Image copyright (c) Dan Piraro 2007.
Bizarro's Dan Piraro talks about his quest to use fewer words, games he plays with his audience, and how he learned to write funny things in both the best and worst of times.
What do you think is the key to good cartoon writing?
I have this ongoing effort to create humor in fewer words because I'm very wordy. I always have been. I was that way in school. When a teacher would say to write a 500-word paper about something or other, I would write 750 just because I'm a wordy person. So something that I've done over the years, especially in recent years, is try to reduce the number of words in my cartoons just because I think it's funnier to say things simply and quickly than to over explain. But my cartoons still tend to be pretty wordy.
One of my favorite cartoonists in the world is Sam Gross. He's most notable from the New Yorker magazine. His work is just fantastic and he rarely uses words. And when he does, it's almost never more than three or four. I'd love to be able to do that, but it's just not the way I think.
There's some kind of irony in somebody who feels they write too much creating a single-panel comic.
Yeah [laughter] I know. I actually started by trying to do strips and they just were too forced. And then I started doing panels, and bang, people just liked them way better.
Ever since I was a child, my favorite cartoons have always been single-panel magazine gags without regular characters, without storylines -- a single glimpse of life, and your brain figures out what just happened before this picture or what's about to happen after it. I love that kind of humor. And so that's what I was best at.
...on the one hand, I really love starting with a blank page -- starting with nothing every day. I don't like the restrictions of having characters or storylines. But on the other hand, it makes it harder because you're starting from zero every single day -- you have nothing to build on.
Dan Piraro's Bizarro was first syndicated in 1985 and currently appears daily in around 250 markets on four continents. Bizarro won an unprecedented three consecutive Reuben awards from the National Cartoonist Society for "Newspaper Cartoon Panel of the Year" in 1999, 2000, and 2001. Since 2002, he's been nominated each year for their highest award, "Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year." In 2006, Abrams Books published Bizarro and Other Strange Manifestations of the Art of Dan Piraro, a retrospective including cartoons, fine art, commercial illustration, and images from his sketchbooks and comedy shows.
Piraro's one-man stage show, The Bizarro Baloney Show, is a multimedia performance featuring stand-up comedy, songs, puppets, cartoons, animation, audience participation, and onstage improv drawings.
Piraro also works as an activist for animal welfare, public health, and environmental concerns. In 2007 he became a regular contributor to Veg News Magazine, with a monthly humor article on vegetarianism, veganism, and animal rights. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Ashley Smith, a full-time animal welfare activist. They both sit on the board of Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary in Woodstock, NY.
On the Web: bizarro.com, fine art gallery, Bizarro and Other Strange Manifestations of the Art of Dan Piraro
I understand that to syndicate a cartoon, you first need to stockpile a large number of comics. Was that a challenge for you?
Early on it was very hard. See, on the one hand, I really love starting with a blank page -- starting with nothing every day. I don't like the restrictions of having characters or storylines. But on the other hand, it makes it harder because you're starting from zero every single day -- you have nothing to build on.
When I first got syndicated I had written maybe two hundred cartoons, most of which weren't really publishable.... So I was just out to sea. I instantly had to start writing a joke a day without fail to keep going. And that was terrifying because every joke you write, at that point you just think, "Oh my gosh, what if I only had 327 jokes? What if I was born with 327 jokes in my head and I just wrote the 326th?" You always feel like you're about to run out. But to my pleasant surprise over the years, I've noticed that it gets easier. And of course it makes perfect sense. Anything you practice tends to get easier. And so I've been sitting down and trying to make my brain jump through that hoop every single day for twenty-two years.
I used to write every single day. My creative time for writing cartoons is first thing in the morning, the first hour in the morning before my brain is too polluted.... Nowadays, in contrast, I don't write more than about twice a week. I'll sit down for an hour and I'm able to come up with a week's worth of jokes. And then I just draw whenever I get the chance. I can actually produce a week's worth of artwork in two days. And I can write a week's worth in two hours. So I've really cut down my work time to two days a week, just strictly for what appears in the newspaper.
Is there anything to which you attribute your ability to get through those early days?
Well, um, panic [laughter]. You hear about those people who work best under deadline, and I'm definitely one of them. If I don't have a deadline, I just probably won't do it.
Before I got syndicated, I wrote cartoons out of desperation to get out of the advertising business. I was just looking for a way to make a living as an artist, and commercial illustrators make a living as an artist so you'd think I'd be happy. But I wasn't. I really disliked the whole advertising game.... At some point I just thought, "Well maybe that would be an avenue for me. I'm kind of a funny guy and I can draw. Maybe I could be a cartoonist." So that was the only thing -- the self-imposed deadline of trying to get out of advertising -- that forced me to write those first cartoons.
But it wasn't anything like an idea a day. It probably took me two years to come up with 100 jokes or 150. I just did it whenever the mood hit me. And then suddenly I was syndicated and on a schedule and bam -- I had to come up with a joke a day indefinitely, without fail or I would lose my opportunity. So then the panic switched from getting out of illustrating to just keeping my job. And of course the job didn't pay enough to get me out of advertising. So then I was stuck with both. I had the panic of the deadline and I hated my day job. And that went on for years before I made enough to be able to get away from it.
If you could jump back in time, is there any advice you'd give your younger self? And is there any particularly good advice you've gotten from someone else?
I think the things that I know are things that you have to learn through experience. I don't know that I could go back twenty-two years and say, "Simplify the drawings. Make them more fluid. Get to the joke faster." Those are the kinds of things I was struggling to do all along and just needed experience to get me there.
