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Movie review: Sideways

Film critic David Edelstein reviews "sideways".


Other segments from the episode on October 22, 2004

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 22, 2004: Interview with Robert Mankoff; Interview with Roz Chast; Interview with Gahan Wilson; Interview with Bruce Eric Kaplan; Review of the film "Sideways."


DATE October 22, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Robert Mankoff discusses his career as a cartoonist and
cartoon editor at The New Yorker

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Many of the greatest cartoonists of the 20th century were published in The New
Yorker magazine, which is one reason why many New Yorker readers over the
decades have turned first to the cartoons. Every cartoon ever published in
the magazine since its 1925 debut--that's a total of 68,647 cartoons--are
collected in "The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker." It's a book and
double-CD collection. Today we'll be hearing from several cartoonists
featured in the collection: Bruce Eric Kaplan, Gahan Wilson, Roz Chast and my
first guest, Robert Mankoff, who also edited the collection.

He's been the magazine's cartoon editor since 1997. He got the job 20 years
after he sold his first cartoon to The New Yorker. Mankoff edited several
earlier collections of the magazine's cartoons, including its 75th-anniversary
collection. He's also the founder and editor of the Internet cartoon database
The Cartoon Bank. I spoke with him in 2002 after the publication of his book
"The Naked Cartoonist" about the art and craft of cartooning.

Robert Mankoff, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'm going to ask you to describe your
most famous cartoon.

Mr. ROBERT MANKOFF (Cartoon Editor, The New Yorker): All right. Well, here
is my most famous cartoon. It's quite simple, and maybe that accounts for its
fame. There's a guy on the phone. He's an executive, clearly a busy
executive. He's pointing to his Rolodex and he's got his phone to his ear and
he's saying, `No, Thursday's out. How about never? Is never good for you?'
And I know from statistics assiduously compiled that that's my favorite
cartoon because that's the one people license the most, that's the one they
buy prints of, and that's the one when I'm at a party and they say, `You know
what cartoon of yours I like best?' and I say, `I do. I do know what it is.'
And I tell them that, and I'm right.

GROSS: Why do you think it struck a chord?

Mr. MANKOFF: I think it was in 1993 and it seemed to sort of symbolize just
the hectic, harried nature of our lives, where we're constantly meeting and
associating with people which we often don't want to associate with and we're
trying to obfuscate and say the polite thing and this somehow was really
saying what people were really thinking on some of these phone calls.

GROSS: You became the cartoon editor of The New Yorker in 1997. Why don't
you just, like, describe what the job is?

Mr. MANKOFF: It's an interesting job. It's not, I guess, what people think.
Often when I go around and I give talks or people find out I'm a cartoon
editor, and they said, `Well, that's the greatest job in the world,' imagining
that it's something like, I don't know, being a candy taster, you know, or
eating all the best food, you know, the food you really love. And it's a
great job because I love cartoons, but the process by which--well, I'll give
you for an example. Like, on a normal week, I will see 30 or 40 contributors
to the magazine who do cartoons and I'll see cartoons that--unsolicited and
solicited cartoons--you know, by mail--I might look at a thousand cartoons in
two days.

So when I'm looking at the cartoons, it's probably taking me about 10 seconds
or less to look at each cartoon and at that point just in a preliminary way
decide--`Do we want to use it? Do I like it? Is there something there?' And
then I'm going to go back and look at them again. But I'm not laughing or
almost rarely. I'm sort of just processing. There's so much to look at, and
if I went on some sort of, you know, gut instinct, like `Am I laughing at the
cartoon?' well, it would be sort of like if you were tasting bonbons and you
were trying to judge them and you were saying, `Gee, this thousandth bonbon,
why doesn't it taste as good as the fifth?' It wouldn't make any sense. So I
try to bring some sort of principles to just the initial selection of the
cartoons. Then after, I make a selection out of about a thousand of maybe 50
cartoons that I then take in an art meeting and I show to David Remnick, and
we have baskets, `yes,' `no' and `maybe.' And then David and I...

GROSS: He's the editor of The New Yorker.

Mr. MANKOFF: ...and sometimes some other editors--the editor of The New
Yorker--basically, choose the cartoons, and in the end, David chooses them.
He's got a--he's got to pick out of these bunch which ones he thinks makes
overall sense for the magazine. And we have differences of opinion and, you
know, sometimes he gives in to me, but he's usually--the editor so he usually
gets his way.

GROSS: So you have to have criteria because, as you said, the thousandth
bonbon isn't as tasty as the first.

Mr. MANKOFF: Right.

GROSS: So what are your criteria and could you put it into words?

Mr. MANKOFF: Sure. Well, the first criteria I have for the cartoon is is it
communicating some idea through the medium of humor? Is it demonstrating, you
know, not just funniness but thinking? Is it making some point? And, of
course, we do cartoons that are just silly and just funny, but overall, I
think the enduring nature of The New Yorker cartoons is that they strike a
chord in someone. People remember them because they make some sort of point.

