Stephan Pastis is a big fan of Ricky Gervais, creator of “The Office” and “Extras,” and Larry David, co-creator of “Seinfeld” and creator of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” He also loves him some Cheryl Hines. As a matter of fact, I think the only reason I landed him on the show today is because I interviewed the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” co-star, and that gets him one degree closer to her.
Pastis’ “Pearls Before Swine” comic strip has twice been named Best Newspaper Comic Strip of the Year by the National Cartoonists Society, in 2004 and again in 2007, and it is that funny and that weird.
Well, Zeeba neighbors, prepare yourself for Stephan Pastis.
Stephan Pastis Blog • Pearls Before Swine website • Twitter • Order The Sopratos from Amazon.com
BOB ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: How long have the animals been talking to you?
STEPHAN PASTIS: Oh my goodness. I drew Rat in the very first strip I did back in…I drew him in law school so in 1991, I think. It goes back quite a ways.
ANDELMAN: Is there a connection between Rat being your first strip and you having been an attorney?
PASTIS: Oh boy. I think so. It’s one of those rare instances where I can actually remember where I was, what class I was sitting in when I drew him. At the time, he walked on all four legs, and he didn’t move. I would just draw this rat in the same position in six panels in a row. A lot like it is now, I guess, maybe fewer panels that I would just draw like that. Then I would just write all my thoughts for the day and give them to him, and it just seemed to have some life to it.
ANDELMAN: Has he changed that much over the years? I think I read that, by himself, he was a lot more obnoxious and didn’t quite click, but once you added Pig, it just seemed to work better.
PASTIS: I think so. When he’s by himself, he’s too much. He’s too acidic. He’ll overwhelm you. But I think when he’s with Pig, because of that friendship, you sort of assume that he can’t be that bad of a guy cause he’s got Pig for a friend. It’s a lot like what Cheryl Hines does for Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” At least until she left him, she makes him more appealing cause you figure well, there’s gotta be some soft side to Larry if he can have someone that sweet for a wife.
ANDELMAN: Now I’m sure people are wondering how I made this connection to you and Cheryl Hines. We spoke just a week or two ago, and you told me that you have some lines from “The Office” and from “Curb” up on your wall that you refer to.
PASTIS: It’s mostly from interviews. Like I’ll read stuff that Gervais, the creator of “The Office,” has written or spoken in interviews about comedy. He’s like the top of the heap right now so anything he says, to me, is golden. One of the things he says is that the key to comedy is to create a character that is arrogant and pretentious while simultaneously stupid. He calls that like the Molotov cocktail of comedy. And I think that’s really a key, and I’m conscious of that when I do the crocodiles because the crocodiles don’t think they’re lame. The crocodiles think they’re quite skilled, but they’re idiots. And so, yeah, I’ll look at those quotes now and then from Gervais to sort of remind me what comedy should be.
ANDELMAN: “Pearls,” like “LIO” and “Get Fuzzy,” they’re strips created by, I believe, friends of yours, Darby Conley and Mark Tatulli. “Pearls” exists in its own world, a place, for anyone who’s read it, where zebras live next door to crocodiles that want to eat them and a pig and a rat are apparently roommates. Where did this whole world come from?
PASTIS: That’s a good question. To me, I think that the key to creating a strip is to create it from the bottom up rather than the top down. And what I mean by that is just focus on writing individual strips, make them as funny as you can, and let the characters, the setting, all of that flow from those strips. In other words, the jokes should come first, and they will tell you what you need character-wise, setting-wise, whereas if you create it from the top down, you say, “I’m gonna do a strip where the main characters are like this and they have these jobs and they live in this town,” you’re really tying your hands. And you’ve got to do this 365 days a year so you want that canvas to be as broad as possible. So, to answer your question, I really wasn’t conscious of the world I was creating when I created it. I just did strips that I thought were funny. Even now, as a result of that, I don’t know a lot of the answers to those questions. Where do Rat and Pig live? They seem to live together. What part of the country? I don’t know. It does lead to some logistical mistakes. For example, the Zebra lives next to this Fraternity of Crocodiles, but somehow, there is this family of crocodiles with the dad, a mom, and a kid. And they don’t seem to live with the rest of the fraternity, and they’re also next door to Zebra as are the lions. So the only way I told myself that it works is that one of them is the neighbor behind Zebra’s house, one is to the side of Zebra’s house, and one is to the other side. But I’m the creator, and I’m not sure.
