Funny Walt

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

I got the opportunity to attend the Disney Vacation Club (DVC) presentation of "Great Moments With Walt Disney." The title was inspired by the "Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln" attraction.

This 90-minute show was put together by Disney authority Tim O'Day and Ryan March, the editor of the DVC magazine Disney Files, where I have written a quarterly Disney history column for years.

O'Day and Disney archivist Becky Cline picked some very nice stills of Walt for the opening slide show before the presentation that weren't the usual photos that are always shown. I especially loved the shot of smiling Walt standing behind his desk holding a cat, while two other felines sat comfortably on his desk considering the recent commentary that Walt didn't care for cats.

I felt the presentation did a great job of being honest in capturing the real Walt from his coughing and very mild "cussing" as he was trying to record the narration for the Ford Motor Skyway attraction at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair, to some special treats, like Walt playing with his pet poodle Lady, who was a real scene stealer.

O'Day and March kept the atmosphere light but very informative. Some great visuals, audio clips and video selections were shown to an almost packed house in one of the AMC theaters at Downtown Disney at Walt Disney World.

Shows were presented in Anaheim, Orlando, Chicago, Boston and Newark for Disney Vacation Club members and their guests. I hope the large attendance and appreciative response will prompt the DVC to offer the show again and perhaps even do a sequel, that O'Day quipped would then have to be called "Lesser Moments with Walt Disney." I know that O'Day and March had much more terrific material that, unfortunately, was edited out of this jam packed version.

Of course, I had seen some of the material before but seeing it on the large screen made a huge difference and I saw some things I had never noticed that will probably spur topics for some future columns. There were also some things that I had never seen like outtakes of Walt's television introduction to the film Summer Magic.

One thing that really caught my attention is all the photos of Walt smiling and laughing. All of those photos were very natural and Walt looked like he was genuinely enjoying himself and there was a touch of mischief in his eyes.

We know that as a young boy Walt's sense of humor was influenced by the silent screen antics of comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, as well as the writing of Mark Twain. In the 1930s, Walt's humor was shaped by friends like folk comedian Will Rogers and the comedy team Laurel and Hardy.

In the mid-1950s, Walt was especially fond of Groucho Marx. He and his wife Lillian would make every effort not to miss an episode of the television show You Bet Your Life on NBC.

"Walt could evoke as many laughs as a standup comedian. Walt never told actual jokes, either before an audience or in conversation. Employees learned not to try to tell him jokes, since he hadn't the patience to listen to them. Telling a dirty joke to Walt could evoke a stony silence. He believed that sex was a private matter and that is the way he preferred to leave it," wrote author Bob Thomas in the book, Walt Disney: An American Original, which I continue to highly recommend.

"The Disney Studio was the only place where telling a dirty joke didn't seem funny because of Walt," said Disney executive Charles Levy in an interview in the Saturday Evening Post magazine for November 7, 1964.

As animator and director Ben Sharpsteen explained to Disney historian Don Peri in his book Working With Walt (University Press of Mississippi 2008):

"In the early days, when we were making animated shorts, Walt was driving through town and was stopped by a cop, who gave him a ticket. He returned to the studio and told us about it. He reenacted his conversation with the cop in a way that revealed he did not think it was very funny.

"Each time he told the story, however, it became funnier, and his attitude changed. Parts of the story were added and others eliminated. One of Walt's strengths was not just creating a story but editing it, refining it. And before we knew it, we were starting a Mickey Mouse picture called Traffic Troubles that turned out pretty good."

Walt's humor was often seen in tossing in just the right "final word."

Not long after the release of Mary Poppins, Walt was entertaining a group of industrialists at the studio commissary.

When their excessive praise of Walt began to make him uncomfortable, future Disney Legend Donn Tatum tried to help him out by cracking a joke: "Well, Walt, there's only one thing left for you to do, and that's to walk on water."

"I've already tried that," Walt replied with a wink, "and it doesn't work."

"The thing I liked about Walt, and that I saw quite often, was his sense of humor. He had a delightful sense of humor. He was a very funny man. To me, he had a nice way of being able to laugh at himself. He took what he did very seriously, but he never really took himself completely seriously," said Disney Legend Donn Tatum in an interview in Walt's People, Volume 8 (Theme Park Press 2014) edited by Didier Ghez.

A Disneyland warehouse employee told the story of the time Walt came into a warehouse smoking a cigarette. The warehouse worker didn't recognize him and said, "I'm sorry, sir, but there's no smoking in this warehouse."

