Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

December 18, 2006


Host: Michael Grant

Jules Feiffer/Steve Benson/Brian Fairrington


  • A special edition of HORIZON. Arizona Republic editorial cartoonist Steve Benson and nationally syndicated East Valley cartoonist Brian Fairrington talk about editorial cartoons with Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and playwright Jules Feiffer.
Guests:
  • Jules Feiffer - Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and playwright


View Transcript
Michael Grant:
Tonight on Horizon. A conversation with Pulitzer-Prize winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer who visits with local cartoonist Steve Benson and Brian Fairrington. That's coming up on Horizon.

Announcer:
Horizon is made possible by contributions from the friends of eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

Michael Grant:
Good evening. Thanks for joining us tonight on this special edition of Horizon. I'm Michael grant. We are doing, as you can see, something a little different tonight on Horizon. Recently Pulitzer-Prize winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer was at Arizona State University to deliver the 2006 Flynn Foundation Lecture -- he is a playwright and author of "Carnal Knowledge." he's inspired cartoonists like Steve Benson and the nationally syndicated east valley cartoonist Brian Fairrington. We asked those gentlemen if they'd drop by the Hrizon studio and talk about cartoons.

Jules Feiffer:
This was a cartoon. This is actually the most recent and the first political cartoon I've done in well over a year.

Brian Fairrington:
That was in the "New York Times."

Jules Feiffer:
This is the "New York Times" about two weeks ago. And it was just during all the talk about Barack Obama running for president, the senator. And the name "Obama" I thought sounded like a song. And I put two people on stage singing to him. It goes, if you think in terms of "West Side Story" and the song "Maria" with the lyrics by Sondheim. "Obama, we just met a man named Obama. We need you to run, dear Obama. Cuter than Gore, you're anti-war. Who could ask for more? We could learn to adore you Obama. A thriller he, killer diller he. Best of all he's not Hillary. Obama."

Steve Benson:
Stop. I can't draw.

Jules Feiffer:
So that was -- and that's great fun to come up with that stuff. And when I'm doing that, I must say it's the only time I miss doing the cartoon. To miss the fun of coming up with an idea.

Steve Benson:
Now, why are you not doing editorial cartoons now? Because you've found another medium to express yourself?

Jules Feiffer:
Well, it was that in writing plays and starting to teach which I began to do about seven or eight years ago. And in doing children's books something had to go or I had to give up the idea of being a father. I had at least two kids at home and they had to be tended to and have a functioning dad who gave them time. And there was no time. So something had to go. And the one thing that clearly was goable was the weekly deadline. If I didn't have a weekly deadline I had a lot more time. So I gave that up. And it worked. And I don't miss it. I thought I would but I haven't missed it.

Brian Fairrington:
At what point did you kind of have an idea of what direction you wanted to go to? Political cartoonist, animator?

Jules Feiffer:
It was the United States army that made a satirist out of me. It will either kill you or cure you. And I got drafted during the later part of the Korean War which was 1951. And I found the mindless authority of the army. And the brutal indifference to the individual, which is what -- I mean, it's built on. My experience essentially was no different than any other GI's.

Steve Benson:
You're still wearing the uniform.

Jules Feiffer:
There we go. But my experience is we're no different from anybody else's. I just took it personally. Most people said this is the army and got through the two years. I hated every second. It I thought they were out to get me and I decided I was out to get them and I am to this day.

Steve Benson:
So where were you stationed?

Jules Feiffer:
It was brutal. I was stationed in the signal corps photo center in long island city making training films. It was hell. I was stationed at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey in a publication unit allowed to draw my anti-army cartoons. It was brutal.

Steve Benson:
You were allowed to draw anti-army cartoons?

Jules Feiffer:
Yes. I had a civilian boss who felt I was much too talented to work on the junk.

Brian Fairrington:
What age were you?

Jules Feiffer:
I was 21. And mad. Angry all the time. And I was drawing these angry cartoons. And I began doing this angry cartoon about a 4-year-old kid named Monroe who gets drafted by mistake and tries to approach the powers that be and tell them he's only four. But like my faculty advisor, they don't make mistakes, or like Bush and Cheney. So the army sergeant says, it's against the policy of the United States army to draft a man of four. Ergo you are not four so go on sick call. So he went on sick call and they convinced him he was faking and wasn't four and he going to try to make a man of himself in the army.

Steve Benson:
Sounds like your experience in the army where you ran against this mindless authority ran you in this passionate editorial cartooning.