So I'm looking for that, the communication of an idea. Secondly, if it's
someone who's new, I'm looking, do they have a distinctive voice? Now are
they doing their own cartoons? Or are they--you know, did they basically see
a Roz Chast cartoon and think `Oh, I can do Roz Chast cartoons'? And then
thirdly whether or not--how funny the cartoon is is not, to me, always, the
ultimate criteria. For example, if a cartoon is on a topic that's been beaten
to death, then it's got to be very funny, while if it's on some topic that's
never been discussed before, for the first time, then, as far as I'm
concerned, I'll say, `Well, yeah, let's use this cartoon. No one has ever
done a cartoon, you know, about the fact that men don't like hair on their
back,' or whatever it is.

GROSS: What's the editing process like? Do you work with cartoonists on
improving the work or, you know, making it funnier, changing the drawing?

Mr. MANKOFF: Well, little--very little, because the--one of the things is
that the cartoonists submit 10 or 15 ideas every week. And it's a little bit
like a type of haiku. You know what I mean? It--the line--I mean, you can
fiddle with it a little bit, but one of the things, especially, that's
involved in a New Yorker cartoon is this idea of authenticity. The cartoons,
I would say--I mean, everything else in the magazine goes through a very, very
elaborate editing process where things get written and rewritten and, of
course, it's still the person's work but a lot of--there's often a lot of
hands in it.

Here, you know, when you're looking at a Roz Chast cartoon, it's Roz Chast.
Nobody else wrote the line for her. Every once in a while I'll make a
suggestion--like with someone like Roz, if there's many panels, I'll say
something like `You know, I think panel four is weak.' You know, `I think
you could do a little bit more.' It's more encouragement. The people are very
talented and they want to come up with their ideas. See, the--I mean, in a
caption, let's say, of, you know, 10 or 15 words, yeah, we'll change a word
but I don't want to really start rewriting it because then it becomes my work,
and one of the things about The New Yorker cartoon--and when you're looking at
it, it's really the work of the person who does it.

The editing, I think, primarily, is in the selection and really in the
criteria. It was very different at one time. When the magazine started out
in the '30s and '40s, there was a lot more not so much editing but it was
straight-out gag writing. People like Peter Arno, for the most part, didn't
write any of their captions or Helen Hokinson, very, very few. So it might be
one writer, it might be more like sort of a Broadway show model where someone
does the music and someone, you know, does the lyrics.

GROSS: So someone would come up with a gag and then the cartoonist would be
brought in to come up with the image?

Mr. MANKOFF: Yeah. But more collaborative than that.

GROSS: They worked as teams.

Mr. MANKOFF: But the roles were clearly assigned. Helen Hokinson might draw
pictures and talk with her collaborator and he might come up with lines and
they might go back and forth. But it was different than it is now.

Who were some of your heroes when you were reading The New Yorker before you
started working there?

Mr. MANKOFF: Well, I--like everybody else, you know, Charles Addams and
George Price, but I would say my main influence, although my cartoons
certainly veered very, very far away from it, was Saul Steinberg. There was
something so--and it was hard to say even that they were cartoons but there
was something sort of so deeply intellectual about those cartoons and I had
quit graduate school to become a cartoonist, so Saul Steinberg was sort of my
way station.

GROSS: Can you give an example of one of his cartoons that influenced you?

Mr. MANKOFF: Well, I think--I'm trying to remember it. It--you know, he
engaged in this wonderful sort of, you know, almost fake writing, very
elaborate writing, and there's a guy at a--it's just a--you know, quite
simple cartoon. It's a loan office and there's a--this guy asking for the
loan, and in the speech balloon that's coming out is all this elaborate
writing, but it's all just shaped like a no. Almost like the Constitution,
you know.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. MANKOFF: But in this wonderful, and, also, you know, very, very
artistic, as well, and the elaborate pictures that really can't be summarized
on the radio would just sort of spark my imagination and think--I guess what
it made me think is that this was something you could aspire to, that
something wonderful could be done in this field, that it could be more than
just a joke or more than--you know, I've grown up drawing Donald Duck and Bugs
Bunny in school and it could sort of be--I mean, I quit graduate school and I
said, `Well, gee, The New Yorker could sort of be the Harvard of cartooning.'

GROSS: Now you sold your first cartoon to The New Yorker in 1977.

Mr. MANKOFF: Right.

GROSS: What were some of the things that you drew before that that didn't get
in, that got you rejection notices?

Mr. MANKOFF: Yeah. I did hundreds of cartoons and I actually got a number of
them published. I'm thinking of some of them now. One of them is in the
book. It shows a jester and he's in a very gloomy cell. He's hanging by his
hands and he's peering out the window to the guard and, you know, he's a court
jester, and he's saying, `Please tell the king I've remembered the punch

GROSS: Yeah, I like that one.

Mr. MANKOFF: Then there's a couple, a middle-aged couple; they're just
reading the paper in the living room and you hear--you know, you see and the
picture says--it's not--someone's knocking at the door and the woman is saying
to the man, `Quick, hide. That may be my husband.'

GROSS: That's a kind of variation on the no-sex theme.

