellie, sits on a Greyhound bus next to a fellow named Oscar Shapeley (Roscoe Karns). He hits on Ellie who has no interest whatsoever. Gable's character comes to Ellie's rescue, pretending to be her husband.
"I, uh, didn't mean anything, Doc," Shapeley says. "No offense, Doc." And, yes, Mel Blanc's Bugs Bunny voice sounds an awful lot like Shapeley.
When Bugs pops out of his rabbit hole, grabs a carrot, and asks Elmer, "What's up, Doc?", Tex Avery is working in two references to a hit movie. Audiences at the time, watching this animated short in movie theaters, would have picked up on the nods.
In fact, the Bugs spoof of Clark Gable became so popular, that people started to believe that rabbits eat carrots. You read that right — rabbits in the wild do not naturally eat carrots. Veterinarians warn that carrots are unhealthy for rabbits. They have a high sugar content and should only be rarely given to a pet as a treat.
Nevertheless, pet owners feed their bunnies carrots. Because of Bugs Bunny. Because Bugs Bunny was spoofing Clark Gable.
See how a little joke can shape society? Who says cartoons aren't powerful?