GROTH: Could you describe how your political beliefs evolved over the period?
FEIFFER: Well, I don’t think they did that much. I think they were pretty much in shape by the time I was in my early 20s, and certainly by the time I was in the army. They didn’t so much evolve as refine themselves.
GROTH: Right. You simply applied them to the changing times.
FEIFFER: Within that, there were people who I learned from. I devoured writers like Paul Goodman and Izzy Stone and Murray Kempton and Dwight Macdonald. Generally writers and intellectuals on the left. Edgar Friedenberg on education. When the New York Review of Books started coming out it became a very important part of my reading and education. Christopher Lasch. A psychiatrist who was important to me was Erich Fromm.
GROTH: When you started gaining a certain notoriety in the ‘60s, sort of establishing yourself. I wanted to ask you who you got together with, who you hung around with, with whom you exchanged ideas and so forth? Was there a circle of friends?
FEIFFER: Yes, there was a circle of friends, mainly literary people, who I met by the good fortune of standing in line to get tickets to a Nichols and May concert and discovering I was standing just in front of Kenneth Tynan, who had just become the theater critic of the New Yorker and had just written the introduction to the English edition of Sick, Sick, Sick. So I introduced myself and he invited me out for drinks after the show. During those drinks and times afterwards, he introduced me to people who would shape my friendships and my social life for the next 30 years. Those were mainly people in the then-New York intellectual literary community. Mailer and George Plimpton and William Styron and Philip Roth.
FEIFFER: Sontag came sometime later. She was not part of that Tynan group. Terry Southern. Sally Belfridge. And Judy Sheftel, who became my first wife. Donald Larson Stewart, Jr., who became one of my closest friends. John Marquand, Jr., another close friend. A number of people like that. And then Plimpton at that time had begun throwing almost weekly cocktail parties. I became a regular at those. And then in another year or two Elaine’s opened, and everybody I knew started trooping to Elaine’s.
GROTH: Was there a kind of intellectual crosspollination?
FEIFFER: Yeah. I mean, also in that group was Norman Podhoretz who was not then the editor of Commentary magazine, but a literary critic and his friend, Jason Epstein, who became the co-founder of the New York Review of Books, and Bob Silvers, who became the editor. I mean, there was a lot of constant back-and-forth about all sorts of subjects, and that was invigorating. A lot of drinking, which was in some ways more invigorating. It was quite stimulating and exciting, and at the same time, quite threatening, because you were dealing with a lot of high-powered types or soon-to-be high-powered types.
GROTH: That was intimidating, I guess.
FEIFFER: And that accounted for even more drinking. [Both laugh]
GROTH: Was there a sense of community?
FEIFFER: Yes, there was a sense of…erratic community. You know, when you’re dealing with a lot of writers and artists, you’re dealing with essentially isolated people who come together not so much to commune with each other as to, I don’t know, commiserate, to mix and then withdraw again. And sometimes to clash. There were a certain amount of fights going on at that time. Rivalry, feuds. Mailer and Styron were not getting along. I remember people starting batting each other around from lime to time. There was an intense sense of competiveness and rivalry. And Hemingway macho writer bullshit.
GROTH: Was that healthy?
FEIFFER: Oh, I don’t think it was particularly healthy, I think that was just the way things were done then and now. It’s not that different now. You know, the Jay McInerneys—that’s pretty much the same scene, except with the addition of drugs.
GROTH: Was there an overwhelming sense of seriousness among these people, in terms of their political beliefs and literary preferences and so forth?
FEIFFER: Oh, I think there was more of a sense of play about that. Yes, there was a sense of seriousness, and I would add even pretentiousness about the statements and the polemics that would come out. But there was also a sense of gusto and fun. There wasn’t much politics. The time I’m talking about was pre-politics. The only people I knew at that time who had real politics were people like Mailer, who came out of the left, and myself. And Lillian Hellman. In fact, most of the others weren’t all that political. We certainly weren’t particularly on the left. The movement left happened sometime later, as the ‘60s really got going.
GROTH: And that’s when the New York Review really turned into a political-literary journal.
FEIFFER: Yes, but that happened at least four or five years after it came into being.
GROTH: Why did that develop as it did?
FEIFFER: The New York Review?
GROTH: Well, I’m talking more about its political orientation.
FEIFFER: Well, It began with dissatisfaction with the content of the New York Times Book Review and that being the arbiter of opinion for the country. It was something stale, sterile, and unalive. And so, as people who were young began writing, just because they were in dissent, and divisive, it started with literature and almost had to move into politics and general criticism of the culture, because the times, not just the literary Times, but the political times were so moribund. We were still in the days of Eisenhower, in the throes of Eisenhowerism. We had just gotten through McCarthyism. There was something sterile and more than sterile—suffocated and politically repressed about the entire society. So there was only one direction to move in and that was to the left. We already were on the right.
GROTH: My impression was that the New York Review sort of inherited the Partisan Review’s constituency.
FEIFFER: Yes, but also it went to a younger constituency, as well, of academics and writers and general literary types, who were maybe a generation younger than the Partisan Review crowd.
GROTH: It almost seems as though the New York Review right now is at the same place the Partisan Review was at then.
FEIFFER: Well, in some ways, yes. Although it still has some pretty good stuff. Some of the best political writing going on today is by Theodore Draper, who writes for them regularly.
GROTH: Has your relationship with the Voice been more or less the same since you began working for them?
FEIFFER: I think this is primarily my own fault, I’ve had very little relationship with them. I live uptown, they’re downtown. In the years when Dan Wolf was the editor, I would go down and hang out every few weeks or so, but not a hell of a lot—got to lunch. Then when Dan left the paper that became even less so. And now I will see David Schneidermann, the publisher, maybe once or twice a year. If that. The current editor I haven’t even met. We talk on the phone, and we get along fine, it’s just that I have no reason to go down, and also there’s no longer any kind of feeling of particular affinity for the paper. That paper is a very different paper. It’s a much more successful paper that I find much less appealing.
GROTH: That was my next question, I was going to ask how you felt about it today versus how you felt about it in the ‘60s.
FEIFFER: You know, I’m not talking about the ‘60s. By the ‘60s, the paper was already beginning to pall, I think. The ‘50s was really its heyday.
GROTH: I see.
FEIFFER: I mean, into the middle ‘60s. The paper did some very good work on the early youth movement and the yippie movement. But by the time the stuff really started moving in terms of S.D.S., and left protest, the Voice was really not very much on top of that, and left a lot of stuff out. As I recall, it never ran a single article on the conspiracy trial. It was very spotty in all sorts of coverage. And as far as the back of the book goes, it had a few good book editors, I thought. I thought its theater column, with the single exception of Ross Westone and maybe one or two others, was always bad. Smug. Full of self-regard. Trendy. Avant-garde, without respite.
GROTH: Do I dare ask you what you think of Sarris?
