This is the final installment of excerpts from the book Too Funny for Words by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas. The second half of the book is virtually all pictures. These remaining quotes all stand on their own with no explanation needed.
Walt was always intrigued by a performance that had carefully displayed gestures and expressions or was enriched by the use of perfect timing that gave texture and excitement to the movements. He particularly appreciated actions that were comic in themselves and the extended routines based on a single idea.
Those elements were all evident in the vaudeville acts he had seen – acts like “Willie, West, and McGinty” where three serious carpenters work on a house, and saw hammer , paint, and move materials about in a beautifully choreographed routine of split-second timing and improbable events. The act was based on expectations and surprises, with disasters miraculously avoided time and again, then suddenly striking when least expected.
The audience gasped in disbelief, rose in their seats in anticipation, and were convulsed with uncontrollable laughter. The carpenters were neither dumb nor inept and seemed to be unaware of the potential calamities surrounding them. This of course, added to the humor. Anytime the audiences understand a situation better than the characters on the stage, they either become terribly bored, or terribly involved, developing in the latter case a concern that insures and emotional response as the story unfolds. Producing this involvement is the first and most important step the actor must master if he is to succeed. The second step probably should be the elimination of that possibility for boredom.
… If Walt had not had vaudeville as a model, had not seen these examples, had not been aware of the possibilities, he would have settled for less without ever knowing such a potential existed.
There is always a still-better way to show the situation and the characters, and the artist will keep searching for it.
If it is funny, stay with it. Add more gags, stretch out the humor, squeeze every last ounce of entertainment out of the predicament before leaving it.
There are several ways a gag can be inappropriate. It might be something a certain personality should never do, or it might slow the progress of the story by being too long or over developed. It could also be misleading or confusing, or even repulsive to certain segments of the audience. A pie thrown in the face was excellent for Donald Duck or for any other officious unfeeling character, but it would not have been right for Cinderella.
Once a storyman showed an ability to create his funniest gags for one of these stars, he was pegged the same way. In time, each of our famous characters had his own gag writers, just like the live comedians of the day, and a complete team from director to animator developed material to insure that the star would remain popular.
Dave Hand, our supervising director, warned us that an audience could be easiliy confused and that we should go to any length to prepare them for the gag we were going to use. This was called “anticipation.” Aways be sure that what you are doing is perfectly clear to everybody then prepare them for what is going to happen next. It is also called “Ssetting up a gag.” Young animators, often too eager, are apt to give away the gag before anyone is ready, thereby creating a bit of action that is neither funny nor clear.
Walt helped us to observe by demonstrating in his own acting the mannerisms that reveal personality, the little movements that show a person is feeling, the special reactions that make an individual sympathetic, belligerent or even humorous. He gave examples from famous comedians and pointed out what circus clowns do to hold the crowd’s interest and to make them laugh. An important part of the act is the performers slow, blank, helpless look at the audience, sharing his inner feelings with them.
Norm, “Fergy” Ferguson had grown up watching the best vaudeville in New York and knew how a look at the audience should be animated. When he drew the scenes of Pluto entangled in the flypaper (Playful Pluto, 1934) the hapless dog revealed his whole range of emotions through looks, simple expressions, and strong acting. The audience understood and responded with sustained laughs. The character did not have to make a funny face when his sincere reaction to a situation was so strongly communicated.
Walt enjoyed this spirit of rivalry and often cast story men of opposing viewpoints to work on the same assignment. He felt that they would each try harder to prove that their version of the material was the better. As he often said, “If I have two men who agree all the time, I only need one of them.”
If the build-up to a gag or special scene goes on too long or is too heavy handed, the humor will lose it’s freshness and fail to deliver the expected laugh. The intrusion of actions that do not really fit the situation will make the whole continuity lag and seem tedious. Too many gags in a row, no matter how funny, can spoil the pacing of a well planned sequence.
There is a strong humor in the laugh that comes as a release from tension, but the humor relies almost entirely on the build up of anxiety that precedes the sudden switch to unexpected gentleness. A gag can even come in the middle of a tense situation and seem funnier because of the overall excitement.