Jack Ziegler: The Pen and Paper of Middle America

Jack D. Ziegler's home is located on the edge of the Alvamar Orchards Golf Course in Lawrence, Kansas, where he has lived since relocating from Connecticut nearly three years ago. And while Ziegler does not play golf, he enjoys feeling as though he were living beside a park, especially when the course is empty. This notion recalls the resigned and/or bemused attitude toward life's slings and arrows one finds throughout his immense body of cartoons, some 19,000 of which, sold or otherwise, fill a couple of file cabinets in his basement.

Born July 13, 1942, Ziegler sold his first gag to The New Yorker in 1973. He started drawing his own cartoons for the magazine soon thereafter, beginning with a panel involving theology, factory conveyor belts, displaced animal attributes, and a joke that takes precisely the right amount of time to detonate in your head. Other signature Ziegler motifs involve diner food, cowboys, bulbous mechanical objects, and pastiche riffs on classical writing and literature. His innovative blend of cartoon and comic-book conventions, often by replacing exterior captions with inset language, has inspired many a younger artist to stray even further from the time-tested grammar of the New Yorker cartoon.

We spoke in Jack's living room, surrounded by landscape paintings; in his kitchen, while eating excellent local barbecue from Biemer's; and in his comfortable downstairs studio amid neatly shelved books, a large rotating CD storage solution, original cartoon art, and Ziegler's collection of replica pistols.

RICHARD GEHR: You were born in New York?


GEHR: Which borough?

ZIEGLER: In Brooklyn, but I grew up in Queens.

GEHR: What were your parents’ names?

ZIEGLER: Kay and Denny. Denny for Denmore. Kathleen was my mother’s real name, so everybody called them Kay and Denny.

GEHR: What did your parents do for a living?

ZIEGLER: My mother was a part-time schoolteacher and my father was a salesman for a pigment company, a paint manufacturer in Brooklyn. He was from Brooklyn originally, she was from Queens. One of those interborough marriages.

GEHR: Those can be difficult.

ZIEGLER: Oh boy. [Laughter.]

GEHR: Did you read The New Yorker at home?

ZIEGLER: No. It was in my friend’s home. [Laughs.] We had Life, Look, Time, and The Daily News. My father didn’t like The New York Times. I had the feeling he might’ve been a Republican, but we never talked about that.

GEHR: Was it [television writer] Brian McConnachie's parents who bought The New Yorker?

ZIEGLER: Yeah. I’ve known him since we were six years old, probably. His parents always got The New Yorker. So it was always at his house. His mother was kinda nuts. [Laughs.] She was an ex-showgirl. And his father had a small company in New York that made industrial films. Brian lived about a mile and a half away from me. We used to walk and meet each other halfway. Then we’d wander off somewhere.

GEHR: Were you big comics fans at that point?

ZIEGLER: Yeah, we used to buy comic books. We’d get on the subway and sneak into the city. There used to be these used magazine stores all around 42nd St and Eighth Avenue. We’d go to those and get real excited if we’d found something. We were both into EC Comics, and we’d look for old back issues we didn’t have. You’d occasionally find something. Then I'd have to sneak ’em into the house. I’d have a stack against my shirt. They didn’t know I was going into the city, ’cause I was probably ten or eleven or something like that.

GEHR: McConnachie has said you used to visit the homes of cartoonists like Basil Wolverton and Bernie Krigstein.

ZIEGLER: Not Basil Wolverton. We used to look for the addresses of  comic-book artists in the phone book. Krigstein lived in Queens off of Queens Boulevard, not far from where we lived, so we visited him one day. And once in the city we went to EC Comics and met a few people there. I remember one visit to Atlas Comics, which became Marvel, eventually. The people there were very nice, very tolerant of these little kids coming in all excited. It was fun. I remember visiting the guy who drew Blackhawk and watching him actually draw a page. It was really quite something. I had totally forgotten about that until right now.

GEHR: What's your earliest cartoon memory?

ZIEGLER: The first cartoon I ever did was something I did for my high school magazine, actually.

GEHR: Nothing before that?

ZIEGLER: No, I didn’t do any cartoons at all.

GEHR: You went to Xavier High School in Chelsea, which specialized in military science. What were your friends like?

ZIEGLER: They were normal high school kids. It was an all-boys school.

GEHR: What kind of trouble did you get into?

