Every history of cartooning —even one as abbreviated as this preamble— begins, compulsively, in a cave. It was, as is universally acknowledged, on cave walls that homo sapiens began scrawling goofy pictures on cave walls before the dawn of history as we know it. But what we call gag cartooning probably began much later— in the 18th century with the publishing of broadsides, single-sheet publications displaying caricatures or vignettes of moral import, the work of such irrepressible British wags as William Hogarth (1697-1764), James Gillray (1756-1815), and Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827). This custom was perpetuated and refined in weekly and monthly humor magazines in the 19th century, the most conspicuous British contender being Punch (launched in 1841), which inspired many imitators on this side of the Atlantic— Wild Oats, Phunny Phellow, and others, most of which failed after a few issues or months. Among those that lasted were Puck, Judge, and Life, all introduced in the 1880s.
The cartoons in these magazines fell handily into two categories–political and simply humorous. Typically, the political cartoons were given the greatest play: they appeared on the covers (front and back) and sprawled across the double-truck of the center spread. Other cartoons often honed a political axe or two, but they, and the strictly humorous cartoons, were spotted throughout the magazines amid paragraphs of light-hearted prose meandering doggerel. Some of the drawings were half-page in size; others, quite small. Virtually all of these efforts were captioned with several lines of type. Usually, the captions consisted of dialogue among two or more of the characters depicted in the drawing. Often the dialogue was itself comedic and self-contained: the reader didn’t need the picture to understand the joke. The picture served merely to set the scene. These are the “multiple speaker captioned cartoons” (the fondly recalled “he-she” cartoons in which He says something; then She responds with something funny).
By the 1920s, cartoonists were beginning to streamline their comedy. They had discovered that cartoons were funnier if the humor arose from yoking picture to words in such a way that the one “explained” the other. And vice versa. The joke gained comic impact from the “surprise” that was sprung upon the reader when he or she understood the import of the picture or the caption. The hilarity was further enhanced if only one of the characters in the picture was speaking: this maneuver effectively heightened the importance of blending picture to words to achieve an economy in expression that increased the “surprise” inherent in the blend— and, hence, the comedy of the joke. And so emerged the “single speaker captioned cartoon.”
Harold Ross’s New Yorker (which debuted in February 1925) became the foremost exponent of this economy in cartoon humor, and the subsequent success of the magazine changed the nature of gag cartooning forever. As such magazines as The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, and Look began using more and more cartoons, the cartoons were soon exclusively of the “single speaker” type. In less than a half-dozen years, the venerable “he-she” cartoon disappeared from the face of magazine cartooning.
In the fall of 1933, Esquire was launched, inaugurating the next phase in the evolution of the magazine cartoon: the full-color full-page cartoon. Judge and Life had occasionally published a cartoon in color, but Esquire made it a regular practice. ( Collier’s also eventually published cartoons in color but not as full pages.) At The New Yorker, Harold Ross continued printing cartoons in black-and-white, and when he was urged to consider doing color cartoons, he responded with a typical Ross-ism: “What’s funny about red?”
During the heyday of magazine cartooning, which lasted, by my calculation, from the 1930s until the 1960s, the major weekly magazines used over 200 cartoons a month. Adding in such monthly magazines as True and Argosy, the monthly market probably devoured well over 400 cartoons. When the great general interest weekly magazines folded in the sixties, that enormous market evaporated. Or, rather, dissipated into scores of special interest magazines.
But two great markets remained (albeit publishing together only about 80 cartoons a month)— The New Yorker and Playboy, the publishing phenomenon of the century’s second half.
Introduced in the closing weeks of 1953, Hugh Hefner’s magazine was a racier, more youth-oriented version of Esquire, which, by then, had become decidedly stodgy. Although its most sensational aspect was doubtless the liberal use of photographs of young women en deshabille, Playboy also published first-class fiction. And full-page color cartoons. Hefner, who had drawn cartoons himself while in college and for a short time thereafter, made gag cartoons a prominent feature of the magazine from the very first. (Hefner’s career as a cartoonist is rehearsed and illustrated in a book of mine, Insider Histories of Cartooning: Rediscovering Forgotten Famous Comics and Their Creators, 2014.) Among the early stars on its pages was Jack Cole, whose cartooning genius was established in the 1940s with his creation of Plastic Man, an elastic comic book superhero whose adventures were more tongue-in-cheek than tuschi in tights. Cole took up watercoloring for rendering his cartoons for Playboy, setting a stunning standard for his colleagues.
In Harvey Kurtzman’s Little Annie Fanny, for instance, the comic strip surely reached its apogee: fully painted (not just “colored”), the strip was a lavish (even extravagant) example of the cartoonist’s graphic artistry. With its emphasis on high-quality art in cartoons, Playboy did done more to elevate and refine the visual character of the medium than any other magazine in recent times. All the more reason to mourn the magazine’s 2016 decision to abandon cartoons (along with nipples and pudenda in photos of otherwise nearly naked women).
For a good part of the magazine’s history, its cartoon editor was been Michelle Urry (1939-2006), a Canadian who started out as a dress designer.
SHE WAS BORN Michelle Dorothy Kaplan on December 28, 1939, in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her father was a clothing manufacturer, and Michelle, even after majoring in English at the University of California, set her sights on being a dress designer, opening her own shop in Los Angeles. She left there to try New York but didn’t like it.
“I went to Chicago to visit a friend after having sold my boutique to move to New York to work on Seventh Avenue,” Urry told me. “I’d never been to New York before, and I hated it. After Los Angeles, New York seemed—. I had long hair and I wore pale powder blues and oranges and lots of rings on my fingers, and here there were women with haircuts all clipped very crisply, walking very fast on the street. You couldn’t own a car in New York City— cost a fortune to own a car. And everything was so dirty and so hard to get done, and everything little thing— you had to learn a whole new vocabulary. People were rude. And Seventh Avenue was full of these gorgeous women with voices like mccaws— squawk! Bloomingdale’s was amazing, just amazing. It was too much for me. I wasn’t used to it, and I didn’t like it at all.