Mr. MANKOFF: Right. It is. Yeah, it is.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. MANKOFF: And when I look back on this, I mean, sometimes I flipped that,
you know, around, where you take a situation that is a very, very common
situation and then by somehow looking at it in a different way--like I might
have a couple just at breakfast reading the paper, drinking coffee, and the
woman might be saying, `You know, Dave, I think the divorce has just been a
little bit too amiable.'

GROSS: Now in talking about rejection notices, in your new book, "The Naked
Cartoonist," you reprint a letter you got from David Mamet shortly after you
became cartoon editor, and then you print the note you sent him in return.

Mr. MANKOFF: Right.

GROSS: So read us the two.

Mr. MANKOFF: Well, David Mamet--I'll do this from memory. I think it's
pretty close.

GROSS: This is David Mamet, the screenwriter and playwright and director.

Mr. MANKOFF: Right, right, right. The screenwriter, playwright. And
cartoonist, I guess, 'cause he did cartoons and I think he has probably some
cartoons he sent me. He said, when I became cartoon editor, `Dear Mr.
Mankoff, congratulations on becoming cartoon editor. I've taken the liberty
of sending you a bunch of cartoons,' and I looked at them and I wrote him back
this note, saying, `Thanks very much, I've taken the liberty of sending you a

GROSS: Why did you do that?

Mr. MANKOFF: Just snottiness. But--partly. The other thing...

GROSS: I mean, because that's really a way of saying to him `You may be a
great writer, but your cartoons aren't very good.' I mean...

Mr. MANKOFF: Or--well, let's put it more gently, `not right for us.' That's
what I learned basically in being an editor. You don't say things are not
good; you say, `They're not right for us.'

GROSS: Right.

Mr. MANKOFF: But there is a certain arrogance that writers have, often
captured when they say this to you: `I can't draw at all, but'--their
assumption is somehow that they could easily, you know, create great cartoons
because they're smart, they're writers, they're funny, and whatnot. And I
haven't found it to be the case. Now last week Norman Mailer was in my office
showing me his cartoons. And I must say I was a lot nicer to Mr. Mailer than
I was in this note to David Mamet. But they weren't actually cartoons, so I
don't know if they're--they didn't really fit the criteria so much, whereas
actually David Mamet's cartoons were basically attempts to do gag cartoons
and, I mean, I judged them as unsuccessful. Others, you know, might think

I think the problem writers have--and even, you know, great writers--is that
they bring all--it's almost like a tremendously muscle-bound person trying to
play Ping-Pong. They're just bringing too much to it. They want to show off.
They want to show not only are they funny but they're smart. The other thing
that happens--I don't know how to describe this. But even if their cartoons
were OK, they--it would be hard to use them because their cartoons are--become
too contaminated by their other persona so that people couldn't really even
see the cartoon.

The way I'd explain it is sort of by flipping it and say--let's say you look
at Roz Chast cartoons and if you look at them for 20 years and these wonderful
cartoons and then you meet Roz Chast, well, it's hard for you just to meet
Roz. You're looking at her but you're not even seeing her or you are--you're
seeing her but it's somehow contaminated by all your preconceptions about her
because of her cartoons.

GROSS: My guest is Robert Mankoff, The New Yorker's cartoon editor. He also
edited "The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker," a book and CD collection
featuring every cartoon ever published in the magazine.

This is FRESH AIR.


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Robert Mankoff, cartoon editor
of The New Yorker magazine. He also edited the collection "The Complete
Cartoons of The New Yorker."

In a recent edition of The New Yorker, there's a cartoon that--it's very
funny; I thought I'd ask you about it.

Mr. MANKOFF: Sure.

GROSS: As our listeners may know, there's a new Museum of Sex in New York,
and this cartoon showed exhibits from the Museum of No Sex. And the exhibits
included the chastity belt, the headache, the pocket protector, "Star Trek"
memorabilia and late-night television.

Mr. MANKOFF: Right.

GROSS: Talk about deciding to use this particular comic.

Mr. MANKOFF: Well, I mean, I think--I mean, in a way it's sort of like a
common way to flip an idea. And another criteria really that I didn't mention
is topicality. A cartoon like this, simply because it talks about this new
subject, you know, in a way doesn't have to be the world's best cartoon. It
just sort of interestingly flipped the idea of sex with no sex. I mean, one
of the things that changed somewhat in The New Yorker, especially when Tina
Brown started being editor, was that sex became a topic.

One of the first cartoons I did when Tina became editor sort of for her tenure
was a middle-class couple in bed and they're reading, and the woman is saying,
`You know what? You're right. Tonight isn't reading night. Tonight is sex

GROSS: Right.

Mr. MANKOFF: And in a way both these cartoons have an affinity. One of the
things is that in sort of a subtextual way this cartoon speaks to the fact
that although we have a very sexualized culture, people aren't having much

GROSS: Well, you have another cartoon about that. And it's--there's four
middle-age people in a living room. One's sitting on the couch. One's on an
easy chair. Another's on another easy chair.

Mr. MANKOFF: Right.

GROSS: One's reading. One's listening to a Walkman. The other's knitting.

Mr. MANKOFF: Right.

GROSS: And it--what's the caption?

Mr. MANKOFF: I think, it's "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," the remake.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. And for anyone who doesn't know that movie, that's a
movie about like swinging couples, you know...