FEIFFER: Oh, Sarris I enjoy. I mean, I do often disagree with him, but I’ve always enjoyed his writing. I think he’s a lot of fun. We’ve had words with each other from time to time. He enjoys bashing me in print, and I’ve enjoyed bashing him privately. Basically, I feel friendly about him. I can’t say that about the Voice’s drama writers, Michael Feingold, Erica Monk. I think they’re all foolish people.
GROTH: Where do you think the paper’s fallen apart poetically?
FEIFFER: I don’t think it’s fallen apart. It’s come together. Its politics has become a very sectarian, left, hard-nosed survivors of the ‘60s on the one hand, and then a strong gay contingent, with its focus on both cultural art and gay politics, which is more noticeable than any other part of the paper, including the city politics. A lot of people come to the Voice, of this generation, think of it primarily as a gay newspaper. That’s how people refer to it. Its urban politics, particularly Jack Newfield and his colleagues were the first people to blow the whistle on Ed Koch and catch the fact that he was racially dividing the city and polarizing it, and fighting the politics of polarization. The first comments on that and the first exposure of that was in the Voice. That is now taken as a given, but at the time it outraged a lot of people. Newfield has now left the Voice, but I don’t think that will change very much.
GROTH: But is there any way the paper has betrayed its original mandate?
FEIFFER: I don’t think it’s ever betrayed its mandate so much as—I mean, a lot of people do believe it’s done that, and in the sense that it was always a writer’s newspaper, in its first 15 or so years, and no longer is, it’s become more of an editor’s newspaper, I guess that’s true. But I don’t think it’s so much betrayed its mandate as it’s gotten bored with its mandate. You just get a lot of the same people who are doing the same thing. They’re getting older, and there’s not enough new blood, or the new blood is not developing as it should, because it’s dominated and under the thumb of the old guard. That’s one of the problems which I hope it solves, but that I don’t know that it will.
GROTH: You’ve never been close to it editorially?
FEIFFER: No. I’m very pleased with the turn in the cartooning in the paper. For a long time it was only Stamaty and Stan Mack and myself, and now they’ve gotten Nicole Hollander and Lynda Barry and Matt Groening. I think that’s terrific.
GROTH: Something curious that we discovered when we were doing some research on your career is that from 1959 to roughly 1970 you had a lot articles printed in magazines like Mademoiselle, Holiday, Life, Commentary, Saturday Evening Post, Ramparts. Not a tremendous number, but you appeared in there.
GROTH: And then we found a blank spot between 1970, where you appeared in the New York Times Magazine and 1978, where you appeared in the Nation. I’m not sure if our research is a bit faulty or if you simply stopped writing essays, but I wanted ‘to ask you about that.
FEIFFER: No, I started writing plays which meant that I could stop writing articles. I was never comfortable. The things you see in the Nation were really condensations of speeches. I was on the lecture circuit, so whatever appeared in the Nation was generally adapted from a speech. So in fact, I think I stopped writing entirely for publication. I’ve written things for Commentary and I’ve written things for Harpers and the Atlantic, but those are assignments. They were never all that much fun. I never felt that much at ease about them. When I began writing for the theater, and discovered that this was what I really wanted to do, and loved it every bit as much, and often a lot more, than cartooning. When I wasn’t cartooning, I was writing plays, and there was no reason to do anything else. It takes me harder and longer, generally, to write a 2500-word article than it does to write the first act of a play.
GROTH: I think that would strike most people as unusual.
FEIFFER: Well, it’s just that prose is not what I’m gifted at. I can do it, but it takes an enormous amount of effort and study and working and reworking. As opposed to my wife, who’s just a natural prose writer, and just does it. And she feels sure of herself and sure-footed. She’s been doing it always and does it with great facility. What I’ve got is neither the facility nor the real talent. I can do it because I’ve read a lot and I know how it’s supposed to sound and know how my own voice is supposed to sound, but I don’t approach it with the naturalness that I do either the cartoon or the theater. I’m comfortable with the human voice. And so characters in a cartoon talk like people, and people on stage talk like other kinds of people. Or for that matter in screenplays. Again, they talk differently because each form makes different demands, but you’re talking about dialogue. That I’m very comfortable with. Straight prose I’m not.
GROTH: That’s interesting, because the introductions and the afterwards and so forth to your books read as though they were written with the greatest of ease.
FEIFFER: Well, what I do is write myself as a character. Those are written consciously in the form of dialogue, in a sense.
GROTH: You’re in fact giving a monologue.
FEIFFER: I’m giving a monologue. I’m writing in what I have assigned myself as a voice. There’s this character Feiffer who comes down and he makes a statement. And that’s the way I’m able to do it.
GROTH: You’ve written plays and you’re a cartoonist, so the seemingly natural combination would be for you to do something akin to a graphic novel. It would seem to be a perfect conflation of your two best abilities. You did it with Tantrum, but I was wondering why you hadn’t done it since, or hadn’t thought about doing it.
FEIFFER: I have thought about it. After Tantrum I thought, I’ve got to do this once a year, I’ve never had so much fun. I simply don’t know how. I don’t have another idea. I haven’t had one. Now, maybe if I took two or three months off, something would come up. Tantrum had to be what it was. It wouldn’t have worked as a play. It wouldn’t have worked as a weekly strip. The form it found for itself was the only form it could have been, that was the only form that was appropriate. I’ve been able to think of nothing else that would have been only appropriate as a cartoon novel and nothing else. I can think of screenplay ideas, I can think of play ideas, but I haven’t thought of cartoon novel ideas.
FEIFFER: Unlike people like Harvey Pekar or Spiegelman, I’m just not content having characters talk to each other and then go on to a scene. If I do that, then it’s a movie, and I’ll do it as a movie. There has to be something in it that eliminates the possibility of the other forms that I use. If it can’t be screenplay, it can’t be play, only then can it be a cartoon novel.
GROTH: Since you brought up Pekar and Spiegelman, let me ask you this: do you see any line of advance in comics with Spiegelman doing Maus and with Pekar’s work, material of that nature. Do you see the narrative cartoon medium maturing?
FEIFFER: Well, I think particularly with Maus or almost anything that Spiegelman does, because he’s smarter than almost anybody around today, and because he is in total command of his an. I think that he’s doing extraordinarily interesting and personal work and he’s found a way of using confessional work, and turning it into something much broader and much more general. Work that has somehow a resonance to it, although you can never trace its fingerprints. So it’s far more artful, as far I’m concerned, than Pekar’s work or Crumb’s work or anybody else’s that I know of today.
GROTH: I wanted to ask you haw exactly you sit down and write a cartoon, which is probably an unanswerable question, but I’d like to refine it and ask you, how much do you fiddle with the writing of a cartoon?
FEIFFER: Well, I fiddle a lot. For example, I just did yesterday a cartoon on the shooting down of the Iranian airliner. That virtually wrote itself because of my extreme anger at watching the TV handling of this incident, and the bland denials that it had any similarity to the downing of the Korean airliner and my memory of the American reaction, official and unofficial, for that act by the Russians. We called it savagery, we called it a crime against humanity. We said the Russians were uncivilized, and this incident proved it and we can never do business with them. Well, the lesson we seem to draw from this new episode is that we’re not so dangerous, but the Iranians are. We’re more interested in their potential acts of terrorism against the U.S. and what will they do, these mad dogs, than our own act that resulted in the deaths of 290 people. And that where the Russians were the monsters for shooting down the Korean airliner, the lesson we seem to be learning from this is that the Iranians are monsters.