ANDELMAN: Are there rules that you’ve established for yourself over time? For example, in Tatulli’s strip, LIO never talks, and he doesn’t have any intention of anyone in that strip ever actually speaking, although they write notes and they watch television. What are the rules in the “Pearls Before Swine” universe?
PASTIS: I don’t have too many. I know that in an early strip I had Rat’s father die so I can’t have him have a father. I know that. When the predators talk, either the Lion or the crocs, I have to remember to do it in lower case. I really don’t have that many rules, I guess, thinking about it. Maybe there are some I can’t think of.
ANDELMAN: Well, let’s take our first call. Howard, right?
HOWARD FINBERG: Yes.
ANDELMAN: Yeah, Howard, you have a question for Stephan Pastis.
FINBERG: I do. Stephan, great strip. Love what you do.
PASTIS: Thank you.
FINBERG: I’m curious. This is a question that I see on the chat that others have as well – the whole idea of crossovers with other comic strips. Where did you get that idea? I think, of all the strips out there, you tend to play homage or take homage with a lot of other strips that are out there.
PASTIS: It’s probably because when I was a kid growing up, and I saw any sort of a crossover, and they didn’t happen very often, I just loved them. I just thought they were so fun. And when I do the strip, I’m really, I guess, just entertaining myself in some way. And since I have always liked them, I try to use them. Nowadays, I know most of the people whose strips I use so I will often run them by them beforehand to see if they’re okay with them. I don’t always do that, but sometimes I do. Like Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott, I know them well so I’ll run that by them. And Bill Keane I know well so I’ll run that stuff by him. And everybody really has been very, very cool about it, especially the Keanes. They’re terrific. Bill is great.
ANDELMAN: Howard, did you have another question, or does that answer yours?
FINBERG: Yes. I have one more question for you, if you don’t mind. It’s about the predominance of croc strips. This is a question that is really coming from my better half, my wife, who also is a comic strip fan. She sort of says what’s with the crocs? It is sort of a one-gag variation. She says well, when is he gonna get off the crocs? I guess she likes Rat and Pig a lot better.
PASTIS: It’s funny. I keep a little chart on the wall where I kind of monitor how many croc strips there are a month, and I try to keep it at about seven or eight. So this month, there’s a two-week series so next month, there’ll be less. But the crocs are by far and away the most popular characters, and they really, for whatever reason, broaden the strip’s appeal. And to those people who are in that group or came along later, they don’t like it when I go and do the Rat and Pig strips. Somebody who’s been reading it for a number of years and likes Rat and Pig like your wife, for example, doesn’t like when the Crocs predominate. You learn when you do a comic strip that you can never please everybody. You have to do what you like. But I am conscious of the fact that there’s one group that likes one and one group that likes the other. It’s always a tough balance.
FINBERG: Thanks a lot.
ANDELMAN: Thanks for calling, Howard. Howard is a huge fan. His living room, God bless his wife. I know Howard, obviously. God bless his wife because his living room is full of original comics, original strips.
PASTIS: Oh, that’s great.
ANDELMAN: Which is actually something Howard probably would like to ask and maybe other people are wondering, what do you do with your strips? Are they resold? Do you have a dealer? Do you keep them?
PASTIS: I keep them. We occasionally give them to editors. I will give them to family and friends. If I parody someone’s strip, I’ll usually give them at least one of those originals, and I’ll trade with them. It’s funny. I built quite a collection of other guys’ strips now. But yeah, I just keep them all.
ANDELMAN: I want to follow up on what Howard was asking you about, and I see there’s some buzz in the chat room as well about this. So you do tip some cartoonists off. Have there been others that you have not tipped off ahead and that you’ve heard about it later?