Jules Feiffer:
It's what gave me the stance in terms of attitude toward authority and attitude toward how figures of authority, not just bureaucrats but parents, bosses, how they misuse language. How language is designed to avoid communication rather than communicate. And you see it over and over again. You see it in the names they give for military -- you know, the operation whatever it is in Iraq.

Steve Benson:
operation justice was the original one. So your cartoons, then, the typical -- although you're very avant garde, you go in different areas but you use language and point out absurdities of the language. This all comes from the abuse of authority you saw waged by parents and in the military and in the workplace?

Jules Feiffer:
It's no different from what everybody experiences. I just seem to, for whatever neurotic reason, take it more to heart than others who just get over it. And I got over nothing. I remembered all of it and swore revenge. And I was very successful career of simply avenging myself. Take that.

Steve Benson:
Well, in that personal stream of neurosis that has driven you to the high level of success you've attained.

Jules Feiffer:
God bless it, yes.

Steve Benson:
How do you look at that in the role of editorial cartoonists? They question authority, they're iconoclastic.

Brian Fairrington:
They're angry and bitter, I think.

Jules Feiffer:
You're talking about a situation that occurs today. But back in the 1950's when I began cartoons weren't doing that. Herb Bloch was doing that almost by himself. And there was Hugh Haney in Louisville. And young Paul Conrad just getting started. But that's about it. And when I started my -- excuse me. When I started my work, basically there was no such thing as a non-cold war cartoonist except for Herb Bloch. And Herb Bloch himself believed in the basic tenets of the cold war. So what I was doing is questioning the very basis of what was taken for granted as policy up and down the line, including liberals. And I was turning it on its ear and turns the language on its ear and trying to get people to kind of shuffle the deck a little bit. That's where the revolution began.

Steve Benson:
So civil rights and liberalism and the war, the cold war, where were you able to get your cartoons during this period when you were beginning published.

Jules Feiffer:
It began in the "Village Voice" which was the first alternative weekly in New York in again Greenwich Village in 1956. Then the second paper to run me oddly enough was in London "The Observer" which at that time was a highly reputable literary paper with a great reputation. And it was "the observer" much more than "the voice" that made me famous. I mean, that writers and intellectuals on this side of the ocean read "the observer" each week. Nobody knew what "the voice" was. It had no circulation at all. Very little circulation. But there was this English cartoon Feiffer and everybody was talking about him. And they discovered to their disappointment that I was American. And it was interesting. Now when comics in the comic medium is finally getting belated recognition as an art form by these very people, literary people. This is something that they refused to do, that they wouldn't do, that they denied except for crazy cat. And when I was breaking in, I was recognized by these people and they liked my work. But because they liked my work and cartoons were beneath their contempt, they refused to call me a cartoonist. And they would say, "we like very much this thing you do, these essays, these columns, these -- I said, cartoons, comic. No, no, no. It's much more than that. These are little plays. And they kept saying "these are little plays and you're a playwright." so I began to believe that I'm a playwright.

Steve Benson:
Why would they regard your cartoons. . .?

Jules Feiffer:
I booked my first play "little murders" on the basis of this. The play got reviewed in the New York paper. They said, this isn't a play. It's a political cartoon. So that's how I got validated as a cartoonist.

Steve Benson:
By being compared to a playwright.

Jules Feiffer:
That's right.

Brian Fairrington:
At what point did they recognize cartoons in your experience and career as a legitimate art form? Or have they ever, actually?

Jules Feiffer:
I don't think in anybody's case until spiegelman came along with mouse was it considered an art form. In my case it was a literary form. People thought of the drawing as this minimalist stuff but that it was really a piece of writing. And even someone as eminent as Saul Steinberg told me when we met, "well, you're not purely a cartoonist, you're a writer." and I hit him.

Steve Benson:
Well, you came at the literary critics with your control and mastery of the language which put you, I think, in an advantageous position. Not because most cartoonists don't use the language like you do and don't write out their stories and their point like you do. Your cartooning was more unique in that way.

Jules Feiffer:
When I started that's true. But more hand more they do. That's Spiegelman's "Maus" and other things, wonderful pieces of writing. And he uses words and pictures gorgeously. And he's a wonderful writer of prose as one knows when you read his writing. And Chris Greer writes beautifully. He writes in that spare way that he draws and colors. And again, what I always loved about -- not editorial cartoons per se but the comic strip was this combination of words and pictures where you didn't know where one started and the other began. My wife and I began this book of short stories. She wrote this text which is these short stories. And my job in illustrating it was to make the words and the pictures that I drew merge together so looking at it as kind of a movie version of the stories she tells. Not the book so much as the movie. So it's kind of a story board that I've done here. And you're not aware of where the words end and the picture piece. -- and it all becomes one piece. And that's like with the great writers for whom I worked. And it was a thrilling -- thrilling to kind of figure out how to do this.