The cartoon is called “Perceptions 101.” I was listening to radio telephone call-ins yesterday, that insisted on the possibility that the Iranians set this up to embarrass us. My point is that kind of situation virtually writes itself in terms of the work that I’ve been doing over the years. It’s just sitting there, virtually as a sitting duck, since the kind of comment that I’m going to make is not likely to be duplicated by many others, maybe one or two others. I can see Toles, perhaps, or Auth, or Conrad, but not the others taking what would be my approach. In other work, it’s just sitting around and schmoozing on paper, having a conversation with myself.
For example, I’m trying to return more to the personal area, because I have a suspicion that the Bush or Dukakis administration is going to be far less interesting and provocative to me, and I better insure myself by getting interested in social and sexual and cultural things that I’ve generally ignored, except for the theater, for many years now. And yet at the same time, I don’t want to get into what I myself think of as a Feiffer cliche or self-parody, and there’s almost got to be some of that, but I would like to find new ways of approaching this material if I can. It’s not easy at the age of 59. So that’s very much on my mind.
GROTH: I assume the rhythm and the pacing and so forth are by now just a matter of course.
FEIFFER: Yes they are, but I would like to sway the course. I would like to find a way of breaking new ground for myself, if that’s at all possible. I don’t know if it’s at all possible.
GROTH: How much writing and rewriting do you do on a strip?
FEIFFER: It depends. There’s always a certain amount. I think the minimum number of drafts I do is three, and I can do five, six or seven before I have it where I think it should be, and sometimes I’ll end up going back to the very first. And I always try to have at least one day go by before I actually do the drawing, because something that seemed actually perfect on paper the first day, in terms of script, may seem very different the second day. I need the detachment, the distance I can get between the writing and putting it on paper.
GROTH: Are the illustrations pretty much the first things you conceptualize? I mean, are they fixed and then you write the strip around—
FEIFFER: No, the first thing I think of is the script, the dialogue and the story I’m telling, and then I will try to figure out what the drawing should be. And even what the sex of the characters should be. A couple of weeks ago, I did a series of drawings, and the illustrations were a woman. I liked them fine. I put them down, put them into place, and I didn’t think it worked at all, so I redid the whole thing with a man.
GROTH: One question I wanted to ask you, and what prompted it was the murder of the 290 passengers on the Iranian plane, but does it ever occur that there’s a political event that you find so distasteful, and that you ‘re so outraged about that you can’t discipline yourself to write and draw a strip about it?
FEIFFER: Well, it does happen. Or that I’ve already handled it in another form and have nothing new to say about. For example, what goes on in the West Bank continues to appall me, but I have nothing fresh to say that I haven’t said before. If I could think of another way of expressing my anger about this, I would.
GROTH: Does the physical act of drawing the strip give you pleasure?
FEIFFER: Yes, now it does. It has since Tantrum. Great pleasure. Again, because it’s freehand.
GROTH: But before then, it was much more—
FEIFFER: I don’t like preparing anything. I don’t like ruling the pages. I don’t like anything that takes preparation. Except for writing. I don’t mind it in writing. But in drawing I don’t like anything that is preliminary work. I just like to get down and do the work.
GROTH: The strip you did a few months ago, the funny animal strip, you must have done pencilling in that?
FEIFFER: Oh, yes. But because that’s a kind of parody. That was great fan. That was great pleasure. Also, it was great fun to see that I could do something in a very different style, that to the general reader… unless you saw my name on it, the general reader would not know that this was my work. I rather like that.
GROTH: That’s absolutely true. It seems to me that it was so accomplished that it would tempt you to do something like that again.
FEIFFER: Oh, I’m tempted, believe me. This French film I’m doing for Alain Resnais has a series of comic strips in it that are animal strips that I’ll be doing in that style, so I’ll be doing six dailies and a Sunday page in that style. Or something like that style with different characters.
GROTH: Why did you just now do that funny-animal edition of your weekly strip?
FEIFFER: Again, Ronald Reagan decides my subject matter. Reagan said, when asked about the Larry Speakes quote, he was asked at the newspaper editors’ convention in Washington last week, does he read newspapers? And he says, yes, he reads newspapers, contrary to public speculation. It’s not all 3-by-6 cards. And the first thing, he says, he reads is the comics. A lifetime habit, he says, and then he goes on to the editorials, and then he reads the rest of the paper. I thought what power this gives Calvin and Hobbes. What power this gives Hagar the Horrible. They can talk to the president, so it seemed more natural to do cartoon characters. But since I didn’t have any, I had to invent them. And then when I started to fool with it in my own style, which I did a couple of dry runs on, that was no fan. So I thought, why the hell not make it look like a real comic strip? And draw with a brush, which I haven’t done in 30 years or so? I didn’t know that I could. Eisner would never let me use a brush, he said I was awful at it. And I was. I’ve gotten better by not doing it. The reason I got into the cartooning I do now is because I couldn’t do the other kind. Somehow, in absentia I’ve learned, I guess, on the basis of this, that I might make it as an ordinary cartoonist.
There’s nothing behind it other than function fitting form. The style I draw in now has generally evolved from doing Tantrum. And the reason I did it in Tantrum was because I had always wanted to do a novel in comic strip form. But I hate doing all that preparation. I hate pencilling. I knew that if I was going to do a book of something like 160 pages in cartoons, that I was never going to finish it if I pencilled every line, drew it laboriously and erased the pages. So I thought I would just try doing it cold with a pentel, and I started doing drawings that way, and my god they were working. And they had an immediacy that—to me—was much more important than their obvious crudeness. And that crudeness seemed to play stylistically into the story anyhow, because it’s about a man who becomes two years old. When I finished the book, I couldn’t go back to pencilling any more. So I converted the style of the book to the regular strip. It was a revolution for me, because I got interested in drawing again.
GROTH: What is it about pencilling that you find objectionable?
FEIFFER: Drawing as a professional was never as much fun as drawing as an amateur. When I was nine, ten, those drawings in pencil—just doodling—was always more fun than doing finished work as a pro. And all my career was an attempt at trying to get my finished work, the reproduced work to look as relaxed and as at ease, and as far as I was concerned, as graphically interesting as my so-called amateur work. And it never occurred to me that the reason was the pencilling, and to eliminate that. That’s all it took. Now the drawings are just as I would want them to be.
GROTH: I recently watched Carnal Knowledge and Grown-Ups, in preparing for this, and if you don’t see Carnal Knowledge for a while, you forget how brutal, how emotionally draining it is, and the same is true Grown-Ups. It’s more brutal than Platoon in its way.
