The Jules Feiffer Interview

Sick Sick Sick ©1956 Jules Feiffer

GROTH: Could you chart your evolution, visually? You started off, the early Sick, Sick, Sick stuff at least, very angular, no fluidity, and sans the spontaneous line you developed later.

FEIFFER: Oh, there wasn’t any [style]. I was struggling for style. Those drawings you found in that pile, some of them date back to those years, and almost all of them are more interesting than you’ll find in Sick, Sick, Sick, because as soon as I got to reproduction, I would stiffen up. I couldn’t handle a brush very well. I couldn’t handle a pen very well. I could handle a pencil well, but you couldn’t reproduce in pencil. Finally I stumbled on a technique of using wooden dowels and that gave me a dry line which I liked very much, which approximated I guess pencil. And I’d draw those in poster and black ink, diluted. And that gave me a line that I liked for a while. But it took forever to do, it was very slow going. In those years I was very influenced by William Steig and Osborn, and the closer I could get my work to look like them, the happier I would be. I must have been doing the weekly strip for, oh, I can’t think of how long, anywhere from three months to six months to maybe a year, before I hit on the drawing style I liked. Somewhere along the line Pageant magazine asked me to do Passionella, which is where it first appeared, and it came out and it was a great success. But the drawings, I thought, were so awful, that when the book came out I redrew the whole thing completely. In fact, I didn’t use a single one of the drawings in that book. I was just embarrassed by how it looked. Although nobody at Pageant seemed to mind. They all liked it, but I was just mortified.

GROTH: When did you start working for the Voice?

FEIFFER: Fifty-six. October ‘56.

GROTH: So it was roughly from ‘53 to ‘56 that you were struggling to—

FEIFFER: Well, I was still struggling, because the Voice didn’t pay me, so I had to keep these jobs. The Chartmaker’s job went through my early weeks at the Voice, and then I went to work for Terrytoons in New Rochelle, which was the first of these jobs that I actually enjoyed. You know, that I didn’t consider pure schlock. Because Terrytoons was taken over by a man named Gene Deitch, who had been with UPA, and who was trying to upgrade the quality of the studio. I was in the story department designing characters and new features for morning shows like Captain Kangaroo and I did several scripts for a show called Tom Terrific.

I met people I really liked, and whose talents I respected. I mean, at these other jobs there were a lot of people I liked, but not necessarily people doing work that I cared about or meant anything to me. But when I went to work for Terrytoons, I guess in ‘56, there was a man I never heard of named Ernie Pintoff doing a cartoon called Flea Bits which I think is still a brilliant piece of work. There was a man I never heard of named Bob Blechman, who was going up on the same train I was, working on an animated version of The Juggler of Our Lady. There was a lot of talent around. So, for the first time, I felt that I was among constituents, that there were peers around. They put me, Terrytoons or Deitch, put me to coming up with the morning animated series that would replace Tom Terrific when that ran out, so it would run four or five minutes a day. So I designed a series called Easy Winners about a bunch of kids living in a neighborhood like the Bronx. Something that would have been vaguely autobiographical, really, a kind of spin-off of Clifford. Show the real world of children, but in a highly comic way. Maybe not unlike, in some ways, Charlie Brown. They all loved it, Deitch loved it, and the various other people who were important at Terrytoons loved it. And then some muckety-muck from CBS was coming who had to O.K. it. CBS owned Terrytoons at that time. And I was told that we were very lucky in getting this particular fellow because he was creative; he edited soap operas. He came in a three-piece suit, very expensive looking, and very well coiffed, and I knew I was dead.

GROTH: Your heart sank.

