The final panel to observe 60 years of Walt Disney Imagineering at the D23 Expo 2013 was “Leave ‘em Laughing.” Five very funny Imagineers in their own right –Dave Fisher, Joe Lanzisero, Kevin Rafferty, Jason Surrell, and George Scribner – entertained D23 guests on Stage 23 with a look at humor found in Disney Parks.
The panelists’ backgrounds emphasized the story development element of Disney Imagineering, a deliberate choice for the presentation’s focus on the general concept of using humor in the parks. Dave Fisher, the panel’s host, is as how writer. Kevin Rafferty specializes in story development and is senior concept writer. George Scribner also specializes in story development, and is a director and animator. Joe Lanzisero is the Creative VP for Tokyo Disneyland and Jason Surrell, frequent D23 speaker, is show writer and producer.
Fisher hosted “Leave ‘em Laughing,” and after introductions and brief comments about their professional and personal histories with Disney, the Imagineers turned to the subject at hand. Information about pitching ideas and designing attractions were mixed in with personal anecdotes as well as some spontaneous, good-natured joking between the Imagineers. Thus, not only was the focus of the panel humor, the presentation itself was very funny.
But for Disney fans that weren’t at D23 Expo 2013, here are some of the more factual highlights:
Balancing humor as part of the theming: Haunted Mansion shows challenges in achieving the balance between various elements of an attraction. Two Imagineers responsible for Haunted Mansion had different goals. Marc Davis lobbied for a funnier Haunted Mansion, while Claude Coats preferred a scarier one. The Disneyland version reflects both, and the story also serves as reminder of how Walt’s death left Disney without the person who made such executive decisions.
Bring the funny: While it’s a Disney Legend that Jungle Cruise became a punny, tongue-in-cheek ride thanks to feedback from a front-line Cast Member talking to Walt Disney, it appears more likely the shift happened after Marc Davis was asked by Walt to visit the attraction. His response, that it needed humor, was then incorporated into the ride.
Contextual humor: The panel noted humor is contextual and cultural, so jokes on funny attractions like Jungle Cruise will often need to be rewritten for the international Disney Parks. One exception? Mother-in-law jokes on Jungle Cruise, because apparently mother-in-law jokes are universally understood.
Developing gags: Jokes in attractions reflect the give-and-take among the various people responsible for developing an attraction. If more than one Imagineer comes up with a similar approach or gag, chances are it’s an idea worth exploring. That extends to voice actors working on attractions: Johnny Depp (“Pirates of the Caribbean: The Legend of Jack Sparrow” at Disney’s Hollywood Studios), Don Rickles (Toy Story Midway Mania! at Disney California Adventure), and Larry the Cable Guy (Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree in Cars Land at Disney California Adventure) all added to the attraction’s humor.
- Depp improvised some lines in providing Captain Jack Sparrow’s voice to the “Pirates” attraction,” using slang that was risqué. A clever in-joke, his dialogue is now unintelligible, which Surrell rationalized as the character likely being drunk. This riff, in turn, segued into a point that many Disney attractions feature drinking or implied drinking – such as Pirates of the Caribbean and the ballroom scene in Haunted Mansion.
- Don Rickles spent time recording lines for his “Toy Story” character, Mr. Potato Head, for the Disney Parks attraction. Playing audio from the recording sessions, with jokes written by Imagineers like Rafferty, reveals not only Rickles’ quick-wit, but how the Audio-Animatronic character’s lines captured both personality that emerged in both the scripted and unscripted portions of the sessions.
- Larry the Cable Guy picked up on an idea tossed around by Imagineers, that Tow Mater couldn’t remember the lines to his song. That idea has become part of the ride, with Tow Mater mumbling and replacing lyrics with words like “dadgum.” The Imagineers also incorporated a “Joke” button that ride operators can use to incorporated pre-recorded jokes into the attraction.
Listen for the laughs: Using Mickey’s Toontown as an example, the panel talked a bit about how humor can be heard in Disney attractions. Portions of W-A-C-K-Y Radio of Toowntown were played for D23 attendees, one of many audio or visual clips which were used to emphasize points.
