“Dad always said he was the best damn gag man in the whole studio.” Those were the words of Walt Disney’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller as we discussed cartoon making some years ago with composer, Richard Sherman. No one had more appreciation for gags than the Old Maestro himself. You’ve probably heard the stories of Walt encouraging his guys to contribute humor to his early cartoons by offering to pay five bucks or more per gag used in a film. Clearly gags had value in animations’ early days.
When I was a kid back in fifties Disney, I prowled the hallways at evenings and in the early morning hours eager to gain further insight into the Disney cartoon making style. This included the story rooms on the second and third floors of the Animation Building. Animation was in its hey day, and short cartoons were still being produced. Jack Kinney and Jack Hannah ran their shorts units cranking out Donald and Goofy cartoons. The Disney gag men consisted of veterans such as Milt Banta, Al Bertino and many others. These mirth makers were highly regarded and considered very valuable to Walt’s cartoon factory. Back in the day being called a “gag man” was a compliment. Today, everybody wants to be known as a screen writer because that sounds more respectable. However, old timer, Chuck Couch took special pride in calling himself, a Gag Man. Hardly a perjorative, being a labled a Disney gag man was a badge of honor.
I soon discovered what visual gags added to the Walt Disney movies and why the Old Maestro considered them so important. It was these inspired bits of business and physical humor that lingered in our minds long after we had forgotten story turns and plot points. We chuckled at Dopey’s antics in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and gleefully watched Lucifer the Cat in “Cinderella” fail to capture the mice. These playful moments created by the Disney gag men remained the heart and soul of an animated motion picture. It’s no wonder the Old Maestro, Walt Disney considered these visual storytellers so crucial to his filmmaking process. I was still a kid getting his feet wet in the cartoon business when I visited the upstairs story rooms at the Disney Studio. And, I remember distinctly laughing out loud because the gags I saw on the storyboards were so darn funny. As a matter of fact, most visitors to the storyrooms had the same reaction. The stuff was laugh-out-loud funny. I can’t tell you the last time I laughed out loud at anything in today’s cartoon factories.
I began drawing cartoon gags in the early sixties because I noticed an absense of humor at the Walt Disney Studios. The Disney Shorts Units had been shuttered because of the high cost of animation production and many of the gag men had been recruited by Walt Disney Imagineering to lend their considerable skills to theme park attractions. I began cartooning just for the fun of it. I enjoyed drawing gags about my pals, bosses and the studio management. At the time, it never ocurred to me I was carrying on a grand studio tradition. I was simply having fun. The recent arrival of the photocopy machine made it possible to reproduce drawings and before long my cartoon gags were all over the Animation Building. From the first floor bulletin boards to the third floor storyboards. Such public exposure of my work was never intended, but such are the pitfalls of Xerox - and I was soon discovered. Of course, one could also say, I was exposed as well. By caprice, the gentleman who discovered my work was none other than the studios’ own consummate gagman. The individual who loved gags and considered himself one of the best. I was the lucky kid who one Friday afternoon received an order from my boss to, “get my butt upstairs to the story department.” That was many years ago and I still don’t consider myself a, screenwriter. However, I remain what Walt Disney considerd me, and I’m damn proud of it.
I’m a gagman.