The following is an excerpt from a presentation by Jules Feiffer at the New York State Museum on April 30, 1987. Feiffer visited Albany as a participant in the New York State Writers Institute's Visiting Writers Series.
Back in the early Fifties, before I was drafted into the army during the Korean War, I wanted no more than to do six daily strips and a Sunday page and do something the equivalent of "Peanuts" or "Pogo" or any of the other strips I admired. What changed that was getting drafted and discovering that there was a world outside my Jewish family in the Bronx, or my oppressive teachers in the Bronx, or the Bronx in general. What there was was this world of mindless authority as represented perfectly by the United States Army, where it became clear really for the first time in my life that these people really didn't care about me. In those days, and I'm sure they do it now, they didn't talk about men, they talked about bodies. "We need twelve bodies to go down to the firing range, and clean up the targets."
And the sense of depersonalization, the sense of stupidity, the sense of arrogance among people who had no right to be arrogant, threw me into such a juvenile and I guess truly adolescent dither, that I had no way out short of desertion, suicide or drinking myself numb, but to write my way out of it and draw my way out of it. And that thrust me suddenly into the world of satire. I did a cartoon, a long cartoon story, about a four-year-old boy named Monroe who got drafted into the Army by mistake and tried to convince the authorities that this was a mistake, that he was four, and they didn't believe him. And by the end of the book they've convinced him that he's wrong and they're right.
The act of doing Monroe changed my view of what a cartoon should be or what my career should be. I knew that I couldn't go back to the commercial world of comic strips which had to please editors of newspapers and had to please editors of syndicates and where you could not seriously comment, truly comment, on the world in which I was living. And the world in which I was living did not appear anywhere that I saw in print. It certainly didn't appear in the daily papers. So I decided I would try to write books of cartoons, just like Monroe, or books on the bomb, or books on other issues that bothered me. Books on relationships. And I did a few of these and got nowhere.
There are several things that publishers tell you. In some way it's a sign of hope when you're very young if they say, "You're very close, we like it very much, it's not quite good enough. If you do a couple more we think you'll have it." But they weren't telling me that. If they told me that, I'd go home and fantasize the next one and say, "I'll really get them this time." But what they were telling me in those days was, "This is terrific. We don't know how to publish it. We won't publish it. We don't think anyone would buy it. It's a shame your name is not Saul Steinberg or William Stieg. Then we could publish it." So what they were telling me was, the work was terrific but the problem was me, I wasn't famous enough for them to publish me. So I had to find a way of becoming famous in order to get my books published. And I didn't know then that you could commit suicide and that was a wonderful form of self-promotion and get things published that way. Instead I went to The Village Voice, which was just beginning then, and showed them my work, and they liked it very much and we reached an agreement where they agreed not to pay me and they also agreed not to edit me. That was the best deal I'd ever been offered. And I arrived at the present form of the cartoon simply because I found it much too difficult to take the books I had done and break them down into sequences that would make any sense in the six or eight panels I had space for in the newspaper. So I decided to do a few introductory cartoons before starting on the books and thirty years later I'm still doing the introductory cartoons. And so, the notion of what I have finally arrived at The Voice wasn't an overt choice, but something I stumbled into, and that's exactly how I got into theater.
People were always telling me in the early years of the cartoons that these cartoons are really theatrical, they are truly real, this is the way people really behave, they'd be a natural on the stage. And finally I let myself be convinced, and they were put on the stage in Chicago, and I thought they were awful because they were more cartoony than they were on paper. They were less real than they were on paper, and it seemed to me that the cartoons as cartoons had no place on the stage, and that if I was ever going to put anything on stage again it would have to be a real play. I would have to write a play.
But I had no intention of writing a play, ever, because I loved theater, went to theater a lot, and what I had found out over a period of years is that plays I loved closed in a week, and the plays I didn't love were hits. And I thought that if I ever wrote a play that I really liked, it would probably close in a week. I had enough masochistic urges in other areas not to want to go into theater and really bleed all over the floor. I went into the theater nevertheless, against my will, because something happened... the assassination of John F. Kennedy. That plus the following week, Ruby shooting Oswald, gave me such a sense of profound depression and upset. Not so much because of the fact of Kennedy's assassination, which was horrible enough. Kennedy, as a president, meant little to me. I had attacked him even before he was in office. But because of what it said to me about the country. I felt that Kennedy plus Ruby and Oswald signified a country on the verge of a national nervous breakdown. It told me something I didn't want to know and didn't know how to express, and I tried expressing it in cartoons, and it never seemed, because of the space and the limitations, to get across what I really wanted.
So I started work on what was going to be a novel called Little Murders, that was going to speak to this deep feeling that I had, and I hoped to expiate it. Well, I spent something like three or four years on this novel-- it was my second novel, I had written one before. The first novel, Harry, the Rat with Women, was very simple, it was very straightforward. It was fine as far as it went, but it didn't really prove I could write a novel. I was going to prove it with this book, so there were about six or ten pages on descriptions of snow. I felt that people really should know what snow looked like from my point of view. And endless nonsense like that. And I just got into a logjam on the book. The snow didn't take me very far. And I'd forgotten what the hell I was writing about. And four years later I had this mess of pages and nothing to do with it. I couldn't figure out what the hell I was doing.
