In observance of April Fool’s Day, our Consulting Historian Jeff Kurtti examines the funny behavior of Walt and his staff.
Often lost in the public perception of Walt Disney’s personality is his wicked sense of humor. He has frequently been characterized as simply a lowbrow, fond of barnyard humor and gags involving the rear end. Although Walt admitted, “I can’t laugh at intellectual humor, you know? I want to be hit here. I’m just corny enough. I want to be hit right here in the heart,” the comic artifacts of his Midwest upbringing are only a single component of a puckishness that was far more complex—and often surprising to his colleagues and employees.
Walt exhibited a sly sense of humor as a youth. “I was always buying these trick things,” he recalled, “and I came home one time with this old plate lifter. You’ve seen it, it’s a bladder you put under the tablecloth, and you run it, a bulb around, you see? And I showed it to mother. She got a big kick out and she says, ‘Let me pull that on your father!’
“We were all sitting there, and every time my dad would go down to get a spoonful of soup, my mother would rock the plate, and it was a funny thing. My dad didn’t notice it. My mother was just killing herself laughing. So she kept on doing this, and finally my dad would say ‘Flora what is wrong with you? Flora, I’ve never see you so silly.’…my mother had to get up and go lay down in the bedroom she was laughing so hard. My Dad never caught on!”
Walt was remembered for dressing in costume in order to startle his young cousins, and on one well-known occasion, Flora answered her front door to find a young woman who began to ask her all manner of silly questions. The puzzled Flora soon noticed that the visitor was wearing one of Flora’s own best dresses. Young Walt had even borrowed a wig and put on make-up to complete his illusion, and “sell” his “gag.”
As Walt became a studio head, his sense of humor informed the work his staff created, and his ability to find funny situations (and find situations funny) was well-regarded throughout his career. "He was the consummate gag man," Walt's daughter Diane Disney Miller recalls, "and proud of it." Walt's appreciation of humor also shaped a creative environment at work, where humor, playfulness, and practical jokes were all a part of the daily routine.