ZIEGLER: I didn’t really get into a hell of a lot of trouble that I can recall. I may’ve buried it all. But no trouble, really. It was just a pain in the ass wearing a uniform on the subway into Greenwich Village, if you can imagine. That was in the late fifties, so it was not a pretty sight, I tell ya. There was a dress blue uniform and an OD uniform we’d also use.

GEHR: What’s an OD uniform?

ZIEGLER: The Eisenhower jackets: olive drab. That was like a brown tie, brown jacket, brown pants, lighter brown shirt. But the dress blues were a total blue uniform with a white stripe down the leg and gold buttons, the hat with the visor, white shirt, black tie. Spiffy.

GEHR: I’m sure you got a lot of respect for it, too.

ZIEGLER: Oh, I did, yes, especially in Greenwich Village. The beatniks really enjoyed seeing us boys come down the street.

GEHR: Where did you go to college?

ZIEGLER: I went to Fordham, in the Bronx. I was briefly in the Air Force ROTC there until I just got fed up with it. I didn’t want to do that anymore, so I dropped out.

GEHR: What did you study at Fordham?

ZIEGLER: Communication arts was my major. That kind of started around when I got there. It was a new thing.

GEHR: What was college like for you after such a military-oriented high school?

ZIEGLER: I actually enjoyed high school more than I did college. But when I was in college, I got a job as a page at CBS, as an usher, and that was more fun than being in class in the Bronx. So I never really hung out that much with my college friends. When class was over, I’d get on the subway and get down to what’s now the Ed Sullivan Theater. It was Studio 50 back then; around the corner was Studio 52, which became Studio 54 the disco. I used to hang out with the other pages, who were far more interesting than the students because they were a bunch of out-of-work writers and actors, and some students.

GEHR: Was it like 30 Rock?

ZIEGLER: No, not really. [Laughter.]

GEHR: Any meetings with remarkable entertainers?

ZIEGLER: I was there for the Beatles, that was one of our shows that was kind of a big deal. I didn’t actually meet them personally, but I was there –and all the other basically British groups that followed after that.

GEHR: Did you get into Pop art through album-cover art?

ZIEGLER: Not really. I always drew from when I was a kid, so I would draw stuff that was somewhat based on posters and whatnot, especially during the psychedelic years. I would try to do the San Francisco stuff occasionally, but I never tried to earn a living out of it or try to be an artist. I was just doing it ’cause it was fun.

GEHR: How long did you usher for?

ZIEGLER: For most of college. About three and a half years, maybe.

GEHR: Sounds like the perfect college job.

ZIEGLER: It was phenomenal, absolutely great. You had pocket money and met a lot of great people.

GEHR: What happened after you graduated?

ZIEGLER: After college, I got a job at D’Arcy Advertising in New York – 430 Park Avenue, if I recall correctly. I was in the mailroom, where you had to start. I did that for a year and then I was about to get drafted. I had to scramble to find a reserve outfit, ’cause it was during Vietnam and I had no great desire to do that. I eventually found a reserve unit that required eighteen months instead of six months.

GEHR: Did being in the military feel familiar after high school?

ZIEGLER: Not really. I didn’t like being in the military. It was during Vietnam and nobody really wanted to be in the military; at least nobody I knew did. But this was the best way I knew to not have to do Vietnam. So I did that, and it was great being in Monterey. I had never been to California before. Had a nice time there. Learned Russian. [Laughs.]

GEHR: How did you spend the Summer of Love?

ZIEGLER: Well, I was back in New York. I had a job at CBS. I started off at CBS radio. I’m getting a little vague on these dates. I was there at the radio station for the CBS radio network. I was working nights, and then I went to network transmission facilities, which was over in Black Rock, which was a television and network traffic type thing.

GEHR: You married; what was your wife’s name?

ZIEGLER: Jean-Anne Rice was her name. Still is her name; she lives on. I met her at a wedding in Chicago. Brian’s wedding, actually. We hit it off, and she came to New York to visit me over Christmas. She was a teacher, and she had a week off, so she came to New York. We spent a week together and then she went back. We got married the following April in Chicago. Had a family, had kids…

GEHR: Were you happy in New York?

ZIEGLER: Yeah, it was good; it was fun. I mean, the Net Trans Fax job was just a job. I wasn’t that enthusiastic about it, but it was nice. And we decided to go to San Francisco, try that out.

GEHR: Where did you live in San Francisco?

