Walt's So Funny

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston found a second career for themselves by writing books about Disney animation. Their first book, Illusion of Life, is still considered the bible of Disney animation and is on the bookshelf of just about every animator I know.

Perhaps the hardest book to find by Frank and Ollie is one entitled Too Funny for Words: Disney's Greatest Sight Gags published by Abbeville Press in 1987.

The Disney Studios was the first animation studio to get away from the animation tradition of "gag for gag's sake," or what was known in the business as "clothesline gags." Basically, that type of writing meant that any joke or sight gag could be used anywhere in the story by any character (even if it conflicted with the character's personality) simply because it was funny.

While there had been some isolated previous attempts at moving away from this proven format, it was Walt Disney who felt that the gag should come from the story itself or from the personality of the character. Audiences laugh at Donald Duck not necessarily because of a particular gag but because they anticipate how Donald will react to the situation. The joke had to make sense within the context of the cartoon world or what Walt would call the "plausible impossible."

This approach often resulted in a gentler humor than the more raucous Warner Brothers cartoons. One time when storymen Joe Grant and Dick Huemer who had been responsible for Dumbo and Der Fuerher's Face put together a storyboard with the same non-stop, nonsensical action of Warner Brothers, Walt dismissed the story by saying, "If I wanted to make Looney Tunes, I would be making Looney Tunes."

Explaining humor is difficult. Comedian Stan Laurel once compared studying comedy with a wristwatch. He explained to a writer that you can pull it apart and examine every part closely but when you put it back together no matter how careful you are, it just doesn't work the same again.

In the book, Too Funny For Words, Frank and Ollie struggle to try and explain humor in Disney cartoons. They even go so far as to classify certain gags: The Spot Gag, The Running Gag, the Gag that Builds, The Action Gag, The Tableau Gag, The Inanimate Character Gag, The Funny Drawing, and a miscelleanous category entitled Specialized Gags.

While it is always interesting to read the stories that Frank and Ollie recount and to see the wonderful Disney artwork that includes pencil sketches, storyboard panels, and concept art, the book fails to fully explain what makes a cartoon funny.

From the e-mails I have been getting on past columns, it is clear that many readers love hearing from Walt himself, especially if it is something that is unfamiliar. Well, I am including a column here that Walt wrote about humor in 1961.

Now saying that Walt wrote the column would be misleading. It is readily apparent that Walt came up with the concepts and approved the final copy but that another writing hand was actively involved in putting Walt's thoughts into coherent form. The result is a little more formal and stuffy than they way Walt would normally communicate with his staff. However, I think if you look at the core, you will discover what Walt felt was funny .

From the February 1961 issue of Films and Filming (Vol. 7 No. 5) here is an excerpt from "Humor: My Sixth Sense" by Walt Disney:

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 over 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 humour 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.