A Conversation with Jymn Magon

Jymn Magon is a television and film writer best known for his work in animation with The Disney Afternoon's ADVENTURES OF THE GUMMI BEARS, DUCK TALES, TALE SPIN, DARKWING DUCK, RESCUE RANGERS, GOOF TROOP and the Walt Disney Pictures animated musical A GOOFY MOVIE.   

Jason Anders:  Do you remember some of the things that first inspired you toward being creative?

Jymn Magon:  I think everyone is born creative; we just follow different paths.  My car mechanic can figure out things about my SUV of which I don't have a clue!  A different creativity than mine.  But since we're talking about animation, I do think there's a DNA thing going on.  I never decided to be creative; it was always there.  Everything that my brain soaked in led me to what I'm doing today.  

So there was Mad Magazine, Rocky & Bullwinkle, Steve Allen, Peter Pan, Bill Cosby, Richard Lester and a host of other stuff that modeled my approach to comedy.  I created amateur skits, song parodies, comic strips, 8mm films and stand-up routines... all dreadful, but stepping stones.  I moved into stage acting, dancing, piano, filmmaking and radio show production... which led to my first job at Disney, which led to my next job at Disney, which led to the shows you enjoy watching.  I was also fortunate to grow up in a family of performers- both my parents were professional dancers and choreographers, so my sister and I have been on stage since we were kids.
JA: Your role as story editor and development for Adventures of the Gummi Bears was your first job on a series, and also Disney's first major serialized animated television show- Although you can never predict something as major as the shows that were to follow as a result, do you remember any of the early conversations about the plans for Walt Disney Television Animation?  When was your first realization that you were making both television and cartoon history?

JM: Well, first of all, the title of “Disney’s first major serialized animated television show” is shared with The Wuzzles.  However, if we’re splitting hairs, The Wuzzles was a toy property, so it came with established characters and a backstory.  Gummi Bears came out of nothing more than the name for a candy - with no established characters or stories, so in a sense that was the first Disney animated series that was created out of whole cloth.  

"Walt Disney Television Animation" was a bigger word than the department itself.  At one point, I was the only “creative” person in the entire department, doing development work on Gummi Bears while still performing my tasks as record producer for Walt Disney Music Company.  So I don’t remember dreams of glory and fame back then; we were simply trying to get a department off the ground with no staff.  

Studio Executive Michael Webster brought in some animation folk from his advertising background, but the real creative force behind the look and tone of WDTVA was Art Vitello, who brought in some of the most amazing art talent I’ve ever worked with.  Vitello drafted Thom Enriquez, Hank Tucker, Ed Wexler, Gary Eggleston, Rob Laduca, etc.  Their artwork became the style by which all future shows were produced.  That’s when we became “Walt Disney Television Animation.”  Gummi Bears not only set the tone for our other shows, it set the bar for the entire TV toon business.  Other studios sat up and took notice.  Again, I don’t remember ever “realizing” that we were making history… we were just too damn busy to think about it.  I do remember thinking, however, when I would watch the shows on TV, “Hey, I worked on that!  Cool!  I’ll bet other people are watching this, too!" 
JA: What are the earliest memories you have of developing the pilot for DuckTales?  What was your biggest challenge in writing for those characters, as well as your favorite aspect?

JM:  The “pilot” for DuckTales was written as a five-part mini-series which was then cut into a two-hour pilot movie.  However, there were scads of DuckTales episodes already being written and produced before our pilot (“Treasure of the Golden Suns”) was ever conceived.  Tedd Anasti and Patsy Cameron were the shapers and story editors of that series.  They handled all the regular episodes that were shown on a daily basis.  I was brought in after the series was already in the works to do a mini-series (and eventually two more: "Bubba Duck" and "Gizmo Duck").  So even though Tedd and Patsy were the powerhouse behind the series, I was in the sweet position of doing the “first look” that the audience saw.  Not a big challenge - especially when you realize that Carl Barks not only created those characters, he paved the way with years and years of fun adventure story lines!  

Sure, we had some new characters like Launchpad and Webby and Duckworth… but the real guts of the series - Scrooge McDuck, the Beagle Boys, Flintheart Glomgold, Magica De Spell, the Junior Woodchucks, Gyro Gearloose, Gladstone, the Money Vault, Duckburg, plus countless stories were handed to us through the brilliant work of Carl Barks (who never got a “based on the characters and situations created by” credit on the show).

I loved working with the cast; a funny talented bunch.  I had known Alan Young since 1970, so it was a treat to write for him and watch how he guided the series.  Terry McGovern as Launchpad McQuack was also a hoot.  I don’t know anyone who didn’t love writing for that character.  Russi, Chuck, Frank, Hal, June… all brilliant character actors, and a delight to work with.
JA: What is it like to see how big of an impact the work you were doing so early in your career is still having today?  Did you ever anticipate while writing "Treasure of the Golden Suns" that in 2014 you'd still be getting asked about these characters?

JM: Naturally, it’s very gratifying to hear fans rave about these shows.  When they talk about the Disney Afternoon shows, it’s like they turn into kids again… which is weird, because they’re usually standing there with their own kids.  I don’t think anyone could have predicted the impact that the internet would have on nostalgia.  Today, fans can easily find each other, blog about their memories or create webpages about obscure Disney characters.  Back in the mid-eighties we had no idea this would happen.  Now everything is precious and collectible.  Then, it was just trying to make a deadline.  I’m glad, however, that people are remembering my work fondly.

