One night in the late 1990s, Tony Millionaire and I sat down and conducted a long, rambling interview for The Comics Journal that you can read HERE. In the nearly 25 years since that interview, much has changed in the world of comics, the world broadly, and in Millionaire's life. He moved to Los Angeles, became a father, had his Maakies strip turn into The Drinky Crow Show on the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim channel, produced a series of award-winning Maakies, Sock Monkey and Billy Hazelnuts books for Fantagraphics and Dark Horse, did album covers for Elvis Costello and They Might Be Giants, among many others, and had his work appear in numerous national publications, including The New Yorker, The Believer and The Wall Street Journal. And with the death of the alt weekly newspapers, his weekly Maakies comic strip came to its print end in 2015. The strip has recently returned via Millionaire's Patreon and features a new storyline that not only is a dramatic departure from its past, but also echoes Millionaire's recent "career" changes. Certainly always one of the comic world's most colorful characters--an entire documentary film on his drinking career will soon be released--Millionaire is sober today and so is his Maakies character Uncle Gabby--much to the dismay of Drinky Crow. The new "Gabby's Journey" storyline focuses on the resulting tension between Gabby and the Crow and gives the reader a glimpse into Millionaire's own life-altering changes.
Millionaire now lives in rural Maine with artist and educator, Kat Gillies. This interview was conducted in a series of Zoom sessions in January 2022, and from time to time, Gillies joined in on the conversation.
John Kelly: It's hard to believe that it’s been almost 25 years since we last did an interview together for The Comics Journal. An awful lot has happened since then and I want to catch upon at least some of it...first of all, you ended your weekly Maakies comic strip. But now Maakies is back, with some very interesting changes. Why did the strip end and why is this now the right time to bring it back to life?
Tony Millionaire: About five years ago I was drawing the new Maakies strip and cursing about it and my daughter Phoebe said, "How many papers does that thing run in anyway?" And I said, "One. One paper in Texas."
And she asked, "And how much will you get paid?"
"Dad, it's time to quit doing the strip."
So I stopped doing Maakies. The newspapers that it ran in didn’t exist anymore. When Maakies first started running in the New York Press in 1994, there were weekly newspapers in every city that ran comic strips like Maakies and Kaz's Underworld and a lot of others and that went on for years. Then the internet slowly killed off those papers and that was the end of Maakies and a lot of other great strips. But I really missed doing the strip and a couple of months ago I woke up from a dream with a really funny idea for a strip…then I remembered, "Oh Fuck! I don’t have a strip anymore!" And I posted that on Facebook and asked people what I should do. They said I should just run the strip online, that people wanted to read it. And I said, fuck that. I have kids in college and it takes a long time to do a strip, so I can't just do that. And they said, "No, stupid! Start up a Patreon and people will pay for it." Again, I said, fuck that. I'm not holding out my hat for $25 or whatever it is. And then they explained that's not how it works. It's like a party that people pay a few dollars a month to support you and they get the new strips, but they also get a lot more than that.
I see that a lot of cartoonists are turning to the Patreon model. How does it work?
The way that this works is, since there's no newspapers anymore, the strips are running on my Patreon. So, I'll still give away the strips for free, every week on Maakies.com, and then if you join the Patreon, there's a lot of added extras…like you'll get the strip earlier, a signed membership card, and there's behind the scenes stuff, like videos of me drawing the strips, talking about what I was thinking—the story behind the strips and drawings, interviews with me, that kind of thing, for three or five dollars a month, or more if you can afford it. There's a whole gallery where you can see every Maakies ever made, thousands of them. And there's also higher levels in the Patreon, where you can get things like original drawings, signed membership certificates with a sketch by me, drawing lessons from me, downloads of high quality prints…there’s even a level where you can have dinner with me...and even a one million dollar level where I'll come over to your house and shit in your litter box! We're going to be putting up a thing where you can build your own model ship with Drinky Crow and Uncle Gabby on it…all kinds of goodies. At Christmas time, the Patreon had Drinky Crow ornaments that you could print out and hang on your tree…and a lot of people did that. I'm putting up video from something called The Tony Millionaire Show—not the movie about me that's coming out soon—that I was doing years ago, even before I started drawing Maakies. It's a comedy/talk show thing with me dressed up in a suit like Johnny Carson interviewing idiots and stuff like that. It has the videos from the Saturday Night Live Drinky Crow cartoons that no one has ever seen, except the Patreon members—SNL did six episodes but only two ever ran on the air.
Millionaire's Patreon announcement
What has been the response so far? Have a lot of people signed up for membership for the Patreon?
It's been going like gang-busters. We have buckets of people signing up and more are joining all the time. It's all still pretty new and it's growing and changing all of the time as we figure out what the members are looking for. It's like a party, where people can feel like they're part of the Maakies Team. I think for most of the members, they're just happy that I'm doing Maakies again and they want to support me with that. And it's been great for me, because I can just concentrate of drawing the strip. I didn't realize how much I missed doing it. After the newspapers all died and the strip ended, I would have all these ideas for jokes, but no strip. Now I'm back at it and I'm very happy about that.