"Oh? Who says so?" questioned Walt.

"Walt Disney himself," the worker replied.

"Well," Walt said as he stubbed out his cigarette, "that's good enough for me."

Here is a story that Disney Legend Bill Justice told me:

"A Canadian radio station interviewer who was obviously delighted to meet Walt…asked exactly how many people worked at the Disney Studio. Walt paused to think and then replied deadpan, 'Oh, about half'."

I still miss Diane Disney Miller more each day but here is story she told about Walt's sense of humor that I don't think has ever appeared in print anywhere else:

"Dad had a wonderful sense of humor and we had many hilarious nights at the dinner table. I actually can't repeat some of the jokes. They're a little obscene. Well, not actually obscene because Daddy's not obscene. Kind of racy, I guess.

"Dad would get on some line that was funny. If he got a giggle or a rise from it, he would persist and he won't give it up. He'd keep bringing it up like a running gag. It would just be some silly thing that got us giggling.

"The one I remember most was talking about the moon. I don't know how it was brought up. Maybe Dad. Anyway, Dad said, 'I'm just glad I'm not on the moon.' Oh, this gets bad. I don't know if I should say it or not.

"Anyway, Dad said he was glad he was not on the moon, because if he broke wind on the moon, it would just come up around you and envelop you. He kept bringing it up all night because it would make us laugh.

"I think it was brought up because of radishes. There were some big beautiful radishes on the table. Those radishes were just beautiful but if I ate some, I was afraid it would make me break wind and I just didn't want to do that.

"Daddy said, 'Well, it's okay here but I wouldn't eat radishes on the moon because if you ate them on the moon, then if you broke wind it would just come up and surround you and you would just be a part of it'. Because there would be no gravity.

"But he said, 'it wouldn't hurt me because I know if you break wind in a certain direction, it'll shoot you like a jet and you will be over on the other side of the moon.'

"He was studying all of this science stuff for an upcoming interview so we were really going into it very deeply. He said he learned if he was ever on the moon and he felt he was going to break wind, that he would turn in a certain direction and it would jet him across the moon and he'd be there laughing at the people who were suffering from him breaking wind.

"We all laughed so he would keep bring it up at dinner. Mother might say something and Daddy would say, 'But with a radish you wouldn't" or something like that.

"I found when he did things like this a constant source of amusement."

Here is an excerpt from "Humor: My Sixth Sense" by Walt Disney, from the February 1961 issue of Films and Filming (Vol. 7 No. 5). It is a little more "formal" than how Walt would normally talk but I believe he was taking into consideration the formality of the forum he was given. Again, I doubt whether many Disney fans has ever read this essay:

The unfunny thing about humor is that you can't think about it very long without becoming serious. And maybe you can't be ponderous very long about human affairs and behavior without getting the giggles.

If this seems inconsistent, it is only because the sober and the silly sides of our human struggle for survival and perfection lie so close together.

Laughter is a frown turned upside down. Any sharp and unexpected twist from the normal gives us a sense of relief or superiority. It makes us glad we aren't on the spot some poor unfortunate has gotten himself into by his stupidity.

I'm presumed to know a lot about humor as an international sixth sense—because I've been dealing it out in one form or another for over a quarter of a century. But a lot of things about laughing matters still elude definition in words. Every writer, performer and producer of comedy in the entertainment arts ruefully knows that the essence of fun cannot be bottled and released like some genii at a magic word.

True, there are certain formulas for provoking hilarity. Gagsters and jokesmiths practice and sometimes belabor many of them. And the capacity of audiences to enjoy them seems boundless. But the humorous impulse and most of its finest works are emotional and intuitive, rather than rational—truly based on a sixth sense.

What I've learned about the nature of fun has come largely from the adventures of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Pluto, Goofy and other members of our cartoon family and how their antics have been received by audiences. They have been our test cases.

More recently the live animals in our True-Life Adventure films have added much to our lore of laughter. For the need to clown seems to permeate all nature.

One such display of the comic spirit in the animal kingdom that comes to mind was the riotous dance of relief indulged by the female elk and their calves when they reached the end of a hard and hazardous migratory trek in The Olympic Elk. Audiences have always chuckled at that mad gyration in the snow—and at the contrast with the lordly males who scorn such undignified behavior. I am convinced after seeing many such incidents that the animals themselves, as well as human audiences, recognize this as primitive fun.