PASTIS: Yes, yes. I don’t know the “Blondie” creator so when I made fun of their anniversary I didn’t hear from them. I don’t even know if they’re aware of the strip. I did not tip off Cathy Guisewite when I did the first six or seven (referencing “Cathy”). I have met her now at the Reubens. She was very nice to me. I don’t think she appreciated some of the early ones, which is understandable. I think if I ever kind of crossed the line it was with how I dealt with Cathy. I think it was kind of too mean-spirited. Maybe I’m getting too soft, but I look back on it, I sort of regret that a little bit. One funny thing that nobody saw cause I pulled it, but I did a series where Rat got lost in the desert, and he ran into “Family Circus” fans. It appeared in August or September. And Bill Keane got a hold of them and was gonna kill them and something like that. Well, in the middle of that, I did a “Funky Winkerbean” parody making fun of that whole Lisa Moore storyline where she was gonna die, she wasn’t gonna die, she was gonna die, back and forth the story went. I did it, and then I thought, “Holy smokes, this is gonna draw so many complaints cause that storyline drew tons of newspaper articles, and every cancer person, survivor, family member in the world is going to write to me.” So I went back and forth, and finally, I sent the strip to Tom Batiuk, and he couldn’t have been nicer. He was great. He said, “Go with it.” He thought it was funny and the whole bit, and I gave him the original and then he gave me a couple originals, and I pulled it. At the last minute I pulled it cause I just didn’t want the flak. You learn over time that there are certain things that draw flak, heavy flak. One of them is any disease, be it physical or mental. It really draws angry response. Sex, religion, politics, diseases, flooring any ethnicity, that’ll do it.
ANDELMAN: Stephan, Messieur LaChase in the chat room has a question that kind of fits with what you were just saying. Have you ever had to substitute a strip because of a taste issue or a news event?
PASTIS: It’s happened a lot of times. One time early on Rat ran for Senate or something against a guy who had died. And right in the middle of that storyline, a Senator from, I think, Minnesota died in a plane crash.
ANDELMAN: I think you’re right.
PASTIS: I can’t remember his name right now, and I think his name stayed on the ballot. And so, boy, that had to be pulled at the last minute because readers don’t understand that these are submitted weeks in advance. So that can create a bad situation. So, yeah, those were pulled. There was one where Pig was playing in the dryer once spinning around, and that week, I think some kids had been killed or shoved in a dryer or something like that, and so that was pulled for half the country. Yeah, that does happen. One really, really unfortunate one that, boy, had the timing been a little different would have just been horrible was I had a strip where the Crocs were rooting for the death of “The Crocodile Hunter,” Steve Irwin, cause his voice drove them crazy, and then three months later he was killed. Man, if that had run that week, I think that would’ve been the end of me.
ANDELMAN: Oh my goodness.
PASTIS: Yeah, it happens quite a lot.
ANDELMAN: That’s a good one to pull. Stephan, we’ve got another caller here.
FEMALE CALLER: Hi. I just wanted to ask why some characters get names, just a few get names, and the rest are “Pig” or “Rat” or “Goat”?
PASTIS: That’s a good question. The original four, I just thought it was sort of funny to not give them names. I don’t know why. I’m sort of proud of that because people take that now, and they’ll say Rat and Pig, and they don’t think twice that that’s just an animal. It’s really not a name, and I kind of like that. But nowadays, when I add a character, I do give them names. Why have I changed? I don’t know why I’ve changed. They do. I’m thinking about it. The crocs get names. Well, the duck doesn’t really have a name. He’s called the Guard Duck so I guess that’s consistent. That’s a good question. I’ve got to go back and think about that one.
ANDELMAN: Well, Stephan, you have two children, right?
ANDELMAN: And you named them “Boy” and “Girl,” is that right?
PASTIS: I named who?
ANDELMAN: Your children. There’s “Boy” and “Girl.”
PASTIS: That would be pretty clever. Easier to remember.
ANDELMAN: Do you want to take a minute and talk about classic comic strips on newspaper pages? I know that’s a topic you hate to talk about.
PASTIS: Fire away.
ANDELMAN: Okay. Do you think there should be a statute of limitations for characters?
