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Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 07/15/2008

Garry Trudeau: The Interview

By Michael Cavna

Garry Trudeau sees this as a golden time for booming satire. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

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.

By Michael Cavna  | July 15, 2008; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists, The Political Cartoon  
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Next: The Countdown: The Joker Gets The Last Laugh


Really enjoyed your interview with Garry Trudeau. Doonesbury remains one of my daily must-reads (and 12 weeks off was murder!). Some very interesting insights into the state of the industry from one of its best practitioners-- and a really great "get" for this fledgling blog!
all best, DB

Posted by: DB | July 15, 2008 11:14 AM | Report abuse

GT: "I've never felt any of us had significant influence."

One reason for this that Trudeau doesn't touch on is that he's no longer really a satirist in the classical sense of the term. He's a pundit. He's not satirizing American politics as such, but rather is advancing a particular set of beliefs and positions.

That's fine. That's absolutely his right, and there's nothing there to criticize. But it does make him a known quantity. We know who and what he's going to criticize vs. who and what he's going to support. This lessens his influence because those on his side nod and say, "it's funny because it's true," and those on the other side dismiss him as working for the opposition.

Posted by: Tom T. | July 15, 2008 11:19 AM | Report abuse

Trudeau is refreshingly candid about his ability, or that of any satirist, to influence events. The great English comic Peter Cook, the prime creator of the British satire boom of the 1960s, was once asked if the work of satirists had an impact on the real world. He sarcastically replied, "Oh, certainly. Look how much the German cabaret movement of the 1920s did to prevent the rise of Hitler."

Posted by: Jack | July 15, 2008 11:25 AM | Report abuse

My father served 31 years in the Air Force and died in 1999. Over the years it had become difficult to know what to buy mymother for a holiday gift. She didn't want gifts but said she'd prefer we would give to a charity. But what charity. Finally, Garry Trudeau provided the inspiration with his series on B.D.'s war wound and his treatment and rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Hospital. Trudeau mentioned many real things in his strip during those weeks, including the amazing work of Fisher House, which is a kind of a Ronald McDonald House for our nation's wounded veterans! So I bought my Mom a collection of those strips and made a donation to Fisher House. She loved it.

Another nice thing from that series was the unexpected discovery that one fleeting character, an amputee who delivered milk shakes and words of comfort and strength to the combat wounded, really existed and was one of my neighbors until recently when I read his obituary.

Posted by: Bruce James | July 15, 2008 12:15 PM | Report abuse

I used to love Doonesbury, until I swicthed from being a Democrat to a Conservative. So when someone (as Garry does) has to quote "Al Franken", it shows how sad and ired he has become.

Posted by: sonny ketcham | July 15, 2008 12:29 PM | Report abuse

Sonny Ketcham: Trudeau is NOT sad and tired. He is a valuable voice in today's fragmented, corporate-owned media atmosphere.
Too bad that when you became a conservative, you lost your sense of humor. That's your problem.
Take off the idealogical blinders, OK?

Posted by: vegasgirl | July 15, 2008 1:26 PM | Report abuse

Well said, Garry Trudeau!

He remains not only a great satirist, but also the author of the comic strip with the most humanity in all the papers. If ya ask me.


Posted by: attaboy | July 15, 2008 1:53 PM | Report abuse


Loved the interview with Trudeau, and I'm ecstatic about this blog in general...looking forward to future posts. I have a post suggestion for you: what is the significance of Peanuts. I can tell from your bio "pic" and your first post that you are a Schultz fan, please tell the rest of us why WE should care. In my humble opinion, Peanuts should be preserved as an American institution, perhaps even added to the public school curriculum, but why should we continue to read it in the daily newspaper? What makes Peanuts so much greater than other strips that have long ago faded from memory? Thanks and keep up the good work.

Posted by: Omaha | July 15, 2008 4:23 PM | Report abuse

To Sonny Ketcham,

Admittedly, Trudeau is an overtly liberal voice. However, he has also poked fun at Howard Dean and Obama "followers." He has written several months worth of material addressing the issues and concerns of American soldiers, including brain injury, PTSD and frustrations with our Iraqi allies. Aside from this he wrote damn funny strips dealing with aging parents, Facebook, and nerd humor; in other words, non-political subjects. Despite what you seem to think, "Doonesbury" is more than self-congratulating liberal propaganda. I suggest reading him once in a while, you're really missing out.

Posted by: Omaha | July 15, 2008 4:53 PM | Report abuse

if nothing else, trudeau brings more welcome reality to the comics than anyone working today. he still stretches the boundaries of what a comic can be.

Posted by: zonkered | July 15, 2008 7:07 PM | Report abuse

Gary Truedope.... What can I say? I remember when Doonesbury was about Krazy Kollege Kutup Kids. Now, it's heavy handed, one note, far left political propaganda. Even the ultra-liberal Baltimore Sun moved it to the editorial page. I want entertainment (or something that comes close) in the funny papers. I don't want to be beat over the head with Truedope's smug, self-righteous hard-left politics.

Posted by: FooB Fighter | July 15, 2008 7:16 PM | Report abuse

while i enjoy cartoons, gary's work is the only one i look for in the paper. vet's enjoy his knowledge of military life through his many contacts and i can't wait till he discovers obama wants to enlarge the army and it's budget more than mccain and that he wants to stay 99 years guarding our huge embassy in baghdad and 18 permanent bases, like in korea. ron paul or mike gravel might look a lot more viable when folks realize obama is for continuing the war in iraq for over a year more and then only to draw down the numbers of troops, to be sent on 6th tours in afghanistan, until they are all gone, unless his idea of nATIONAL SERVICE IS REALIZED.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 24, 2008 2:39 PM | Report abuse

If I'm outside or away from my computer or a daily newspaper for any length of time, I get a little jittery like the last time I came off a long drug habit. I need a daily fix of Doonesbury. Without it I can't hold my gun steady and the sights are a little blurry.

Posted by: Jamo | August 1, 2008 11:05 AM | Report abuse

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