I’m pretty sure I saw the first truly memorable cartoon of my young (seven- or eight-year-old) life in a copy of Argosy I was flipping through at the barbershop one Saturday afternoon several decades ago. “Ubangi?” asks a pith-helmeted explorer of a half-naked African woman in the jungle. “You betcha!” she replies.
Ah, the simple hilarity of sex and racism.
While he claims to draw for no one other than himself, Sam Gross’s work in large part emerged from the men’s magazine milieu of the fifties and sixties. The great thing about Gross, however, is that he can do just about anything in cartoons. Much of the time he’s simply cute: A cat deposits a piece of garbage into a can marked “kitty litter”; a long dachshund chases a stretch limousine down the street, and so on. At the other end of the spectrum, well, if you’ve ever seen his downright subversive 1977 collection, I Am Blind and My Dog Is Dead, or ran across his work in the National Lampoon, you know that Gross has an edge that can cut deeply. His most famous cartoon, of course, depicts a frog amputee (“Try our frogs’ legs” reads the sign on the wall). And Gross’s world is populated in large part by the handicapped, the homeless, and the slightly horrific, all of whom he humanizes with deft strokes and subtle halftones.
In person, however, Gross is a regular pussycat. He works in an Upper East Side apartment next door to a comics store he claims never to have entered. His doorbell sports an old family name because he doesn’t want to be hassled by anyone who might have been offended by his 2008 book We Have Ways of Making You Laugh: 120 Funny Swastika Cartoons. He’s a great storyteller with a mind like the proverbial steel trap, a trouble-making ringleader among New Yorker cartoonists, and he’s still going strong at age seventy-seven. Long may he offend.
RICHARD GEHR You seem very organized. What’s your working process? How many cartoons do you generate per week?
SAM GROSS Every Wednesday I just clear everything, sit down, and trip. I don’t draw for markets like The New Yorker at all. I just trip. I’m still doing stuff as if National Lampoon still existed. This week I got sixteen or seventeen drawings. I number and date all my drawings. First they get photocopied on forty-four-pound stock paper. Then I punch three holes and they go into loose-leaf books like the black books back there and in the kitchen. And I think I got 27,592 cartoons now.
GEHR: What do you send to magazines, copies or originals?
GROSS: Photocopies go out. No ideas leave the studio because invariably something will get lost in the mail or during processing. I go into a panic whenever I lose an idea. Many years ago this cartoonist, Jimmy Frankfort, was sitting very despondently at the Saturday Evening Post. I said, “What’s the matter?” And he said, “They lost twenty-seven of my drawings here.” And I says, “Well, geez, you have a record of it?” “No I don’t have a record of it.” He lost twenty-seven drawings, just gone. And it made an indelible impression upon me. Things get lost; and a lot of things that get lost don’t get found.
GEHR: Do you do all your own business? Does your wife help you?
GROSS: Isabelle doesn’t help me at all. God, if she helped me we wouldn’t be married. We’ve kept everything separate. She has her own bank account, I have my own bank account, etcetera. She has never even made a suggestion – except once she did. I was just starting out and got unceremoniously dismissed from Esquire. Jerry Beatty was Esquire‘s cartoon editor at that time, in the late fifties or early sixties. So I was drawing and my wife said, “You gotta go to Esquire.” And I said, “I got thrown out of Esquire!” And she said, “But it’s a big market. You gotta go to Esquire.” So eleven months later I went to Esquire and there’s Jerry Beatty. He looks at the stuff and says, “Hey this is really good. I’m buying these two.” I said, “Great. I got a story to tell you, though. Eleven months ago you threw me out of here.” He says, “I did?” I says, “Yeah, you did.” He says, “Well, eleven months ago you were lousy!” That’s the only time she stuck her nose in.
GEHR: Do you prefer doing editorial or advertising work?
