The 'Riffs Interview: GENE WEINGARTEN, New Cartoonist, dares to attempt comic pearls before breakfast
I have held a newborn and I have birthed a syndicated comic strip. One of them is an all-consuming act of procreation that tries every fiber in your fatigued being as you labor to feed and nurture your yawping spawn that is never full as the eyes of critical onlookers monitor your every move and utterance and decision.
The other creation is a newborn baby.
I've been a newspaper cartoonist for some 18 years and been a syndicated cartoonist for roughly half that, so it is with a paternalistic smile and hard-won knowing that I watch The Post's Pulitzer-winning humor columnist, GENE WEINGARTEN, prepare to launch the new comic strip, "Barney & Clyde" -- which fittingly, somehow, will be co-written by Dan Weingarten. Dan is not only Gene's child; the germ of the strip is also Dan's brainchild.
The strip, which will be drawn by David Clark, is -- at its center -- about the "accidental friendship" between a billionaire and a homeless man (the titular Barney and Clyde), who trade in real-life wisdoms and wry observations. According to its creators, the strip -- which features 11 (count-'em-11!) characters -- is also "about our modern, polarized economy of haves and have-nots, reexamining traditional measures of success, failure, and happiness."
As The Washington Post Writers Group debuts the strip next Monday in several papers -- including right here in The Post -- Comic Riffs caught up with Weingarten the Elder to discuss the demands of writing funny doodles instead of funny columns; how to take blunt feedback from such comical friends as Garry Trudeau and Dave Barry; and how he fully expects this to be "payback time" for his critics, some of them being syndicated cartoonists who have felt the sting of Gene's online-chat barbs.
As the oft-cheeky Gene says now: "People like me, who presume to critique comic strips, are anuses."
NOTE: Weingarten will also be one of the dozen "celebrity judges" for The Post's "America's Next Great Cartoonist" Contest, whose entry deadline is today. Yes, today. So if you haven't entered already: What, exactly, are you waiting for?
MICHAEL CAVNA: So writing a humor column and doing online chats and authoring books and working on screenplays are just not enough for you, eh? You felt compelled to create a DAILY syndicated comic strip, too? What was your thinking -- and may we have some of whatever you are currently on?
GENE WEINGARTEN: The trick is to do a lot of things, but do none of them well.
MC: You've worked with Dave Barry and David Simon ("The Wire") and now "Barney & Clyde" artist David Clark. When it comes to co-writing projects with men who aren't your son, do you only work with guys named "David"? Or do only guys named "David" simply feel called to work with you?
GW: I've always had a single-name rule for my creative partners, but failed miserably for years. It turns out I'd made a really boneheaded mistake. Do you know how hard it is to find talented guys named Throgmorton? Once I switched to "David," it got a lot easier.
MC: So what was the genesis of "Barney & Clyde" -- how did you come to sire this strip"? And speaking of siring: Can you tell us exactly how this brainchild came from YOUR child?
GW: In my online chats, I appointed myself comic-strip critic, so over the years, I've angered -- but also befriended -- a lot of cartoonists. One day several years ago, one of them sent me samples of a new strip he'd come up with. I really respect this guy -- he's a giant -- but didn't like the strip much. When I showed it to Dan, he agreed with me, but went even further. He began tearing it down from all angles: Conceptual, artistic, philosophical, epistemological. He went on so long, and in such detail, that I actually got angry and accused him of intellectual impertinence. He was 20 years old, a college dropout, a slacker still living in my basement, and here he was presuming to criticize a veteran cartoonist. It's very hard to conceive of a new cartoon strip, I said, and the hubris he was showing was appalling.
Dan sort of shambled back into his room, sulking, and I went back to my computer, angry. A couple of minutes passed when he came back in and said: "You know what would be a good idea for a strip? A friendship between a billionaire and a homeless person." Then he walked out again.
I just sat there for a minute, then stood up and walked over to a calendar on the wall of my home office, and I circled the date. It was April 28, 2005. That was the birthday of "Barney & Clyde."