ZIEGLER: I had an apartment on Filbert, right off Van Ness, one block over from Union. Then I got a job at KTVU, a TV station in Oakland. I think she worked at I. Magnin or Joseph Magnin; at some point she had a teaching job, too. A couple of months after we moved into Fillmore, we saw this really cute German Shepherd puppy on the street that people were selling for $25 or something. They had a litter and this dog was the runt. So we foolishly got the dog, and it was a no-pets-allowed apartment.

GEHR: You were a San Francisco hippie. What was your first psychedelic experience like? [Ziegler laughs.]

ZIEGLER: My first psychedelic experience? I never had a psychedelic experience, actually.

GEHR: You never dropped acid out there?

ZIEGLER: I never did, no. Smoked some grass, did some hash. Never did LSD. I’m not sure why.

GEHR: But you're a big music fan, right?

ZIEGLER: We used to go to The Fillmore and the Matrix. I saw the Velvet Underground at the Matrix. They were there for a week and I went three times. The last night I was there, the audience was me and maybe two other people. They did a great set anyway, they were phenomenal.

GEHR: Any other peak music experiences in San Francisco?

ZIEGLER: I went to the Fillmore a few times and saw the Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and…I don't know if we actually saw Quicksilver. There were a couple of concerts in Golden Gate Park. The last apartment we had in San Francisco was on Stanyan Street, right across from the park, so we used to be there quite a bit. That’s when I started doing cartoons and figured I should move back East if I wanted to be serious about this.

I also took six months off to try to write. I completed this novel I thought was good when I was writing it, but turns out it wasn’t.

While I was doing this writing, or trying to be a writer, Brian was in New York and he was also trying to be a writer. He was also doing cartoons on the side, but he can’t really draw. He’s a terrible artist but he has funny ideas, so he started selling stuff to National Lampoon. And he said, "I can’t even draw and I’m selling cartoons. You can actually draw. Maybe this is something you might wanna think about." So I did. I started kind of fiddling around with it, and then I found that I really enjoy doing it. I mean, I wasn’t particularly good at it, but I found I could do it. So I started doin’ that and then thought maybe this would be a way to make a living without having to sell my soul in some awful job.

I was doing a lot of cartoons in San Francisco. I think I sent some stuff out and it all got rejected. Then I thought maybe I should go to New York and actually visit some of the magazines and do an in-person thing. So I went to New York for like a week, and stayed with Brian and his wife. That’s when I decided we should move back there. If I’m ever gonna make this work, it’s not gonna happen in San Francisco. We packed up the bus again, got a U-Haul, and attached the bus to the back. Jean-Anne and I had a kid at that time – the first kid, Jessica. They flew back to Chicago and I drove from San Francisco to Chicago and met them there, spent a weekend, and then drove the rest of the way to New York. Once I got settled in New York, they took a plane and followed. It was just me and Blanche, the dog, in the truck. That was a good trip.

GEHR: Where did you live in New York?

ZIEGLER: We actually moved into Brian’s mother’s summerhouse, which was in Mattituck on the north fork of Long Island. They had a little summer cottage there. Thank God it was insulated, ’cause it was November or maybe December. It was cold, in any case. We stayed there until just before spring, and I was making trips into New York. This would be the end of 1972, beginning of ’73. I was doing cartoons out there and coming into the city, making the rounds with the magazines, dropping off every week at The New Yorker, getting my stuff back the next week and dropping off the next batch, going to the Lampoon – at that point, Brian might’ve been an editor there. We stayed out there until we had to move in the spring, because Brian’s mother, May, was gonna be comin’ out to use her house for the summer, thoughtlessly. [Laughter.] We looked for places on Long Island and Westchester, and we wound up in New Haven, Connecticut. We thought that’d be a good town; it’s a college town and when were living in Mannatuck, it was the only TV station we could actually get. New Haven sounded like fun. We wound up moving there and stayed for like three years. It was while we were in New Haven that I started to sell to The New Yorker. The first thing they bought from me was an idea for Charles Addams to draw.

GEHR: What was it?

ZIEGLER: It's Edgar Allan Poe sitting at a table, trying to think of something to write; and he’s thinking of all these animals saying “Nevermore.” One’s a turtle, I think,  and one was – I can’t even remember, maybe a dog or a cat or something – before he hit the obvious. [Laughter.] So that was kind of exciting. But I would’ve much preferred to be able to do it myself.

GEHR: Do you remember how much you got paid for it?