Millionaire drawing Uncle Gabby for his Patreon members
So I'm posting a lot of videos of me drawing on the Patreon and I'm also working on a film with an old friend known as Blorzaak X, and we're posting a lot of outtakes from that on the Patreon, with me in my wacky costumes, helmets with wings coming off of them. Stuff like that, with me walking through canyons and forests. I even interviewed my cousin, Ann-Louise—she's the star of the Sock Monkey books. I've been interviewing her about the old house our grandmother lived in with all the weird, hidden stairways and attics and secret rooms in it with stained glass windows…the interviews are fascinating. This is all the stuff that I had forgotten about. And that's all in the Patreon too. You can see it all on my website, maakies.com. Blorzaak X did an amazing job putting together my new website. It’s beautiful. He’s a special effects video wizard and a master website developer who studied painting at RISD. And you can also buy new merchandise and prints on there—there's a store called the Millionaire Shop and it has Drinky Crow t-shirts, pint glasses, coasters, prints, Sock Monkey stuff for kids and grown ups…there’s even Drinky Crow and Sock Monkey sneakers. All kinds of stuff. I've also started painting again and will be selling those. The place I'm living in now is set up for me to have a studio and I'm working on some large scale paintings. Kat [Gillies] and I are working on a series of "look-boxes," which are dioramas the size of a breadbox to the size of a mini-fridge. They're supported by antique table legs, like furniture. You look into the end and it's like a diorama portraying the birth of a baby bird, from the bird's point of view. Or a portrait of all the drama, tragedy and joy of existence. It's got speakers in there, moving parts and tiny spotlights.
But people on the Patreon will get the first crack at those things. And they can see all the work in progress.
And you're back to doing the Maakies strip again, but these days you don't have a beer in your hand while you're drawing it. You've quit drinking and you've also had one of you main characters, Uncle Gabby, also quit drinking.
I quit drinking because it was getting to be a pain in the ass. I turned 65 years old and said drinking 12 or 15 beers every night is not going to work anymore. So I quit. So, I started to draw the comic strip again, but about Uncle Gabby, the monkey, quitting drinking, because I realized I could go into all of the things that happen to you when you quit drinking. In a way it was easier to work--it changed the way I think and write. There's a lot to be said for drunken writing, some of the best writing in history was done by drunkards...I thought it was going to ruin my writing style because with the booze—it's like, "Hey-o, look at me draw…" It's more difficult to draw now—the booze would loosen me up and the drawing would just flow. So it kind of changed the way I work. We'll see how it works out.
In the new story, which is about Uncle Gabby's journey in sobriety, Drinky Crow doesn't quit drinking and he's very pissed off at Uncle gabby, like he's a traitor. He's very angry at about Uncle Gabby quitting drinking. I wanted to set up the dynamic of the drunk mind and the sober mind fighting itself.
So this is not a whimsical move on your part. You've plotted out, at least in your head, a full story arc for this pretty significant change. Like in real life, stopping drinking affects other people than just the person who quits. How does Gabby's change affect the arc of your strip?
Oh, yeah. By setting up the dynamic of Drinky Crow and Gabby, I'm avoiding the pitfall of preaching to people that drinking is bad. I don't to do that, because I don't think drinking is bad. I mean, it can be bad; it can be dangerous, but not in itself. I owe my career to booze! [Laughs] What I wanted is to talk about the role that booze has in the whole world. And I want to do a story that has every aspect of that. Not just say, "Hey boys, try to quit drinking!" People used to think that the strip was about, "Hey boys! Drinking is great! Let's all drink!" But it wasn't. It's always been about the same thing. It's always been about how ridiculous it is that we get as drunk as we do and why do we get as drunk as we do and how it fucks us up. And I was mocking myself and all the ridiculous excuses that you make for yourself to keep poisoning yourself, how it's poison and an elixir at the same time. All that stuff. Now I'm getting a little more specific with it, and also spreading out into more spiritual things. I'm doing a large panel, full page, every week where I can put in big vistas and have Uncle Gabby spouting poetry on a cliff and walking from planet to planet and that kind of thing.
And Drinky Crow is not happy about this, so it turns into a battle between the drunk self and the sober self. And you know, if you every quit dinking then quite a few friends will be very disappointed, especially if you do it when you're younger and you want to go to parties. They think, "WTF is wrong with you? You're not fun anymore!" Which can be true. You may not be as fun. So I really want to bring in that aspect, how other people are affected—in a positive way, but also how they are affected in a negative way. Some people can be really pissed off about it. Mort Todd (former art director for Cracked magazine) me that I'm a fucking coward and a "liver lover," a quitter…all that shit.
Is that coming from people who may possibly actually have a problem themselves?
Well, the people I'm thinking about are people who know that everything we do is foolish, so we're all just kind of playing with it. I've never had anybody actually really pissed off. It's all just play, role-playing and conversation and friendship. I’m sure, especially when you're younger, you run into people who actually are pissed off at you. Because you took away their drinking buddy and they don't like that. I wouldn't like it. It happened to a couple of friends of mine. I was pissed off. I was like, "Great…now you have to go and be a square. Now you're just gonna sit around staring at shit!" [Laughs]
Did you ever worry that by revealing that you've quit drinking you'd be letting down some of your fans who view you in a certain way?
Yeah, I'm a legendary drunk, right? I can't worry about that. Maakies has always been a kind of diary. After I had kids, it reflected where I was then. There were a lot more beautiful drawings…I became less interested in the bird continually blowing his brains out. And I was also doing more with the Sock Monkey character, which was directed toward kids—though it was also very popular among adults. The Gabby's Journey story just reflects where I am now in my life.
Right. I've known you for…well, many years, and I've never really thought of you as "being" the Drinky Crow character…well, maybe sometimes! But how do you see yourself? Are you more like the drunken, nihilistic, suicidal Crow? Or are you more like the beautiful Sock Monkey? Or is it the Uncle Gabby/Sock Monkey thing, which is really two sides of the same coin? Like an Angel/Devil thing?