“I went to visit a friend in Chicago,” she continued, “and I fell in love with Chicago. If you don’t know what Chicago is, you have no idea what Chicago is. Stockyards and gangsters. Instead, it’s a beautiful city on a lake with lovely open skies, very livable, very easy to get around. So then I needed a new job; I was going to be there. I didn’t want to work on Seventh Avenue. There was nothing in Chicago in the design field. Somebody said, Hugh Hefner’s got Playboy— you’ve got a portfolio. Why not try there?
“So I did,” she said. “And I told them, I’d like to change my career. I’m as good verbally as I am visually. Put me someplace and I’ll learn. So they put me in a department where I composed letters to would-be Bunnies— all those fourteen-year-olds who want to run away from home and become a Bunny. And I did that for a rather long time, campaigning all the while— because they said if I did that for awhile, they’d find me job as an assistant editor or something.”
She wanted to be an editor. They did not have any editor jobs open, especially for females. She continued to protest and got a new assignment—answering phones at the Playboy Mansion [then in Chicago]. Then she went to a party in the Mansion and met Hefner.
“I made him laugh,” she recalled, “and at some point, he said, I’m going to apprentice that girl. He needed an assistant. It didn’t occur to me to actually ask him for a job. He was Hugh Hefner, the great brilliant genius who knew everything. I would never have dared ask him for a job. But apparently— since I’d made him laugh— he thought I was funny and might be able to assist him with the cartoons.”
The job, she said in a 1971 interview in the National Observer, came with “some onus”: her predecessor had been one of Hef’s girlfriends and gossip was rampant. But Urry demonstrated a surpassing knack at her task. “The fact that I brought to it an inordinately dirty mind was my own doing,” she said, “—I mean, I don’t think he expected that kind of bonus.”
Hefner had no way of knowing at the time that he was hiring as his assistant one of the world’s great cartooning fans.
However unexpected, Urry’s attitudes and her efficiency yielded a life-time career. Cartoonist Eldon Dedini told me in late 2004 that Urry had told him that she was going to retire; a year later, Dedini said she’d told him Hefner talked her out of it. And so she kept on until she died, in one of those supreme ironies in which fate sometimes deals, of ocular melanoma, a cancer of the eye. That a person who made a living looking at cartoon art would die of an eye ailment is ineffably numious. Some would see it as punishment for a lifetime of looking at naked bodies engaged in sexual rambunctions; others, like me, would say she simply wore her eye out in her devotion to the job and the craft—the art—of cartooning, a noble conclusion to a praise-worthy dedication. She is survived by her second husband, Alan R. Trustman, a screenwriter, and her son, Caleb Urry. Her first husband, Steven Urry, a sculptor, died in 1993. Her legacy, so to speak, can be found in the cartoons of Playboy, one of the last great venues for gag cartooning, the haiku-like art of eliciting laughter with a single drawing and a revealing caption.
Every time I ran into Michelle, she was smiling. Not that we were friends and ran into each other often. Neither is true. I didn’t run into her very often. But every time I did, as I say, she was smiling. Not a broad smile, but a definite, pronounced smile. Nothing tentative about it at all. It was not, exactly, a friendly smile; it wasn’t unfriendly by any means, but it was not the sort of smile a person puts on to greet a friend. It bordered on being a smirk, a smile of secret amusement. But I was not the cause of the amusement. Not directly. I had the feeling that she was smiling at some private joke or some deeply personal appreciation of one of life’s absurd hilarities—like, for instance, the realization that human beings in the usual fornicating position have assumed the posture of a swimming frog. Her smile, or smirk, if that’s what it was, seemed an invitation to join her in being amused by such mental images.
She said she had an “inordinately dirty mind,” and she said it by way of explaining a successful life-long career as cartoon editor of a magazine renowned for publishing the nation’s best naughty cartoons. But she knew, as did the cartoonists she worked with, that the secret of her success was not that she enjoyed a so-called dirty joke. Her success depended upon more than that. When she died at her home in Manhattan on October 15, 2006, she had been Playboy’s cartoon editor for more than 34 years. You don’t survive in the hothouse of cartoonist egos for three-and-a-half decades just because you like jokes about sex. It helps, but it isn’t the whole reason for survival.
She lasted at the job because she did very well what Playboy’s founder and editor, Hugh Hefner, needed her to do: she screened all cartoon submissions, more than a thousand a month she once said, picking a dozen or so of what she thought were the best for Hefner to choose from, and she kept track of cartoonists, handling correspondence with them and coaching new talent and nurturing the old hands. She was both administrator and manager. And cheerleader. Jules Feiffer had it exactly right when he told Douglas Martin at the New York Times that Michelle Urry was “mother superior to cartoonists.” She famously held poker parties for cartoonists at her loft and Christmas parties for them at Playboy’s New York offices. She liked cartoonists, and she cared for them.
When I had my fling at magazine cartooning in the late 1970s, I was surprised, pleasantly, to learn that the cartoon editor of the nation’s preeminent men’s magazine was a woman. In a publication whose most visible raison d’etre was affording male readers an unimpeded view of barenekkidwimmin, it was refreshing to find that a major editorial position was held by a woman. It was symbolic: it meant women liked sex, too. It was more than symbolic. We don’t know if Urry liked sex any more (or less) than the rest of us, but we do know that she enjoyed laughing about it, and that, undoubtedly, influenced the attitude of Playboy’s cartoons.
The girls in Playboy’s cartoons are invariably depicted as having fun with their sexual cohorts. Playboy cartoons do not leer at sexy women in the manner of Army Laughs and an armada of Humorama digest-sized magazines in the 1950s and before. The women in Playboy cartoons are not sex objects: they are sexual partners who delight in a romp in the hay as much as the men they romp with. It’s the attitude, a very modern attitude, and Urry fostered it. She may not have made the final selection—that, she was always quick to say, was Hef’s role—but she culled out the good stuff for him, and in the good stuff, women enjoyed sex. Sex was fun for everyone.