PASTIS: It’s hard to say. I think a comic strip is like a novel. I think there’s a reason there aren’t a lot of novels that are 3,000 pages. I think there’s a natural length to a novel, and I think there’s probably a natural length to a comic strip. But who’s to say? Herriman ran for forty years or something with “Krazy Kat,” and he was pretty darn good. Can you go for a long time? Sure. Sparky did. It is possible, but at the same time, it is disheartening. You look at a comics page and boy, the average age of the comics on a page would blow you away. Some of these started in the 1920s and ‘30s and some before then. It is hard to understand how a newspaper can continue to attract young readers when they do that, but who am I to say?
ANDELMAN: It’s interesting. I look at a strip like “Blondie,” which, to me, kind of defies logic in that, for years, I thought it had kind of dried up, and I found the last couple years I actually enjoy it a lot more, and it seems to have gotten somewhat relevant and come back. But there are strips that you just wonder are they strictly being kept on to keep some money coming into the heirs cause, obviously, the creator is long gone. Who’s to decide other than the cartoonists who want that space on the page? Who’s to decide when something has reached the end of the road?
PASTIS: It’s a really tough thing for a couple of reasons. One, okay, they do these comic polls, and when they do them, let’s say they do a newspaper-only comics poll. The people that are going to take the time to cut those things out and send them into the newspapers, stick the stamp on the envelope and all that stuff, tend to be older people. And so these older people have seen these characters for 30, 40, 50 years, and they’ve seen a young strip for two or three years or less. And so there’s a dynamic at play there where you’re just gonna lose. That’s a really tough nut to crack. So that’s a big part of the reason right there. And they do these polls, and they make no attempt, no attempt whatsoever, to do what every other poll that takes itself seriously does, which is to take stock of the demographics of who’s responding. It’s crazy. If the average person responding to a poll is sixty-two years old, what strips do you think are gonna be on that list? I could tell you what’s gonna be on that list. I don’t even know what your question is at this point, but I just went off on polls.
ANDELMAN: That’s okay. Would you prefer that editors just make a decision themselves and stop polling the audience that way?
PASTIS: Well, I’ve been able to talk to editors. I went to this features, what’s it called, American Society of Features Editors, ASFE something, and I spoke there, and I got to talk to the editors, and I got to tell them this. I said you try to do these newspaper polls. They make no attempt to do the demographics so that’s flawed. So then they say “We’ll open up to online so we’ll get young people.” And then they take no step whatsoever to stop someone from just cheating and voting thousands of times. And I don’t know why they do that. It’s basically just an invitation to cheat. It’s saying, “We’re going to put the comic in here that has learned to cheat the best,” and that doesn’t work either. So I’ve seen some papers that do it right. I’ve seen the Indianapolis Star did a poll where, if you vote online, you have to give your local phone number, and I think they inform people that they might call the number. And so that seemed to discourage fake votes so that sort of worked. But, yeah, I would prefer that they use their judgment, but it’s not a blind guess. For example, walk around a newsroom and look at the cubicle walls. What’s on the wall? What are people cutting out? What’s on the refrigerator in the break room? There’s an indicator. What’s your kid reading? What’s your wife reading? Go to Barnes and Noble and look in the comics section. What’s on the shelf? There’s a great way to do it. What are people spending their money on? What do people like so much they’ll actually spend their money on? Go to Amazon.com and go to the section called “Cartooning.” There’s one for cartooning, and there’s one for comic strips. Look at the top 50. What’s in there? There are ways to do this even if you don’t trust fully your own judgment rather than to open it up to rampant cheating online or just a lot of old people voting in a newspaper-only poll. There are ways to do it, and they don’t do it. This is a very sore subject for cartoonists, as you can tell by the length of my answer, but it’s very hard for cartoonists to take. And I think the easiest way for an editor maybe to understand that would be to say how would they like their jobs put up for a poll? Like, “Which editor do you like best at our paper? Vote and let us know. Who’s your favorite? Who’s your least favorite? And by the way, you can vote a thousand times in a half hour.” How would that make them feel? This is our job, and when you do something like that, it’s difficult to take. They don’t do that, I don’t think, with any other part of the paper.
ANDELMAN: My wife, who’s an editor at a newspaper, is probably cringing right now. Let’s go back to the phones for a minute. Howard was trying to call in. I think we’ve got him back on there. Howard, are you there?