As the artist Hyman Bloom once said, "everything that I have ever done is a self portrait." I've heard other people say that too, but I've been saying that for years. Every character that I do is a self-portrait. Drinky Crow, being the desperate Id character who all he wants to do is get shit-faced, and very pessimistic…and, you know, all he wants to do is fucking kill himself by just getting drunk…but he's too cowardly or broke to buy a gun…Uncle Gabby, on the other hand, is just me fumbling through life. He also--he has hands!--so he was created to use in situations where I couldn't use the Crow, because crows don't have hands and can't hold things...[Laughs]. So, they're all different aspects of my own self, my own life. If you're going to do a comic strip that resonates, you're going to have to do that. You're going to have to talk about your own personal shit.
Maakies was born out of me being really depressed one winter. I was totally fucking bummed out, kicked out of my house….it was winter. I wasn’t getting any work. It was too cold. So I started drawing the Drinky Crow in a bar and it was about my life at the time. And as it finally got picked up as a comic strip, and I was writing it every day, it became almost like a diary. I thought to myself, if I'm going to be successful writing a comic strip, it's gotta be really personal, it's gotta be funny…so I would just go out and hang around friends and listen to them tell a joke or tell stories—and steal every joke I could find. [Laughs]. And if it was a direct theft of a joke, I'd write their name down at the bottom of the strip. I realized that I had to keep a really high standard for comedy, because a lame joke in Maakies is going to be like, "Hey…what are you doing?…you’re slipping…"
Kat Gillies: It was born out of nihilistic despair.
Right. And if you're going to be writing a strip, you've got to be writing it for yourself. You've got to be as personal as you can get. Because in the end, I'm sitting at my table drawing my story, writing my story, and I'm speaking to one person, the person reading it. If I'm not really like, direct the way I would to be to that one person, then the millions of people who are going to read it are not going to feel that. It's always written that way, like any writing is. To that one person. It's not like writers who are sort of pontificating to a crowd, trying to sway them or something. It's different. It's getting down into that personal shit that people can feel. The way a good novelist writes.
Gillies: Everything happens in extreme in Maakies. Is that because it's cartooning? You wouldn't write a novel like that.
Well, some novelists did. That's where comedy comes in. You just get outrageous with it.
I'd think that for a lot of us who first discovered the strip when we were much younger, it resonated because we were, well, younger! And felt indestructible and it resonated because it captured something about our lives, and we were partying a lot more and going to bars…it reflected our lives to an extent, as well as yours. Mortality was not even a concept. Now that you are older and living a very different type of life, what are you trying to convey?
It got to a point where I didn't have Drinky Crow blow his brains out anymore, because I didn't feel that way anymore. Before that, I was like, "Fuck this…" Because suicide was like…of course, you're not really committing suicide. You're just committing suicide by getting shit faced or whatever. But you know you're not really going to die. You'll be fine. As soon as the kids were around, suicide became a different thing. Somebody could actually read this and then kill themself. One of my worst nightmares is a kid at the bottom of a bridge wearing a Drinky Crow t-shirt. Actually, my worst nightmare is showing up at school with no pants on. [Laughs]. Now that I had kids and I had to take care of somebody, I actually had a reason to stay alive…so suddenly, the thing about suicide isn't funny anymore. And I didn't even realize I had stopped doing it, for maybe a year. "Funny, he hasn't blown his brains out lately!" It used to happen every other week.
As I age, like any good comic strip should, as it ages, you can see the author change. So now it's gone to the point where I'm exploring all these new parts of my life. A lot of men when they get older start reading a lot of history. They don't watch as many movies or comedies on TV. They want to watch like the History Channel. For some reason, history is important to me. So now I'm exploring, not only just the history of like World War II and shit like that, but the history of the world and the way cultures formed, the way mythology guides people and the way philosophy has evolved…that shit is all very interesting to me. So that's where I want to take Gabby with his journey. When you quit drinking, you actually change your whole philosophy of life. And in the meetings, you're sitting around people who are also going through that. So it's much more introspective, but in a different way. It's looking at the whole world, rather than just focusing on your own shit and your relationship with your girlfriend, which is what Drinky Crow was about in the beginning. It was like, "Fuck, she's pissed off because I'm drunk," which I was all the time anyway. Now it's like, "Who cares…the planet is spinning. It's a huge fucking rock and it’s spinning!" I want to draw that. I want to talk about how this massive fucking rock is spinning—really fast! But it looks slow. That's suddenly much more interesting for me to draw now, then what the mouse said to his tail.
You have your whole life behind you now, so you can see it, the way that it formed. All of that disappeared, all the dreams that came true and all the dreams that you didn't even know that you had. And you can have perspective on it. So you can see the world more clearly. More than you did when you were a young person, crashing into those barriers, the little ponds that you jump over as you go along. Now I can see all those barriers that I jumped over and I get the bigger picture.
John Kelly: I was wondering, with Gabby's Journey, if you've ever read any of the Joseph Campbell stuff? He does a pretty good job of breaking down how, throughout history, mythology is entwined. He writes about how there's consistency throughout the history of the world with these journeys...across all these cultures--cultures that have never met each other--that happened thousands of years apart and in different parts of the world. There's a unifying factor for all of them.
Gillies: We were just talking about the Peabody Museum at Harvard. It's a natural history museum, and usually those places set things up sequentially in room--and history just doesn't happen like that. At Harvard they don't do that. They have it set up by cultures and their pre-history and you're like, "How can they have been using the same kind of object in, say, Micronesia as they were in, for instance, Alaska?" How could they do that? And it makes you wonder about the collective unconscious. How different things from different times and places all tie in together.