GROSS: I’m making more money on editorial than I would on advertising now. For the most part, advertising rates have either been frozen or even whittled down. I’m probably pretty difficult to deal with in advertising. I’d rather target my stuff for editorial, and mostly for The New Yorker because it goes into the Cartoon Bank, and from there I earn money on residuals, royalties, and reprints. Rather than deal with an advertising job – where eight, ten years ago I was making $3,000 on a drawing and now it’s been whittled down to like $1,500 and you don’t get any reprints or royalties – I’d rather take a chance on editorial work. It’s not uncommon for me to make six or seven thousand dollars on a drawing. At one point I worked as an accountant, so every one of the drawings is numbered. When money has come in I post to that number in my index and know, pretty much to the nearest dollar what a drawing has made. One year I sold seven drawings and did quite well. Another year I sold eleven drawings and also did quite well – better than a couple of years when I sold a book, which would be ninety or 120 drawings. Some books do well, some books don’t. But I’d rather take the shot than get a flat amount from advertising and nothing more.
GROSS: The only one who really has staying power at the moment is Charles Addams with the Broadway production, the recipe book, calendars, and biography. The Tee & Charles Addams foundation is toodling along out in Wainscott, Long Island. I don’t think people even know from William Steig anymore. They know from Shrek but not Steig. They may know him from the children’s books, but his originals and marketing don’t make much money. The Addams Family drawings, by the way, do make a chunk of money. I understand there are 139 of those, and they’re out of sight. I was up at the Cartoon Bank once, and they were selling an Addams drawing they got from a collector, and it went for ten thousand dollars. I looked at the drawing, and it was a drawing from an idea they’d bought from me for two hundred bucks back in the sixties. It was a bunch of shrunken heads and one of them has a smiley face. (I ordinarily don’t sell gags, by the way.) They said they’d had a lot of people interested in it but had to take the first offer. And I said, “Why didn’t you put it up for auction?” And that gave me a bright idea, which was to put my frog’s legs art up for auction.
GEHR: That worked out pretty well for you, I hear.
GROSS: I figured I would tie it in with the National Lampoon book that was coming out, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead. I put a $20,000 floor on it and some people said that was too much. I said, “Look, I can always go down but you can’t go up.” I also said, “If somebody doesn’t make the floor, it’s OK, I’m not gonna miss a meal.” One bidder bought it right before it ended. Now I have two other drawings up for bid. The floor on the 2004 “Cat In the Hat” drawing is $6,300 and the one with the guy’s head on a pike is $5,700. I have an idea of how popular they are by the number of reprints the Cartoon Bank sells.
GEHR: Let’s go back to the beginning – even to your prehistory. Where were your parents from?
GROSS: My mother was born in Lasi on the Romania-Russia border and my father was born in Lithuania. They came to the United States as children around 1905, or at least my mother did.
GEHR: What were their names?
GROSS: My father got the name “Gross” on Ellis Island. They couldn’t spell his last name, Putkovic, so they asked what his mother’s maiden name was; it went on a little bit, so they decided to simplify it to Gross. My father’s name was Mordecai, but they couldn’t spell that either so they gave him the name Max. My mother Sophie came here as Goldberg, but my grandmother remarried and took my step-grandfather’s name. That’s the artistic side of the family. The Gross side doesn’t have much in the way of artists.
GEHR: When did you arrive?
GROSS: They got married in 1930 or 1931 and had me on August 7, 1933. I was born in the Bronx and lived there almost twenty-one years. My middle name is Harry. I’m named after two dead uncles, Sam and Harry. They were both in the diamond business and both of them died young.
GEHR: What did your father do for a living?
GROSS: He was a CPA, which is probably why I’m so organized. I keep fairly good track of things. It’s not perfect, because if it was I wouldn’t get any other work done. But I am keeping fairly good track of 27,592 drawings at the moment.
GEHR: Where did you go to school?
GROSS: My high school was DeWitt Clinton, which was an all-boys school I understand is coed now. I grew up on the Moshulu Parkway and walked to school. Then I went to City College. I started as a business major and took a lot of liberal arts courses. I was supposed to be an accounting major, then I was an advertising major, and then I don’t know. I basically took a lot of art and history courses, I just wanted to get the hell out of there.