So I went off to Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, looked at everything I had written over the years, discovered what a mess it was, because I had not really read it altogether at that point, went into town, got a bottle of scotch, finished that, got up the next morning, realized I couldn't go home the next day because I'd had a farewell party there the day before. So I decided, the hell with it, I would try to dramatize these characters, at which point, after a couple of days, I discovered to my surprise, amazement and utter joy, that I was a playwright. And that I enjoyed the theater form as much as any form since I first started drawing cartoons. I felt at ease with it. I felt wonderful about characters getting into trouble so I could get them out of it. I found no anxiety at all about getting into boxes I couldn't get out of because I was utterly confident I could find a way out of it. There was just a sense of certainty I had about the play form that I never had about the novel, never had in any way, manner or form. And although I knew that as the play was going on that it was probably going to close in a week, the fate of it seemed not to have anything to do with the act of committing it.
Well, the play got on. It would open on Broadway on the second night of Passover. I was accosted by a gossip columnist on the street afterwards in absolute fury, and he said, "How can you use language like that on the stage on the second night of Passover?" The critics agreed with him. The play closed the following Saturday. And I was proven right. But it didn't seem to matter. When the New York Times asked me how I felt about the flop of my first play I said, "I'm just gonna keep bringing it back until you guys get it right." Well, the play came back, first in 1969, in a very successful off-Broadway run, and it is now (1987) about to be revived, it's opening again in New York next week for the first showing in 18 years, and it's a wonderful production.
As I said, theater was not something I had intended to get into, and I might have been blessed not to get into it because, having become an addict, I seem to be an addict without an audience. There's something strange that's happened to the theater audience in the twenty or twenty-five years since I've been writing plays, and that is that the sense of a unified audience, of speaking to a constituency, has disappeared, and audiences have become so splintered, so fragmented, that there's no sense of need anymore. When I was writing Little Murders, I thought, "This has to be heard. This has to be seen. I have something important to say." And there was some knowledge of an audience being there who could receive this message.
Now, when I think I have something important to say, I can't figure out who'd want to hear it. And often there's a sense of discouragement about getting into it at all, and I will proceed, but with a willful suspension of reality, knowing that this will probably disappear because the people aren't there to receive it. And so it makes doing this work harder. There was never money in theater, never much for the sort of things I write, and now it's harder because there's less of an audience. And I find that, oddly enough, over the years, my first form, the cartoon, which decreased in importance as I wrote first for theater and then for films, has taken on greater importance to me. And the audience there seems to be stronger and better than it has been in years.
Screenwriting is almost always a thankless form because however good a script one writes, you are the creature of the studios and the director. Unlike the theater, where the writer owns the play, in films it's the studio that owns the screenplay. And I'm sure it will not happen, but it would be quite possible for William Kennedy to be fired off Ironweed if they decide they don't want it to go in his direction. And he can say nothing about it. That's the way it works. They give you a lot of money and they give you no rights, as opposed to the theater, which gives you no money and all the rights. And what American writers tend to do, because they have little choice, is to go back and forth between these forms making a living out of films and doing their serious work in either fiction or theater. Occasionally, a movie will come together and be absolutely wonderful and that's rare, but mainly what screenwriting is about is the director wanting a bunch of lines to take his character from the burning car wreck into the helicopter, and have the characters say one or two things to each other before the next crisis.
After the presentation, a reading from the play, "Elliot Loves," and a discussion of individual drawings and cartoons, Feiffer answered questions from members of the audience.
Q: What do you read to stay informed in order to write your cartoons?
A: Less and less. It doesn't seem to really take very much to be informed any more. I just have to remember what happened thirty years ago and then I write it set for today. It seems to me that the tragic and dispiriting part of the present time beginning with the Reagan years is that it seems to be a rerun of the arguments that I lived through most of my adult life. And it doesn't take reading the newspapers to be informed, it takes reading my diary and remembering what I said twenty-five years ago. Other than that, I read what everybody reads: The New York Times and a couple of journals. But I also depend very much on National Public Radio and shows like "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered."
Q: What's your opinion of newspaper strips like "Doonesbury" and "Bloom County"?
A: Well, I'm a fan of both. But I don't think Berke Breathed should have gotten the Pulitzer Prize for cartooning. There are people like Tom Toles out of Buffalo, Doug Marlett in Charlotte, North Carolina... we are in a very good time for political cartoonists. There's some very good work being done. And Bloom County, which as I say I enjoy, is mainly like Johnny Carson wisecracks. It's not what the form is about or should be about. I like Trudeau's work better, but I think his work is tougher, stronger, more political, more pointed and I think he's quite courageous.
Q: How do you break into cartooning nowadays?
A: I wouldn't know how to begin breaking into it. I didn't know how then. I certainly don't know now. I think the only way you do it is to do anything. You go around and take your lumps and sooner or later, assume you're gonna wear them down. If you're good, that generally happens. But you can't start with the top papers, the top magazines, the top publications. It's good to begin with the alternative press, and don't worry about making money. You're not gonna get any for a long time.
Q: How do you keep your material fresh?
A: It's a good question and it's something I thought about from the very first day I started. You know, I watched people I was crazy about like Al Capp and Walt Kelly, makers of brilliant strips, burn out after 12 years. And it seemed to me the reason was these men were expected to be brilliant seven days a week, six days and a Sunday page, in a way that no other creative artist was expected to. And I knew that if I wanted to last, and I really did want to last, I couldn't do better than they. I couldn't do six dailies and a Sunday page, so from the start in syndication when they tried to get me to do more, I said I would only do one a week. The catch there was that doing one a week only took a day and a half, and then I had all these other days and it got a little boring, and I was getting bored with even doing that, and I think the work was suffering. And until I started writing plays, I don't think the work got good again. I think there's a feedback that goes on between work in different forms. I work on a system of avoidances. If I have a cartoon deadline, I work on a play and if I have a play deadline, I'll work on a screenplay. And I'm always keeping myself from finishing what I'm supposed to do at that exact moment, and that somehow keeps me alert, alive and on the run.