Mr. MANKOFF: Right. Right.

GROSS: ...having sex with each other in the '60s or '70s; I forget which.
So, yeah, I thought that was another funny one on that same theme of people
not having sex.

Mr. MANKOFF: Yeah. Well, that--not having sex and this is a little bit what
I'm talking about as we're discussing these cartoons. You can see what the
sort of Ben Wright criteria for what has become defined as a New Yorker
cartoon is. It's topical, but it's not today topical. It's not this week
topical. It's contemporary, but it is speaking to the issues of this time.

GROSS: Can you think of funny ones about having sex?

Mr. MANKOFF: About having sex? Let me see. I think I did a cartoon where
there's--a few cartoons. One I did where there's a woman and a man in bed.
And they're actually having sex--New Yorker-type sex; they're all covered.
And he goes--sometimes I ask my wife, `You want to have New Yorker type sex or
regular sex?' But the woman is saying to the man, `Wow, our first date and
already I feel like it's our second.'

GROSS: Right.

After September 11th, how long did it take The New Yorker to feel like it was
comfortable or that it was appropriate to publish cartoons that had to do with

Mr. MANKOFF: I think we took a week where we just stepped back. We had one
George Booth drawing, which wasn't a cartoon--sort of an anti-cartoon. It
just showed one of his usually gay happy figures depressed. And Ms.
Ritter-Haus(ph), she had her violin, but she wasn't playing any music, and the
cat just had his head between his hands. But the week after, we sort of edged
back into it. The first cartoon we ran after September 11th was a woman
saying to guy at a bar--saying, `I never thought I'd laugh again until I saw
that jacket.' You know, he's got a--and it showed wonderfully really, well,
we're going to laugh. People are going to be silly and stupid. And then
there was a great cartoon, which is still, you know, applicable with that
woman getting on a plane with a cat in a little cat carrier. The security
guy's saying, `Ma'am, we're going to have to declaw the cat.'

GROSS: That's good.

Mr. MANKOFF: So I think we did a pretty good job--of course, it wasn't
about--we didn't do cartoons about really the tragic part of it; we did
cartoons about the human part and what we were after September 11th, which
were still people.

GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. MANKOFF: Well, thank you, Terry. Whenever you get to New York, come and
visit me at The New Yorker. I'd love to show you the place.

GROSS: I'm glad you said that because I have a few cartoons I wanted to show
you. I'm kidding.

Mr. MANKOFF: That's not surprising.

GROSS: Don't worry. Don't worry. I wouldn't do that to you.

Mr. MANKOFF: And I have a few interviews, of course, I'd like to do.

GROSS: Robert Mankoff is the cartoon editor of The New Yorker. He also
edited the new collection, "The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker." We
spoke in 2002.

We'll hear from more New Yorker cartoonists in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, cartoons about the perfect family, phobias and boredom. We
hear from New Yorker cartoonists Roz Chast, Gahan Wilson and Bruce Eric

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Roz Chast discusses her career as a cartoonist

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Every cartoon published in The New Yorker in its nearly 80-year
history--that's 68,647 cartoons--is included in the new collection, "The
Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker." It's a book and two CDs. On today's
edition, we're listening back to interviews with New Yorker cartoonists. Roz
Chast has published in the magazine since 1978. In the current edition of The
New Yorker, her cartoon features a young man in a sweater sitting on the
sidewalk behind a table with pamphlets and a donation box. The sign on the
table reads: `Jews for Jesus, and also for pissing off one's parents even if
they weren't religious in a way the Hare Krishnas can't even begin to

I spoke with Roz Chast in 1987 after the publication of her cartoon collection
"Mondo Boxo." It included her cartoons Camp Mandatory(ph), where you'll have
lots of fun or else. And she described the perfect family: `They don't use
very much salt, but when they do they use sea salt. Please take a good look
at the label or else you'll probably get the wrong brand.'

Ms. ROZ CHAST (Cartoonist): I guess they're just sort of this sort of
perfect, obnoxious, little family that you read about a lot in magazines and
newspapers, and they're always doing everything sort of right and they eat
right and they keep fit and they like themselves a whole lot. And they're
very clever and I'm very happy for them, really.

GROSS: Are you really?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Do you resent them?

Ms. CHAST: I don't know if I really resent them. I think they're kind of

GROSS: Did you ever want to be perfect yourself like that?

Ms. CHAST: Oh, of course. I mean, you know, especially when you read about
these--oh, I don't know. I saw--I can't remember her name. She's some
hostess and she has some book out, and I saw her on TV and she was so funny.
She was just talking about setting a table for company and she just went on
and on and on about the place mats and the napkins and the fork and the knife
and the spoon and this glass and that glass. And everything was very clever
and, you know, it was like cauliflower centerpieces and it just was sort of

GROSS: You have one cartoon called Poets On Strike...

Ms. CHAST: Right.

GROSS: ...about the great poetry strike of 1989 in which they brought in
scabs, but the scabs only wrote things like `Roses are red, violets are blue,
sugar is white.' And after six and a half months, an agreement was reached
and every the most depressed poet was happy, sort of. That cartoon made me
think of what an unusual job you have, kind of like the poets going on strike.
Poets don't go on strike; nobody notices poets. And cartoonists--I mean,
you're at home all day...