FEIFFER: [Laughter] It’s odd, though, if you saw that very same video of Grown-Ups in a room with 50 people, there’d be a lot more laughs in it. I found that out, that when we shot the film, I thought, wow, this is not funny at all. But then I screened it at a New School speech I was giving, or the first act I screened, and there were about 75 people in the room, and all the laughs came back.
GROTH: Well, you know, I laughed pretty often, but it was an uneasy kind of laugh.
FEIFFER: Oh, in the play too. Always. Of course that’s the kind of laugh it should be. That’s my kind of laugh.
GROTH: Let me ask you this: is it easy for you to sustain that kind of brutal friction between the characters? I assume you write a play straight through?
FEIFFER: Well, this last play [Elliott Loves] took me six years.
GROTH: So you don’t [laughter].
FEIFFER: Well, in this case, no. In Carnal Knowledge, it took a long time for me to figure out how to write the play I wanted to. There were a couple of dry runs. One of which was a piece I did for Oh, Calcutta! Just to see if I could do this. And then I thought that it would star Susan, that would be her story. I once wrote a 60-page monologue for her, just to understand who she was. I knew that it was never going to be in the play, but I just wanted to know her. The character I finally wrote had very little to do with that person… And then one day it struck me and I suddenly knew what I was going to do. But I didn’t know how I knew that because it had nothing to do with any of my previous efforts or fiddling around. But once I knew what I was going to do, I wrote a first draft in six weeks.
With Grown-Ups, the first scene in the play was the marriage scene, and I was writing it as a one-act play, and I thought, this is too good, I’ve got to build a play around this.
GROTH: The marriage scene being Act Two.
FEIFFER: Act Two. And so I realized that since they were talking about the parents, that it had to be before and after. And that took, once I got into it, maybe two months, altogether two and a half months to do. Then the second draft took a while longer, another three or four weeks. Knock Knock went very fast. This new play, Elliot Loves, that took six years, for reasons I still don’t understand, because I ended up writing exactly what I intended to at the end of the first of the first week. But why I couldn’t figure out how to do it, I don’t know.
GROTH: It just took that long to jell?
FEIFFER: It just wouldn’t jell.
GROTH: Well, one imagines that after Grown-Ups or Carnal Knowledge that you must be one miserable son of a bitch at the end of the play.
GROTH: To be able to sustain that kind of vitriol.
FEIFFER: Well, it’s just the opposite.
GROTH: It’s a purging?
FEIFFER: It is some kind of purging. It makes me very happy to do this work [laughter].
GROTH: You once told me over the phone some years ago, that you were on the set of Carnal Knowledge and you mentioned that Nicholson did that one scene, where he went into a rage in the bedroom, in one take.
GROTH: And I wanted to ask you if you’d like to talk about his performance. Because that was just an astonishing performance.
FEIFFER: There were two scenes with Jonathan—the one in which Bobby asks him if they want to shack up—the speech I wrote for that—and then of course, the big fight—were so complicated, so full of irony, so full of awfulness, and at the same time truly funny, that I thought no actor is going 10 be able to do this at all. I’ll be lucky if I just get some of these values out in the performance. I’ll just have to settle for less and hope for the best. In both those scenes Nicholson got everything on the first or second take. Without any discussion with me. What he talked about with Nichols, I don’t know. But I seem to remember asking Mike on one of those things, what did you tell him? And Mike kind of shrugged and grinned at me and said, I didn’t tell him anything.
GROTH: So it was all Nicholson.
FEIFFER: When Nichols first told me he was thinking of this actor who I’d barely heard of, and had read about one performance, in Easy Rider—I went to see that film and I didn’t see how that applied to my character—I thought he was crazy and I said so. Mike said, “He’s going to be the most important actor since Brando.”
GROTH: I guess he was right.
FEIFFER: He’s a better actor. He’s certainly a better actor in movies than Brando.
GROTH: Do you think so? Better than Marion Brando was at his peak?
FEIFFER: No question. He has much more variety. Takes many more chances. He’s much more courageous. He respects acting rather than despises it the way Brando does. And he hasn’t played it safe. When has Brando taken a chance, except to bare his ass in a film?
GROTH: Yeah. Well, he tried comedy.
FEIFFER: And not very successfully. Look at the way Nicholson… look at his performance in Witches of Eastwick. He’s a brilliantly comic performer. Or for that matter. Prim’s Honor.
GROTH: Have you seen Ironweed?
FEIFFER: Not yet, no.
GROTH: I thought it was a performance where he really stretched himself.
FEIFFER: He stretches himself all the time. I think Brando in The Godfather is just extraordinary. I’m not denigrating Brando’s career. It’s been an extraordinary career. But I think Nicholson, by respecting his craft and paying attention to it, has gone further with probably less raw talent. No one had more natural talent than Brando. But Brando also decided that he was in a bad business and had no respect for it.
GROTH: I was making connections, I was going through your work, just reading it, not even in any particular order. One of the things I seemed to notice, and I just want to know if you think there’s any validity to this, is that you seem to give women sort of short shrift. I noticed it in Grown-Ups where I thought the least developed character was Jake’s wife.
FEIFFER: [Surprised] Really?
GROTH: Yeah. And then of course I realized that in
Carnal Knowledge the women were all cyphers or
FEIFFER: I think you’re mistaking it.
FEIFFER: Who was the castrator in Carnal Knowledge?
GROTH: That would have been the Cynthia O’Neill character.
FEIFFER: Yes. but what about Bobby?
GROTH: Well. Bobby had no life of her own. She was manipulated—an incompletely formed human being.
FEIFFER: But she was dealt with very sympathetically.
GROTH: Oh, yeah, that’s true. Not a terribly bright character, though.
FEIFFER: No. It’s a slightly fuller Bobby and a fuller Susan you’ll see if you see the play which is from the original script. And I don’t think you would think those things. Writing women is something that interests me more than writing men, because it’s simply tougher and more of a challenge and more fun to do. And I love doing it. And I think the character Louise, the wife in Grown-Ups, is very well drawn.
GROTH: But intellectually subordinate to her husband.
FEIFFER: Well, of course she is, but that’s reflective of that marriage, of that particular situation. But Susan in Carnal Knowledge is not intellectually subordinate to anybody. She’s brighter than both of the men.
GROTH: You think so? You think that came across in the film?
FEIFFER: I don’t think it came across in the film, but it’s there in the play. Having just come from Houston, having seen it, it’s quite clear. She also gets dominated by one of the men, and that’s the history of sexual relations, particularly up until the women’s movement. What men would do to bright women is cut them down so they could handle them. It’s what Spencer Tracy did so romantically with Katherine Hepburn to everybody’s applause in Woman of the Year.
GROTH: You wrote Carnal Knowledge first as a play?
GROTH: Now, did you adapt it from a play into a screenplay?
GROTH: And the screenplay was considerably different?
FEIFFER: No, there were just a lot of cuts and changes, in ways of making it more filmic, but in making it more filmic, some of those nuances, I believe, were left out. And I was complicit in all of that. It wasn’t anything that anybody did to me. It just seemed to make a better film.
GROTH: You wrote a 60-page monologue for the Candice Bergen character, Susan. Do you do that with all your characters, or something similar?
