Today’s Guest: Bill Griffith, artist, “Zippy the Pinhead”
Is there room in prime time TV for another pinhead?
And not just any pinhead, but the original, Zippy the Pinhead? Because ready or not, he appears headed toward a cable channel near you, possibly as soon as this fall.
Bill Griffith, 53, who created Zippy as an afterthought in an underground comic book more than 25 years ago, just faxed off another script for the proposed animated show. Written with his wife, cartoonist Diane Noomin, it’s being peddled by the producers of “The Tick” cartoon.
Zippy the Pinhead is a dress-wearing, mostly bald, unshaven carnival freak who wanders the earth as innocent as a freshly-bloomed daisy, speaking in non-sequiturs and spouting socio-political commentary in his peculiar and witty cadence.
Even if you’ve never seen a Zippy strip — it appears in almost 200 newspapers — you probably have heard or even repeated his best-known contribution to the English language:
“Are we having fun yet?”
That’s right — Zippy said it first, way back in 1979. Look it up in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Now it’s on bumper sticker, in headlines, on T-shirts . . . all without enriching Griffith by one dime.
“The only time it annoys me,” he says, “is when it’s another cartoon character saying it. Like I saw it on a Garfield mug. Then I saw Dennis the Menace saying it. And the worst of all was a Ziggy T-shirt. That rankled for a few minutes.”
BILL GRIFFITH excerpt: “What makes people like something is if they reinvent it themselves; they make the character become who they think it should be. That’s why the blandest are usually the most successful. The most successful strips in America tend to be the ones that are the least challenging. Zippy is challenging. That’s not what most people want to do when they casually read through comics; they just want to get through it.”
Other familiar Pinhead sayings: “All life is a blur of Republicans and meat” and “If you can’t say something nice, say something surrealistic.”
Zippy made his first appearance in 1970 in Real Pulp Comics, a follow-up to Griffith’s work in Young Lust. His editor wanted something in that vein but with much weirder characters.
“I thought I’d do a love triangle with circus sideshow pinheads,” Griffith recalls. “That had been planted in my head years before that by seeing a movie called Freaks, a 1932 movie in which the sideshow freak characters play themselves.”
A woman “pinhead” in the film was the actual inspiration for Zippy. Griffith remembered her odd speech pattern and gave it to his own creation.
By 1976, Griffith was doing a weekly “Zippy the Pinhead” comic strip for alternative newspapers, as well as special versions for the National Lampoon and High Times. In 1985, when Will Hearst III took charge of the San Francisco Examiner, he brought with him offbeat talents such as Griffith and Hunter Thompson. That gave Zippy an extraordinary forum — and enhanced Griffith’s visibility — which led to King Features syndicating a daily version of Zippy just a year later.
“It wasn’t in my wildest dreams that I ever thought I’d be doing a daily strip,” Griffith says. “In fact, the guy who brought it to King Features quit about six months later, which made me exceedingly nervous. He wrote me a little note which made me even more nervous. It said, ‘I’m leaving for another job. I just wanted you to know what a pleasure it was bringing “Zippy” to King Features. It felt like I was leaving a ticking time bomb on their doorstep.’ ”
Luckily, the time bomb is still ticking.
“Zippy the Pinhead” will never be mainstream fare — which suits Griffith just fine.
“‘Zippy’ is sort of hard-edged,” he says. “Not Zippy himself, but the other characters. What makes people like something is if they reinvent it themselves; they make the character become who they think it should be. That’s why the blandest are usually the most successful. The most successful strips in America tend to be the ones that are the least challenging. Zippy is challenging. That’s not what most people want to do when they casually read through comics; they just want to get through it.”
Griffith, who regularly appears in the strip as Zippy’s sidekick, “Griffy,” has heard every possible explanation for why his comic strip isn’t in as many newspapers as, say, “Blondie.”
“Too much to read; too much to look at. You have to read it twice, the punchline doesn’t always appear in the last panel. Sometimes there is no punchline,” he admits. “You have to sit down with it and give it a little time. It won’t necessarily give you a reassuring chuckle or relate to common interests that everyone has.”
No kidding. Even the most devoted fans may go days without “getting it.” It can be obvious or it can be arcane and baffling. “I don’t try to consciously be obscure, but at the same time I don’t consciously try to make it work for everyone. I ask the audience to meet it halfway. As a result, I’m self-limiting it to the audience it has. But the 200 papers it’s in are 185 papers more than I ever thought it would be in. So I’m happy.”
He’ll be even happier — and wealthier — if the animated series flies this fall. But Griffith won’t get his hopes up until a deal is done. He and his wife wrote nine drafts of a live-action Zippy movie script over the last 12 years — even lining up Randy Quaid and Michael Richards (Kramer on “Seinfeld”) at different times to play the title character — only to see the project stall again and again.
“TV seems much more suitable to who Zippy is,” says Griffith, who counts “Beavis & Butt-Head” creator Mike Judge and Matt Groening of “The Simpsons” among his longtime pals. “Those friendships are now paying off because they give me lots of advice. Matt Groening told me that in terms of control and integrity, he has to remind — sometimes literally yell at — the animators that Bart’s head cannot blow up. ‘Bart is not roger rabbit! Yes, his tongue and eyes can stick out a bit, but he cannot blow up! He’s a real boy!’ ”
That’s part of the reason Griffith finally committed to paper the limitations of Zippy’s comic strip world. Even a pinhead needs to know how far he can travel before exceeding the ink limit.
“Zippy could live in a fantasy world all the time,” Griffith says, “but that would be too much whipped cream and not enough granola.”