Ms. CHAST: Yeah.

GROSS: ...most likely trying to come up with ideas. Is that a difficult and
lonely life?

Ms. CHAST: Some--there are times when it's harder than others. When it's
not--when it's going well, it seems like the easiest job in the world. And
when it's not, then--I wouldn't say, you know, necessarily the hardest job in
the world, but that it's just harder.

GROSS: Are there things that come your way that you save because you know
that they will eventually be a good idea for a cartoon from them?

Ms. CHAST: Yeah, I guess so. I mean--well, I don't even know if I think that
directly. I do save things here or there that may never find their way into a
cartoon but that I kind of like.

GROSS: Such as?

Ms. CHAST: Oh, well, recently I got something--I guess it's a company called
the Wisconsin Cheeseman, and it's these huge--well, I guess since it's the
Christmas season and all, it's these huge crates of arrangements of cheeses
and summer sausages and petit fours and weird sauces, and it's all arranged so
there's like a big cheese in the center and it's like a mandala but of...

GROSS: I know exactly what you mean. And is there a little, like, green--the
equivalent of confetti, you know, around it...

Ms. CHAST: Yeah.

GROSS: make it look festive?

Ms. CHAST: Like a lawn kind of thing or something.

GROSS: Yeah, exactly. So this is going to be used as a cartoon, do you

Ms. CHAST: Oh, I doubt it. Maybe in a cartoon about something else
completely that might have a little tiny, tiny, tiny, you know, cameo role or

GROSS: But that's one of the things that I really love about your cartoons.
Everything really rings true. There's all these little details of life.
Like, when you draw that cartoon and there's a little image in passing with
this cheese box, I'm going to recognize it because I've seen these cheese
boxes. It's those details, I think, that--among other things that really make
your cartoons so special.

Ms. CHAST: Oh, why thank you.

GROSS: What else are you saving now?

Ms. CHAST: Oh, let me see. Ah, I have all kinds of ridiculous things. How
to keep hamster manuals and--What do I have? I have a book called "Chickens
in your Back Yard(ph)." I don't know when these will ever, ever, ever show up
in cartoons. They're just things that I collect that I think are funny and,
you know, they might, they might not. I don't know.

GROSS: You know, when I first started seeing your cartoons and I saw that
they were by R. Chast, I said to myself, `Is that a man or a woman?' Did
people ever think that you were a man before you became known as Roz Chast?

Ms. CHAST: Yes, I still occasionally get letters, believe it or not, to Mr.

Roz Chast, which is, you know, really insisting on, you know, something. But
I just sort of stuck with it. Well, I did go through a tiny phase for a few
weeks I think it lasted of signing my name Roz Chast, because an editor--a
woman editor had said to me, `Well, you're a woman cartoonist and you should
let people know you're a woman.' And, you know--I mean, it made me write that
I felt funny--I felt every time I sign it, it's like, `Oh, well, now she likes
me more because I'm signing my name like this. I guess now I'm better in her
book.' And I felt stupid doing it, you know. I said, `Well, this is not how
I really sign my name. This is--I sign it R. Chast; that's how I sign it.'

GROSS: That's interesting. So you never decided to sign it R. Chast to keep
your sexual...

Ms. CHAST: No, no, no. That's...

GROSS: ...your gender unknown.

Ms. CHAST: No, not at all. I mean, obviously, if I wanted to do that, I--you
know, in the content, in The New Yorker, when they list the cartoons, I would
have had them print R. Chast there, but you know...

GROSS: Let me just ask you one last question. Did you--when you started
cartooning, did you approach it with the idea of wanting to do it differently
than it had been done before?

Ms. CHAST: No, I--this is--not really. This is just really the way I draw.
And when I try to do it the same as other people, I knew that that was
really--that didn't work at all. That was a disaster. I guess some people
when they get out of college, they really are very much in a lather about what
they're going to do next. But I mean, at the time that I started, I just knew
that this was really what I like to do.

GROSS: Roz Chast, recorded in 1987.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Gahan Wilson discusses his career as a cartoonist

In 1986, I spoke with Gahan Wilson, whose work is also included in the new
collections, "The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker." Many of his cartoons
have a macabre and ghoulish sensibility inspired by horror movies and science
fiction. He was also influenced by the late New Yorker cartoon Charles
Addams. I asked Wilson to describe some of his early cartoons.

Mr. GAHAN WILSON (Cartoonist): There's this fellow and he's in a cannibal
pot. He's being cooked and he has an evil look on his face and he has a
bottle of poison and he's pouring poison in the water he's being cooked in.
And that was one. And then--let me see--oh, there was one where there's this
little kid and he's with his father and they're in a snowstorm. And there's
this dead bird on the snowbank with his feet in the air and the little kid's
pointing at him and he says, `Look, Daddy, the first robin.' That kind of
stuff. This is very much in keeping with what I do today.

GROSS: Another theme that recurs in your work...

Mr. WILSON: Hmm.