Tony Millionaire: Right. All religions and all philosophies and races all follow these sort of simple truths. And it used to be, "I need a joke." And that was the strip. With this story, it's a journey and I don't know what then ending is and I want to keep that open. And as I bring Gabby through all this stuff, I want to veer from one thing to another and show the connection between cultures and their philosophies and mythologies. So, this is why I'm excited about doing it now. And I've always been excited about doing it, because I discovered the great things about booze, and the camaraderie that comes with being shit-faced, and everyone else is kind of "in" on that game, especially when I was living in New York—and then it spread—everyone was just kind of desperately walking around saying, "Oh, what the fuck am I doing here?" So, it resonated then. And now here we are in another place, and I'm excited about it again, because I'm trying to put in things that are actually going on in my life.
Where do you see Gabby's journey eventually taking him?
This we don't know yet. We'll just have to see where it takes us. It's really going to be the foibles between the two characters. Uncle Gabby is the wide eyed fool who is all excited that he's discovered a new world and a new connection to all the mythological creatures and beings and Demigods and worlds, and got all philosophical, while Drinky Crow is still in the mud, saying, "What the fuck is wrong with all of you ass-holes?!?" And so you've got this clash between the two characters...I'd like to have Gabby jumping from planet to planet, I'd like to have him going under water, going to different universes...and somehow half-elusive, is this beautiful swan that he is after...but it still has to be funny.
Gillies: The 16th century Franciscan monk Rabelais wrote, "Drink your fill at the fountains of knowledge. To know, in order to love, is the secret of life....study man and the universe; learn to know the laws of the physical world, so that you may obey them; drink, drink knowledge; drink truth; drink love."
John Kelly: Yeah, drink everything...except booze, I guess. [Laughter]. Well, I was thinking that since, at least to some people, AA is seen as a sort of "cult," you might play with having Drinky Crow join something like Qanon...they're both "anonymous"...
Yeah. Drinky Crow can say, "I've joined a new group." And Uncle Gabby asks, "Oh, really? What group?"
"I can't tell you. It's anonymous."
Then Uncle Gabby gets all excited..."You've joined AA too?"
"No, you idiot! Not AA. I've joined QA!"
There's other wack-o, conspiracy cults you can go in to...
Gillies: The Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers...you could have Drinky infiltrate one of them...
Gavin McInnes is the guy who started the Proud Boys, but he [was] also an editor of Vice magazine...I was talking to Gabe Fowler, who owns Desert Island Comics in Brooklyn, about McInnes. Gabe had an interview with McInnes. He was talking about all these cartoonists and saying shit like, "Michael Kupperman--that guy can't draw!" What?!? Saying that Sam Henderson's not funny...and that's all Sam is, is funny. And he was talking about every cartoonist and Gabe is like, "What?!?" And then he goes--Gabe thought he had the trump card--he goes, "What about Tony Millionaire?" And he put a slide up with my stuff on it. And McInnes goes, "I hate Tony Millionaire more than any cartoonist!" [Laughs] "I don't think talking animals is funny...just look at it! I don't even know how to describe how shitty it is," and he just went on and on about it. [Laughs] I mean, he [McInnes] got me fired. He heard that I was going to be in Vice magazine--I had one strip in Vice magazine. McInnes took a look at it and said, "Get this guy out of Vice!" and they kicked me out. It was five hundred buck an issue, which was a lot. Those papers back then didn't pay that much. Vice was actually pretty good. They eventually kicked him out too. They thought he was interesting at first, but he just kicked him out became he was too outlandish.
I always thought of Vice, when it was still just the magazine, as a snarky, frat boy/hipster thing...my kids liked it. But they were teenagers then...
You can't write for teenagers. If you've got to write for teenagers, you just writing for adults. When you're writing for kids, you've got to pull the vocabulary down a little bit and just do the same thing. You don't talk about boners or booze and you bring the vocabulary down a bit. Like I do a lot of kids books, like the Sock Monkey books, and I know the way to do is to just talk to them like they're a person. I mean, so many times, people would come over to my house and they'd talk to my daughter...they'd ask, "So! How's school going?" And she'd be like, "School? Why are you asking me about the thing I hate the most?" [Laughs] And that's not just about writing for kids. It's about writing for any audience. If you're not writing for yourself, you're not writing for anybody.
Besides Gabby's Journey, what else have you been working on?
My next book, Inebrio Horsefeathers, will be out this Spring. It's a drunken take on Horatio Hornblower, starring a platypus and it's one of the things I've been working on with Bad Ideas Comics. They're a company that was started by some ex-Valiant Comics people and they're a real joy to work with--almost complete artistic freedom, advance payments, good editors who know what they're talking about. I mostly work with Eric Reynolds and Gary Groth at Fantagraphics. They publish all my Maakies stuff and Billy Hazelnuts. But I like to diversify. Dark Horse published my Sock Monkey comics till I found out about their shenanigans, which I will not discuss here.
The Sock Monkey Movie
Speaking of Sock Monkey, what about Uncle Gabby's alter ego? Can you give an update on what's going on with the Sock Monkey movie?