JA: When asked what my favorite Disney movie of all time is, I always cite A Goofy Movie.  Not enough has been written about this film's origins and production- What are your earliest memories of developing a story to bring Goofy to the big screen, and what can you tell me about the process of drafting the screenplay?

JM:  Oh, golly.  Goof Troop had just wrapped, and I had written an episode that really touched on the father-son approach/avoidance theme in “Have Yourself a Goofy Little Christmas.”  (That was the underpinnings of the entire series, mind you.)  I think because of my work on that series, I was chosen to work on the film development.  The concept was the brainchild of Jeffery Katzenberg who had taken a road trip with his daughter in order to reconnect with her, and that became the inspiration for the film.  
I was teamed up briefly with Jerry Rees (The Brave Little Toaster) to rough out the story, but Jerry had to move onto another project.  That’s when Kevin Lima came aboard and things started to really move forward.  Up until then I had spent a lot of time alone in corner office on a separate floor of our building where the film would be produced.  The area was nearly empty at this point.  

Slowly, the offices filled up, but for the most part I worked alone.  Kevin and his skeleton crew (at that time) and me went through a lot of scenes that got drastically changed over the course of the film, such as a video game sequence opening, a wild bungee jump scene and Paco’s Water Park.  
Early on I would go off and write up a revised draft, and then Kevin would turn his storyboard people loose on it.  Brian Pimental was the head of the story department and a pivotal player.  His team brought so much to the film that was wonderful.  My stuff would show up on a story board - vastly different!  The board guys had plussed all the gags.  So I’d incorporate the new angles into the next draft… and the process would continue.  
Eventually I was pulled from the project, because the movie was now in Kevin’s capable hands, and I went back to TV series work.  I felt kind of cheated, because I wanted to stay with the movie until it was done.  I only got to attend two recording sessions and only met with the songwriters a couple times early on.  In TV, a writer like me is often the “show runner,” so being moved off the film was kinda painful.  Television production and film production are two different fish - whereas a TV episode has one or two storyboard folks who follow the script very closely, a film has piles of story people all adding to the final product.  

At one point I had lunch with Kevin and I said, “I feel so horrible.  I did all this writing early on before the art staff came onboard, and now they’re all having fun without me.  Plus, you’re all doing such great things, and my stuff is disappearing.”  Kevin smiled in that amused way he has and assured me, “Jymn, that’s how films get done.  But remember, we’re doing what we’re doing because we’re standing on your shoulders.”  Okay, I get it.

JA: Of all the shows you've written for, which story specifically would be the one piece of work to point people towards as your personal favorite?

JM:  I’ve said this many times before… I loved “Treasure of the Golden Suns,” and Gummi Bears will always be my firstborn… but TaleSpin is probably my fave.  There’s something about that pulp genre and time period.
JA: What inspires you as a writer?

JM:  Everything.  I’m constantly filing away favorite scenes or clever jokes in my mental “Gag File.”  But that’s true of all writers.  We live two lives: our normal everyday life, and the life of the observer who watches the chaos and tries to figure out how to turn it into a story.  

As a writer, I’m sometimes a pain to watch TV or films with because I can see where the story is going.  “Look, a set-up for later!”  Yet sometimes I happen onto something new or clever or painfully true, and I’m sucked in.  That pleases me because I get to be a regular Joe just enjoying the ride.  And that inspires me.

JA: Name three of your favorite films that you think everyone should see.

JM: Waiting for Guffman, Drop Dead Gorgeous and A League of Their Own.  I love the humor of these films, so they are personal faves.  Ask me tomorrow, I’ll give you an entirely different list.  

JA:  What career advice would you give to those who want follow in your footsteps?

JM:  Write, read, connect, take classes, ask questions and get involved.  I started off making student films and writing radio comedies - for money?  No.  Because I wanted to!  You’ve got to love it.  
When I was doing local plays and taking art classes, I never dreamed I’d wind up in Hollywood… but I know now that if my path never led to Disney and animation, I would still be doing something creative at a local level… finding an outlet.  It’s just what creative people do.  They need to draw or dance or be funny, because… it’s who they are.
JA: What is your fondest memory from working on TaleSpin?

JM: Being in the thick of things.  Being surrounded by an army of marvelously talented people who were all sharing the same vision.  Seriously, that’s what stands out to me the most in retrospect.

JA: Do you have any idea yet what is next for you?

JM: Hell, I’m like all writers - always looking for the next gig.  Fortunately I’m doing a lot of work for overseas studios.  Russia, China, Spain, Finland, France, etc.  Much of my work now will probably never be seen by Americans, but I’m having a ball.  I’m also working on a (for now) secret project for Disney comics and going to fan conventions.  Plus, I'm working on a book about my Disney experiences.  Good times.
JA:  If you had to sum up your life with just three words, what would they be?

JM:  Reminds me of a contest Steve Martin once had when he was giving out tickets to one of his stand-up concerts.  Contest rules: write in three words or less why you wanted tickets.  Steve's example?  “Me want go.”  So I’m gonna use that:  “Me want create.”

Follow Jymn's blog here: Fine Tooning