FEIFFER: I don’t know if you know the animation business—the storyboards are pinned up by push-pins on the wall, and it looks like a comic strip. You do the storyboards on these little sheets of paper, and it looks like a comic strip. My idea of a comic strip is you read a comic strip. That’s not the way it works in animation. The people who come in to O.K. it or not expect to be performed for. And you get these 50- or 60-year old animators who quack like ducks and jump up and down and flap their wings and do everything, they act out the drawings. So you have a middle-aged animator, or a story layout man flapping his wing, and then being his own laugh-track, so as to encourage the clod who’s looking on to think this is amusing, because how would he know? He wouldn’t know from the drawings and he wouldn’t know from the performance. But from his laugh and from the laughs of the claque in attendance, he will know that they are laughing, therefore this is supposed to be funny. That’s how they can tell. Except that this man from CBS could not tell. He said it at the end of my disgusting display, and I couldn’t do a very good job of it, I kind of mumbled my way through it.

GROTH: You quacked and fluttered.

FEIFFER: I didn’t quack once, and I was kind of mumbling, I could see my support system, all the guys that were left slowly disassociating. First thing, all around me, grinning, beaming, and by the time I had finished the last drawing, I was standing alone [laughter] and they were all surrounding this guy from CBS.

GROTH: Just like a Feiffer cartoon itself.

FEIFFER: Very much so. And he said, well, it’s a little too New Yorker-ish. And by then I knew I was dead. The worst curse word in the world. And then he said, what I mean is, and this is a direct quote I will never forget, “It’s a little closer to Dostoevsky than it is to Peter Pan.” [Laughter] I tried to get one of my buddies to say something, and it was just blanket sighs. Just nothing. That afternoon they cancelled the series. The next day I went in and quit, and I got a $50 a week raise to stay on. By that time I knew that my days there were numbered, but I needed the money, and I would take it until something else came along. What came along was Mr. Hefner offering me 500 bucks a month to do a cartoon for Playboy.


GROTH: Hefner saw you in the Voice?

FEIFFER: Hefner saw me in the Voice, wrote me. Before Sick, Sick, Sick came out, he wrote me. Before it came out as a book. By that time we reached an agreement, and the first publication of my work in Playboy was some of the cartoons from the forthcoming book that they ran in advance. And then I started doing special stuff for them and running every month.

GROTH: This must have been only a year after it started.

FEIFFER: Well, the book came out in ‘58, so I guess I began, yeah, it was two years after I started, 1958. By that time I was already also in the Observer in London, which was the first paper to—I mean, that was a very important change in my life, too, because nobody read the Voice, but all of the people like those editors, who could do something about my destiny, read the London Observer, which was highly thought of. Much more highly thought of than, say, Punch was at the time. I mean, it was the English weekly that people in this country read, who had an international turn of mind, or who were part of the intellectual community. So they started talking about this English cartoonist Feiffer. And I got a lot of cachet that way.

GROTH: I think Playboy started in ‘54, if I remember correctly, which means you were in pretty early.

FEIFFER: I was in pretty early, yeah. I met Hefner before his first club, when he was living in a two-room apartment.

GROTH: Pre-mansion days.

FEIFFER: Oh, well pre-mansion days. He was very sweet and full of enthusiasm. I was out in Chicago for whatever reason, and he already had his first sports car, he already was making money, he talked about the opening the first Playboy club, and all of his plans, every one of which became a reality. The thing about him then, the thing about him as long as I’ve known him—I’ve seen very little of him in recent years, but always—was that there was an ingenuous quality, a sense of wonder and pleasure and enthusiasm, that most editors, and certainly most publishers would try in one way or other to establish rank or pecking order. And Hefner simply didn’t know, at least with cartoonists, he loved cartoonists, and I don’t know how he was with others, but I suspect it was much the same way. If he liked you, he liked you, and he took you on face value. I said and did some dreadful things to him in my years on the magazine, because I was very much at odds, as time grew, with the Playboy philosophy, as that developed, as he was writing it. So I would go to the mansion and stay there, sleep there for several days, when I was in the Midwest, eat his food, drink his liquor—drink a lot of his liquor—pass out on his furniture, and before I passed out, insult him [laughter]. And then apologize the next day, because I felt terribly guilty, and he didn’t know what I was talking about. Never bothered him, never ruffled him, never took umbrage. Never said, “Fuck you, you hypocrite. Here you are in my magazine.” Never did any of that.

GROTH: Why do you think he didn’t?