I can't really give any details because it's jinxed it every time I've done this in the past 20 years...a friend of mine who is a filmmaker wrote a really beautiful, brilliant script—finally I got a good script for it, and he is working with a bunch of people to get that made. And it's going really well and I [hope] that this time it will pan out. This has happened a lot in the past and it's never worked out, but this one really has the best chance. There are some people putting up money to back it, so it's looking good. We don't want to go big studio because they're just going to go and buy it and put it on the shelf...And I don't have to go through the humiliation of going to every fucking studio in Hollywood to try to get them to buy it, which I've done a million times. So I'm really looking forward to it. If you go on to maakies.com you can see the video of the trailer that he did years and years ago…it was for the movie that he had written a script for years earlier, when he was young and stupid. Now he's old and smart and the script is good—well, you can understand it. He has kind of an Asperger's, ADD mind so that script was kind of written sideways and backwards, so most people couldn't understand it. I could and I loved it. But nobody wanted to make a good movie out of that earlier script. He took that crazy mind of his—that brilliant, artistic mind—he speaks a lot like I do, about beauty and nostalgia, you know, adventure and spirit—and he actually took a bunch of the Sock Monkey books and put them together seamlessly and elaborated on it and turned it into the script. And it’s just brilliant, if I do say so myself. Or…hence so, since he wrote it. But it's based on my books.
Is it animation, or stop motion, or…?
He wants to do a combination of puppets and CG. So that it'll really have the feel of a real sock monkey running around inside a house. Not like Jimmy Neutron, not CG/animated…I love that stuff if it's done right, but it's rarely done right. We're going to use puppets—because we want to have the motion of the human hand, rather than stop motion. And we have a bunch of professional puppeteers who really know what they're doing and are very good. So I'm excited about this and hopefully it'll really happen this time.
The Drinky Crow Show
Well, you're no stranger to people adapting your work. How did The Drinky Crow Show on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim come about? That came out of the short pieces that ran on Saturday Night Live, right?
Sometime in the 90s I got a call from Adam McKay when he was head writer at Saturday Night Live who said he loved my comic strip and saw a joke that went something like:
"Why are you drinking all that beer? It's full of empty calories."
And Drinky Crow said, "What do you mean empty? They're full of booze!"
He liked that joke and said, "We should do some animation of this stuff." So, they called me and they did make animation—they made six of them, but only two of them ever ran. Then I found out some other cartoonist were doing things for them [SNL] but none of them ever ran because they weren't considered funny enough for them, for SNL. Now, I don't know what the fuck that means, "funny enough for SNL," I haven't laughed at show in 30 years. I guess it has to be a certain type of humor, and mine somehow fit…I mean, a drunken crow? But it fit. So they aired one of them--they were less than a minute long each—they aired the one about the crow dinking, where he goes to the store and the booze is a dollar and the gun is four dollars and he goes, "OK, give me the booze." And then a squirrel comes and says, "Put these acorns in this stump and I'll give you two dollars." The crow says, ok, and then does it and then goes to the store and says, "How much is the gun?"
"How much is the whiskey?"
"Ah, shit. Give me the whiskey."
So he drinks the whiskey and then he keeps working and every time he saves a dollar. Finally, he goes and he's got four dollars, enough to buy the gun, and in the next scene it's him blowing his brains out. The joke being, the only reason he was drinking was because he couldn't afford the pistol.
They ran that one and then they ran one more. I had to watch that fucking show, because they were running it at the end, every Saturday night. None of the other cartoons ever made it on the air at all—none of the other cartoonists' stuff. And they ran two of mine. I thought to myself, "Shit. I'm going to buy myself a house on the Hudson river, it's going to be beautiful, it's going to be a Victorian house, I'm going to paint it red, etc., etc., etc.." [Laughs] But no fucking house. I wasn't getting paid much, but I thought this was the start of my career. People who get on Saturday Night Live have careers. It all fucking fell to shit and nothing happened.
And then, years later, I was working on a script for one of the Sock Monkey books, and all of a sudden I get a call from Adult Swim and they say, "You want to do a Drinky Crow Show?" I was like, "What the fuck?" [Laughs] All right. Try putting a drunken bird on a TV show and see if anybody fucking salutes…Well, they did! And we made The Drinky Crow Show. Eric Kaplan was the writer. He had an animation studio in Transylvania that did CGI animation and I was like, "CGI…ok…" And they started showing me animation of the Crow, like a shiny plastic looking crow with reflections on his head…it looked like Jimmy Neutron. I said, "No, no, no…" So I started drawing and showing them how they have to make the models to move around in animation. I got it as close as I could to the comic strip, but they couldn't put little lines on it because it made moiré on the screen, little rainbows all over the place. So he had to keep it fairly simple, and I put textures on them to make it look like a Sunday newspaper comic strip….I did as much as I could...I was never real happy with the way that it looked. Anyway, I was on TV. I got a whole season and then they cancelled it, because—it got good ratings—but Mike Lazzo, the guy who ran Adult Swim, I guess didn't like it. I was told that doing a show for Adult Swim was like doing a dance on Mike Lazzo's coffee table. If you do the dance and he likes it, you're in. If he doesn't, well then you're fucked. So he just cancelled it. He didn't like my jokes, my humor, all the booze and all that. So that was the end of that mansion on the Hudson River.
Who owns that stuff now?
I had a good lawyer, so I own the SNL stuff. Adult Swim owns the Drinky Crow Show, so I can't do anything with them. I own the books and the strips, because, obviously, the strip had been running for 20 years before they did the show. I'd just wish they'd put reruns up every now and then.
The Tony Millionaire Show Movie
A trailer for the documentary about your life, called The Tony Millionaire Show, has been floating around the internet for a while now. The movie, which was created by Bright Red Rocket, consists of a lot of people—myself included—recounting funny, and sometimes horrifying, stories about your past. My understanding is that the film was ready to be released and then Covid happened and all the film festivals closed and they are now just waiting until things normalize a bit more before it gets distributed. Is that correct?
