Requiem for a Gagman

I was taking a noontime stroll on the Walt Disney studio lot some years ago with veteran animation writer/director, Chuck Couch when he pointed to the Studio Bungalow. "I used to work in that building on the old Hyperion lot in Silver Lake." Although Chuck had done pretty much every job in the animation business over the years, he always referred to himself as a gag man. The title, “Disney artist” seemed too lofty a term as far as Chuck Couch was concern. When colleagues introduced him as the Walt Disney artist, Chuck curtly corrected them with, "gag man!"

    In the old days of animation, being a Disney gagman was no small deal. The Old Maestro himself had great respect for his studio gagsters. They were the guys called on to pepper a cartoon in progress with humorous visuals that would plus the films' entertainment value. No doubt you've heard the names Roy Williams, Al Bertino, Homer Brightman and many others. When Walt Disney launched WED Enterprises to create theme park attractions he stole many of his funny men from the film division. Disney knew that in order for his park to be successful, his attractions would need the same entertainment value he had given his animated films.

    It was during this exciting time that I arrived at the Walt Disney studio hoping for a career in animation. During my initial training as a young animation artist I would muster up enough courage to venture upstairs to the second and third floors of the Animation Building to see the work of the Disney story artists and gag men. Unlike today, the Disney gag artists were a well-respected lot. They had the largest offices, worked their own hours, and most important of all, interacted with the boss, Walt Disney on a regular basis. In a way, the gagman was, if not king of the castle, a well-respected nobleman.

    Flash forward to the present. Every animated movie you see will probably list several screenwriters.  Gag men are rare today, and the few studios have are often considered unimportant. As expected, these talented individuals are usually ignored. When I returned to Walt Disney Feature Animation in the early nineties, the company appeared to be on a new path. The new management had decided that animated films were now to be taken seriously. Funny, zany gags were simply too crass, too witless, and yes - too Disney. Still, Feature Animation had a hand full of funny guys who continually tried to push humor into the movies. One such was story man, Don Dougherty whose offbeat, wacky cartoon sketches filled the "Tarzan" storyboards. Though, getting an occasional laugh from the directors, pretty much none of Don's work ever made it into the Disney movie. Yet, the African continent was devoid of Africans. Was this Disney’s idea of “black humor?”

    As an old school story guy I often felt out of place in the new Disney. The old Disney storytellers had mentored me, but the new crop of story artists and directors had grown up on McKee and Truby. Disney entertainment had been replaced by story structure, inciting incident and character arc. In the late nineties, I felt like a Disney dinosaur as I labored for over a year on a film entitled, oddly enough, "Dinosaur." A potentially brilliant movie, it ended up having all the entertainment value of a military training film. Before long, I began to feel like my old pal, Chuck Couch. Did I simply never leave the Hyperion Bungalow? Was I a relic from the past unable to cope with the new, hip, edgy storytelling techniques of a new generation? After four Disney features, I decided maybe this was the time to pack it in.

    Don't get me wrong. I have only the highest respect for the new generation of animation artists and storytellers. These young artists have been my friends and colleagues, and we've done some good work together. Yet, I was well aware that no one was breaking down my door trying to get me on his or her new movie. Further, few of the new films in development, with the notable exception of "Lilo and Stitch," held any excitement for me anyway. It was at this time that the past, in a very odd way, met the future. In December 1996, I found myself in a meeting that involved a new animation studio. A hot new medium and fresh story telling techniques were being pioneered by an exciting new company. Story telling, oddly enough that modeled itself on "Old Disney Visual Storytelling." It seemed the young filmmakers at Pixar Animation Studios had learned their stuff from the old Disney guys at California Institute of the Arts. Only, unlike their animated partner in Burbank - they hadn't forgotten it.

    With Pixar's string of successful movies it became popular among animation buffs to quote the familiar mantra, story, story, story. But, I remember it was no less than Walt Disney himself who chewed us out back during the development of "The Jungle Book." Because we thought we had legitimate concerns about the films' simple plot line. Well, we caught the wrath of the Old Maestro head on. "You guys worry too much about the story," Walt shouted. "Just give me some good stuff." And, what was that good stuff Walt Disney was talking about, you ask? Fun, humor, entertainment. In a word, Walt was speaking of gags. "The Jungle Book" didn't need a more involved story line because we already had great characters to work with. Let the humor come out of the situation, the characters, and the story will take care of itself. Free from Disney's pretentious film making style, guided by executive wannabe Spielberg’s, Pixar Animation Studios began churning out films that would have entranced the Old Maestro himself. It was no wonder that a small group of us gag men happily found ourselves in our element. We layered on the gags at every opportunity, and the humor came out of situation and character, not out of pop culture references. However, I confess I could not resist a gag in "Toy Story2" when Rex falls out of the toy car and gives chase. It was a cheeky nod to Spielberg’s "Jurassic Park" where the pursuing T-Rex is seen in the car's rear view mirror. 

    As I walked the hallways of our Pixar Animation Studios office in Point Richmond one evening, I wondered why everything felt so familiar. Then, I remembered how neat and tidy the story rooms were back at Disney and how discarded sketches littered the floor of Pixar's scruffy story rooms. We worked in "artistic isolation" back at the Mouse House - each in our own little cubicle. Yet here, the artists, working in groups hashed out a series of gags as we yelled and shouted at each other. It suddenly became clear what I was experiencing was exactly how the Walt Disney studio use to be. Something that would feel pretty familiar to old guys like, Bill Peet, Roy Williams, Al Bertino and Chuck Couch. A time long past when the gagman was king, and animated motion pictures were still very, very funny.