As I sent cartoons around to other men’s magazines, I learned that many of the cartoon editors were women. At first, I was delighted by this seeming sea change in American attitudes about sex. And then I realized that the sea wasn’t changing at all. It was the same old sexist economic tide, running, as always, against women. And in this case, it also attested to the nearly absent esteem for cartoons at the low-budget imitators of Playboy. Women would work for less money than men, and since picking cartoons wasn’t all that important in magazines of salacious gynecological color photographs, women, usually the low-paid secretary to the editor, got to pick the cartoons—or screened them for their boss’s final selection.
I don’t know about Urry’s salary, but I suspect it was a good deal better than the average secretary’s: Hefner, after all, was a frustrated cartoonist—and, by all accounts, one of the best cartoon editors, capable of giving insightful and comedically crucial advice to cartoonists and demanding that extra chuckle—and he surely held cartoons and his magazine’s cartoonists in the highest regard. He would scarcely scrimp on his cartoon screener’s pay (even though Urry’s route to her exalted position had started at a secretary’s desk).
What follows are excerpts from an convivial conversation I had with Michelle Urry in July 1996 at her New York office at Playboy Enterprises. My only other visit to a Playboy premises had been in the fall of 1958, when, as a campus cartoonist attending a college journalism convention in Chicago, I had played hooky one afternoon to take some of my cartoons to the magazine’s headquarters, then at 232 East Ohio Street.
The building was one of those shotgun structures— narrow across the frontage but burrowing deep into the lot beyond. I walked into the first floor reception area, stated my business to a striking-looking blonde lady at the desk, and was directed to an elevator that would take me to the fourth floor. The elevator stopped at the second and third floors, and each time the door opened, I was treated to another blonde vision at a reception desk.
When I told the blonde at the fourth floor desk my errand, she summoned someone by phone. Another blonde appeared, looked over my drawings, and then asked me to wait. I did. She returned shortly and escorted me to the office of Jerry White, one of two assistants to art director Arthur Paul. White (dark-haired, bearded) looked at my drawings, made sympathetic sounds, and told me to keep at it because they were looking for younger cartoonists who could bring to the magazine a somewhat less jaded view than might be found in the work of such mature cartoonists as Gardner Rea. I remembered he mentioned Rea specifically. I left with my portfolio intact, my sales record unblemished. (Due to the press of other adventures, I didn’t try again for two decades; my sales record remains entirely virginal.)
My 1996 visit to the New York Playboy nerve center was, as I said, much more engrossing than my 1958 pilgrimage to the Chicago mecca. I saw no blondes this time. But the interview almost didn’t happen.
At the time, I was producing an article for every issue of Jud Hurd’s quarterly journal about cartooning, Cartoonist PROfiles, and Hurd had set up the interview to coincide with one of my periodic visits to New York. But the interview was very nearly cancelled when, a couple weeks before the visit, I was making final arrangements with Urry’s secretary and remarked innocently about how the article would serve to tell potential contributors what they needed to know in order to contribute to Playboy. Then—suddenly—silence. No response. No comment on the other end of the line.
Next thing I knew, Urry was on the phone, cancelling the interview because, she explained, the last thing she wanted was more unsolicited contributions being sent in from multitudes of unknown persons. So I, caught completely unaware, back-peddled right away and said, Well, okay—instead of encouraging submissions, we’ll DIScourage them. On that basis, she consented, somewhat reluctantly I thought, to the interview. I also said I’d let her read the whole article when I finished, and she could make corrections, additions or subtractions, as she chose.
She then imposed another condition: once I’d finished with the tape of the interview, I was to send it to her. She wanted the physical evidence, the only irrefutable evidence of our encounter—her words in her own voice. Cloak and dagger stuff. So what would prevent me from having a copy made of the tape for my own lascivious purposes later? Dunno. But she wanted the tape.
My only other contact with Urry was several years later when Little Annie Fanny was, briefly, revived by Bill Schorr and Ray Lago, with lettering by Don Wimmer (who is now doing the syndicated comic strip, Rose Is Rose). I interviewed Schorr and Lago at great length and then, at lesser length, Urry. When the piece was published in The Comics Journal, she phoned me, aflame with rage because the reproductions of a couple Annie pages didn’t include credits to Playboy. I pointed out that the Journal‘s practice in those halcyon days of print media was to clump all credits together on the last page of the magazine, but I don’t think she was much happier. And I didn’t ask her if she still had the incriminating tape of our interview.
One other oddity that emerged during our 1996 interview (albeit of a much lesser order of seriousness): she refused to let me photograph her, saying she had a cold and her eyes were all puffy. Simple vanity, doubtless. (I almost typed “simple female vanity.” And maybe I should have.) For the published article, we used a “stock” photograph that she subsequently sent me, the one you can see here.
My impression, then and subsequently, was that Urry’s seeming paranoia was probably caused, inadvertently, by Hefner. Over their long working relationship, she learned what he wanted and what he disliked. He probably had a distinct aversion to what in the political realm are called “leaks”—revelations of inner workings by those on the inside. He had been scorched by scandal over the years, usually accused of doing things he didn’t do. The content of the magazine and Hefner’s life style invited the most lascivious speculation.
Probably Urry had been burned, too, in interviews early in her career: she didn’t give many for most of her tenure. So she was more than ordinarily cautious about what she might say for publication. Moreover, her professional posture tended to be self-effacing. In the realm of Playboy, she was unequivocally an invisible presence: Hefner’s name went up in lights over the magazine’s cartoon reprint collections. I also suspect she was a little uncomfortable whenever she was in a public setting in which strangers might assume that since she was cartoon editor for Playboy, she had to embody in her personal approach to sex an attitude that was consistent with the magazine’s laissez-faire exuberance.
I could be (and probably am) entirely, categorically, wrong in all of this armchair analysis. I met her only a few times and always in gatherings of cartoonists, most of whom did not know her at all but might aspire to getting published in Playboy. They might assume that she, as the magazine’s nominal cartoon editor, had the power to advance their careers, and she, aware that they might be thinking that, was probably more reticent than she might otherwise be, hoping to forestall conversations that would get awkward as they edged up to her selecting someone’s cartoons for publication.