GEHR: When did you go into the army?
GROSS: I got drafted in 1954 and spent two years in Germany. I came out with a book called Cartoons for the GI, and I was getting a check every month from the International Media Company. This was an outfit that put out a lot of stuff including Overseas Weekly, which we called the “Oversex Weekly.” It was like the National Enquirer of Germany. They published pin-ups, murders, the usual trash, and they saw I had a weekly cartoon in something called the Headquarters Area Command Post. They contacted me and said, “Let’s do a book.” We did the book in 1955, I believe, and it sort of took off. I was a Private First Class but I was making more money than a Major, which pissed off my company commander.
GEHR: Were those your first published cartoons?
GROSS: No. My official first published cartoon – other than The DeWitt Clinton News and The Kicker, a college paper – was in the Saturday Review in 1953. It was a very scholarly looking guy being interrogated by the police. He’s saying, “It all began when my Phi Beta Kappa key fit into the bank vault.”
GEHR: Not bad.
GROSS: Hey, you know, you’re learning.
GEHR: What are the first cartoons you remember seeing that blew your young mind?
GROSS: Probably everything in The Saturday Evening Post. But still to this day, most of the time when I initially look at a magazine I look at it from the back to the front, except for The New Yorker. Because all the cartoons were in the back of The Saturday Evening Post.
GEHR: When did you become a full-time cartoonist?
GROSS: I drew on the desk with crayon and ink in first grade. My teacher, Mrs. Levy, sent me home with a note. My mother had to come to school with Kirkman soap and we had to scour the desk. But when I got out of the army I was screwed up in the head. I bummed around for a little bit trying to get some stuff going.
GROSS: Not from the army; I had pressure from my family. “Ah, get a job. What are you doing?” That type of stuff. And so I got an accounting job. I think I lasted six months and then my father needed me for tax season. So I could do more cartooning because I didn’t have solid hours since I was working for my father. My wife and I saved up enough money and got married. And she said, “You gotta give it a shot, a real serious shot.” Because a lot of people, they want to draw cartoons for a living but they never really give it a shot.
GEHR: How did you go about getting established as a cartoonist?
GROSS: We’d saved up enough money to live for a year without making a sale. She was working for the New York State Department of Labor, getting people jobs, and she wanted to be a writer. We decided that my market was in Europe, since I’d already been published there. My cartoons travel pretty well. So we set everything up in Darmstadt near the publisher of my first book. I got a car and we’d periodically go to Paris. My wife spoke passable French, and we would go from magazine to magazine. I sold filler cartoons to Periscope, which was the French TV Guide. Another guy had an office right across the street from the Élysée Palace. He was a little man with a gray suit and he had two magazines: one called Les Rires, or “laughter,” and another called Fou Rire, “foolish laughter.” There was a cartoon on each page like in the old Army Laughs or Broadway Laughs. He’d sit there and go through my stuff, putting what he wanted in a pile, and then he’d count it up. He’d pay me twenty francs each, which was the equivalent of five bucks, and he would buy ten or fifteen of them at a time. I would get 200 or 250 francs, which was pretty good. My hotel was four dollars in those days. I learned I could get up in the morning and draw. I also found out that I could go to your office, and you could look at my stuff and give it all back to me, and I wouldn’t be devastated. You’d be surprised how many people, even now at The New Yorker, won’t go in to see Bob Mankoff. They’ll just leave stuff in the pile outside his office. So although I was very far from being wildly successful, I could function. We were there for a year in 1961-62 and went back periodically.
GEHR: What happened when you got back to the USA?
GROSS: I just started submitting stuff. If it was tax season, I would work for my father. One of my first steady-ish jobs was with a Brooklyn card company called CharmCraft. They paid me $35 for ideas. I made $985 and change my first year back. As the old gag goes, Who gave you the change? Everybody!
GEHR: What were the first magazines you worked for?