Steve Benson:
You say you do a lot of books, children's literature.

Jules Feiffer:
Well, I love children's books. This is a passion now which has just - Panographics, in Seattle which is a comic publishing house is doing my complete works from the beginning to the middle, which is right now. And "Passionella" came out in 1959. They put out a new edition of it. This is the old edition of me.

Steve Benson:
That's the old edition? Wow.

Jules Feiffer:
Very young.

Brian Fairrington:
You've gotten better looking. What are you, 90 what? [Laughter]

Jules Feiffer:
Oh, that was in the late 50's, early 60's.

Steve Benson:
Now, this scale is more in tune with your traditional cartooning style.

Jules Feiffer:
That was a cartoon that recently ran in playboy. That's the way I was drawing then. And now it's 35-years later and I'm drawing this way now.

Brian Fairrington:
Were you commissioned specifically to do the work for Playboy?

Jules Feiffer:
Well, when they started running me, they printed me and published me but didn't pay me. They had no money.

Brian Fairrington:
And Hugh Hefner is a big cartoon fan.

Jules Feiffer:
Well, Hefner approached me after seeing the first collection of my cartoons called 666 and offered me $500 a month to draw for Playboy. $500 a month back in --

Brian Fairrington:
What year was that?

Jules Feiffer:
'59. A lot of money. And he was the best cartoon editor I've ever worked with. I mean, he was just terrific.

Steve Benson:
Why so?

Jules Feiffer:
Well --

Steve Benson:
He came to work in a bathrobe?

Jules Feiffer:
The roughs I would send in were not always but often enough anti-to the things Playboy pushed.

Brian Fairrington:
Did he allow you to have a bunny as an assistant?

Jules Feiffer:
No such luck.

Steve Benson:
But he was the best editor you ever had because he allowed you to mock the things Playboy represented?

Jules Feiffer:
Because he, unlike most editors of publications, didn't make me adhere to the point of view of the magazine. We don't do this. We do that. We don't do this. And instead, when he would see a cartoon that he liked, he would criticize it from the point of making it stronger, making my point stronger, even if it was a point he disagreed with. So he was interested in the process.

Steve Benson:
Describe an encounter with Hugh Hefner where he could come in in his bathrobe and pipe and tell you to make the cartoon stronger.

Jules Feiffer:
And he'd be in bed with three chicks and say, love it, Juley baby.

Steve Benson:
How would he approach you?

Jules Feiffer:
When I went to Chicago where I first met him and went to the Playboy mansion which was not in LA yet. This Playboy mansion was a fascinating place. He invited me after two or three visits to stay over. And it was a summer day and I came. And I was taken through this palace upstairs to this gorgeous room, a suite, really. And his butler said, "Can I get you anything else, sir?" and I giggling to myself said, "yeah, where are the girls?" and I get in the shower, it was August, very hot. And there's a knock on the door. And just as Rock Hudson in the movies, I put the towel around my waist. Standing at the door is this absolutely stunning, gorgeous girl in shorts and very buxom and gorgeous legs. And she smiles at me. And I cannot believe what's happening. And she says, "Pardon me, but I had this room before you. I think I left my radio here." then she goes to the closet, takes her radio, thanks me and leaves." and I said, see, even in the playboy world I live like a Jules Feiffer cartoon.

Brian Fairrington:
Looking at newspapers today, that they're so timid in what they want to public, they're afraid of offending anybody, how do you see newspaper in the future of what we do as editorial cartoonists and commentators? How do you see that in today's world?

Jules Feiffer:
I'm not sure it's any different now than it has been. There have always been exceptions depending on what the time is. And in the Vietnam years there were more exceptions than there are now because there was more criticism. But I don't think you have any problems with your paper, do you?

Steve Benson:
I get one or two cartoons spiked a month.

Jules Feiffer:
You do?

Steve Benson:
Yeah. It's not uncommon to have that happen. Particularly in a shrinking market where the bottom line is becoming more and more of concern and there's the aversion to having to field critical calls from angry, hot-headed readers and the possibility of losing subscriptions, that kind of thing. As a competition for the news here has increased, you know, there's been more reluctance on the part of editors to take chances.