She didn’t, after all, make the final determination about which cartoons the magazine published. Hefner did (although he admitted to Martin Douglas that Urry occasionally persuaded him to use a cartoon that he had at first rejected). Still, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Urry avoided most such gatherings of unknown cartoonists for something akin to the reason I’ve just offered. But, then again, I could be dead wrong. I might be simply projecting an attitude I might have in similar circumstances.
Whatever the reason, Urry wanted the tape of our conversation. And after I’d transcribed it, I sent it to her. In reviewing the article before publication, Urry had tinkered with a few word choices, but made no substantive changes. I’d already cleaned up the syntax, removing sentence fragments and false starts. A few weeks after our visit, she wrote me: “I appreciate the tender handling and the ease and elegance of your interview style.” Which I quote here by way of demonstrating that the interview that follows contains nothing she would object to.
By the time of our interview, Urry was one of the nation’s longest-tenured cartoon editors. She had watched the field closely for years and had much to say that is probably still of interest to magazine gag cartoonists (what abysmal few remain) as well as students of the medium. We talked about cartooning, Playboy, and the state of the art, among other things, as we’ll see anon. Her office in Playboy’s New York headquarters was around the corner and down the hall from a spacious two-story reception vault in which spiraling staircases aspired to offices on the second level. Urry’s sanctum was arranged for informality and comfort. No desk. Just a round table in the center of the room, bookshelves on the wall to the left of the entry, a couch against the opposite wall. Piles of paper and cartoonists’ submissions on the table and the couch. I took a chair next to the couch; Urry sat on the couch. She smiled.
Harvey: Hefner drew cartoons himself when he was in college.
Urry: We all drew cartoons until we saw what the real stuff looked like. I used to draw Angelfood McSpade. I loved drawing from stuff. I used to draw all the Dogpatch characters. And the Shmoos. As a kid, I used to draw Shmoos.
Harvey: I learned that they were phallic symbols, two or three years ago. [Confidential magazine published an expose, November 1953, and I’d run across it researching a piece on Li’l Abner’s Al Capp, which piece will be seen in the next print edition of The Comics Journal.]
Urry: No. Are they?
Harvey: Well, there’s some fairly persuasive evidence—. So you were a comics fan to begin with.
Urry: Absolutely. In fact, I did some minor cartooning: I won poster contests when I was a kid. I loved drawing the Sunday funnies. I had the biggest collection of comic books of any boy or girl, I think, in a radius of fifty blocks in my hometown. I took some art history. But I thought I was going to do dress design. It never occurred to me that I could actually get a job— I mean, who thinks they’re going to get a job as a cartoon editor? What a wonderful job.
Harvey: Well, is it?
Urry: Oh, it’s truly wonderful. After doing it for many years, I still feel that it’s the most interesting— it’s hard for me to believe that I’m still a fan. And I am. I think I’m still fresh and open to new work. I still look forward to opening stuff on the off-chance that there’ll be some brilliant new talent there— though there rarely is, and we have no room to publish mid-range cartoonists. And I giggle. I really do. I don’t know how cartoonists keep on doing it over and over again. But cartoonists are special. They aren’t like other people. Oh, sure— they come in all sizes, shapes, and breeds. But gag cartoonists particularly are a special breed, and they’re dying out. I mean, it’s not a good way to make a living any more.
Harvey: In fact, Lee Lorenz, cartoon editor of The New Yorker, said in a recent issue of Cartoonist PROfiles: gag cartooning has been melting since the early sixties. People are now clinging to what used to be a glacier and is now about the size of an ice cube.
Urry: Well, he ought to know: he’s a gag cartoonist.
Harvey: And he’s dead right. You look around. There aren’t many places for gag cartoonists to sell to any more.
Urry: There aren’t that many big magazines publishing. And of the people that do publish cartoons, many have specific ideas about what they want— specialties— and that lets out a lot of people. But the really smart guys saw it coming a long time ago and started branching off into children’s books, into teaching, into other things as well as painting and seriously showing their work. Many of them play jazz. Donald Reilly spends at least sixty percent of his time playing jazz. Some cartoonists were practical about their lifestyles— many others were dreamers.
Harvey: Something that is fascinating about Playboy is its editorial moderation. That’s the best word for it. Take, for instance, that little creature that decorates the page of jokes–the Femlin. Almost any other magazine would have turned that charming creation into a regular comic character that would appear everywhere ad infinitum.
Urry: That’s true.
Harvey: And so the Femlin seems to me to be symbolic of a kind of decorum, a certain restraint that somebody is exercising, saying, We’re going to use this character in one context— this context— and only in this context. Why are you smiling?
Urry: I have a letter in here that says [rummaging through stack of papers on the couch beside her]— He’s upset because I turned down a request to use a cartoon of ours on a T-shirt.
Harvey: [Laughs.] A cartoon on a T-shirt?
Urry: He wanted the rights. To use it on a T-shirt. He says in here, they’re interested in pursuing this design that Playboy holds the rights to. And I called him up in Hawaii, and I said, You don’t seem to understand: that isn’t a design; it’s a cartoon. [Harvey laughs.] That’s exactly what you’re talking about. It’s an integrated idea. It’s not something you can pluck out of one situation and stick into another, willy nilly. And we are not going to start regarding our cartoons as designs. They may turn into something else. But we don’t think of them like that. They’re editorial material. And we paid a lot of money for editorial material. We don’t think of it as a design process. People want to glom onto one thing and slap it onto another entity. It doesn’t work. We try to integrate the entire magazine, which is one of the things that cartoons help to do. The cartoons deal with the lifestyle and the fun and the propensity for good living that Americans wish to have, at least in their fantasies. American men. And I think the cartoonists promulgate that; they’re one more editorial addition to an integral package.
Reading Playboy, you’re supposed to put your cares on hold for a little while. Pick up something that’s a source of ideas as well as entertainment. Hefner wanted the magazine representative of both the Right and the Left— straight down the middle. But he wanted everything and anything that he deemed tasteful and interesting and informative and joyous to be able to be shown in it. And we’ve tried to do that in the cartoons too, except that we don’t do cartoons for women— although a lot of women love our cartoons.