GROSS: Just to show you how stupid or naïve one can be when they start out in this business: In Writer’s & Artist’s Yearbook and Writer’s Digest, the rate list was $10 to $300 dollars for a cartoon. So I sent cartoons to Dude, Gent, Men’s Action, that type of magazine. But I would start out with The New Yorker, always. Somebody sent me to Rascal when I came back from Europe, so I figure anyone with my sterling, fantastic talent, they are going to look at my stuff and say, “Give this boy $300.” And lo and behold, when the check came in it was for $10. I was getting smarter, though, and I soon realized that the range was pure hogwash. I asked the editor of Rascal, “Does anyone ever get more than $10.” He said, “Yeah, we pay Bill Ward $12.50 because he does more lines – he does cross-hatching.”
GEHR: When did you sell your first cartoon to The New Yorker?
GROSS: I actually sold two at the same time in 1959. One was a lady waiting for a bus stop and there’s a kid running after a little wind-up toy. I can’t remember what the other one was.
GEHR: I’m not sure I get it.
GROSS: I don’t think they published it as a cartoon. Believe me, there are things you do that you prefer to forget. I probably made about $125 for them, though.
GEHR: When did you become a New Yorker contract artist?
GROSS: I didn’t get a contract under William Shawn. I had a special rate under Robert Gottlieb. I got a flat fee but higher than their contract rate. The contract rate started below my special rate and went up incrementally for each five you sold until they would be way ahead of my rate. Then it would go back down again at the beginning of the year. And there was also a signature fee, a quantity bonus, and a pension. None of this do they have now.
GEHR: How has your work changed over the years? Do you get direction from your editors as the magazine’s editorial vision changes?
GROSS: My work hasn’t changed because of The New Yorker. I don’t do things for The New Yorker; I do things for me. I don’t do anything for The New Yorker because I operate on the premise that Bob Mankoff can be there today and gone tomorrow, and the same with David Remnick. Somebody else could come in and have a totally different outlook and I will either fit in or not fit in. If I’ve geared my work toward the people that were there before, I’m basically embedded with these older people and I’m screwed. But I am my own person. You either take me or leave me, simple as that.
GEHR: What cartoonists have influenced you?
GROSS: Charles Addams, Mischa Richter, Saul Steinberg. We all go through these things. Addams still influences me.
GEHR: What did you learn from Addams?
GROSS: I learned how to create a mood and get involved with the characters. I did a Puss in Boots gag some years ago. The cat is wearing these high leather boots with stiletto heels and has a whip. And a guy is looking at the cat and saying something like, “This is not the Puss in Boots I knew as a child.” I could tell there was something wrong with my sketch, however, and it finally dawned on me that the guy I drew never read a book in his life; he looked like he drove a truck or something. I had to draw somebody bookish. I know I have a poor eye. People like Sergio Aragonés, though, he can sit there and just fill up a page and there it is. I shared a studio with Dick Oldden, a penthouse on 78th Street. This guy didn’t own an eraser, Wite-Out, or even a pencil. He had trained himself to start on the upper left-hand corner, finish on the lower right-hand corner, and just sign his name. I thought everybody was like this. Sometimes I have to give a drawing a lot of thought afterward. I may look at it for two weeks if I’m trying to sell it to The New Yorker – or three weeks if it’s really bothering me. There’s no time element involved with most of my work. It can go on forever, and I have drawings that are still pumping money. “Son, your mother’s a remarkable woman,” that drawing with the cow jumping over the moon was done in 1982 and it’s going on and on. And the frogs’ legs cartoon was in the December 1970 issue of the Lampoon.