Brian Fairrington:
I received or my syndicate received an e-mail this week saying they were going to cancel us in an Alabama paper because our cartoons were too hard-hitting. And that's exactly what they said.

Jules Feiffer:
Hard-hitting. A hard-hitting editorial cartoon. What were you thinking of?

Brian Fairrington:
I know.

Steve Benson:
What's the role of the editorial cartoonist has been in society. Historically speaking we started to hear in colonial times that Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere, their editorial cartoons.

Jules Feiffer:
They did something else, too, didn't they? They had a day job.

Steve Benson:
Yeah. Ben Franklin flew kites. Paul revere.

Jules Feiffer:
That best describes -- Bill Malden said it best. He said, if it's big, hit it." and it's that simple. And it's essentially nonpartisan.

Brian Fairrington:
Don't you think it would make sense in today's world where we have to compete with the internet that the newspapers cannot compete with the internet? They can't be the same because people are going to gravitate to the internet? To offer something different? Offer a feature that is a hard-hitting cartoon or commentary from a columnist that has something to say? Wouldn't that be important and attract people to read it? There's logic here and editors and logic don't always meet.

Jules Feiffer:
I think there has been across the board on every level of culture a dumbing down. And one of the things that impressed and appalled me when I thought about it when I saw the film "good night and good luck" George Clooney's movie about Edward Murrow. It wasn't the horrors of McCarthyism. I remember that very, very well and there was not

Brian Fairrington:
Didn't' hurt Edward that phrase McCarthyism?

Jules Feiffer:
What struck me was morrow. He was on a network called CBS and he was speaking to the people and he was speaking in a prose that wouldn't be allowed on anybody's air today including PBS because it would sound too lofty.

Steve Benson:
It was refined and elegant.

Jules Feiffer:
Literate. And everybody spoke that way then. Not quite as well-written or conceived as Murrow who had a poetic flair in his language. But if you listened to Howard K. Smith or Edward Newman, these were all men with intellects.

Steve Benson:
How can the editorial cartoon follow in that tradition of eloquent and intellectualism?

Jules Feiffer:
Well, it seldom has tried. But they've been great cartoonists as we know. Besides Herb Bloch, Bolton, there's been a great number of them before then. Wonderful people.

Brian Fairrington:
You look like you're a little too young for Thomas Nash, weren't you?

Jules Feiffer:
Who's she? [Laughter]

Steve Benson:
You said something recently about your approach to your craft, to your art. "As long as it's fun and damaging, you do it." would you like to kind of expound on that as to how you apply that to editorial cartooning? For that matter for any type of art you do? Fun and damaging.

Jules Feiffer:
I was speaking specifically about the cartoons, which in my experience, in my work, have been primarily adversarial. That they go out to reveal something. Hopefully something true that's not that well articulated out there and generally. And make a point about it. Get people to think a little differently about it. And then I spread that into theater and in film. In "carnal knowledge" it's the first example of saying something about sex in America that nobody was talking about and nobody was dealing with and saying it in a fresh and funny and odd enough way to make people pay attention to something ongoing they knew was part of their life, they just didn't talk about it.

Steve Benson:
In that process what did you hope to damage?

Jules Feiffer:
The sensibility, conventional wisdom and -- that allowed people to go on thinking and behaving the way they did without thinking twice about it. Did I succeed in doing that? Probably nod. Did I succeed in making them aware of it and walking away from what they were aware of? Probably.

Steve Benson:
From your own experience do you have any memories of how your art in specific situations has made a palpable, measurable, memorable impact?

Jules Feiffer:
I think in only one way, and that's the way art generally makes an impact. It doesn't change anything. Or if it does, it takes a long time in concert with other things to change something. The role of plays is to make the people out there who read you feel represented when generally they feel unrepresented. I mean, we know it specifically in this time, just as it was in the 1950's, that so many Americans don't feel they have a voice, don't feel they being listened to, don't feel that anybody cares about what their situation is. And when you do a cartoon that strikes out at one of the targets they don't believe is ever hit or hit hard enough, they think, "that's the way I feel. I count. There's somebody out there who thinks like me and he or she is in print." so I guess it's not as lousy as I think it is.

Steve Benson:
Have you gotten a lot of response from your great swath of leaders out there?

Jules Feiffer:
It's happened in terms of mail. But more important, it's happened when I go out and speak, as I am here this week at the Arizona State. Just the kind of affection and feelings that come to me from the audience.

Steve Benson:
Do you find that inspiring for you?

Jules Feiffer:
Anything that validates a lifetime ain't bad.

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