Harvey: At one time, I think that the final decision about publishing cartoons was made by Hefner. Cartoons came through you, but he—
Urry: — is involved and makes the final selection.
Harvey: So you choose a bunch of stuff that you think is suitable.
Urry: Yes. I pre-edit and he chooses from those pieces. He looks at them and says, I like this— I don’t like that. I’ve worked with him for so many years. We’ve had marathon meetings that would go on for days. He gets very intense. And he can spend forty minutes on four lines of something. He is meticulous about just the right form of expression. And he has a great stomach for cartoons— a fine capacity for spending a lot of time in cartoonland. I’ve found the barriers to whimsy very easy to cross, too. You just sort of step through a mental notch, and there you are in a land where desert island scenes are normal. People write notes and put them into bottles and send them off on the ocean. And all life is a variation on that theme. You can do a thousand desert island jokes. That takes a peculiar kind of access— your own childlike nature, perhaps— and I know Hef has it, too, so that sometimes the conversations we have may seem utterly bizarre to other people, but I think if you don’t have that, you can’t really talk about cartoons. It’s a delightful place to work. It’s nice to be able to regress to childhood. I still get thrilled when I see Disney movies— where Bambi’s batting eyelashes and you see a flower unfolding before you. I still love all that remarkable animation.
Harvey: It’s interesting that so many of the cartoonists who appear in Playboy I don’t see anywhere else. I suppose the arrangement is something like an exclusive contract, isn’t it— with some of the regulars?
Urry: It doesn’t have to be exclusive just so long as they give us first look at the kind of stuff we do. And they can’t work for any competitor. The New Yorker is not a competitor. The New Yorker, I think, has the same arrangement. Basically, it’s a first look contract.
Harvey: But they don’t appear anywhere else? I think Rowland Wilson used to do advertising for some insurance company— great, wonderful full-page color drawings. But I never see his stuff anywhere else except Playboy.
Urry: Because he’s an animator now.
Harvey: Ahhh, that’s where he works. What about Erich Sokol?
Urry: He’s a political cartoonist in Austria.
Harvey: I love his stuff. I love Eldon Dedini’s stuff. He’s been around a long time.
Urry: Dedini just does that, but that’s enough. He submits material to us and to The New Yorker. He has a lot of other things that he likes to do. He paints. So he gets to do what he wants. He could have done anything he wanted. He could have taught if he wanted to. He could have done children’s books. He could have done all kinds of things. He occasionally does advertising jobs, but he could do a lot more if he really wanted to be more ambitious.
Harvey: Did you have anything to do with Harvey Kurtzman?
Urry: I did. For a little while, I was the intermediary between Hef and Harvey. Harvey and Hef worked out their deal together originally, and they drove each other a little crazy— and whoever was functioning as their intermediary. Harvey would submit his ideas, and Hef would send it back with comments, and—
Harvey: They strike me as both being very exacting people.
Urry: They were— very specific. And they were very different, each in his own way. But I think they loved each other for a long time, and then Harvey became a little more conservative. Perhaps he played it a little safer than he really should have. While he was doing Mad magazine, he was as zany as could be. And he started doing his own thing, and then he got into Hef’s turf.
Harvey was interested in satire and wit, political and social commentary. So Harvey started doing political and sexual humor. And Hef knew a lot about the sex part, and Harvey didn’t. Harvey was married and had kids. Hef had lots of ideas, and Harvey would go to the Mansion and look at the hot tubs. There was a slight discrepancy between life styles. Harvey lived in a suburban house. And Hef was constantly pushing him. Harvey would say— There’s too much sex; and Hef would say— More sex. Harvey would say, Less sex. Hef would say, More sex. And they’d go back and forth. But Harvey— Hef found him early and they bonded, and nobody could really get in the middle of that.
Harvey: How about Will Elder?
Urry: He went along. He contributed his talent and did what Harvey wanted. I’m not saying he wasn’t brilliant and didn’t contribute to that strip. He was and he did. That strip cost a bloody fortune! All the people working on it— all the inkers. They always had three or four or five people on it. Always. It was like producing a small book every time they would do it. Brilliant work. Absolutely brilliant.
Harvey: Too bad it’s not there anymore.
Urry: Too bad Harvey’s not here anymore. People say, Why don’t you get somebody else to keep it going? That’s like saying, Get somebody else to do Pogo.
Harvey: I’ve always wondered about Michael Berry. Why wasn’t he ever in Playboy? At the time Playboy started, he was maybe The Cartoonist drawing glamor girl cartoons in magazines. He submitted stuff to Playboy very early on but was never printed in Playboy. He never made it. And I think he never made it because he’d had too much exposure elsewhere, and Hefner was looking for new talent for his stable of cartoonists.
Urry: It’s true that when Hef started, he wanted people who would help him fine-tune the magazine. He wanted to have an inner circle of people who would do our cartoons and wouldn’t do the same cartoons for other magazines, or the same kind of cartoons. I don’t think he was concerned about overexposure elsewhere at the time. I think he just wanted the people he thought were the best. And I think he did an extraordinary job considering that he was in the midwest and not in New York, shaking hands. When I moved to New York from Chicago, I was very surprised at how few people thought we were accessible. They knew of us, they knew the magazine, but we weren’t around. We weren’t on the Wednesday round. The guys were used to coming in on Wednesday rounds and seeing the cartoon editors of the magazines they sold to; it made them a little uncomfortable to send in by mail. They didn’t know Hef because they hadn’t had the opportunity to meet him. Gahan Wilson got involved because he went to the Art Institute in Chicago. So did Sokol.
Harvey: They were in Chicago so they could go down and say hello.
Urry: Exactly right. But most of the people who didn’t actually make the trek out to the midwest to meet him didn’t know for a long time that he was the cartoon editor. And he was acutely aware of who was publishing in Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s and all of the good magazines that were publishing cartoons. Esquire. And he wanted to use really elegant lines. Now, overexposed–I don’t think is a word I ever heard used here. Ever. So it may have been an aspect of taste. I’m always surprised, actually, at how unrelated some of the cartoon material we get is to our actual needs.