GROSS: I had no idea what I was doing. Not only did I not know what I was doing, I didn’t spend any time trying to figure out what I was doing. Because you can’t. Occasionally, though, you get an idea and it glows. This happened with a fairly recent gag. There’s a kitchen in a French restaurant and the cooks all have mustaches and toques. One of them is reaching into a bin full of frogs and there’s a big pot boiling in the back. One frog says to another, “We’ll always have Paris.” I bring it in and Bob Mankoff holds it, then sends it back. I have it right here on my board for two weeks. What the hell am I gonna do with this? Gourmet isn’t buying cartoons anymore, and the Lampoon is gone. Finally I brought it back to Bob and said, “I’m gonna give you and Remnick another chance on this thing.” I got to hand it to him, he took it and now it’s pumping money, but nothing like some of the others. It glowed and punched a button. When you’re selling reprints or the original, you’re not really selling the art. You’re selling the button or whatever it is that you pressed. So I pressed a button with the frogs’ legs cartoon although I really have no idea what that button is. I do know one thing, though: Nobody draws a better frog than me. [Laughter]
GEHR: What are some of your other specialties?
GROSS: I also draw a good cat. Me and cartoonists Nick Downes, Pete Mueller, and Phillipe Cohen were at an exhibit of Leonardo drawings at the Met. Leonardo can draw a fantastic horse, and dogs. There was this drawing of these dog paws, and I called them over and said, “Look at that. I draw a cat better than he does.” And I do. He could not draw cats! One good thing about cartoons: If you can’t draw something, you draw it your way. Ed Koren draws a horse but it’s not a horse. It’s his horse, and it’s a funny, funny horse. A horse is something I have an awful time with. It’s usually the legs. Sometimes I’ll put the horse in some tall grass – the taller the better.
GEHR: Do you think all animals are equally funny?
GROSS: No, of course not. I don’t think horses are funny at all. Possums are funny. Anteaters are funny. Cats. Dogs. Chickens are funny. Guys in chicken outfits, they’re funny. If a guy’s in a chicken outfit handing out something, I always take it because I figure anyone that’s reduced to being in a chicken outfit deserves my patronage.
GEHR: When did you discover that the handicapped possessed so much potential amusement?
GROSS: One of my first big sales when I came back from Europe was a spread of drawings called “Humor of the Handicapped” in Paul Krassner’s Realist. Before the Lampoon there was The Realist, which did some very wild stuff. He got a lot of letters both ways, but handicapped people loved it!
GEHR: How did the sixties treat you?
GROSS: I was learning my trade. I like the sixties. The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker book was divided into decades: I’m in the book twenty-eight times. Not because I am so wonderful but because I’m in the sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties, zeroes, and now the tens. That’s six decades. But I was doing some wild stuff during the sixties.
GEHR: But you never went all counter-culture or joined a commune and dropped a lot of acid?
GROSS: No, no, no. Why would I do that? But my sister was into Buddhism and followed some Russian mystic.
GEHR: Were Robert Crumb and the Zap! comics on your radar?
GROSS: Not at all.
GEHR: Tell me about life at the National Lampoon.
GROSS: I was just a contributor until the mid-eighties, when I became cartoon editor. Then I was just a contributor again. Matty Simmons and Len Mogel were the publishers of Cheetah and a Diner’s Club magazine. I was doing cartoons for them, so when they took on the Lampoon I naturally went along. But I was doing Lampoon-ish stuff before for The Realist and for some magazines in France. I was just doing what I was doing.
GEHR: Do you have any good National Lampoon stories? The book is called Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, after all.
GROSS: Actually, I do. [Former editor-in-chief] Billy Kimball is now in Hollywood and was married to Bill Hamilton’s daughter. He and I were discussing an issue back when they were down on lower Sixth Avenue. He was sitting on the couch with his girlfriend and she had her arm on the back of the couch. A mouse went right by and she didn’t move, didn’t bat an eye. The place was mouse-infested, rat-infested the whole thing.
GEHR: Your second-most-infamous cartoon might be the one about the blind black guy. Where did that come from?
GROSS: I was heading up to the Lampoon one day and there was a black guy holding a sign on that said “Blind since birth.” I stopped to look at him for a couple of minutes and thought, “He’s blind from birth. Does he have any concept that he’s black?” Like every artist I have an obsession about my eyes. So I mulled this over for a day or two and came up with this gag about a guy on the street with a sign that said “Blind, and I think I may be black.” When I came into the next Lampoon editorial meeting I got my only standing ovation for it.