FEIFFER: No, just when I don’t understand the characters.
GROTH: Was every word spoken by the actors in Carnal Knowledge in the script? Were there any ad libs, lines added by the actors?
FEIFFER: There might have been one ad lib. Ann-Margret says, “You’re a real prick, you know that?” And Jack says, “Prick?” That wasn’t in the script. We kept it. It was very good.
GROTH: There were just some lines that struck me as such Nicholson-isms, that were reminiscent of other lines in other movies that one immediately identifies with Nicholson, that it occurred to me that he might have ad libbed a few in Carnal Knowledge.
FEIFFER: I’m not sure he ad libbed in any movies. He may. I don’t know about other movies. But what he’s so good at is taking dialogue written by someone else and making it his own, making it sound like he would. The wonder for me in watching the film was how I forgot who wrote it. It sounded as if it were happening right there. I also felt that about the Grown-Ups tape that you saw [starring Charles Grodin and Marilu Hennerj. When I first saw that. I thought, this seems to be unwritten. It just seems to be happening. I love that when it happens.
GROTH: Can you tell me how you got involved in writing the Popeye screenplay?
FEIFFER: Well, first of all, my love of Popeye really started late. In some bookstore or other, I ran into the Bill Blackbeard collection of 1936 Popeyes that Woody Gelman put out. And it was a revelation to me, because I had not remembered Popeye as being that witty. I liked it as a kid, but I couldn’t imagine why I would ever read it again as an adult. And then I started reading this stuff, and it was hilariously funny and very sophisticated. But more importantly, it created a kind of universe, and had a philosophy that seemed to be apt for our time. A sense of—I don’t even know how to describe it, but, well, Popeye really occupied a social-Darwinian world all along. And I loved it. And I thought, not to make too fine a point of it, there was something Kafkaesque in that world, and there was something Beckett-like in that world, and his use of time—certain sequences could stretch on for days and days and days, where virtually nothing happened, and it was so full of events, somehow or other. The leisureliness, the use of time. Another thing that Eisner does extraordinarily well, that use of time. And Eisner learned from Segar. So I fell in love with it. Then I got a call from Robert Evans maybe a year or so later, saying he was doing a movie of Popeye, and was I interested in doing the screenplay. Evans came to me because his production designer on the film was going to be Dick Silbert, who was the production designer on Carnal Knowledge and an old friend of mine. Evans, in talking to Silbert, said, “Who are we going to get to dramatize this material and make these cartoons real?” And Silbert had just seen my show Hold Me! based on my cartoons, at the Westwood Playhouse in L.A., and said “The only one who can do that is Feiffer.” So Evans called me, and he asked me if I was interested, and I said, it depends, if you want to do Max Fleischer’s Popeye I’m not your man. If you want to do Segar’s Popeye no one else can write it but me. He said, “I want to do any Popeye you want to do.” So that’s how it started. These guys had never heard of Segar. So I gave them all an education. There was great enthusiasm for the project from the beginning. Dustin Hoffman was originally supposed to play Popeye. It was designed with Dustin in mind. He read the first 50 pages of the script, loved it.
It went on with great enthusiasm. Silber and Evans loved the first draft. Dustin hated it. At one point it became a question of him or me. Evans stayed with the script, which he supported completely. Dustin pulled out. You don’t get many cases of a Hollywood producer losing his financing in order to stay with a script which was simply going to go on the shelf, because who else was going to be in it? A year or so later, Robin [Williams] became a hit in Mark and Mindy and Evans suggested him for the part, and that’s how the film got off the ground again. Otherwise it would have been still on the shelf.
GROTH: Can you tell me what happened to the film? I was talking with a friend of mine, and we decided everything about the film was good, except the film.
GROTH: The script was good, the actors were perfect…
FEIFFER: What happened was that it went around the various directors. None of them wanted to do it. Altman loved the script. At one point they wanted to go to Jerry Lewis.
GROTH: [Horrified] Were you in favor of that?
FEIFFER: No. Altman loved the script, said he could do it. I was worried. Altman and I were old friends, and yet I knew well what he did to other people’s screenplays. On the other hand, I was a great admirer of much of his work. I knew well his failures, but I also knew he could create a reality that no one else could on screen, and was a true artist, and by that I mean that he was like an action painter in films. But I also knew that action painters didn’t pay much attention to text. And Altman was notorious for thinking that dialogue is something that you use with two people at one time. But I figured that I wasn’t going to get anybody better or more talented, and everybody had to have his own Altman experience once. I suppose I figured that Segar could take it. That if it was a script that I had written out of my own work, that I couldn’t. But Segar could. Popeye was tough enough. First of all, the realization, the visualization of it was extraordinary from the very beginning. Why we had to shoot it in Malta, I didn’t know, and I still don’t.
GROTH: You speculated about that in the introduction to Feiffer’s Children.
FEIFFER: Yeah, and I still don’t get it. But, I think what it’s really about is that the directors just want to be away from money. It was wonderful to watch Altman working with the company. The way he manages people and sets up a scene, and does it with this great bear friendliness and charm and humor and a kind of quiet authority. He doesn’t raise his voice, he doesn’t shout, doesn’t throw his weight around. And he has a wonderful atmosphere on the set. It was like a circus. That was a lot of fun. But Altman’s problem with scripts, and it’s always been the case, going back to McCabe and other films, is that the story on paper is really not the story he wants to film. He wants to do another story that takes place behind the film, and that he will make up as he goes along, with his extras, with his characters. That’s his secret. And that’s the real film he wants to watch, the background film, and that’s the one he wants to shoot, and then slowly that begins to take over the film up front. My struggle with him was to keep his film in the background while my film and Segar’s was in the forefront. And sometimes I won at that, and sometimes I lost. I figured I didn’t do too badly, because about 60% of what I wrote got on the screen, but I think that if the other 40% got on it would have been better. As it was, I don’t think the film turned out badly. I think the worst part of the film is the last half-hour or so, which is after I had been worn out and left Malta, and he was free to do his art in peace, and certainly did.
GROTH: Why did you leave early?
FEIFFER: I was simply exhausted. I had broken up with, or been broken up with, the woman I had been in love with and lived on and off with for nine years and pulled out of the relationship. I was desperately lonely, and tired of fighting Altman, and yet retaining some status there so that I could continue to affect things. I was just tired of protecting the material which I thought in the end I couldn’t protect because I wasn’t going to be in the editing room. Although, in fact, at one time he gave me access to the editing room, and let me recut a scene I disagreed. with. I don’t know how many directors would do that. I’ve never heard of one. He gave me the freedom of the editing room. I recut a scene between Popeye and Olive when they discover Swee’pea in the basket. Because I said that the relationship had been cut out of it, that they were not—I mean, this should be a lovely moment between Popeye and Olive, and it wasn’t. It was just Robin getting off-script and improvising, and I said, I want the improvs taken out, I want the ad libs taken out, I want the script returned. He let me cut it so that that would happen. The scene you see in the film is essentially my cut, my edit of that. As tough as he was in other areas, I’ve never heard of another director allowing that before. He worked very hard—as I worked hard to get along with him. He also worked hard to get along with me. He was not a bully, he was not a son-of-a-bitch. He was a decent guy who has his vision, and when you work with him, you know that’s essentially what’s going to get on the screen. For me, the most thrilling part of this is that I got a letter just at the time the film came out from Segar’s daughter in Chicago, saying she heard me on interviews, talking about her father, and she had been ripped off terribly over the years, and told me a story which you guys maybe don’t know about or should look into, which was like Siegel and Shuster’s story with Superman. Her father on his deathbed, signed away rights—do you know about this?