Harvey: Unrelated to?
Urry: Unrelated to— I mean, this is what the magazine looks like [she holds up a copy with a beautiful woman on the cover]. What do you expect to find inside? It says “Entertainment for Men” right there on the cover. That’s the first clue. And the second clue is that it’s boys with toys, it’s men interested in sports, it’s macho feelings, it’s a dynamic that’s different from other magazines. It doesn’t say what The New Yorker is trying to say and doesn’t try to appeal to their people.
And we get stuff that is so weirdly far removed from what we use that I think people don’t read the magazine. A lot of amateur cartoonists don’t pay enough attention to the editorial content. If they really want to do cartoons for any magazine, they have to acquaint themselves with it. And most of them will not. And that immediately tells me something: they’re not smart enough to work for us. I mean, that sounds strange, but many of them cannot see the range of material that we publish. Lord knows, we’re eclectic! We appeal to eighteen-year-olds and sixty-five-year-olds. So we have a wide range of subjects we’re willing to deal with and that we wish to deal with— the human condition, the male condition, is what we’re interested in. In all of its panoply— except that it has to be under the heading “Entertainment for Men.” That means that we don’t do cartoons about people taking out the garbage. Those are domestic, and we’re not interested in reminding people of that. Not very entertaining for the average man.
But I get stuff that is so unrelated. And then there’s that whole new fad of anti-cartoon drawing I call it. Sort of the Beavis-Butthead type of ugly cartooning. We get a lot of that.
Harvey: I was going to ask you about that— the importance of the artwork itself. I mean, when you see a cartoon, what’s the first thing that you see? The drawing.
Urry: Absolutely. I mean, it doesn’t matter what the gag is. The gag could be brilliant. If the drawing isn’t up to snuff— or it isn’t our kind of drawing— then it won’t work. We don’t do the little googly fellows that the Europeans do; they like little googly men— huge noses, clunky feet, and large ears, that sort of thing. We have never done that. Mr. Hefner has always loved somewhat realistically rendered cartoons. But within that range, there’s still a lot of cartoony cartoons that we publish. And they just have to be adapted. They can’t be faddish; they can’t be a reaction against because we are not doing that. We also like whimsy.
Harvey: Oh, yes— particularly in the back of the book. I don’t think there’s any question that the artwork in Playboy’s cartoons is at the top of the scale. It’s beautiful stuff. Especially the color work.
Urry: There aren’t any other magazines doing color. Who else does it? The New Yorker doesn’t do it. Nobody does full-page color cartoons. Just us.
Harvey: Some of the other men’s magazines used to use color cartoons full page.
Urry: They did, they did. But I don’t know how many do now. Some of our competitors did do it. But they won’t pay enough for it so they don’t get top notch artists.
Harvey: My sense of it is that most of them have almost stopped using cartoons altogether. They’re pretty strictly skin magazines, and that’s it.
Urry: That’s because it’s expensive to do a full range of editorial content so that a man can pick up a magazine and find ten different things in it for his entertainment.
Harvey: When Esquire published a 25th anniversary collection of its cartoons, in the introduction, Arnold Gingrich, the publisher, said that they thought that The New Yorker had “a near monopoly on sophisticated whimsy,” so they set out, he said, “to get a corner on something known (if only to ourselves) as Whamsy.” [Urry laughs.] Do you see Playboy occupying some position in the history of the development of magazine cartooning— apart from the elegance of the color work?
Urry: That’s too philosophical, and it would be too self-serving for me to even make an attempt at answering that. I certainly think that we’ve brought it along. I think that we took the old men in the wing chairs from The New Yorker and up-dated them, putting them on motorcycles. And certainly we’ve contemporized that whole range. We really like love and relationships and how men relate to each other and to women. I think we’ve pushed that along a great deal. So many of the other men’s magazines think that vulgarity is the way to go, and we haven’t. We still make room for charm and wit. We print stuff that nobody else does about sex. But I think we stop short of the vulgar or pornographic— stop way short of it. Some of the women’s magazines try to do this— about men and women’s relationships. But they do it from a female viewpoint.
Harvey: For me, the ultimate Playboy cartoonist was Jack Cole. You could almost use Jack Cole as a touchstone for what Playboy does for cartooning. He came out of comic books, where he drew in black-and-white, with a hard line that would contain the color. And then he drew a comic strip— that was later, after he started in Playboy— but that was the way he drew. Hard edge outline. Then all of sudden, he started doing wash drawings–still black and white; that was the first stuff like that I saw of his–before he started in Playboy. He did them for Humorama magazines, little digest-sized magazines of cartoons and jokes. You’d see some of his stuff in these— signed “Jake.” And then Playboy came along, and you started seeing his cartoons in fabulous watercolor. Well, he’s a touchstone because he went from black-and-white line-drawing into painting.
Urry: I must tell you that Mr. Hefner clearly wished to take cartooning in that direction. Wanted exactly that. And did it very well, I think.
Harvey: I would say that— you don’t want to be self-serving— but I’m looking at these original cartoons in full color, framed, hanging here on your wall, and I would say that Playboy has done more to make cartooning a fine art— in purely visual terms, not necessarily the coordination of word and picture— than any other magazine.
Urry: Well, we promote the art simply by giving up so many pages to absolute nothing but wonderful, glorious color that nobody else is doing. The New Yorker does terrific covers and always has. Just beauty for beauty’s sake, and many of them were not cartoons. But even their cartoon covers were really beautiful. Now they want to make a point, which changes the dynamic. I’m a great admirer of all their experiments. I think what they’re trying to do is very interesting. But I still think that we have a desire to do the most glorious cartoons around. [Picks up current issue, cover-dated August 1996.] We have a new cartoonist in this issue. We’ve just started using him.
Harvey: Yes, Killian. I was going to ask you about him.
Urry: He’s the first new guy we’ve used in some time. In color. He worked very hard to get to do this. And how many people are going to be able to use him?
Harvey: That’s right. He didn’t send that cartoon in just like that, though, did he? One shot? Bullseye.