GEHR: Did you ever feel like part of a scene at the Lampoon?
GROSS: I was never a part of any scene except my scene. Which is one reason I survived.
GEHR: Were there any reverberations from We Have Ways of Making You Laugh?
GROSS: It made a bit of a ripple and then it went away. You go on to the next one. I only sold one of them to The New Yorker, but they gave it back to me after they bought it. It was this clown in big shoes wearing a swastika armband. One kid says to the other kid, “There’s another reason for me to hate clowns.”
GEHR: That’s funny on at least two levels. Have you ever taught comedy or cartooning?
GROSS: I taught three semesters at Pratt in Manhattan. I taught cartooning to illustrators. I broke things down to their simplest components the way a cartoonist would think. I started out with a class of maybe thirty-eight or so and oh my God I knew how to get rid of a lot of them. “Look,” I said, “this is a country of 250 million people and every one of you in this class can probably draw better than me.” Which made them feel very good. I explained that I was basically going to move their talent from their wrist up to their brain. The next week there’d be sixteen people there and a note from the director: “See me after class.” These sixteen people of course know nothing about cartooning. They drew beautifully, but millions of people can draw and paint beautifully. I was trying to give them a mental advantage I have. I would have them come in with gag ideas. Because I had to break it to them almost gently. “You are not going to graduate from here and get a job drawing,” I said. “There are no jobs drawing, but you’ll have an advantage over all the other free-lancers if you can do cartoons. You can sell your cartoons while waiting for somebody at J. Walter Thompson to decide whether he or she should give you the job.”
GEHR: Did you have a philosophy of cartooning?
GROSS: The highest form of cartooning has no caption.
GROSS: You have to do color even though it doesn’t add much to a cartoon in most cases. The funniest films are in black and white. Bob Mankoff told me that I had to add color to something a while back and I asked him, “Who wants this in color? Do you want this in color?” He said no. “Does Remnick want this in color?” He says no. “Then who wants this in color?” He says, “One of the people in makeup.” I say, “You mean an untershutpper wants it in color?” It wasn’t going to add anything to it, so I said, “I’m not going to do it.” First of all, I’m not that good in color. Most cartoonists aren’t. I do color for greeting cards. Some of ‘em come out good, some of ‘em don’t. Unless there’s an extremely good reason to do color, why do color? Some Like It Hot is supposedly the funniest movie ever made. Billy Wilder did it back in the fifties when color was not that unusual, and he shot it in black and white. I asked Mankoff to just tell ‘em I’m lousy in color.
GROSS: Number 1 and 2 ½ Rapidograph pens. That’s it. And a pad of cheap-shit paper. This is twenty-four-pound stock scratch and for finishes I have two-ply vellum.
GEHR: We mentioned some of the cartoonists you admire and learned from. Are there any cartoonists you feel have been severely under-appreciated?
GROSS: Bill Woodman, definitely. He’s a funny drawer with good ideas and I really dig him. Dick Oldden, who died, falls into that category. He went into other stuff, including painting. That’s another thing. Most cartoonists don’t go easily from fine art to cartooning, and vice versa. I saw an Edward Hopper exhibit at the Whitney many years ago. They showed a lot of stuff he did including a bunch of 1918 cartoons. Oh god were they awful. Not funny at all. I think Joseph Mirachi was underappreciated. He did some really beautiful drawings of New Jersey bars and car-repair places out in the sticks. George Booth is not underappreciated, because he’s really good.
GEHR: What younger cartoonists are amusing you?