I just talked to Tim Maloney from Bright Red Rocket yesterday and he said that the market out there right now is still fucking horrible because of Covid. He'll get it out there eventually, when the market loosens up. I've seen it and it's really good. Once everything with Covid calms down a little more, it'll get out there and people will see it. It's scheduled to be in all the major festivals—Sundance, South by Southwest, all those places. And he's talking with places like Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc.
How weird is it watching a movie about yourself?
It's super fucking weird. When Tim first started talking to me about it, I was like, no way! I'm not making a movie about myself! Who would want to see that?? And then I heard he was going around interviewing old girlfriends and stuff, old friends of mine…finally, I get a call from my mother, saying, "Oh, I just talked with your friend, the one making the movie about you…" I was like, "Jesus! You're interviewing my mother!" So I called Tim up to read him the riot act and he was like, "Calm down…calm down. Just come over and see what I've got so far. I think you’ll like it."
And so…you know. It's like how everyone hates the sound of their own voice, like you'd hear on an answering machine or something. "Hey! I don't sound like that! I don't look like that!" At first I hated looking at myself and a lot of it's embarrassing because a lot of the movie is people talking about me doing stupid shit and telling stories about what an idiot I was…but it's a great movie. It really captures a time—a long time—in my life.
The movie is filled with people telling stories about things you did when you were drunk. Now that you're no longer drinking, are there plans for a Part Two—Tony's Life Today?
Yeah. We're starting on that right away. It's going to be the most boring fucking movie ever made. [Laughs]
You're living in Maine now…
Yeah, I'm living in Maine, with Kat Gillies...Kat is an artist and art teacher who I used to know 40 years ago in college. She's my wild Black Irish savage from the jungles of Belfast. [Laughs] She's the Founding Director of the Bread and Roses Art Collective here in Yarmouth, Maine. We knew each other at art school, at Massachusetts College of Art, and she's studied at Harvard and MIT and is super smart and has been exposing me, or re-introducing me, to a lot of mythology and religions and literature…And that's why I want to put in all this art history and mythology stuff, because it's fascinating. It's like going back to college again, with all the learning of the past 40 years. And there's no way that any of this would have happened if I was still drinking. There's no way Kat would have let me into her house if I was still drinking.
Gillies: I knew Drinky Crow, but I was not a fan--I'm a fan now...
No, you can be honest and say that you're not a fan of Maakies. It's perfectly acceptable. Maakies is not written for you. It's written for shitheads like...Mort Todd. [Laughs]
Anyway, you don't drink at all now? That's a big change.
How long have you been sober?
And how's that going?
It’s going great. I was really surprised…when I quit drinking, I thought it was going to be like holding my breath and wanting a drink forever. Like clutching on to an iron pole, saying "don't drink, don't drink…" But as it turned out is was much more like pulling my head out of a bucket of mud, where I can see everything. I had Gabby say that in one of the strips. So everything become much clearer and it's easier to do things. And you don't apologize as much for, you know, the shit you say at two o'clock in the morning. I wrote one thing down that said, "If you want to realize why it's a good idea to quit drinking, go back 5 years ago, or 10 years ago, and read what you wrote in your messages at two o'clock in the morning, you fucking idiot." That's why you should quit drinking.
But of course, I never want to tell anyone that they should quit drinking. This is just why I quit drinking. That's what anyone in Recovery would tell you to say, but also, I happen to agree with that.
For some people, quitting drinking becomes a life or death situation. Was that the case for you?
It wasn't the case for me, but people in AA will tell you that it's always a life or death situation. I wasn't drinking a gallon of vodka a day like some people—I was only drinking beer—but even so, drinking 12 beers a day over time can take like 15 years off your life or something. Anyway, I've never felt better and I look much better. No more bags under my eyes…my back isn't hurting me anymore.
So you follow a 12 Step, or AA program?
Yeah. There are a lot of the rules in AA that at first I thought were silly, but I said, "fuck it." I'm just going to do it anyway. Like "surrender your life to a higher power." And I realized that, like I don’t have any kind of religion in me because, fortunately my parents never poisoned me like that, so I can walk into a church and have a great time looking at stained glass windows because I love it. I don't have any of that…guilt…or look at that weird statue of a bloody man standing there and it just looks…cool. But then I realized that it's just the whole concept of "surrender" and it goes through all philosophies, where if you really want to stop digging your own hole that you're standing in, you've got to just stop. Like give it up. Let it happen. And there's like, in the Tao, they're talking about "just let it happen." Don't try to plan out your life, it doesn't ever really work out. Just go about your work. Basically, just try and stop micromanaging your own life, because it never really works out, really.
There's a character that I'm working on called Grandma Tao, who boils down every philosophical theory into simple sayings, like "just put it on the back burner." When you put something on the back burner, you don't have to think about it any more and all of a sudden it works out. Right?
So that basically is what the concept of surrendering yourself to a Higher Power is. That you're accepting that you're not in control anymore. That you're not going to micromanage yourself anymore.
Yeah…from my understanding of 12 Steps programs, you can make it very complicated, or you can make it very simple. You can read all the literature, the AA Big Book, you can do all the Steps, but the end of the day, you can view it as just: "Don't be an asshole."
But it’s really, "don't be an asshole to other people, and don't be an asshole to yourself."
It’s basically just a good philosophy that anyone could follow. You could make that into your politics. If anyone asks you what your politics are, you could say, "I'm anti-asshole." What is your religion? "Well, I'm anti-asshole." Yeah, it boils down to that: Don't be an asshole. And everything else just kind of happens.
Yeah, just treat other people with respect. Including yourself. Don't continue to do things to yourself that damage you.