FINBERG: I think I’m here.
ANDELMAN: Alright. Go ahead.
FINBERG: Stephan, what’s your work habit like? Tell us about your day in terms of do you get up, go to Starbucks, get inspiration, come back, or do you try to bang out a bunch of strips all at once? What’s your style like?
PASTIS: It varies, but the latest thing I’ve been doing is I drive to a coffee shop, and I have my iPod on with songs that I picked specifically, and I have it on so loud that I can’t hear anything else in the coffee shop. Usually, it’s to drown out the music they play at coffee shops. That drives me nuts. I want kind of my own music. And then I sit sort of in a corner where I can’t see people. I tend to have my back to people, and I pull the brim on my cap down real low. I know I look like an absolute freak. I know that. And then I just drink a lot of coffee, and I sit there with a notebook, and I write in script form. So it’ll say “Rat:,” “Pig:,” and then if there’s sort of a stage direction, I’ll put it in parentheses. And I just sit there, and I write like that. And for the first hour, it tends to be really bad, and I always want to get up and go home. And then after the first hour, sometimes two hours, the ideas start to come and more than not, the ideas come in bunches. So if you saw it on a graph, you’d see Hour 1: 0, Hour 2: 1, and Hour 3: 5. It just starts to all roll. And then after about three hours, I will drive home and then I draw a few. But it’s the writing I enjoy the most. When there are no ideas coming, it’s really tough, but by and large, writing is the exciting part. You never quite know what you’re going to find that day, and it’s a lot of fun. I think the only thing that really differentiates me from other cartoonists, and I’ve talked to a lot of cartoonists about this, is music. Most people like the room to be silent, and I don’t. I need the music. I need it to be really loud. So, yeah, that’s pretty much it.
FINBERG: Do you do your own inking and color work?
PASTIS: Yeah, I do. I do all that stuff. I ink them. If I didn’t ink them, they’d probably look a lot better. I ink them, and then I clean them up on the computer and add the Zip-a-tone on the computer and do the Sunday color on the computer. I think most cartoonists do that now. I know a couple like Patrick McDonnell (“Mutts”) who still does his Sundays. I think he watercolors them and then turns it into a color chart for American Color to add the color, but man, I couldn’t do that if I tried.
ANDELMAN: We have a couple people in the chat room who have some questions so I’m going to step in and ask for them. It’s funny because some people are asking questions, and then other people are answering them, for example.
PASTIS: You don’t need me.
ANDELMAN: They don’t need me either. I think they can do better themselves. When you were talking about that Minnesota Senator, the suggestion was that that was Paul Wellstone.
PASTIS: That’s right.
ANDELMAN: See, we just rely on this. And then someone asked, “Where did you get your pre-law degree?” and then the answer came: “UC-Berkeley.”
PASTIS: Yes. It wasn’t pre-law, though. My major was, as all law students I think have, is political science. Yeah, that was Berkeley. Then law school was UCLA.
ANDELMAN: Do you draw by hand? Do you use the computer? I’m trying to think of the device. I saw Chris Brown (“Hagar the Horrible”) use it.
PASTIS: Yes. I don’t know how to pronounce it, but I would say Wacom. I tried that, and I couldn’t do anything. I think Scott Adams does it on one of those and I think Darrin Bell uses one of those. He does “Candorville.” No, I just do it on paper, and I draw on a flat table, a flat, old, 80-year-old desk. Yeah, it’s pretty low-tech, but when people see the room I draw in, what they usually say is, “That’s what you draw on?”
ANDELMAN: I wonder what guys who may be listening, like Mark Tatulli and Rick Kirkman, what they use? Just my way to see if they’ll call. I know that they’re out there. One of our chat room guests says that some of their favorite “Pearls” strips involve breaking the fourth wall, and do you have any plans to do more of these?
