Daffy first appeared in the 1937 cartoon Porky's Duck Hunt, directed by Tex Avery. The cartoon is a standard hunter/prey pairing for which the studio is famous, but Daffy (not more than a bit player in the short) represented something new to moviegoers: an assertive, combative protagonist, completely unrestrained and completely unrestrainable. When audiences left the theaters, they could not stop talking about (as Porky Pig puts it) "that crazy, darnfool duck." This early Daffy is not a handsome creature; he is short and pudgy, with stubby legs and beak. His voice (performed by Mel Blanc and patterned after Warners producer Leon Schlesinger's) is about the only part of the duck that would stay with him.
Animator Bob Clampett immediately seized upon the duck and cast him in a series of cartoons in the 1930s and 1940s. Clampett's Daffy is a wild screwball, perpetually bouncing around the screen with cries of "Woo-hoo! Woo-hoo!" Clampett also redesigned the character, making him taller and lankier, and rounding out his beak and feet.
By the early 1940s, director Robert McKimson tamed Daffy a bit, redesigning him yet again to be rounder, less elastic. The studio also instilled some of Bugs Bunny's savvy into the duck, making him as brilliant with his mouth as he was with his battiness. This era also saw Daffy teamed up with Porky Pig, the duck's one-time rival now his straight man. Daffy would also feature in several war-themed shorts during World War II. Daffy always stays true to his unbridled nature, however, attempting, for example, to dodge the draft in Draftee Daffy (1945) and battling a Nazi goat intent in eating Daffy's scrap metal in Scrap Happy Daffy (1943).
As Bugs Bunny supplanted Daffy as the Warners' most popular character, the directors still found ample use for the duck. Several cartoons place him in parodies of popular movies and radio serials. For example, Dripalong Daffy(1951) throws Daffy into a Spaghetti Western, while Robin Hood Daffy (1958) casts the duck in the role of the legendary outlaw. In Duck Dodgers in the 24th 1/2 Century (1953) Daffy trades barbs (and bullets) with Marvin the Martian.
Bugs' ascension to stardom also prompted the Warner animators to recast Daffy as the rabbit's rival, intensely jealous and determined to steal back the spotlight. Friz Freleng would be the first to use this idea in Show Biz Bugs (1957) wherein Daffy's trained pigeon act is played to nothing but crickets chirping in the audience, while Bugs' song-and-dance numbers thrill the spectators. Chuck Jones would most successfully use the idea. Jones redesigned the duck once again, making him scrawnier and scruffier. In Jones' famous "Hunter's Trilogy" of Rabbit Fire, Rabbit Seasoning, and Duck! Rabbit! Duck (1951 - 1953) Daffy's vanity and excitedness provide Bugs Bunny the perfect opportunity to fool the hapless Elmer Fudd into repeatedly shooting the poor duck's beak off. Jones' Daffy sees himself as self-preservationist, not selfish. However, this Daffy can do nothing right that does not backfire on him, singeing his tailfeathers as well as his dignity.
In fact, it is in the cartoons of Chuck Jones that this new, greedy Daffy becomes fully realized. Many critics consider Jones' Duck Amuck (1953) to be Daffy's (and Jones') finest cartoon. In it, Daffy is plagued by a godlike animator whose malicious paintbrush alters the setting, soundtrack, even Daffy himself. When Daffy demands to know who is responsible, the camera pulls back to reveal none other than Bugs Bunny. Duck Amuck is widely heralded as a classic of filmmaking for its illustration that a character's personality can be recognized independently of appearance, setting, voice, and plot. The short was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.
After the Warner Bros. animation studio reopened in the 1960s, Daffy would become a true villain in several Speedy Gonzalez cartoons. The Warner Bros. studio was entering its twilight years, and even Daffy had to stretch for humor during the 1960s.
Daffy continued to live on in a number of cameo appearances in later cartoons. In 2003, Warner Bros. cast him in a brand-new Duck Dodgers series, which some critics saw as a return to the grand, crazy days of old for the character.