When they get deep down into the various AA Steps, some of them get kind of silly…I tried to go along with them as far as I could, but I didn't really make it past the Forth or Fifth Step, maybe…You're suppose to "make an amends" to people you have harmed, which is kind of like apologizing for every bad thing you've ever done, but not really…I mean, you apologize, but you're apologizing for things all the time. "I'm sorry that I got shit faced at your house the other day." Making an amends means like, "I'm sorry that I crashed your car" and then buying them a new car or actually doing something to make up for what you've done. Not just lip service. Maybe not buying them a new car, but really letting them understand that you feel bad about what you did or asking them what you could do to make things better. It's about fixing things, rather than apologizing for what you've done. Nobody wants to hear you say, "I'm sorry," all of the time, over and over.
I think that by the time that people get in to programs like AA or NA, they've their fair share of apologizing and it becomes—
--what else is new? And, "Yeah, you’re always sorry!"
One of the ways to make amends to some people is just—they'll say, "The fact that you've quit drinking is enough of an amends. Now I don't have to listen to your drunken blather anymore!"
It's definitely not for everybody, but it's much different than I thought it would be because it's like good group therapy. You go in, nobody says anything to you while you say your piece, you just spill your guts and be as honest as you can. They talk about "rigorous honesty," which is just really being as honest as you can, not trying to fool yourself or anyone else. No one is going to believe you when you try to fool them because they know and they've done it all before themselves. So you just tend to open up—that's why you don’t want to bring your girlfriend or wife, because you'll be saying shit you don't want her to hear [laughs]. But also, you hear of people doing parodies of AA or NA and it's people sitting around saying, "You drink too much!" or "You're terrible at being a person, you should get sober…" It's never like that. It's always just about everybody just listening to each other. In movies or TV, they never get it right. They focus on the structure of it, like people telling each other how not to be drunk and shit like that. That's not what it's like.
I did get a bit of wisdom at a meeting that I really like. Instead of learning how to quit drinking, learn how to not want to drink. Try to figure out for yourself—nobody can do it for you—figure out for yourself why you needed to be shit-faced all the time. And figure outa way not to feel that way anymore.
And of course, I would never suggest to somebody who is just a casual drinker that they need to stop. Drinking is great! I owe my career to it. So many good things in my life came from it. I mean, I was shy as shit back when I was in seventh or eighth grade and…I never could talk to a girl. I never kissed a girl until I was eighteen because I was so shy. And then I discovered the booze, and suddenly I learned how to be sociable.
In fact, I had just quit for like two or three weeks, and so I went out to dinner with someone and a few of his friends, just to test what it'd be like and I felt perfectly fine. It was just like the same as if I had been drunk. So I asked him, "How was it? How did I do?" And he said, "It was great. You're just as insufferable sober as are when you’re drunk!" [Laughter]
Well, one thing that I think is interesting is that you—I was going to say "chose to," but I don’t know if that's accurate—you stopped drinking during the Pandemic…
…and that being a time when, at least from what I've seen in news reports, a lot of people have doubled down on their drinking, and the sales of alcohol and all of its effects—and certainly drugs too—have increased. Which makes sense. I mean, what else are they going to do? And if they're working, a lot of it's on Zoom and they could be drunk [laughter] because you're at work and work's in your bedroom or something and you're by yourself and no one know what the hell you're drinking…
They also don't have to worry about going to work with a hangover the next day…and if you're doing your work, just sitting on your bed with a big glass of vodka in your hand, no one's gonna care if you're hung over.
…and no one's going to be able to smell the booze on you the next day, and who knows what’s actually in that coffee mug you're drinking on that Zoom meeting? Anyway, did the timing of this play in to your decision to stop drinking?
The pandemic? No. No difference at all. I turned 65 and I said that I was going to quit drinking when I turned 65. And then I was like 65 and, like. three months, and I got really drunk one night and everything went to shit. And I was like, "Whoa…wasn't I suppose to quit drinking?" So, I said this is a good time to do it. I was drinking like up to 15 beers a night. That night, I just threw a pint of vodka into the mix, so I got kinda sloppy.
In earlier times. The artist at work. With beer.
Did you tend to stick with beer?
Yeah, always. When I drink beer, I don't get drunk, until like three o'clock in the morning. I get a little buzz, and then I can work and I was much better when it was just beer, because I'm loose and I can relax. Now that I'm not drinking, everything's a little stiff and I have to do some breathing exercises just to loosen up. But the thing is, when I would go out to a party, I would have to first have like one or two shots of tequila to get everything started faster, but really never much more than that, because…well, you know what happened when I was 40, right? With the taxicab?
I do, but most people reading this won't.
Ok. When I was 40, I decided to quit drinking hard liquor because it would stop me from getting in thrown in jail, from getting in trouble with the hard liquor…So I decided to only drink beer and wine. And on my 40th birthday, I took a big bottle of Merlot and I chugged the whole thing down and I got another bottle of Merlot and I chugged it down like, like Drinky Crow—Dook…Dook! Dook! I just drank it fast. I got immediately shit-faced and said, "C'mon everybody! Let's go into the city!" We were living in Brooklyn. Let's go into the city, and party…and so we get to a cab…there's five of us and the cab will only take four, so I got angry at the guy and I got on to the roof of the cab and started banging on his windshield, hoping that that would convince him that he should take all five of us. But [laughs] he, and also my four guests, decided that that was NOT a good idea. So they all jumped out of the cab and the taxi driver took off while I was still up there. So I held on to the light of the cab on top and I thought to myself, "OK, he’ll probably like slow down and let me off"…and then I thought, "Maybe he won’t!"…Maybe he'll just go faster until he throws me off because he really seemed scared. Which he did. So he sped up and I thought, "Fuck it, I’d better jump," which I did. And I landed—being an alcoholic, you really learn how to—especially a tall alcoholic—you learn how to fall. When you fall, you pull your left arm across your chest and turn your shoulder to the ground, hit the ground with your shoulder and you roll. And I did that. I didn't have any broken bones or anything, but I did tumble in between two parking meters really fast, and I had hit one of those, I don't know what would have happened. I would have been all smashed up, and I don't know if I would have broken my back or neck or something. But I didn't. I ripped my pants, I got a big cut on my hip and I decided, "OK, from now on I’m going to only drink beer!" [Laughs] And that actually worked, like, for years and years, till I was up to around 12 or 15 beers every night and it just wasn't working anymore.