That said, Disney Imagineers also noted that visual gags should be able to be understood without any dialog, referencing the advice of silent-film genius Charlie Chaplin. Raising that point made sense, particularly given the presentation’s earlier commentary about humor and cultural context and the fact Disney attracts visitors from all over the world.
Quick reads: Pirates of the Caribbean is a good example of what Imagineering strives to achieve with its attractions, for humor and otherwise. Characters and attractions much be a “quick read” for the guest and an emphasis on the “brevity of storytelling.” In this way, the theming at Disney Parks is not dissimilar to animation, which also needs to quickly convey information. The quick read was also compared to the billboard technique, where messages must be conveyed for people driving on a freeway.
Rejected gags and pitches: One thread of discussion had the Imagineers discussing how they might pitch an attraction idea they think is hilarious but which others do not. They characterized the Eisner era as a period in which humor was not a priority in the Disney Parks – the funny “The Magic of Disney Animation,” a film from what was then called Disney-MGM Studios, accompanied the statement. The juxtaposition resulted in somewhat odd assertion that seemed mostly to be an excuse to offer a dig at Eisner.
The discussion also segued to rejected ideas for attraction. Rafferty recalled a story pitch for “It’s Tough to Be a Bug” to spoof “The Dating Game,” with various dangerous female bugs as potential dates for Flik: a black widow, a praying mantis. Eisner reportedly rejected the idea “because an ant would not date a spider.” (It seemed like a hilarious response, at least in the telling, although it was used to illustrate Eisner’s lack of humor.)
This rejection led Imagineers to agree logic has killed many great gags, as well as ideas that they personally found funny. Another Eisner-era example, but which reflected a bad pitch (or perhaps a bad gag) comes from Wing T. Chao’s rejection of a water-feature gag for Saratoga Springs. Imagineers described an angry Donald Duck on his backside. The figure would have been raised and lowered on a column of water that, unfortunately, would have required the attached pole to visually skewer the duck. Chao rejected the visual of a pole being inserted up Donald’s backside, which he deemed inappropriate.
Word play, such puns and names, are important elements of humor found at Disney Parks and Resorts as well, as anyone who has stood in line for an attraction queue can affirm. One example is Walt Disney World Resort’s Blizzard Beach, with its Avalunch quick-service meal spot –– as well as its I.C. Expeditions for ice cream or the Tike’s Peak water park area for toddlers – and guests will find their own examples throughout the parks and resorts.
At other times, the name of an attraction itself conveys the humorous conceit. Rafferty and Lanzisero noted Marty Sklar rejected the pitch for Wonderland Golf, a miniature golf course. But the same idea for a mini-golf area was greenlit once it was renamed Winter Summerland, which is why Walt Disney World Resort has a place where Disney guests can see elves with their own Winnebago.
Donald Duck: In a special touch for “Leave ‘em Laughing,” Scribner was invited to draw what he thought of throughout the session, with his work occasionally projected onto the screen for audiences on hand. Thanks in part to the panel’s early and repeated discussions about why Donald Duck was so funny, Scribner kept drawing Donald in various situations that illustrate – literally – just how situations Disney’s favorite fowl has been placed in just to get a laugh.
Scribner said, “You can’t do too much damage to Donald Duck,” showing how character serves as a visual gag for the Disney Cruise Line’s AquaDuck. Audiences could practically hear Donald’s sputtered protests at the indignities.
Another tidbit that emerged from Scribner’s on-the-spot rough sketches is that animated gags generally read better in profile. And sometimes, as the panel pointed out, the gags also read in silhouette.
As the final panel dedicated to Disney Imagineering, “Leave ‘em Laughing” lived up to its twofold promise. First, the panelists did indeed offer insights into how humor is used within Disney Parks, with a welcomed focus on the challenges of developing and implementing ideas. And second the presentation, which for many guests the final one after a jam-packed three-days of Disney, was filled with funny and light-hearted moments. The presentation did, indeed, “Leave ‘em Laughing” in a cathartic end to D23 Expo.
As the National Disney Travel Examiner I attended the D23 Expo on a media pass to provide first-hand coverage. Look for more coverage now that the event has concluded.