FEIFFER: I think it’s part of his character. That he just didn’t think it was important, or just essential good nature… I have no explanation for it, but that he
was…He always behaved like a mensch to me, and to every other cartoonist I know of. I think Harvey [Kurtzman] would probably have similar stories to tell. He’s incredibly supportive.

GROTH: He’s a frustrated cartoonist himself, isn’t he?

FEIFFER: He’s certainly a first-rate cartoon editor. There are lot of frustrated cartoonists who don’t know a lot about cartoons. He, on the other hand, would send me back my roughs with single-spaced letters, sometimes running to two or three pages, going panel-by-panel breakdown. And first, I’d look at them and groan. Oh, shit. And they never did not make sense. And often he would bring up things that he was absolutely right about and I’d agree with. When he didn’t, then I would write him back, or call him, and say, I disagree because of such-and-such. He’d say, O.K. go ahead. He would never say, I’m sorry you disagree, but it’s my magazine, if you want this in, you’d make a change. That conversation never took place. The conversation that always took place was, if you can’t do it my way, do it your way. His way was never, ever, about selling out my principles in order to make it dovetail more with the magazine’s marketability or approach. He would criticize cartoons in order to make my point stronger—although my point was often counter to the Playboy philosophy.

GROTH: Such as?

FEIFFER: It was many years now, but I’ve got some of that correspondence on file somewhere. He was just so fascinated by the subject, he just loved the nuts and bolts. How do you make this work better? I think this panel here is diversionary. They’re talking too much here about something else. It was extraordinarily helpful. And over and over again.

GROTH: Right. How did you feel about working for Playboy, since you came more and more to dislike its philosophy?

FEIFFER: Well, the magazine had the best cartoonists on it, outside of the New Yorker, and often including the New Yorker. And in those years had livelier work, and I thought more interesting work than one could generally find in the New Yorker. Not more talented, but some of the same New Yorker talent would come and do better work for Playboy because of the editorial policies of theNew Yorker. And, as far as my agreement or disagreement with the point of view of the magazine, I was operating as a dissident cartoonist. There wasn’t, outside of the Voice, a single newspaper in the country running me who I agreed with. If I was going to be proud to the point of suicide, I was not going to be ever known, or have a career, or do this work. So I felt it important to get in print wherever I was in print, and Playboy was by no means as objectionable to me as 90% of the newspapers who I was being syndicated in, who were considered mainstream. I mean, the mainstream I considered the foul stream, as Jesse Jackson might say.

GROTH: Can you distill what your main objections were to the Playboy philosophy?

FEIFFER: Well, yes, the girl on every arm. I don’t want to sound feminist before feminism, but that was truly dehumanizing, and I didn’t think of it as a feminist point, I thought of it as dehumanizing in terms of relationships. I’ve never understood the humanizing aspect of the gang bang. Or the positive aspects of the orgy. My own sexual orientation, compared to that of the magazine, is pure victorian, and awfully prudish. So, that’s basically it. But that didn’t mean that I thought the magazine should go. It was a lively and entertaining publication, and I enjoyed looking at it. And I liked those tits.

GROTH: We all grew up on those tits. But Hefner was an astute critic?

FEIFFER: Absolutely. The most. He was the only astute cartoon editor I’ve ever had anything to do with. The only one.

GROTH: Did you get 10 know him at all?

FEIFFER: Oh, yes.

GROTH: What was he like otherwise?

Hold Me! ©1960 Jules Feiffer

FEIFFER: To know him was not to know him, because he was always very private. Very friendly. There was a lot of banter back and forth. His interest, at least in me, would soon dissipate, and he’d move on to other things and other people, so I always felt, over the years, that I never quite succeeded in getting his complete attention. On the other hand, he was always more than responsive when I had two openings on the West Coast, one for Hold Me, which was a show based on the cartoons, that was done at the Westwood Playhouse. He threw an opening night party at his West Coast mansion. And the same thing for Grown- Ups when it was done at the Mark Taper, he had an opening night party. I happened to be at the mansion when Kretchmer and I decided that I was going to go back into the magazine after many years, and start the Bernard and Huey series. And Kretchmer told me he had not told Hefner, because he wanted to surprise him. I decided I would tell Hefner. We were just casually talking, and he said, I’d love to get you back, I wish you’d come back. And I said, I am back, and I told him. Tears came into his eyes, and he hugged me. That was just the most moving, sweet, it was just absolutely spontaneous, gesture, and lovely.