I was told back then that there was no way that I was going to be able to quit hard liquor and just drink beer, but in my case it wasn't true at all. I did it. Unless I went out, which was like once a month or something, because I got married pretty soon after that and once I had kids, there was no way I was going to drink vodka in front of the kids. And I hardly went out, so I didn't have the need to catch up on my drunkenness.
The problem with sneaking some straight vodka is that you're going to get drunk a lot faster. I mean, you can drink beer as fast as you want and it's pretty hard to get drunk on it. I was drinking Budweiser and it’s only 5% alcohol. It’s not strong beer and you can't drink it that fast. Or you have to piss all the time. It slows you down, puts the brakes on.
Plus, you know, I had to get the drawings finished for the Maakies strip. And if you've drank 12 beers and you still have two hours to go, you drink more to keep yourself awake. Otherwise, you fall asleep.
Did the drinking while drawing have any negative effect on the quality of your work?
This is the way it went: If I had to draw a page or a strip, and if I started late, by the time I got to the last couple of panels I would be really drunk. And so, I would wake up in the morning and I would look at the work that I had done and it would look really good…until the fourth or fifth panel…until the last panel and that would look so fucking sloppy that I'd have to do it all over again. So in a lot of my originals…I mean, I always makes mistakes...and some of the mistakes are good, but [Laughs] what I would do is just redraw the last panel and Photoshop it onto the comic before I sent it out. So in a lot of the originals, you see that the last panel has the sloppy drunken "Ewehg ugh bhah" or some crap across the page. [laughs] I couldn't even draw the lines, so the panel box wasn't straight by then and the words didn't make any sense so they're all scribbled over everything [laughs]. One of them was…it was so beautiful that I sold it because it was so unique. Toward the end of it, I was so drunk that I was falling asleep while I was drawing, so I started writing the dream that I was having. I went on a rift and started writing what I was dreaming…it was pretty funny with the drawings to go along with it. It was very sloppy.
I assume that there be no end to funny storyline that could come out of AA meetings…
Oh, yeah. That's true. Like the old man telling a story about sitting on the toilet, vomiting while his wife bangs on the door screaming, "Die, you bastard!" [Laughs] I have to be careful with that. If somebody relates a story at an AA meeting that's really funny, there's no way I could. I used to be able to just steal it when I was at bars and parties. You'd just write somebody's name at the end of it and they couldn't complain because they said it—out loud. But at the meetings, I can't do that. So what I have to do is change the stories so nobody knows where I got it. The other thing, I would never take a story that I picked up at a meeting and use it…I say that now, because they say you're not suppose to because of the anonymity thing—it's Alcoholics ANONYMOUS—and if I did they wouldn't let me into their fucking meetings anymore.
As long as you don't use the person's name and change a couple of things, I think you're ok.
You know, every time someone said something funny in front of me, I just used it as some sort of basis for the strip. So that wouldn't ever be a problem. I heard a story from a guy—they were sharpening their needles on the cement floor because they were getting dull.
My brother has been going to AA meetings for years and he really helped me a lot with it. How to find meetings, how to deal with it, all that. So I called him up after my first meeting and told him how it was. I said, "Oh my God! I had no idea! It was amazing! I actually cried at the end of it." And he wrote back a one-word text: "Pussy." [Laughs] I said, "Wait a minute! Does everybody cry at their first meeting?" He said, "Yes…" [Laughs] It's like therapy, really. I mean if you don’t cry at your first session, you better find a different doctor. [Laughs]
Physically, was quitting very hard? Detoxing on your own can be very dangerous, even deadly because of seizures, depending on how much you're drinking. Withdrawal from heroin won't kill you. It can make you wish you were dead because of how bad your feel, but it won’t kill you. Alcohol withdrawal is much more dangerous.
There's a huge difference between human beings and their bodies. When I quit, I had no withdrawals at all. I had shaky hands for maybe five minutes, three different times, and that’s it. I kept three beers in case of an emergency, in case I got the DTs (delirium tremens) because you have to drink beer fast if you start getting the DTs because they can kill you. But I felt nothing. Then after like two weeks, I found he beers because I had forgotten about them and I poured them down the drain. But I know other people that when they withdraw, they have to go to the detox, because they're so fucking miserable. And then they have to fight the urge to drink for months and months afterwards. But I didn't at all. As soon as I quit, I was like, OK I quit, and that was it. I didn't ever even have an urge or a craving…I was sitting in the living room the other day—it was Thanksgiving—and there was a bottle of whiskey sitting there and everybody else was in the other room, laughing, and I was just sitting there next to it and I was like, "Oh, here’s the test!" And I thought, no I don't even want it. But I got lucky, because most people don't have it like that. You have to be careful. A lot of people have told me that. You never know how this thing can turn and bite you on the ass. That's why I have to keep going to meetings, even this long into it, because I have to build a fortress because shit could go bad any day.