GROSS: Not many, because there’s not much of a market so they’re not coming up. Or they’re coming up in venues I’m unfamiliar with. This guy Jason Patterson, appears in The New Yorker every so often. I love the one with these miserable guys tethered to the oars in the bowels of a ship. One of them’s looking out the slit going, “Oo, dolphins!” That busted me up. There just aren’t that many magazines anymore. I went into this magazine store in the Greenwich Village of San Diego and The New Yorker was the only thing they had that ran cartoons. And most magazines, if they do have cartoons, it’s not really part of their editorial side. When I was president of The Cartoonists Guild, I was negotiating a raise at Cosmopolitan, where I think they were paying $100 or $150. The art director said, “Y’know, cartoons aren’t important here. We use ’em as fillers – either them or Red Cross ads. If we have a space at the end of an article, we’ll put in a cartoon or a poem sometimes. And I’d rather put in a cartoon because it’s a pain in the ass to set poetry type.” So I had this fantasy of Emily Dickinson submitting poems to Cosmopolitan. She’s up there in Amherst, up in the attic coughing, and she gets this letter back: “Dear Emily, We’ve decided to use a cartoon instead of your poem because…” And I’m busting my chops to match this excellent piece of art with a terrific idea and he’s like, “It’s a pain in the ass to set type so we’re going to run your cartoon.” It makes you feel really great.
GEHR: What makes a good cartoon editor?
GROSS: Somebody who can see, and he doesn’t necessarily have to have a great sense of humor. I was a good editor. For instance, Charlie Rodrigues did this cartoon showing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a paperback, and I said, “No, it’s inconceivable. Let’s go all the way. Let’s make it a pop-up book.” Which is what he did. One time Mary K. Brown called me up and I said, “How ya doin’?” And she says, “Ah, I’m doin’ awful.” I said, “What’s the matter?” And she says, “Oh, I was at the dentist and it’s killing me.” I said, “I’m sorry to hear that.” And she says, “I can get three to five pages out of it.” I said, “Great, let me check with ‘Ratso’ Sloman.” I said, “Larry, I got M.K. on the phone. She was at the dentist and can do three to five pages. But we got to nail it down so you need to decide how many pages right now.”
GEHR: Do you have kids?
GROSS: Yeah, one.
GEHR: What did she think about your career?
GROSS: Her name’s Michelle and she went to the Manhattan Waldorf School. She says, “It was very frustrating, you being in the National Lampoon. I would come to school and tell them what a total asshole you were. And you know what their reaction was? ‘Oh no, your dad works for National Lampoon. He’s funny. We love your dad!’ I can’t say anything bad about you, for Christ sakes!”
GROSS: Stuff that’s really far out, stuff you’ve got to reach for. I just finished reading a book about the Marx Brothers called, Hello, I Must Be Going. I think the best movie they ever made by far was Duck Soup. That was on another level. It was a strange movie that didn’t make any money at the time. Paramount dropped them because of that movie, which has been voted one of the funniest movies ever made. I try to get far-out stuff like that into my cartoons. I don’t do it consciously, but when I get it, I get it. It’s like that “We will always have Paris” cartoon. (Somebody at The New Yorker changed it to “We’ll always have Paris” and I had to correct them.) I thought the sitcom M.A.S.H. was extraordinary, too.
GEHR: I’ve heard you’re not a fan of The New Yorker caption contest.
GROSS: You will not see me in it. I don’t believe in it. Also, I’m not crazy about awards. The only award I ever got was in 1980 at Comic-Con. Why I got the Inkpot award I have no idea. The Lampoon had a table or booth or something, and we were signing and selling whatever the hell we were selling. This was before the movie industry took over Comic-Con, which they now want to move to Los Angeles. They don’t even want to go 125 miles for it; they have taken it over literally. The Inkpot Award is a wooden plaque with this metal thing sticking out of it like a little phallus. I put a nail in the wall (you may have noticed I don’t have anything on the walls) and hung the plaque on it. This was in the penthouse studio I had on 92nd Street, the top of a townhouse where my lawyer’s mother lived. About three or four weeks later, I hear a clunk! When I go look, the plaque is still on the wall but the metal thing has fallen down. So I put the metal thing back on the board, and a day or two later I hear another clunk! It goes down again. I pick it up, put it back on again, and I did this maybe another two or three times. And finally one day I’m sitting there and it goes clunk! and I take the thing and put it in the garbage. That’s my award.