ZIEGLER: Maybe only a hundred dollars, maybe a hundred and fifty, I don’t know. But at that point they were buying ideas for Addams and a couple of other people, too. So yeah, that was my first sale there. And you’d always get a rejection slip from The New Yorker. On my rejection slip that week, they said they'd like to buy this as an idea for Addams.

GEHR: Was that when Lee Lorenz was transitioning into the job?

ZIEGLER: Lee had started maybe a year before that, and he was really on the lookout for new people. About six months after I sold the Addams idea, they bought one of mine. Instead of a rejection slip, I got an actual piece of paper with The New Yorker letterhead on it, saying, "Would you mind coming back and seeing me?" – signed, Lee Lorenz. Of course if you’ve ever seen Lee’s handwriting, it’s indecipherable. But I went back there and met him, and I was just a nervous wreck ’cause I didn’t know what the hell was goin’ on. I was hopin’ they were gonna buy something. And they did, they bought that one idea, so I had to go home and do a finish on it, and then send it back. Then I think they rejected that one, too. It was the "beasts of the field" drawing. The machinery wasn’t quite right in the conveyor belt.

GEHR: I'd love to hear your version of the office intrigue that was going on around your work vis à vis Carmine Peppe.

ZIEGLER: Yeah, well, he didn’t like my work, apparently. He was the layout guy, back in the days when they really knew how to lay out the magazine; the cartoons were always printed exactly the right size they should be. Carmine was great at that, but he didn’t like my stuff.

GEHR: Did you ever meet him and find out why?

ZIEGLER: I never met him. But I sold the "beasts in the field" drawing to Lee in either November or December. And I had always heard that if they bought something from a new person, they would print it pretty quickly. So the weeks went by, and then a couple of months, and I finally said to Lee, "I was wondering if that first drawing is ever going to appear." And he actually hadn’t realized that it hadn’t appeared. Meanwhile, I’ve started selling fairly regularly to the magazine, and nothing is appearing. So he said, "Let me look into this." And it turned out that Carmine thought that if they printed my stuff, it would be the end of the magazine; that it would just destroy the future of The New Yorker as we know it. [Laughter.] Which it did, apparently.

GEHR: How was it resolved?

ZIEGLER: Eventually, Lee spoke to Carmine and said, "Listen, we have to start printing this stuff" William Shawn spoke to him, too, and insisted they start printing it "because we’re gonna be buying this kinda stuff." From then on, I started to appear gradually. But he was still holding back a lot of stuff. I was selling a lot of stuff but very little was getting printed. Eventually they started printing my stuff on a more regular basis.

GEHR: How do you think your work compared to what had been in The New Yorker until then? Were you surprised they were buying it?

ZIEGLER: I thought my stuff looked OK. I knew how to draw. But I look back on those early drawings and they're not really anything like what I draw now. Because the more you do it, the more comfortable you get. You kind of fall into your style, you know? I didn’t quite have what has become recognizably mine until much later. I wasn’t actually trying to gear it toward The New Yorker audience – I was just trying to do stuff I would like to see in The New Yorker. But I still don’t know what stuff of mine is funny to other people, because it’s such a subjective thing. So to this day I just do what I think works for me, and I don’t even think about The New Yorker, although I send them everything I do.

GEHR: So you were starting to make a living?

ZIEGLER: I started to make a living. It’s like everything started to happen at once. I started selling at The New Yorker, then The Saturday Evening Post started buying my stuff, and then a couple of girly mags in New York started buying my stuff. Saturday Review, Writer’s Digest, a couple of others.

GEHR: Could you describe the scene at National Lampoon while you worked for it?

ZIEGLER: At that point I was going into New York on Wednesday. I would finish my rounds of magazines and always make sure I'd wind up at the Lampoon at the end of it. I'd go up and hang out with Brian for a while, then a bunch of us would go down to this bar around the corner. It would be a big carousing group at a table, yelling out funny stuff, ideas for the next issue. Nobody wrote anything down. Really funny stuff. Tony Hendra was there, and Sean Kelly. We’d be there for hours. They'd throw all these ideas for the next issue back and forth. And of course none of these ideas would ever appear. They'd all get lost in the booze, I guess.

GEHR: What sort of work did you do for the Lampoon?

ZIEGLER: I didn't sell them that many things, actually. I probably sold them less than ten drawings. I tried a couple of comic strip pages but they didn't work out. They weren't very good, actually. They only printed single-panel drawings. I got good advice from Michael O'Donahue about drawing. I was drawing way too realistically really early on in my career. As I look back on those drawings, they were really wrong. They weren't cartoony enough. They weren't reduced down to their lowest common denominator or whatever you want to call it. There were wrinkles in the clothing, y'know? People were too tall and there shouldn't be any tall cartoon people.

