Garry Trudeau: The Interview
For nearly 40 years and seven White House administrations, Garry Trudeau, creator of the Pulitzer-winning comic strip "Doonesbury," has been America's foremost satirist of the funny pages and, often, the editorial page. Trudeau recently returned from a 12-week hiatus to recharge "a few creative cells," he says, so we took the opportunity to ask him to discuss political satire in a historic election year.
MC: What's the state of political satire compared with when "Doonesbury" launched in 1970?
GT: When I started, "Pogo" was winding down, Lenny Bruce was dead, Tommy Smothers couldn't keep his show on the air, two late-night hosts made only the tamest political jokes and "Saturday Night Live" was still six years away. So there was a lot of running room for someone like me. Now, "SNL" is a major cultural fixture, as is "The Simpsons," "The Daily Show," "South Park," "The Colbert Report," Bill Maher and the five major late-night talk shows -- not to mention all the feeder comedy camps like Second City, The Onion and The Harvard Lampoon. ... So Big Satire, as Al Franken might call it, has never been more robust.
The only venue where satire is languishing, sadly, is my own. A handful of strips feature political humor, but there are only half as many editorial cartoonists working as when I started out, mostly because their fortunes are tied directly to those of newspapers. An editorial cartoonist represents not just a salary and benefits, but if he's any good, he's also a lawsuit magnet. Never mind that the paper always wins; to a margin-obsessed publisher, a staff cartoonist today is all downside.
What other current political satirists -- either at the keyboard, the drawing board or on camera -- do you admire, respect, look to and/or appreciate?
Many of the people I mentioned. [Stephen] Colbert in particular is as good as it gets. With the character he plays, every day is Opposite Day, and he's sustained and built on that conceit brilliantly. And because Colbert is as charming as he is quick, he's bulletproof. Not a scratch on him. After two years, his running critique of the ignorant, right-wing blowhard still stands, and there's not a damn thing Bill O'Reilly can do about it.
My sturdiest source of inspiration, though -- now that [Jules] Feiffer and ["Pogo's" Walt] Kelly aren't around anymore -- is a musician, Randy Newman. He's probably our finest satirist -- an absolute master of funny, nuanced storytelling. He doesn't get overtly political that often, but no one's better at explaining America to itself. Go give "My Country" a listen, about a man who spends his life in front of a television "as big as all outdoors." While you're laughing, try not to cry.
Is satire's influence on politicians and the electorate any greater or lesser than, say, when "Doonesbury" launched?
I've never felt any of us had significant influence. The fear of public ridicule is universal, but I see no real evidence of it moderating behavior. What is different is that satire is now a pervasive part of public life, in part because every move a politician makes can be recorded. And he need not actually do something reprehensible to be vulnerable. A lot of what late-night shows do now is not just found humor -- it's manufactured. A politician can merely scratch his nose, but if the tape is sped up and looped, it can look like he's ripping his own face off. And any kid can knock this kind of stuff off in his bedroom and throw it up on YouTube. ... Satire is no longer in the hands of responsible licensed professionals like me.
Any thoughts on this election year, from a satirist's point of view?
It's a beaut, because everyone's paying attention. But remember, the worst president in U.S. history is still in the White House. For Big Satire to ignore George W. Bush during his final year in office would be foolish -- and wildly ungrateful. He's done so much for our profession, and he may yet have another war in him. We still owe him our fullest attention.
For Michael Cavna's full story on political satire in 2008, click here.
NEXT WEEK: Comic Riffs interviews "The Boondocks" creator Aaron McGruder.
| July 15, 2008; 10:00 AM ET
Categories: Interviews With Cartoonists, The Political Cartoon
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