MC: So are Barney and Clyde based on people close to you in real life -- perhaps as close to you as, well, YOU? As Chuck Jones used to say, every character of his possessed a side of himself. And from where do you draw inspiration for the strip?
GW: Yes, Barney is me because I am a billionaire, too, as you are, as are most of us who work in journalism.
Actually, the only character who is clearly drawn from real life is Cynthia Pillsbury, Barney's 11-year-old daughter. She is a cynic, an iconoclast, a renegade artist, and a person highly suspicious of, and resistant to, authority figures. She is Dan at 11. Many of the anecdotes involving Cynthia really happened to Dan.
MC: How many papers is the strip launching in? And as it debuts, are you guardedly optimistic? Professionally pessimistic? Some fuzzy mix of both?
GW: To the best of my knowledge, it is launching in exactly six papers, which, as you know, is a lie - an agreed-upon industry lie. Comic strips count daily and Sunday contracts separately. So, basically, we're starting in three newspapers, daily and Sunday. That's the bad news. The good news is they are The Washington Post, the Miami Herald and the Chicago Tribune. It's a very odd launch: Very few papers, but huge ones. At least one other very large paper is reportedly going to pick it up in midsummer, which raises an interesting question: Can we persuade them to start it at the beginning, then pick it up in progress after the establishing two weeks? We hope we can.
MC: Will this Sunday's Post Hunt feature any conspicuous product placement for "Barney & Clyde"? And speaking of: Which character do you nominate for your first plush-toy release?
GW: That's easy. If you look at our promo material, you will see that we created one character ONLY for his licensing potential. That would be Fluffykins McNeedsahug, Clyde's adorable pet rabbit. Fluffykins exists solely as a cynical marketing ploy. Even his name is a gimmick: "Fluffykins" is a pseudonym to make him seem cute. His real name is Adolf. And he is very horny.
MC: Have you shown the strip to Dave Barry, Garry Trudeau or any other of your comically lofty friends? If so, did they have feedback?
GW: Garry has seen it, and ["Cul de Sac's"] Richard Thompson, too; I asked them to be blunt, and they were. They had some positive things to say, some negative things to say, and some valuable pointers on character development. Garry suggested one particular surprise plot twist that we're going to be doing. Look for it on your newsstands around Week 15.
MC: Since so many syndicated comics get sold and marketed as a "type," we're compelled to ask: What kind of niche do you see "Barney & Clyde filling on the comics page? Also: Whom do we credit/blame for the punning title?
GW: I HATE the trend toward the marketing of comic strips by their supposed demographic appeal. It saddles us with all these marginal products that survive not on their quality but on their perceived niche audience. Yech. Having said that, I believe "Barney & Clyde" was sold on its deft appeal to an economically polarized society. The title, alas, was mine.
MC: You're a true student of humor. Has writing a daily strip with your son put any of your ideas, theories or long-held opinions about humor writing to the test?
GW: I have decided that people like me, who presume to critique comic strips, are anuses. Some websites operated by cartoonists are already gleefully savaging "Barney & Clyde," even though no one has seen it yet. Clearly, it's payback time.
MC: Can you speak to how you found David Clark, and what about his style won you over?
GW: He was suggested by Richard Thompson, who is a friend of David's. And we knew he was right the minute he showed us the characters of Barney and Clyde. It was an almost moving moment. Dan and I thought: Wow, there they are. It's as though David sneaked into our brains, saw what we were thinking, and suddenly gave them life. Think ... Pinocchio.
MC: What do you hope readers will get and appreciate from "Barney & Clyde"?
GW: We hope that whether they like it or not, they will see that we're trying very hard, and not taking them for granted. We also hope that they will make an ENORMOUS, HELLACIOUS stink if their newspapers ever unwisely decide to drop it.
GW: Tragically, no.
| June 4, 2010; 7:30 AM ET
Categories: Interviews With Cartoonists, The Comic Strip | Tags: Barney & Clyde,, Dan Weingarten, Dave Barry, David Clark, Garry Trudeau, Gene Weingarten, Richard Thompson
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