GROSS ...and there's a wonderful chapter on it in your new book, is childhood
fear and especially some of the really irrational ones that we all have. I'd
like to go over some of those with you and see if you had them and where you
think they came from. The toilet monster's really one of my favorites.

Mr. WILSON: Yeah.

GROSS: Will you explain the toilet monster?

Mr. WILSON: The toilet monster is if in the middle of the night you have to
go to the bathroom, you have to be very careful because there is this thing
who lives down in the works underneath there. All plumbing is a source of
great peril and danger because it goes from the known world into the unknown
depths there. And that's why we have all these things about snakes coming
into the bathtub via the drain and we know, of course, about the crocodiles in
the sewers and all that sort of stuff. It was also this thing, which is
somehow associated with the toilet; it's down there. And at night, if you
flush the toilet, you're liable to waken it and it may come up and get you.
So you have to be--you have to flush it and get the hell out very quickly.

GROSS: Were you really worried about that as...

Mr. WILSON: Well, that one, actually--I thank God I wasn't. This was
something that I heard from somebody else. But a lot of the other ones were

GROSS: OK. Making a face. What's going to happen if you make a face?

Mr. WILSON: Making a face--if you make a face and somebody startles you, like
you get slapped in the back or there's an explosion or a backfire, something
like that, you've got to watch out because it might freeze on your face
forever. So you'll have the ...(unintelligible) for the rest of your life.
And then there's other--a lot of stuff happens is because parents don't
understand and make you do things that are obviously that are fatal. I mean,
like eating cherries with milk. Every kid knows eating cherries with milk or
something else--it depends on the region or so on--there are various
combinations of food which are fatal. And parents don't understand that and
they make the kid do it anyhow. And the kid does it 'cause he's a good kid
and it kills him, and the parents feel very bad because they've done it. But
that's life. That's the way it goes. It's part of growing up.

And there's also stuff like trying to cope with the mysterious areas, like if
something falls down into a drain or something, like a ball or a dime rolls
down there, don't reach into the thing with your bare hands because something
may get it, you know, your fingers or the whole hand and pull you in,
something like that. There's no safety if you're a kid anywhere at all.

GROSS: OK. Did you draw the little monsters in the margins of your notebook
when you were in school...

Mr. WILSON: I did. Oh, yes, I did, indeed. And I had a strange experience
in that I went through some stuff that--from the family. My parents were
dead, and there was a bunch of stuff there. And I--there was one box which
had these drawings I'd done as a little teeny, bitsy kid. And they were
preliterate, you know--I was really a little itsy-bitsy, and they're monsters,
you know. There were all kinds of stuff like that, and I remember one has,
you know, mother's loving hand, it says `Strange monster come to kill us all.'
And so I was doing that kind of junk way back then.

GROSS: Cartoonist Gahan Wilson, recorded in 1986. His work is represented in
the new collection "The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker."

Coming up, New Yorker cartoonist Bruce Eric Kaplan, known to his readers by
his initials BEK.

This is FRESH AIR.

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Interview: Bruce Eric Kaplan discusses his career as a writer and
cartoonist and his new book, "This is a Bad Time"

Today we're hearing from some of the cartoonists featured in the new
collection, "The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker."

Bruce Eric Kaplan signs his cartoons with his initials BEK. His work has been
featured in The New Yorker for over 10 years. Kaplan has also written for the
TV shows "Cybill," "Seinfeld" and "Six Feet Under," where he's now an
executive producer.

I spoke to him earlier this year after the publication of his book "This is a
Bad Time." It collects his cartoons from The New Yorker and other
publications, including The Boston Globe and LA Weekly. I asked Kaplan to
describe one of the cartoons in the book.

Mr. BRUCE ERIC KAPLAN (Author, "This is a Bad Time"; Executive Producer, "Six
Feet Under"): This is a chicken talking to a bird in a barnlike setting. And
the chicken's saying, `Sometimes I get so bored with myself, I can barely make
it to doodle do.'

GROSS: Now where did that come--what made you think about that?

Mr. KAPLAN: Oh, come on, please. Don't you get--you can't make it to doodle
do some mornings, can you?

GROSS: But I wouldn't have thought of the chicken.

Mr. KAPLAN: Right.

GROSS: I just would have thought about myself.

Mr. KAPLAN: Yeah. Well, that's the thing. I mean, it's like a whole
language of the world of cartoons. I mean that there's images, classic ones,
like the people crawling in the desert or the people on the deserted island.
But, you know, there's a whole--Is it lexicon? Is that using the word

GROSS: Sure.

Mr. KAPLAN: Of just images and worlds that you can sort of take your thoughts
and plug them into, like, you know, a farm setting is a wonderful one, I
think. I love farms. I love--not that I've ever been to one, but I love
drawing them.

GROSS: You mentioned desert. You have a great one of two people crawling
across the desert.

Mr. KAPLAN: Right.

GROSS: Would you describe it?

Mr. KAPLAN: Sure. It's a woman and man crawling in a desert, you know,
looking obviously starving and thirsty. And the woman turns to the man and
says, `This isn't really about water. It's about what's going on between us,'
you know, as if they've been arguing.

GROSS: Yeah. Now how did you start drawing cartoons? What made you think,
`This is something I can do'?