They support the belief that comicality is a basic principle of universal life when it reaches the self-conscious level. Humor and its opposite are like the complementary elements of good and evil. Like the balance of hero and the villain in the dramatic arts. The expression "comedy relief" in theatrical entertainment has its roots deep in serious needs. Without the relish and the practice of humor in all its various shades and degrees, we would become very woeful; spiritless creatures. Fun and having fun is vital; makes life with its inevitable burdens tolerable. Often I think it may be the closest of all human bonds.

Efforts to pin down the exact nature of jibe and jest have challenged pundits, professional fools, antic clowns, studious gagmen, comedians of every kind and medium. Often the result is a big headache.

The man who could capture the sprite of laughter and win her lasting favor, would become one of the richest and certainly the most envied of humans, so highly treasured are her gifts.

However, humor does have an operable technique. There are a certain number of more or less reliable clues. Of course, if they all worked out every time, we would understand more about human nature than any wise man thus far has comprehended.

This we do know, however: drollery is a matter both of the spirit and the flesh. It can make the soul soar with delight as well as roll the body "in the aisles," as the expression is. It can reveal the noblest and the basest levels of the one who laughs, and what he laughs at.

Laughter has lately assumed a new importance in human relations. With the growth and speed of mass entertainment, like the movies and television, and the increased facilities of communication, humor has become an article of international merchandise. It is one of America's most important exports. But when we assume that the making of fun in communicable ways has a common appeal to every race, we must qualify it sharply.

Humor has many modes, many shades. It reflects racial and regional cultures. What may cause a Latin to howl with glee may leave a Nordic colder than his frigid zone. There are latitudes and longitudes of laughter.

Only basic comedy, expressible in simple terms, can meet the requirements of a common denominator. This has to be visual, generally, needing few if any words. Pantomime is its medium, action its mode.

If it deals with human beings, it must draw on the common characteristics of humanity itself, well beyond any specialized traits of race and culture and habit.

One of the prime examples of this is our live-action production, Pollyanna. It carries incidents which create laughter and those incidents will be easily recognized by any race in the world because they concern a child, a 12-year-old girl. All children everywhere, have certain characteristics which are common to them, no matter what their country of origin. Children in Scandinavia or Spain, Africa or South America, Western hemisphere or Eastern, find laughter in much the same things, and, correspondingly, adults everywhere recognize the common denominator of laughter—a child.

Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and all their cronies of our cartoon world are creations out of that "sixth sense" through which so much humor is universally understood.

I cite Mickey because he has been, for [more than] 26 years. my guinea pig—if he'll pardon the expression—in this serious business of amusing people on the screen. And Donald—well, I know him pretty well too, although he sometimes gets out of hand and turns on us in outraged dignity. Comedians are often very touchy that way.

One thing must be borne in mind in employing humor as an international language.

It may be robust, candid, hectic, burlesque—even violent, if the subject permits—but never vulgar in taste or treatment. The nearest you can come to that is to apply slapstick to elemental human relationships of anger, greed, vanity, pompous arrogance and commonly experienced domestic incident.

Some delvers into comedy tell us that man laughs most derisively at the follies of his neighbors. This, they contend, is the cackle of a mean emotion, unworthy of civilized people. I have not found it so.

From my long observation of moviegoers, I am sure that the great mass of Americans, at least, are laughing most heartily at their own foibles when they seem to be howling loudest at the mistakes of others.

To me, that seems wonderful. It commands a high respect for the power and the value of humor. The laughter of common appreciation has much compassion in it.

If farce, slapstick and travesty jibe at our follies and seem sometimes rather heartless, there are other kinds of merriment less caustic, more gentle but equally potent.

Human misfortune, no matter how ridiculous it may seem, cannot be shown in excessive degree in the name of amusement. For there cannot be laughter at genuine misery, except by the most cruel of men—and the most savage of races.

The study of wildlife in our nature pictures has indicated a vital purpose in basic humor, especially the kind of fun which deals with the mockery of imperfection.

The instinct for comedy, I have come to believe, operating in the animal kingdom as in human nature, is part of the mechanism for survival. By its very nature, derision of faulty behavior sets up standards of approved conduct. Whoever obeys them lives longest and most comfortably.

In politics, in public affairs, we long ago learned that the wrongdoer, the misfit, the malfeasant, can be curbed with the lash of laughter better than any other weapon. There we see it operating as a potent means of social and democratic survival.

Lightly though we may regard it, laughter is a priceless coin in human traffic and international exchange.

I think it is not extravagant to say, finally, that people—even nations—leave characteristic impressions and are judged by what they laugh at and with—and what they do not laugh at.