GROTH: About what year would that be? The ‘60s?

FEIFFER: No, I’m talking about the ‘80s. I don’t know if you know what that series was. But it was these two characters I’ve been doing since the ‘50s, now as middle-aged men, back on the singles scenes, going into bars and trying to make it with young women. It was a brutal, tough series about the Playboy reader as he really was, as opposed to the romantic. I mean these guys were losers, middle-aged paunchy losers, who were trying to stay young. That was in Playboy. For my money, it’s the best work I ever did for the magazine. And Kretchmer loved it.

GROTH: Do you have any sense, I don’t think I’ve seen the strip, but just form the way you described it, do you feel that the context of Playboy could devour the strip’s commentary?

FEIFFER: No, I think it’s just the reverse. This may be my own vanity, but I think the strip devours the magazine.

GROTH: Well, do you think the kind of people who read Playboy would be open to…?

FEIFFER: Apparently not, there was no feedback at all! [Laughter] And finally I stopped it, I dropped it, because doing it for two years, and getting extremely well paid, I felt depressed because I was doing this work which I was inordinately proud of, and not a whisper, not a letter, not a comment. Nobody saw it.

GROTH: If I’d known, I’d have read it.

FEIFFER: You didn’t see it.

GROTH: No. I’m sure I read Playboy periodically during the time it ran. Was Hefner intellectually formidable, do you think?

FEIFFER: No. Nor was he un-formidable. He was certainly as bright or brighter than any editor I’ve every had anything to do with. And interesting. Was he challenging? No. But no editors I knew were.

GROTH: You mentioned something in Feiffer’s America that I wanted to ask you about, and that is, you say you were in psychotherapy, and you said ‘ ‘I scared myself by my anger and my politics.” You went on to say that you took full advantage of your sessions in psychotherapy. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that.
FEIFFER: None of this was particularly conscious, but what would come out of therapy in this kind of freewheeling association of conversation would sooner or later be introduced into the weekly strip. Not in the political cartoons, but in the personal, sexual, social ones. I would find my way to having views, opinions. For example, I never knew how much anger I had in me until I went into therapy and then I started introducing anger as one of the traits in Bernard Mergendeiler. That seemed like an interesting aspect to investigate, to take the kind of Benchley-like character who traditionally has always been the nice guy who society works against, and to show that there is another side to him, which is vengeful, which can be nasty and so on. That if you give the meek, mild man power, he can be as much of a son of bitch as anyone else. So that son of thing. I just found that as a result of the sessions a lot of stuff would come out that I wouldn’t ordinarily be in touch with, and that I could later not deliberately, but just as a matter of course, almost restrain, translate that, because it was still in the forefront of my mind, into material for the cartoon.

GROTH: I’m curious about your anger and how you channel it. Do you have a temper?

FEIFFER: No. I mean, not much of a temper. It comes out mostly in the work, or in…I don’t know. [Both laugh]

GROTH: In the work.


GROTH: O.K., you started in the Voice in October of ‘56. I believe you said in Feiffer’s America that it took you a while to actually find a—

FEIFFER: Style, yes.