Mr. KAPLAN: I just always drew little people. You know, like, when I was
talking on the phone or when I was watching TV, I would always draw little
people, little men and little women, you know, going about their business.
You know, I actually think--some holding cocktail glasses the way that I still
do for New Yorker cartoons. I mean, I always loved The New Yorker. I was
very passionate about Charles Addams. I was definitely, like, very Charles
Addams focused as a child and would, you know, take his stuff out of the
library constantly, you know, all the time. I just said this the other day to
someone else, `I was taking out his books, like, all the time from the
library, like, you know, every two weeks. I don't know why someone just
didn't give me one.' But they didn't.

GROSS: What came first, writing for television or cartooning?

Mr. KAPLAN: They actually came at the same time. What happened was I had
been trying to write for television and not succeeding at it. And I thought
like, `Oh'--I don't remember how it came to me, but I thought, like, `I could
be a New Yorker cartoonist.' I mean, one day it was just like, `Yes, that I
could do. You know, I'm not succeeding at this other thing, but this one I
can do.' So I, like, you know, read in the library--like, I got a book out,
"How to Be a Cartoonist," and it said there was an art meeting once a week.
And I started submitting, you know, 10 drawings and then sent them off with a
self-addressed envelope, like the book in the library told me to do. And, you
know, of course, like everything I did at the time, I was sure, they were
going to buy all 10 drawings. And I just sat there in my apartment and I, you
know, drew my next group, so I wouldn't miss next week's meeting and sent that

And then my first envelope came back with a rejection letter, and I was so
shocked. I couldn't believe it. It was this form rejection letter, and I
thought, like, I had sent them these brilliant things, I thought. And so I
just, you know, assumed they had made a mistake on some level and that they
were going to buy some of the second group.

So I started working on my third group, and then, you know, of course,
needless to say I got my envelope back--second group. And, anyhow, it was a
compulsion by this time, and I actually spent a few years sending, you know,
10, 15, 20 cartoons every week. I never missed an art meeting for a few
years. And so now I was also concurrently trying to be a sitcom writer and
failing at both.

So then a few years into it, my friend Kenny had hired me for the Emmy Awards.
And I came back from work one day, and instead of my self-addressed envelope,
there was a FedEx from The New Yorker. And I just cried, I mean, because I
knew something was happening, obviously. And I opened it up, and it was an
acceptance letter, you know. And it was such a big deal. It was just--I
would get these little, tiny--they're not even 8 1/2 x 11. They're like
note-card rejection letters that are--no signature. It was like sending these
off into a void. So the idea that finally someone, you know, had read them--I
mean, I would write cover letters that said--like, cursing at them saying,
`Here are, you know, 10 bleeping cartoons that any other bleeping magazine
would publish except for you,' because I figured no one--I didn't feel like
anyone was actually reading these cartoons. It just felt like they would open
them up and put them in my self-addressed envelope and send them back to me.

Oh, so then when I got the FedEx, the first line was, `I know you think we
haven't been reading your stuff, but we have. And here are these cartoons
we'd like you to draw. You know, revise them.' And, of course, then that led
to a new world of horror because revising--I thought I was drawing these
perfect things. I had no idea I was supposed to be revising these images.

GROSS: What kind of revisions did they ask for?

Mr. KAPLAN: Oh, God, it's embarrassing now, but, I mean, you know, I had no
idea. I really did--you know, this is how I was in my 20s; I thought that,
`Oh, these are perfect.' So I called him up; it was Lee Lorenz, the art
editor at the time. And I said, like, `Hi. I'm Bruce Kaplan, and I'm excited
to do these revisions. But what should I change?' And he's like, `Well, you
see the table in that picture? It doesn't look like a table. You know, a
table should have four legs.' It was like that type of thing. So he would
tell me, you know, things in my drawings that just really weren't cutting it.

GROSS: Here's a cartoon that I figure relates to writing in some way.
Someone's driving in a car along a big, deserted strip of highway and passes a
billboard. And the billboard says, `Your own tedious thoughts next 200
miles.' And, I don't know, to me, that's not only about just kind of having
to be alone for a long time on a deserted highway or alone anyplace like that.
I just have a feeling, too, that for you as a writer, maybe it feels that way
sometimes; that you have a dry spell and like...

Mr. KAPLAN: Oh, my God, have a dry...

GROSS:'re just stuck alone with yourself.

Mr. KAPLAN: It's never not a dry spell for me. I'm one of those writers who,
you know, moans in agony--or cartoonist--constantly, you know, `Why are there
no good ideas?' You know, `I despise myself.' It's always the same thought
going on in my head.

GROSS: So what do you do to kind of break the dry spell when you're feeling
that way? Sit there and hope for the best?

Mr. KAPLAN: Actually, sometimes also it helps to go through the negative
emotions in terms of, like, to do a drawing about hating oneself or about, you
know, not having any ideas. And maybe that drawing will be great or not, but
then it'll be exorcised a little bit, and then you'll think about something
else that's on your mind, and, you know, you'll move forward. I mean,
gradually it's always like a trick to just lose yourself in the process. And
if you have faith, then you can. That's my feeling.

