Too Funny for Words – excerpts, part 2

Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston break down Disney sight gags into 8 categories.   One good reason to buy the book is the large number of pictorial examples. Each type of gag gets it’s own chapter to further describe them.


1.  THE SPOT GAG:  The spot gag is the simplest and easiest to write.  It is the isolated, single joke, the funny visual event that is complete in itself.  It needs no introduction and no climax for an ending.  It fills a spot in the continuity, or the character’s performance, without effecting the story.

The illustrated example: A dachsund forming it’s body into steps for Mickey Mouse to board an airplane.

2. THE RUNNING GAG:  A running gag is one that occurs several times throughout a picture, becoming funnier through repetition rather than through any development.  3. The gag that builds.

The illustrated example: In “The Band Concert”  Donald Duck repeatedly pulls a fife out of a pocket, despite the other band members trying to stop his playing.

3. THE GAG THAT BUILDS.  In contrast to the isolated spot gag or the repetition in the running gag, the gag-that-builds is made up of a series of gags that increase in intensitiy.  Starting with a comic situation, individual gags relating to the  same circumstance are carefully added, each becoming wilder and funnier until a climactic event crowns a complete routine.

The illustrated example:  The Big Bad Wolf gets run through a “wolf pacifier” machine that ends with him being shot out of a cannon.

4.  THE ACTION GAG.  Unlike the spot gag, which focuses on a single event, the action gag is based on timing and the unique way a character moves.  An action gag … is concerned less with what the gag is, then how it is performed.  It requires entertaining actions and comic movements.

The illustrated example: Goofy trying to be a hurdler, and tripping over the hurdles.  Tripping over hurdles is not funny in itself, but how Goofy does it makes it ridiculous.

5. THE TABLEAU GAG is a held picture at the end of an action, in which the character is left with a ridiculous appearance due to some foreign substance or object having been placed on, around, over, or in his face or figure.

The illustrated example:  Donald Duck gets beard and hat that makes him look like a Russian cossack.

6.  THE INANIMATE CHARACTER GAG comes from the humor in giving an object or machine a personality that cleverly fits both it’s appearance and it’s function.  Walt felt that everything in the world might have a personality if only it could be brought to life in human terms.

The illustrated example: A steamshovel head becomes a momentary character with eyes and mouth.

7.  THE FUNNTY DRAWING is special to animation.  Perhaps it could be compared to the clown makeup of a live performer, or a ridiculous costume, or anything that gives someone a laughable appearance.  In animated films it is the drawing itself that makes the gag funnier.

The illlustrated example: In the Jungle Book, an elephant is using his trunk like a trumpet, another elephant squeezes it, causing him to inflate a little before it goes limp.

8.  SPECIALIZED GAGS.  The color gag, which was based on the accepted role of various hues in creating emotional responses, and the effects gag, which made fantasy available through the careful and precise rendering of everything from fire and smoke to a swarm of disgruntled hornets.   Finally there is the surprise gag, which many consider to contain the most important element of any gag, since interest and expectation are added to even the most mundane situations.  Actually, a fresh new method of performing any action has to be a surprise to the audience by definition, ad the gag that is presented with this element startles them into an impulsive laugh by introducing the unexpected.  In fact, preparing the audience for a more traditional occurrence is the best way of surprising them with the unforeseen gag.  It is so consistently used with the rewarding results that it could be listed here as the eighth primary source of humor in our films.

The illustrated example:  Pinocchio with finger on fire.


2 thoughts on “Too Funny for Words – excerpts, part 2”

  1. After this book came out, I immediately read it from cover to cover. A few weeks later, I had the opportunity to hang out with Frank after a friend of mine gave him computer lessons. I asked him why the book didn’t include the one type of gag that was unique to Disney- the butt gag. Frank insisted that there was a whole chapter on butt gags. We handed him a copy of the book and he turned to where the bit should have been, but it wasn’t there. He shook his head and said, “So THAT’S what they cut!” he explained that the book had gone to the Disney suits for approval and had come back with a leaner page count, but they couldn’t figure out what had been cut. The butts were cuts!


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