Urry: No, he didn’t.
Harvey: He sent in drawings and samples and so on—
Urry: Many drawings and many samples. And he came to visit me.
Harvey: And you realized at some point that he drew in a way that you liked.
Urry: Yes. He drew very well. There was one cartoon that gave me an indication that he might be able to do this. I picked out one style as opposed to all the other stuff that he did— which was too weird and too off-the-wall— and I said, If you can give me more stuff that looks like this, I’d be willing to consider it. Then you have to get the subject matter right. And he worked very, very hard. We’ve had many conferences— sometimes through an interpreter; he doesn’t speak English very well.
Harvey: You say he came over to the United States to meet you?
Urry: He didn’t come over to expressly to meet me— well, he may have; I don’t know. But he came— he had a friend who called me up and said, Would you see this cartoonist? He draws very well, and he has some things. And he sent a batch of material over. And then he came in with someone. And we talked and he thought he understood. And he submitted stuff, and it wasn’t right, and we talked again, and he thought he understood. And he submitted more stuff, and it still wasn’t right, and we talked some more, and he thought he understood. And I almost gave up. He’s very successful in his own country. We get people from everywhere— what used to be behind the Iron Curtain and everywhere. Most of them don’t speak the language well enough. They also don’t understand the culture well enough to lampoon it. And Americans like very different cartoons than Europeans like. Currently, I have a cartoonist who’s never heard of leaving milk and cookies for Santa for Christmas.
Harvey: An American cartoonist?
Urry: Yes, a man who’s been working for us for a very long time— completely bypassed the whole milk-and-cookies phenomenon. Couldn’t understand it.
Harvey: He must not have children.
Urry: No— he has children! I don’t understand. I got the letter this morning. I couldn’t believe it. [Reads from letter:] “I asked myself, Milk-and-cookies, milk-and-cookies— what’s funny about the caption? An hour later, I was having lunch with a dear friend of mine, I told her about the strange caption and was surprised when I saw a smile. What’s with the milk-and-cookies? She told me. I felt sure she was kidding! Through all my boyhood Christmases, Christmases with my nieces and nephews, my friends’ Christmas, my two kids, my neighbor’s kids— I never once heard, as I remember, about the treats for Santa on Christmas Eve.” Can you imagine that.
Urry: I mean— this is an American-born person. You can imagine how hard it is for somebody totally out of the venue to be able to understand anything. It’s the slang— all sorts of things. And Americans like belly laughs. They don’t want non-captioned cartoons. They don’t want to see cartoons that you have to study the picture for subtleties of expression that merely make you smile or nod inwardly. They want to laugh out loud.
Harvey: Do all of the cartoons that you eventually publish come from the cartoonists? Do they generate their own ideas? Or do you provide the gag?
Urry: We used to buy gags all the time. We don’t any more. It’s too much trouble for too little reward. Too much slippage ’twixt the cup and the lip. First of all, we’re getting good enough gag ideas from the people that we use, at least most of the time. Every once in a while a gag comes along that so clearly belongs to another cartoonist that we ask politely if we can buy that gag and give it to somebody else. But it rarely ever happens now. It used to happen when I first came to work here.
Harvey: Presumably some of the cartoonists are using gag writers, but what you’re buying from them is the whole thing.
Urry: Yes, the whole thing. Some of them may be using gag writers; I don’t know. As long as I don’t know about it, it’s not happening. But we did used to buy gags and farm them out to people. And now we just don’t.
Harvey: The New Yorker— in contrast— used to write many of the gags for their cartoonists.
Urry: They did— all the time.
Harvey: It astonished me that George Price didn’t do his own cartoons! He had such an individual sense of humor. I thought, This man cannot be using someone else’s gags.
Urry: But you see, if you analyze his cartoons knowing that, what you can see is that people understood the style of his humor. And then they wrote for that. And they have so many great writers that hang around all the time— or they used to have. I don’t know if they have the space for writers to hang around anymore. But the writers used to love writing captions, to test themselves for some sort of recreation. And it was a way of augmenting the writers’ income. They paid well for gag ideas. They still, I think, use some gags that they send to certain cartoonists. But that’s the way they got some of the wonderful art they publish.
Harvey: I deliberately read through the last two issues of Playboy, looking for a particular characteristic. I’ve done the same with most magazines that use cartoons. And I’m often disappointed in my search. The disappointment arises from the fact that so many cartoons could be verbal jokes. They don’t really need a picture. And there is only one cartoon in the last two issues of Playboy that is a simply verbal joke.
Urry: Oh, what a wonderful compliment.
Harvey: Are you conscious of doing that? When you’re looking through piles of cartoons, are you conscious of whether this gag needs the drawing— whether the drawing contributes to the gag or is just identifying the speaker?
Urry: If it’s just talking heads, the cartoon is not nearly as interesting. Yes, I like something where the drawing lends something wonderful to it. Sometimes the trick is to monkey around with the caption enough so that it really reflects exactly the thing that is making the drawing so funny. The words are there, but the words aren’t always the music, so to speak. You want the music too.
Harvey: I am reminded of a famous story about James Joyce who was working on Finnegans Wake, and somebody asked him how it was going, and he said he had been working on one sentence all day. And the guy said, What? One sentence! And Joyce said, Yes, I’ve got all the words— I just haven’t decided which order to put them in.
Urry: That’s the way I feel. I just think this caption— “Tarzan and Jane get no privacy in the jungle”— we could probably have worked on for another month because it’s not quite right. It’s more or less right. It’s funny enough. And here’s another instance where knowing the culture is important. In order to understand the joke here, you have to know what the Tarzan and Jane thing is— a kind of Disneyesque version of it. It’s a multitude of a thousand different little pieces—
Harvey: Right. There’s a lot of cultural baggage in the Tarzan and Jane routine.