GROTH: I’ve heard that.
FEIFFER: O.K. You know what I’m talking about. Just one story of rip-offs after another, and that her father had generally been forgotten and so she hoped that the film would not be one more dishonor to his memory. Although she didn’t have much faith. She left her phone number, so I just called her up immediately. She got on the phone, she couldn’t believe it was me. She had just come from a screening of the film. It hadn’t opened yet, but it was being screened. She was in tears. She said it was everything she had hoped it would be. That it was his Popeye, she was just bowled over by it. She was crying and I was crying. It was wonderful. It was just wonderful. So that made a lot of it worthwhile.
GROTH: Can you confirm or deny a story that I heard that the reason the last half-hour was as bad as it was was because Altman ran out of money?
FEIFFER: Yeah, that’s right.
GROTH: He just jerry-rigged an ending to end it.
FEIFFER: Yeah, the ending I had was very different. He just ran out of dough.
GROTH: Have you had to compromise substantially in your film career?
FEIFFER: [Pause] We’re talking about something very different right here. My two essential art forms are the comics strip and the play. That’s where I write my organic material. In order to finance that, from time to time I will write screenplays. And I will write them almost never organically. I mean, all my cartoons are organic. All my plays are organic. Nobody comes and gives me money to do this work. It just starts out and I do it, and I do it because I feel the need to do it. It’s my work of choice. I don’t do movies on speculation. Someone will come to me and say, “Would you be interested in this or that or the other?” And if I think, yes, I can write this, it might be fun for me, it would be engaging, and I can make several hundred thousand dollars, which would get me through the next year, then I will do it. But if it’s engaging, and I wouldn’t mind doing it, and it doesn’t involve the several hundred thousand dollars, I won’t do it. With the play, the several hundred thousand dollars never comes into question, because it doesn’t exist. Theater, for me, has been like the first eight years of the Village Voice. That I lose more than I make. But it’s an addiction, and I love it. And movies I love too, but not screenwriting, which is hardly an artform, or any form at all. The script is there at the discretion of the director. It’s not a collaborative medium. You have to please the director and that may or may not please you as a writer. Or you may be lucky enough to find a director whose vision coincides with your own, and then you’re in good shape, as it was with Nichols and me for Carnal Knowledge. There was not a single problem that occurred there. But that’s rare.
GROTH: Yeah. It would seem quite improbable to me that you could have compromised in Carnal Knowledge.
FEIFFER: No. But with Arkin on Little Murders, there were all sorts of problems, although we had worked together very happily on the play. And it was by no means collaborative. He really wanted nothing to do with me. I had very little input into how that movie came out, and some of it is good and some of it isn’t.
GROTH: Were you generally pleased with the way it came out?
FEffiFER: No. I think that’s not his fault, entirely, it’s also mine. I made compromises on the screenplay that were not his idea, they were my own. I was inexperienced, and they were dumb ideas. But then there were things that were his fault. Some of his casting. The style of the film, which worked very well on stage, but wasn’t appropriate for film, I don’t think.
GROTH: Why should the writer be substantially more compromised by a film director than he is by a theatrical director?
FEIFFER: It’s the nature of the medium. The two mediums are very, very different. The theater is basically a writer’s medium. Or at least my theater is. There’s director’s theater and the theater that involves a written script by a member of the dramatists’ guild, and it’s not a pageant, and it’s not a dance. Theater as we know it. And it’s not avant-garde form, and it’s not open theater or living theater. It requires a playwright. And the playwright is first among equals in the collaborative process. In movies the screenwriter is third among equals, if that. First comes the director, then come the actors, maybe next is the producer, although maybe the producer comes higher up. First comes the producer, then the director, then the actors. The writer is the guy who the director tells, “I need 20 seconds of dialogue to get them from the hotel lobby into the speeding car. And I don’t want them saying much, but it should be about when he’s going to get her into bed.” That’s about the size of it, and that’s about the dignity of it, as a screenwriter. The screenplays I’ve done aren’t like that, and they aren’t very often made. They’re paid for, and well paid for, and then they’re put on the shelf.
GROTH: Well, you’re describing what is. What would you like to see? Would you prefer that the writer be—
GROTH: The director should be subordinate to the writer?
FEIFFER: No. I love collaboration. It was great fun for me. I was a cartoonist, and only a cartoonist for 37 years of my life before I wrote my first play, working in complete isolation. So much so that no one told me what to do. I didn’t have the comic book experience where there was an editor. Nobody ever told me to change this, nobody ever told me to change a line. Nobody would dare. You either took it or you didn’t. So to go into a field where other people had opinions and you had to listen to them, was a real challenge for me, and it turned out to be very exciting. And I loved it. I loved it when I was dealing with first-rate people who would affect my judgment and who would make me think differently, and whose arguments would make me revise my estimate of how things should be done. That was all new to me. One, that I didn’t mind it, and two, that I welcomed it, and three, that I could argue back when they were wrong. All of these things were new to me, I didn’t know that I could do any of that stuff.
GROTH:Were you interested in collaborating prior to the time that you actually did?
GROTH: Cartooning is such a solitary activity.
FEIFFER: Yes, I think I was terrified of collaborating. I was terrified of competition in the first place. As I say, starting out as a failure as a boy, what you’re really talking about when you can’t play ball is that you can’t compete. That you don’t want to look bad. I’m sure I could have learned clumsily as well as others, how to do some of those things that I never bothered to learn because I had early failure and I wasn’t going to work at it until I got better at it. I just rejected it and that was pretty much my attitude through childhood on other things, including drawing and cartooning. I only wanted to do what I could right away. I didn’t want to have to do things that were hard. Hard was too hard. Hard was full of defeat. Hard was full of rejection. Hard was full of self-reproach and self-hate. There was enough self-hate operating within me under ordinary circumstances not to provoke even more by repeated failures at .something I felt was beyond my ken, but which might not have been, had I been able to apply a little more effort. So, I think that at least unconsciously, becoming the son of cartoonist I became, instead of the more traditional cartoonist, was because I felt I couldn’t compete as a more traditional cartoonist. I couldn’t do the slick thick and thin line. I couldn’t draw super-characters with ease and facility. I couldn’t do the work I thought I wanted to do. So, I believe, outside of the Army provoking me, I think that quality was my second choice. Not being able to really be as good as I wanted to at my first love, which would have been a daily strip, I had to invent another form for myself, within cartooning. That no one else could do, that I was the only one doing, so that, I couldn’t have any competitors. So nobody could be any better at it than I was. If I invented it, who was my competition? I mean, all competition had to be measured against me. I was making the mark. I’m not saying this was by any means a conscious choice. I think by a process of elimination, I just slipped into it.