PASTIS: Yeah, I do that a lot. It could definitely be overdone. Darby Conley said this once to me, too. He does “Get Fuzzy.” And this is really true. He writes the strip to entertain himself, and I try to do that, too. I think you have to make yourself laugh, and it’s sort of hard to do it. But anyway, one of the things that makes me laugh is that sort of stuff. I’ve seen quotes like by Bill Watterson (“Calvin & Hobbes”) and I think one by Sparky once where they say that that’s a mistake, and who am I to argue with them? But I enjoy doing it, and the response is generally favorable. I think putting myself in the strip is probably a bit weird, but I like doing it. In fact, I like it so much. Here’s the size of my ego for you. I put myself on the cover of the next book, The Crass Menagerie: A Pearls Before Swine Treasury, and I look like I do in the strip with the hat backwards and the goatee and the t-shirt, and I’m surrounded by my characters kind of creating havoc in the room. So I get to break the fourth wall on a book cover, for once, which I haven’t done before.
ANDELMAN: And when you’re in the strip, Stephan, are those the days that Darby Conley draws the strip? Because I’ve seen you reference over the years that there are certain times that he writes the strip and that he draws the strip?
PASTIS: He draws my strip?
PASTIS: He’s never drawn. He’s given me a few ideas, which I’ve used. And there was that week once where he stole a week of my strips and pasted his own characters over my characters as crudely as possible, which we thought was funny, but I know that anybody who only read “Get Fuzzy” and had no idea what “Pearls” was was just nothing but confused…I think that week had the little, tiny crocodiles attacking a zebra, and in Darby’s strip, there were little, tiny crocodiles attacking Satchel, and I don’t think that made any sense to anyone who only read “Get Fuzzy,” but we liked it. So there you go.
ANDELMAN: Here’s a comment. Someone wrote in: “Our family’s favorite four strips are ‘Opus,’ ‘Dilbert,’ ‘Get Fuzzy,’ and, of course, ‘Pearls.’ What, in your opinion, do these strips have in common, and what makes them so popular?”
PASTIS: Well, I can’t speak to mine, but as to the others, boy, those are three of my favorites as well. Berkeley Breathed was really and still is today just a great inspiration to pretty much my entire generation of cartoonists. I don’t think I’ve run into a guy who doesn’t cite him as an influence. And I’ve been lucky enough to meet him a couple of times, and I feel really lucky. In fact, I put Opus in a strip one time, and he actually sent me a “Bloom County.” In exchange, I sent him the Opus strip. So I actually have an original “Bloom County,” which I just cherish. It’s amazing.
PASTIS: So, yeah, he’s a big influence, and Darby’s just great. Darby, he can draw like crazy. He’s funny. He has a rhythm that nobody else has. The joke may or may not be in the last panel. The best line may be in the second panel. Breathed had that too a little bit, and it just makes for a very original strip. And he created characters in Bucky and Satchel that are two of the best characters created today. And, of course, Scott, I owe my whole career to. I learned how to write a three-panel strip from literally sitting in the bookstore and studying “Dilbert” books. I always tell people that, too. People that write to me and ask how to write a comic I say buy a bunch of “Dilbert” books because that’s how I learned. All four of them are edgy, too. I don’t know if that has anything to do with it, but it does seem to me that the strips that have succeeded in the last ten years have all been in the edgy category.
ANDELMAN: There’s certainly a different generation. I was thinking when you were talking about what collections are people buying. I know my eleven-year-old daughter is a huge “Zits” and “Baby Blues” fan so she’s stockpiled those books. “Dilbert” hit a high point where it was a cartoon for a while, and then it kind of tailed off, and it hasn’t quite reached that point. But there’s you and Darby and Tatulli and well, that’s about it.
PASTIS: No, there’s a lot of great strips. “Cul de Sac” is terrific. Richard Thompson, that’s a new one. In fact, I just talked to him last week. I just called him and told him how great I thought the strip was. I think “F-Minus” is great. Gosh, there’s “Agnes,” “Brevity,” “Pooch Café,” “Speed Bump.” “Coverly” is brilliant. “Bizarro,” “Rhymes with Orange.” There are lots of great, young strips. I think the revolution is on, so to speak.