Urry: Yes. Even a phrase like “my personal best” [from another cartoon in the same issue on the eve of the Olympics]— you have to know that it means something very particular for an American. When people from Europe send us stuff, you can see by the awkwardness in the phrasing of captions that they’ve got the idea, they just can’t hone it into something acceptable, something small and intact that does exactly the right thing. And we tend not to like long captions. We will run them, if they are needed. Americans like to laugh. They like to laugh a lot. They don’t want to just smile. They don’t want it to hit a place in their intellect that goes, Hmm, that’s interesting. That’s neat. That’s charming. They want to laugh. They want to laugh and pin the cartoon above their desk so their friends can laugh, too.
Harvey: They’re not into Steinberg. You can look all over the page and see dozens of different little things. It’s an amusement. A divertissement. It’s not a laugh. It’s an amusement. And my sense of it is that it’s more in the European tradition.
Urry: It is. Very intellectual. Very cool stuff. Appeals to people enormously if they like the abstraction of it. But it isn’t an American tradition. And then we have the newspaper syndicated things. Some of them are getting less funny. And they’re poorly drawn. I don’t understand how that has happened. Newspaper comics was my first exposure. Before I was old enough to have an allowance that allowed me to go out and buy comic books, I devoured the funnies. You think about how Al Capp drew. Brilliant, brilliant artist. There were thousands of people who could draw brilliantly.
Harvey: Capp said one time that the best black-and-white illustration being done in this country was being done in newspapers. That was when he and Milton Caniff and Alex Raymond were still drawing. Hal Foster. High quality illustration. But there’s good work still being done in cartoon style. Take this cartoon by Charles Rodrigues.
Urry: That’s a very sophisticated work.
Harvey: Very well drawn.
Urry: Yes, he can really draw. It’s tough to draw like that. I grew up on a very English kind of humor— the Belles of St. Trinian’s, all of those little Ronald Searle drawings. But then I was exposed to Jules Feiffer and Shel Silverstein. Remember Shel Silverstein as Playboy did him?
Harvey: Oh, yeah.
Urry: He’s doing children’s books— some of the most brilliant and scathing comments on hippies and males and females of that generation. He could do just about anything. But he made a lot of money doing children’s books. He was very smart. He did this other stuff–he liked the life style.
Harvey: By way of winding this up, let me ask you if there is something you wanted to say that I haven’t given you a chance to say?
Urry: Well, as you know, we’re not looking for anything. I don’t want to start getting fifty or sixty more batches of cartoons every day. But I guess the thing that I would like to tell cartoonists mostly is that they really have to use their heads when they send cartoons to magazines if they want their work to be accepted. Otherwise, they’re just wasting time and money. It costs a lot of money to package something up and put backing in it and so on— especially for new cartoonists. And it costs a lot of psychic energy to get ready to do that, to focus on it. And I don’t think they focus on it enough. I think they simply don’t look enough at the cartoons and subject matter in the magazines to which they are submitting work. Take six issues of any magazine, analyze the subject matter of the cartoons— quite apart from the pictures; that will give you a basis for the editorial content.
Also, no cartoon editor who gets a large volume of submissions can take time out for personal critiques unless the subject is close to home and the cartoon editor is really thinking about using that person. They simply can’t do critiques. It’s not because the cartoonists are lousy or because their work is disgusting— some of it is, but some of it is good. It’s because you’d go crazy trying to do that— you’d spend all your time on it. And cartoon editors don’t have time. There are too many things to do— granting permissions, for instance. We get endless requests for cartoon reprints. Each one of those must be separately dealt with. The money must be settled for the cartoonist. We have to research copyright permission.
Harvey: Do the Playboy cartoonists own their cartoons?
Urry: They own the physical artwork. So they can sell them. And we get requests from people outside who want to buy originals. We broker that for them. But we own the copyright, so they can’t reprint without our permission. And we let people reprint them for books and magazines; we give the money to the cartoonists— we don’t keep it ourselves. And the amount of time we put in on even one reprint is amazing.
If you’re new to the game, you have to decide if you can do something better. And if you can draw well enough. We get lots of funny ideas from people who can’t draw well; they don’t study anatomy. That’s the first thing that anybody has to do: they have to study anatomy for all of their lives. You can’t minimize anatomy until you’re an anatomical genius. Body language. Good cartoonists always get the bodies right, the proportions right. It’s simplistic but it’s true. Do I sound like a fanatic?
Harvey: No, not at all. But what about the shrinking gag cartoon market? It seems that if you want to be a gag cartoonist these days, you have to have a whole batch of things about wind surfing, and you send them to the wind surfing magazine, but then you can’t sell them anywhere else after that— at least, not as a batch of wind surfing cartoons. You’d have to trickle them out, one to a batch of other subjects—
Urry: That’s right. And that’s terrible for those guys. But there are a lot of specialty magazines. They’re what’s taken the place of the general interest magazines. Those need research. You actually have to know a little about the subject matter. Or else you have to be able to be funny about anything. But it’s true: it’s very, very hard for these artists. A lot of people make decent money by selling small amounts to small specialty markets. Some people make a living selling legal cartoons; others, medical cartoons. A lot of the cartoonists teach, as I said before— or art direct or work on computer animation.
There’s a guy who we use all the time who sells furniture. That’s what he does to make a steady living. And he cartoons purely as an avocation. He hits enough of the time. He’s terribly funny. But he wouldn’t be able to make a living just as a cartoonist. He does a lot of very male cartoons. I’m not sure if this guy gets married and has kids that he’s going to be able to do it any more. Because as soon as people get married, they stop doing “hanging out” cartoons. [Harvey laughs.] I’m not kidding.
Harvey: It’s probably an occupational hazard. And speaking of hazards, we’ve come to the end of this one. Thank you for giving up the time for this conversation.
She escorted me down the hall to the reception area, and as we walked along, I noticed framed Vargas originals on the wall. Urry, noticing my straying eye, remarked that Vargas’ poses got more and more extreme as time went on—“He forgot where the tits went,” she finished.
Ten years after this 1996 interview, Michelle Urry died. Ten years after that, Playboy stopped running cartoons — at the same time that it stopped running photographs of fully naked women. (They were actually naked, but were draped or posed in such a coy way that neither nipples nor pudenda showed.) A year after that, with the March 2017 issue, naked women were back, but cartoons weren’t.