GROTH: —a cartooning style you felt comfortable with. And then somewhere in the early ‘60s, you basically said that you were burning out on the strip and that you saw playwriting as a way to reinvigorate your creative—

FEIFFER: No, not in the early ‘60s. We’re talking about two different things. First of all, the finding of the style took a couple of years before I was satisfied with the direction I was going in, not satisfied with what I ended up with, but at least I thought I was on the right trail, as opposed to floundering around and trying one thing one week and another thing another week. And that was a very exciting period, to discover just what this form I was playing with was, and how I could work best with it, and that was fine for quite a time. It was just about 10 years later, by the mid-’60s, that I began to get more and more bored with the drawing, if not the writing of the cartoons. I had no particular visual ideas. I became satisfied in knocking the stuff out by just drawing people in profile. There’s endless numbers of profile cartoons. I just got tired of the repetitive headshot—it seemed to me the only way to be true to the nature of the work. In other words, the writing was fine as far as I was concerned, but if I could have hired anybody to draw it at that point, I would have. If I were making enough money to do that. I thought that for the work to be effective, the movement had to be very subtle or non-existent. I had to sneak up on the reader. And therefore each drawing had to look like the previous drawing, so I had to have a frozen camera. I just traced one drawing after another drawing after another drawing. That was before the photocopier. It bored the pants off me, but I didn’t see any other way of working. I tried to move the camera around a bit. I didn’t think it worked. I thought that one lost the flow. And most important to me was the storytelling, that the flow had to be very smooth, and the point I was making had to sneak up on the reader, and the best way that could be done was with this frozen camera. So the logic of the style of the work forced a monotony on the actual drawing process which eventually became so boring that I was going out of my mind.

GROTH: Yes. Now, you were not dissatisfied with the commentary and the writing?

FEIFFER: No. Most of the time not. Much less so. Of course, from time to time I would be, but generally I felt that whatever fun there was was in that.

GROTH: Now, was there a period when you started to struggle with the cartooning to make it more interesting to yourself?

FEIFFER: No. Because I simply was boxed in and defeated by my own logic. I mean, I simply didn’t know any other way of going about it. And in fact, I did not find another way until I started Tantrum. Tantrum taught me a way out. That was another 15 years later.

GROTH: So you were in a Catch-22 situation before Catch-22.

FEIFFER: Yeah. The other thing that helped get me out of it was Trudeau and other people who came along and were doing the same thing, and finally I realized that I was being forced out of my own position, because everybody was beginning to look too much alike.

GROTH: What did you discover to be the solution?

FEIFFER: Just to ignore my logic [laughter]. Just say the hell with it, and start drawing it from different angles and drawing it freehand. Going back to having fun with the drawing. In other words, when I began drawing it without any pencilling, or any design for the page, but just doing it on scraps of paper, doing 15 or 20 drawings, picking out the ones I liked. Putting them on the page, doing a layout, making a real layout out of it, using the space artfully, I hoped. While that took often twice as long as the old method, I was having fan with the art again.

GROTH: Now, when you use the term “freehand,” you mean by that no underdrawing?

FEIFFER: No pencilling.

GROTH: I see. You started that shortly after Tantrum?

Tantrum ©1979 Jules Feiffer

FEIFFER: I started that with Tantrum. But I was still pencilling the strip, and as soon as I finished Tantrum I realized that I couldn’t go back and continue the strip the way I had. It was just too painful. So I started doing it on the strip.

GROTH: What prompted you to use that technique with Tantrum?

FEIFFER: Again, it was a matter of practicality. I wanted to do a comic strip novel. I knew it was going to be long, and I knew it was going to involve backgrounds, because there was no way of avoiding it, with the work I had in mind. And I knew that if I had to pencil it and ink it, I would never do it. It would never get done. It would just be torture for me. So I thought that since this is about a man who becomes a child again, I would try using a more or less child-like technique. Immediate, crude, hit-the-reader-in-the-eye drawing, which I hoped gave a sense of child-like immediacy to the work. So, again, it was like the early cartoons, there was a logic behind the style that seemed to work with the story I was telling. And in this case, that logic was for me on the verge on doing better and more lively and more interesting, more personally interesting artwork.

GROTH: You don’t consider that during that 10- to 15-year period prior to Tantrum that your visual approach evolved?

FEIFFER: Oh, I think I did evolve. The drawing kept getting better. And within the monotonous facial drawings there were differences. There were dancers that I did continually, and that was always fun. There were drawings of kids that broke the mold, because I loved drawing kids in kid-like poses, and there was a lot of that. There were various other things that defied the logic that I’m speaking of here, but generally the work was fairly monotonous.


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