High School Pranks with Joe Barbera

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I can almost hear the voice of a reader somewhere out there saying, “Joe Barbera again?”

Well, yes, actually. Out of the hundreds and hundreds of interviews in my files, I have more material from Joe than just about anyone. This is because we were ostensibly working on a book together—one that would never be completed—but more because one of my favorite things to do in the late ’90s and early ’00s was to go up to Joe’s office to visit, have lunch, and just listen. And one of Joe’s favorite things to do was to entertain. For a few years toward the end of his life, I was his willing audience.

Joe would tell any kind of story. He once acted out an entire episode Seinfeld that he had watched the night before, going so far as to imitate Kramer’s slapstick slide through the door…and this was when he was in his early nineties! The kinds of stories Joe loved to tell the most, however, were those relating to the pranks that he and the other animators would engage in during working hours. Back in 1998, Joe told me that he became indoctrinated into such activities at the Van Beuren Studios in New York, where he launched his career in the mid-1930s:

Joe Barbera

(from left to right) Joe Barbera, Gene Kelly and Bill Hanna

“There was a guy there, Andy Engman, who later came out here and became the head of personnel at Disney. He was kind of rotund. One day he was sitting at his chair, and he was sound asleep. So I got a rope and tied it around the legs of the chair. My strategy was to slowly pull on the chair until he was out in the hall [laughs]. So I’m pulling, I’m pulling, but it’s not budging. So I pull a little more, and a whole leg came off. Now it has three legs, and slowly, like a giant sequoia going over, Andy goes crash!”

Of course, Joe carried his prankmanship over to MGM where, he was always quick to point out, it was not appreciated by the MGM cartoon division’s humorless chief Fred Quimby:

Joe Barbera

Joe Barbera

“Harvey Eisenberg…that’s Jerry’s father…had a hole in his shirt, so Irv Spence put his finger in the hole and pulled, and ripped the shirt. So Harvey reached over and grabbed Irv’s pocket, and ripped that down. So Irv reached over and grabbed something else. Pretty soon the shirts are hanging down around their waists, all shredded like hula skirts, and these guys are throwing cups of water at each other. And Harvey jumps up on a chair and grabs the sprinkler system pipe and is swinging back and forth when Quimby walks in. He says, ‘Goddamn high school kids!’ and turns around and walks out. We used to do this a lot.”

Joe told me more than once that the reason he kept coming to work every day as long as he was able was because of the laughter, and I was only too glad to join in.

Joe Barbera

Joe Barbera (left) and Bill Hanna