GROTH: But it didn’t occur to you at the time, that that could be even more intimidating? To strike new ground?
FEIFFER: No. I’m very perverse in that kind of…No, that sort of thing has never intimidated me. I don’t know why it never has. Striking off on my own has never been intimidating. Being like everyone else has been intimidating, because I’m lousy at it. Being part of a group is intimidating, because I just don’t get the hang of it.
GROTH: What prompted the transition? I mean, you were doing cartoons for x number of years, and then you obviously wrote the first play. What prompted you to enter the play form?
FEIFFER: Well, one, I was getting bored by the cartoon, and certainly bored by the drawing of it, the tracing. I mean, if you’d seen the drawings in those years, before I wrote Little Murders, the pizzazz was simply going out of the work, and the dialogue was getting wordier and wordier and I was beginning to look around for ways to expand. At the same time, I tried writing a novel called Hurry the Rat with Women.
GROTH: You succeeded.
FEIFFER: Yes, but by trying I mean that I tried being a novelist. If I had any choice, my first choice would have been even above and beyond cartooning, to be a novelist, because I love fiction. Fiction is what I gave up reading comics for. It affected my life, changed my life. The printed word was something that I loved and adored, and was in awe of, and if I could only be like one of them, that would have been wonderful. But I found in writing Harry the Rat that I didn’t have 10 minutes’ enjoyment in the process. It took two years to write a very short book, and in those two years it was simply a struggle, although I felt I was on the trail of something and was determined to finish it, and did finish it. But once I finished, I thought this would be the end of it. I could never write another one, because I didn’t like it and I like having fun, I like having a good time. And then Second City in Chicago put on an evening of my cartoons, and Paul Sills, who was the director of the company, said these are all too short, it gets a little monotonous, maybe you can write something longer. And so I wrote overnight, when I was still living in Brooklyn Heights, a 25-minute sketch called Crawling Arnold. And it was easy. I wrote these characters and they were moving around and it was actable. It was great fan. And I didn’t think much more about it, until a few years later when I was trying to write Little Murders as a novel. Because I was trying to say things about post- Kennedy assassination America that it seemed to me that nobody was talking about. And the decomposition of the structure of American society, and particularly of systems of authority, and that we were on the verge of a national nervous breakdown—that’s what my point was. I instead wrote 300 pages of bullshit that wasn’t going anywhere, and in order to salvage the material, I took it up to Yaddo, this writers’ and artists’ community in Saratoga Springs, and decided I’d try to dramatize it. Because that was the alternative to throwing it out. And after going over my original notes, I thought they were as good as the novel itself was bad, and that it would be wrong to give up on this. So I started the first act, and discovered that I was in love. From the first minute on, I was in love. That this was fun. And that I was having a great time. I was having a ball. I had not had such a ball since I began cartooning. So I knew that I wouldn’t stop whatever happened to the play. Another thing that kept me from wanting to write plays was that being a life-long theatergoer, I knew that the plays I liked closed real fast, and the plays I didn’t like were hits. And so I knew that if I wrote a play I really liked it would probably close in a week, and I was not anxious to go into yet one more masochistic enterprise. But after the first day’s work, that was besides the point. When Little Murders opened—I’m never wrong about these things—it closed in a week.
GROTH: You were prophetic. At what point did you write Ackroyd?
FEIFFER: I wrote Ackroyd in something like 1975. I wrote it not because I wanted to write it, but because Knock-Knock, which I’d finished in 1971, I’d spent three and a half years trying to get on. Nobody would put it on. It’d gone through five producers. I was very embittered about theater. I’d sent it to all sorts of directors. Arkin, who turned it down. Nichols. Nobody seemed to want to do it. And then I found Marshall Mason with the Circle Rep, and he wanted to do it, but we still couldn’t get it financed, or find a producer. Really, to take my mind off that, I knew I couldn’t write another play while this was still out there. I was too angry at theater, and I wanted to write something, so I decided I’d write another novel, and to try to take the curse off my Little Murders experience, and the Harry the Rat experience, I thought I’d write it in the form of a monologue, thereby making it more stage-like. I thought I could handle that. If I did the whole thing in the first person in the voice of a character, then I might have a better time at it. And I did. I kind of enjoyed that.
GROTH: Hadn’t Little Murders become successful by that time?
FEBFFER: Yes. So what?
GROTH: So you still couldn’t get Knock-Knock produced?
FEIFFER: One thing has nothing to do with the other.
GROTH: Huh. I would think one thing would.
FEIFFER: No. Look, I also went into theater more famous than most people. And that means that my plays get read faster. I mean, I won’t have to wait in line, I’ll go to the head of the line. It doesn’t mean that somebody is going to put real money in, if he or she doesn’t think it’s produceable on commercial terms. Not in the New York market. If there was theater outside of New York— I mean, there was at that time—but if I knew anything about that, I would have taken another route and not waited that long, and that would have been fine. But neither my agent suggested it, nor did I think of it.
GROTH: I’m just surprised that someone with your track record would have that much difficulty.
FEIFFER: My track record is basically writing plays that are well thought of that don’t run for very long.
GROTH: Carnal Knowledge was enormously successful though.
FEIFFER: The movie was, yes. And the revival of Little Murders was very successful. But The White House Murder Case, which was extremely well reviewed, only ran a couple of months, and closed. And a brilliant production; Arkin did an extraordinary job on it, simply extraordinary. It just was so funny and so well done, that even though I wrote it, I would find myself helpless with laughter watching it. That was a wonderful experience. Audiences loved it, and then stopped coming. On a dime.
GROTH: That was less difficult to get produced, though?
FEIFFER: Yes. Because the people who produced Little Murders Off-Broadway, Circle-in-the-Square, produced that. Arkin thought it [The White House Murder Case] was a downer, and he only wanted to do more positive plays. I said it was a positive play, but he didn’t see it that way. Nichols loved the play, but thought that he was not the director for it, that it was too full of whimsy and that he was much more of a behavior-oriented, naturalistic comedy director. Which point I think is well taken. I saw the Hot L Baltimore that Lanford Wilson wrote, directed by Marshall Mason. I thought he could do a wonderful job on it, and he loved the play. He was the director from that point on, but he was not a well-known director. Not then. And we went through Kirk Blumgarten and Alan King and Adele Holtzer, and this took a couple of years. Other would-be producers would have lunch and want to talk about it. It was not as if there wasn’t interest, but all of the interest stopped when the question came to putting up money. They were all interested up until the time that they had to actually put up money, and then suddenly the phone calls stopped being returned.
GROTH: Could you explain the process by which a play is produced? Who looks for financers?