GROSS: Bruce Eric Kaplan is a New Yorker cartoonist whose work is in the new
book "The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker." He's also an executive
producer of "Six Feet Under."

This is FRESH AIR.

(Pledge request)

(Soundbite of music)

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Review: New film "Sideways"

The director, Alexander Payne, has set three movies--"Citizen Ruth,"
"Election" and "About Schmidt"--in and around his native Omaha, Nebraska. His
new film, "Sideways," is his first since moving to Los Angeles. A tipsy road
movie, it tells the story of two unstable men on a central California
wine-tasting expedition. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.


As someone who often ponders the pros and cons of alcohol consumption, I've
wondered why no one talks about addicted epicureans, why Alcoholics Anonymous
members, at least in my circles, don't tell horror stories of Chateauneuf-Du
Pape obsession or rent money blown on a 25-year-old Glenmorangie with an
Armagnac wood finish.

I admit, that doesn't sound as nightmarish as, say, waking up from a three-day
blackout on a rooftop naked, covered in vomit with two cops pointing guns, but
there's a class of addicts for whom the connoisseur drive is closely allied
with the drive to self-medicate. Epicures goes sideways, too, big time.

Which brings us to Alexander Payne's "Sideways," an ingratiating epicurean
road movie with a steady ache, an ache like a red wine hangover. The
protagonist Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, is a recently divorced middle
school teacher, unpublished novelist and Pinot Noir freak. For him, it's not
about getting blotto--or I should say `going sideways'--it's about sticking
his nose in the latest vintage, sipping, chewing and savoring. One
pronouncement goes, `Citrus, passion fruit, just the faintest soupcon of
asparagus and like a nutty Edam cheese.' And it's about working his way down
to the bottom of the bottle, phoning his ex-wife and stumbling home to pass
out like any other drunk.

"Sideways" tells the story of a wine-tasting trip that Miles takes with his
best friend Jack, played by Thomas Haden Church, the week before Jack's
wedding. Jack is a washed-up TV actor with a big chest, a tan and a can-do
California disposition. Quite of contrast to Miles, who's paunchy, morose and
self-hating. But Jack is an addict, too. Despite his impending nuptials, he
makes a play for almost every woman he eyeballs and ends up embarking on a
whirligig, vaguely S&M affair with a tasting room employee named Stephanie,
played by Sandra Oh. Jack encourages Miles to get cozy with Maya, a divorced
waitress and wine lover, played by a radiantly blond and even-keeled Virginia
Madsen. Here Miles explains, after a lot of wine, his adoration of Pinot

(Soundbite of "Sideways")

Ms. VIRGINIA MADSEN: (As Maya) Why are you so into Pinot?

Mr. PAUL GIAMATTI: (As Miles Raymond) (Laughs)

Ms. MADSEN: I mean, it's like a thing with you.

Mr. GIAMATTI: (Laughs) I don't know. I don't know. It's a hard grape to
grow, as you know. Right? So it's thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early.
It's--you know, it's not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow
anywhere and thrive even when it's neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care
and attention, you know. And, in fact, it can only grow in these really
specific, little tucked-away corners of the world. And only the most patient
and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes
the time to understand Pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest
expression. Then--I mean, oh, its flavors. They're just almost haunting,
brilliant and thrilling and subtle and ancient on the planet.

EDELSTEIN: You don't need a shrink to tell you that Miles has overidentified
with that fragile little grape. Or that for all his eloquence, he's also
drunk on self-pity. In fact, some viewers will find the attraction of
Madsen's Maya for Miles a little mysterious. It's not that Giamatti is
totally unprepossessing, just that Miles' moroseness and intense `I'm a loser'
vibe and--oh, yes--alcoholism, don't exactly add up to the most promising
boyfriend material.

"Sideways" is closely based on a very funny novel by LA screenwriter Rex
Pickett. As adapted by Payne and his partner Jim Taylor, it's like a gonzo
teen comedy smacked upside the head by encroaching middle age and its intended
insults by bodies and minds that don't recover as quickly, or at all, from
relentless self-abuse and by the unshakeable sense that, as Shakespeare's
Richard II puts it, `I wasted time and now doth time waste me.' And yet even
here, there are patches of blissful connectedness, fleeting ones, somewheres
around the second glass of that single vineyard, central coast Pinot, moments
when the wine stops time, softens anxiety and opens up a new world of hope.

This is a lovely film, more even-toned and less smug, I think, than Payne's
last road movie, "About Schmidt." Payne's framing is relaxed and spacious.
Nothing, not even the scene where Miles pours the contents of a spit bucket
down his throat, comes off as unduly grotesque. Well, maybe that one does,
but Giamatti is buoyant even when soddened. And Thomas Haden Church has a
marvelous, etherized sense of entitlement, a spoiled optimism that's pure
California. "Sideways" doesn't spell out the message that Miles and Jack have
to get a handle on themselves and stop disappearing sideways into their
respective addictions. But that message hangs in the air, the faintest
soupcon of rot in an otherwise wondrous bouquet.

GROSS: David Edelstein is the film critic for the online magazine Slate.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

This is NPR, National Public Radio.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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