GEHR: Lee Lorenz wrote that your work, "if taken as a whole, constitutes a dead-on if bemused portrait of Middle America."

ZIEGLER: That could be. I don't know.

GEHR: But you haven't lived in Middle America until fairly recently.

ZIEGLER: That's true. I've been here in Lawrence about two and a half years now. I don't really think about what I do sociologically. I'm just trying to do stuff that amuses me. And I don't think about rich people or poor people or East Coast people. I'm just trying to find something funny. Which is harder and harder to do.

GEHR: Because of you, or because of the crazy mixed-up world we live in?

ZIEGLER: Because of me. I'm less sure of what's funny anymore. Not that I ever knew. It was always a guess.

GEHR: Do you have a theory of humor?

ZIEGLER: I got no theory at all. I just start drawing and see what happens.

GEHR: What was the difference in editorial styles between Lee Lorenz and Bob Mankoff?

ZIEGLER: Lee had much more direction. When you'd get an OK from Lee, he would look at the drawing with you. And if he wanted any changes made, he would tell you pretty much what he wanted. I don't get any direction at all from Bob, although maybe that's because I've been around so long I don't need it anymore. I assume I know what I'm doing at this point.

GEHR: Where did your idea of using inset captions rather than standard captions come from?

ZIEGLER: It depended on the drawing. I just felt there was a better way to do a particular drawing this way than with a standard caption, because it requires less explanation. I was just trying to make it simpler instead of being long-winded. I didn't start out doing it. I started out doing pretty normal things. But then as I kept doing it, there were ideas I had that just didn't work in a normal fashion. They had to have a more logical way of presenting themselves. And that's where that came from. It was just a way to do it that looked right.

GEHR: Have you licensed much of your work elsewhere? Has there ever been a Ziegler line of toasters?

ZIEGLER: No. And of course they don't make toasters like that anymore. My toasters are based on forties and fifties models.

GEHR: Did your relationship with the magazine change after Shawn left?

ZIEGLER: Not really. When Shawn got fired…Of course they said they'd never get rid of Shawn – "you stay here for as long as you want!" [Laughs.]

GEHR: Were you close to Shawn?

ZIEGLER: No. Nobody's close with Shawn, except for Lillian Ross. [Laughs.] I didn't really know Shawn. I met him a few times. I know he liked my work, which is always nice. I got a couple of nice notes from him.

GEHR: What's your weekly routine?

ZIEGLER: I usually get up between 7 and 7:30, go out and get the newspaper. I do some reading before I start work, look at the front page of The New York Times. Then I go downstairs and do ideas for maybe an hour or two. I submit fewer cartoons now than I used to. I submit about eight a week and I used to submit about twelve. I still enjoy doing it. I scan and email it. Then I FedEx the finish if needed. The week is basically Monday to Friday. I draw them up on Fridays and Mondays, and Mondays I get them all finished and scanned and sent off. And the rest of week, Tuesday through Thursday, I've been using for writing.

GEHR: What are the tools of your trade these days? Do you still rely on Uni-Ball Visions?


GEHR: And 20-pound typing paper?

ZIEGLER: No, I switched to this great 36-pound paper, a linen paper. It’s really, really good paper. I wish I had discovered it years ago. I switched to it because when I started scanning drawings, the ink would sometimes bleed through the old paper. My scanner scans both sides, so I’d send eight drawings in, and it would turn out to be fifteen or sixteen pages long, and that wasn’t a good thing. So I looked for this heavier paper and I’m very happy with it. But it’s very expensive. I mean, for paper. It's sort of the queen mother of papers. [Laughter.]

GEHR: Do you keep your roughs?

ZIEGLER: I number all my rough drawings, and they look very close to what goes in the magazine. When I get an OK, I just put the rough on the lightbox and pretty much just trace it. I also make things fit better.

GEHR: Do you have any favorite cartoon categories?

ZIEGLER: I've done them all. I find myself drawing cowboys a lot for some reason. I've always done a lot of cowboy cartoons. Mostly scenes in bars – or saloons, I should say. Guys on horses having little conversations during the cattle drive, then going back to the bunkhouse to catch a Clint Eastwood marathon.

Special thanks to Kristen Bisson for transcription assistance.