FEIFFER: I think it works differently for different people. I still don’t understand how it works. I know how I work, which is, the first thing I do after I write a script is look for a director. Then, once I have the director, then he and I, or she and I, because I’ve worked with one woman so far, will talk about who the best people are to do this, and then we will start. Then I’ll give it to my agent, and he will start sending it around saying, this is what the package is, are you interested? And that way it gets on or it doesn’t. I mean, sooner or later it will get on. The nice thing about being famous is that no play of mine will not get on eventually. But eventually can be a long time.
GROTH: Do you deal with financers yourself?
FEIFFER: No, that’s the producer’s job. He raises the money. I may be asked to meet and romance people, things like that, but there’s not an awful lot I have to do. Actually, I’ve done more of that in regional theater, whether it’s in Chicago or Houston, than I’ve done before. I also did it with the American Rep in Boston. But each example is different. When I wrote Grown-Ups, first of all, I put it away for six years, because, as I said, it is more personal, and I wanted my daughter, who was then much younger, to be older when she saw this. I wanted her to be old enough not to be disturbed by it. She was very young then, I knew she would be. Then I gave it to Robert Brustein, who’s an old friend of mine, who was then up at Harvard, at the American Rep, and he loved it, and showed it to Arthur Kopit, who’s another old friend. And Arthur suggested, I think, or Brustein suggested, John Madden, who directed Kopit’s play Wings with Brustein’s company at Yale, when he was running the Yale group. And that’s how I found my company, and that’s how I found my director.
GROTH: How involved are you with your plays once the ball starts rolling?
FEIFFER: Oh, very closely in the beginning. I mean, in the casting, in the pre-casting, in the discussions of it. Madden was particularly important in Grown-Ups, in terms of re-writes. He’s as sharp as Nichols is in gauging a script and knowing what should and shouldn’t be done. And where rewrites are demanded. And he’s wonderful at explaining it to the writer. It’s interesting in these things, because so often, depending on how things are said, egos can be involved, his nose can be put out of joint. And I’ve been fortunate enough to work with at least two brilliant directors, Mike and John, who deal with the work as work. Another one like that was K. Michael Patten who did A Think Piece and Hold Me, who can talk about the script impersonally. It doesn’t matter who wrote it. This is what has to be done. To go back and forth over it. It’s not a matter of good or bad, it’s just the work that’s required.
GROTH: Are you usually on the set during rehearsals?
FEIFFER: I find in my case that I like to be there for the first read-through, and then disappear and let them do their work for a couple of weeks, because if I’m there watching, it’s as if they were there watching me write my first draft. They are going through a first draft of a performance, which they are not going to keep, and there I am sitting there, thinking “That’s wrong!” Well, they know it’s wrong. It gets in everyone’s way. If I come back for the first run-through, there’s plenty of time to say that’s wrong. There’s plenty of time to put in changes, there’s plenty of time to rewrite. There’s plenty of time to do everything necessary. It’s at a good stage, where they are willing to take criticism, and they want it, and they want my input, and the director wants it, and the actors want it. And I feel I have a role to play, rather than sitting passively there while actors figure out what they’re going to do. So that’s when I generally come in. Two or two-and-a-half weeks in.
GROTH: Were you on set much during Carnal Knowledge?
FEIFFER: No. Mike didn’t want me around. He thought I’d make the actors nervous. I suspect that I made him nervous. But, unlike Arkin, he would meet with me every single night, after dailies, and we’d go over everything at length. So that it wasn’t as if I didn’t have input. I had a lot of it. He was always interested in what I thought, and deeply involved and deeply concerned that I be happy with what he did.
GROTH: I think Grodin was especially good in Grown-Ups. What did you think of the performances in general? Were you pleased with them?
FEIFFER: In Grown-Ups? Oh, yeah. There were some odd things or others, but generally yes.
GROTH: Can you tell me the year that you wrote your first play? Your first play was not Little Murders?
FEIFFER: Yes. My first full-length play [was Little Murders]. The first play was Crawling Arnold, but that was a one-act.
GROTH: That was the 25-minutes?
FEIFFER: Yeah. I never thought of that as real, anyhow. I never suffered through that or felt that this has to be done just right. The first real play would have been Little Murders.
GROTH: O.K. Did a new career writing plays affect your cartooning at all?
FEIFFER: Yes, it made me like the cartoons again. Normally, the assumption is that when you move out of cartooning into a second profession which is taken more seriously, then you’ll forget the cartooning. I found it was just the reverse. Because the more I got into theater the more important retaining the cartoon became, the more serious I got about the cartoon. I mean, I stopped for a while, I was just, if not hacking away at it, taking it for granted and not really infusing it with any kind of fresh thought. It was just meeting deadlines. The theater made the cartoon fun again. It was a real release for me.
There is something. I don’t know how this is with other people, but there is something that’s exciting to me about going from one form to another. And (here was a period about three or four weeks ago when I realized at the end of one workday—I was in New York—I’d drawn a cartoon; I had made cuts in Carnal Knowledge for [its theatrical run in Houston.] Texas; I had done certain revisions for Feiffer’s America in Chicago; I had written a monologue for Elliott Loves, for a reading that was going to take place in New York three or four days hence…
GROTH: The opening monologue?
FEIFFER: Not the opening monologue. The monologue is not in the script. It was subsequently cut. It’s a good monologue, it just doesn’t work. … And then one other thing. But something like five different pieces of work in five different fields. Not five different fields, but I worked on three different plays, a cartoon, and I don’t know what the hell the other one thing was, maybe an introduction for a book. And I shifted from one to the other with an immense sense of giddiness, and had no trouble making the switches. It was just great. Now, I think with three or four days of having to do that, I’d go out of my mind, but I just love having the option of doing these different things.
GROTH: Do they sort of creatively cross-pollinate each other?
FEIFFER: I don’t know… No. Well. the answer to that is a definite maybe. That the energy from one feeds off into the other, but I have no trouble stopping on a dime and getting into the style of one work, as opposed to the other. I don’t get mixed up and I don’t find myself writing one way. I don’t find myself confusing forms.
GROTH: Would you say there’s a great similarity between writing a play and writing a cartoon—the way you write cartoons?
FEIFFER: No, not at all.
GROTH: Because your cartoon is often a monologue or a duologue.
FEIFFER: Yeah, but monologuing, if you can imagine, I don’t know what you’ve read of Elliott, but the monologue there couldn’t be put in a Feiffer strip. The use of the language is very different, and what it has to say is different. And that’s a given. That’s not to struggle with, or to resent. I love that. So they’re very different, and I’ve always seen them as different. If I do cartoons about men and women, it’s usually about what’s not working and how it falls apart. And it has to be succinct, it has to be pithy, it has to make a point, and it better be fun. And it’s got to be in six panels. In theater, I have much more range, and it doesn’t have to be funny. It can be anything I damn please. It doesn’t have to be satiric, while a cartoon should.
GROTH: Elliott Loves is much more leisurely.
FEIFFER: And it can be diversionary. Which it can’t be in a cartoon. If that Elliott monologue were put on paper and drawn, it would bore the hell out of me. I don’t think a reader would sit still for it. But on stage, it will be fascinating…I hope it is.