Most creativity is a combination of instinct and practice. I'm always suspicious of anybody who has some kind of succinct advice to give, because I think it's different in all cases. Ernie Bushmiller, who did [the comic strip] Nancy, he's famous inside the syndicated-cartoon world for having said, "Dumb it down." He'd say, "You know, I like your work, but you'd need to dumb it down, dumb it down." And that was his belief -- that a cartoon needed to be excruciatingly dumb and obvious for people to enjoy it. And it worked for him. And people who love Nancy will say, "It's just so dumb, I can't resist it." It obviously worked for him. But it would not have worked for Gahan Wilson. It would not have worked for me....
I think that all great art comes from inside, and it's a combination of your own instincts and talents and the amount of practice and effort that you put into it. And eventually you get somewhere good and that becomes your secret.
Over the years, have you developed any habits or mental tricks that help you get focused and working?
Yes, and I picked this up as a kid. I noticed early on that when I would go to an art show or a gallery or a museum, I would immediately get inspired by the creative efforts of other people, and I would go home and start drawing or painting. It's just always affected me that way.
Now I do that with the Internet. I get on the Internet and I look at art and I look at comics and I look at cartoons and various websites. It's exactly the same feeling as going to a museum and then going home and drawing a picture. Something about it inspires me. And it's got to be good work.... I couldn't just pop open a newspaper and read the most boring family cartoon in there and get inspired to write. It's got to be stuff that makes me think or makes me laugh, especially. Humor's always my favorite thing.
Have you ever tried any idea-generating techniques?
To be honest, I've never come to a point in my life where I felt that I needed help, because I've typically got enough ideas to get by. The worst time for me was when I went through a divorce. I was married for sixteen years and I had a couple of kids. They were younger -- ten and fifteen. And I caught my wife cheating on me, which was a terribly painful event.
Within a couple of days, she moved out, and that was just the end of a marriage. And I didn't even know we were having trouble. It was like, Monday everything was fine and by Wednesday my entire world had fallen apart. My kids were crying. And, you know, it was just a really, really horrible time. At the time I was convinced that, were it not for the kids, I would kill myself. That's how miserable I was. And yet I had to write a funny idea every day and keep my cartoon deadline going. And it just felt like such a curse. That was the one time in my life when it was really, really hard.
And I don't remember how I got through it. I just sat down every day and forced myself to look at cartoon books and look at art books and make my mind wander into that zone and come up with something, anything that would pass for a cartoon, jot it down, draw it, send it in, and move on to the rest of the day's suicidal thoughts. [laughter]
Do you ever look back at those cartoons or do you leave them alone?
You know, I have looked back. And they're not bad. There's maybe a few less really inspired ideas than there might normally be. But for the most part they're fine. And I didn't get caught.... I was suicidal for probably six months and really miserable for another six. So there's a full year of cartoons. But honestly speaking, when I look back now, I don't think they're that different. I don't think that somebody who didn't know I was going through a personal tragedy would ever know that there was anything wrong. Somehow I managed to fake it.
And ever since then I've just thought, "Well, you know, deadlines don't scare me at all now. As long as my life isn't a complete catastrophe, I'll come up with something. I'll be able to do this." Going through that and not missing a deadline really relaxed my attitude toward my job.
It sounds like, creatively, you're now in one of the best spots you've been in.
Absolutely. I feel better about my career now than I ever have. And I'm just enjoying it more. It comes more easily. And I'm also getting nice reviews and accolades and good things are happening. So I would say I'm in a better place now than I have been all along.
Bizarro has a number of repeating symbols -- the firecracker, the Bunny of Exuberance, the Inverted Bird. Where did that come from?
The story behind it is that I started it entirely with an upside-down bird. And I did it just to entertain myself. One of my favorite things as a kid was Highlights magazine. And my favorite puzzle in there was "find this list of hidden objects in this elaborate picture." I always enjoyed doing that, and I was always good at it because I had a good visual mind.
So I was drawing my cartoons one day, this would have been in the mid-90s I guess, and purely on a whim I drew a little upside-down bird hanging underneath a countertop or something like that. And I thought, "Oh this is a fun, a little out-of-place thing. I wonder if anybody will notice." And I just sent it off and that was that.
A week later I thought, "I think I'll throw that bird in there again. That might be kind of fun for readers if they see this upside-down bird every now and then." And then the third time I did it, I started getting mail, and sure enough people were like, "Am I the only person who's written you? I'm noticing this upside-down bird. It's like the third time I've seen it. What's this about?" And I thought, "Well this is as much fun for other people as it is for me." So I started doing it regularly.
I've been told over the years that there are far more licensing opportunities in regular characters than in this kind of joke-a-day world that I live in, and that I should create regular characters. And I despise that idea. I've never been tempted to create regular characters. But in a way I thought, "Oh well, this will be sort of my tip to regular characters. I'll have regular characters [that are] out-of-place objects."
So it's primarily a way to play with your audience?
Yeah, it is. And people love it. Every single time I do a comedy show or a public-speaking event, every single time, somebody will raise their hand and ask about the little figures. And I tell them, "You know, honestly, the reason I do it is so you'll ask why I do it." It's really just something to play around with. Just to make people wonder, "What that's for? Why's he doing that?" And it's kind of worked. I've become known now as that guy who has the little pie in his cartoons.
I've fallen into your trap.
Exactly -- everybody does. That's what's fun about it. [laughter]