ANDELMAN: Part of the problem is that most people are subject to whatever their newspaper editor puts in there because they don’t take the time to track these things online. As a matter of fact, one of the questions here is, “How do you feel about online comic readers who seek out strips online instead of in the newspaper? Is that taking money out of…”
PASTIS: That’s the great two-edged sword. When United signed me, they signed me to put me into newspapers, and then they backed out because they thought it would never sell. So they put me online to see how I would do, and when Scott Adams endorsed it, the hits skyrocketed, and I made it. That wouldn’t have happened without being online. So I don’t exist but for that. So that’s in the good category. I don’t run in Des Moines. It’s one of the biggest cities that I don’t run in. So if you live in Des Moines and there’s no online, you would never have heard of me, but because I’m online, someone there can read it, and then they can write their paper and tell them to pick up the strip. Those are the good things. The bad things are you make very little money. No one really has figured out how to do this yet, to make money online. So that’s one bad thing. Another bad thing: when a newspaper cancels you, you will get a reader writing you saying, “Hey, my paper dropped you this week, but it’s okay cause I can read you online.” You’re thinking, “No, it’s not okay because I lose money from that.” So that’s not good. So it goes both ways, and I don’t know what the answer is, and right now, I don’t think anyone else does either. It’s very confusing. What should we be doing? Should we pull off entirely and not make ourselves available online? Should we only make a week available? Should we stagger it so it runs behind what you see in the newspaper? I think King Features does that. I don’t know.
ANDELMAN: It won’t make you feel any better, but “Mr. Media” started as a syndicated weekly newspaper column that Universal Press carried about 1996 to 1998. And that was at the time they were just starting to put comics online, on the web, and they were trying to figure out what the financial model was. And part of the reason that the column ended was that they couldn’t find a way to make money online then. That was 10 years ago, and obviously, it’s still not producing revenue for you guys.
ANDELMAN: Okay. Rick Kirkman, one of the guys on “Baby Blues,” has come out of the darkness and has asked this question in the web chat. He says, “I can’t keep silent anymore. Isn’t it time that you come clean about the dirty little secret about ‘Pearls Before Swine?’ That is that you have to pay big bucks to all the cartoonists whose characters appear in your strip that allow you to do it.”
PASTIS: Oh man, where would I get those big bucks? Yes, that’s absolutely true. I pay large sums of money. Do you want to know how much I paid to each?
ANDELMAN: Yes, particularly how much you paid to Rick Kirkman.
PASTIS: Oh man. He’s a good guy. Rick’s a good guy. I’ve been to Rick’s house. He had a big, fierce, ferocious dog that scared the bejesus out of me. I’m afraid of dogs. You know when you go to a person’s house, by the way. This is a tangent. You go to a person’s house, and they have a dog, and the dog really barks. And the person pretty much always says, “Oh, he’s friendly. He just does that when you walk in. You can pet him or whatever.” And that makes me feel a little better, but since I’m afraid of dogs, it doesn’t make me feel a lot better. When I went to Rick’s house, his dog did that, right? And my heart was racing. I’ve been bitten three or four times. And my heart was racing, and I said, “Well, can I pet him?” And Rick looked at me and goes, “You better not.” And at that point, holy smokes, all I remember from that visit to Rick’s house is how scared I was of that dog. And I know he’s listening now, and he’s thinking to himself, “The dog wasn’t that scary. Stephan is a big wuss,” but I was very scared.
ANDELMAN: I’ll watch the web chat to see if he responds to that.
PASTIS: Hey, by the way, that “Baby Blues” parody, it appeared a couple years ago where I had Rat babysit the “Baby Blues” characters. And Rat was drunk, and he sent the kids on a beer run, and they ran into a gas station and killed the kid from “Zits.” That really triggered a lot of negative response, as if I had let a real person take care of real kids and had them be drunk. It was amazing. And Rick made the mistake of defending me to some people who wrote to both of us, and it seemed they were almost as mad at him as they were at me for “letting” me do this to the “Baby Blues” characters. But, yeah, it was really weird, but, yes, both he and Jerry were great about it. They’re great sports. They’re good guys despite what Rick says about me.
ANDELMAN: If you’ve ever had a question you wanted to ask Stephan, now is your chance.
PASTIS: Tell Mark Tatulli to call in. Where are you, Tatulli? Call in.
ANDELMAN: He helped feed me some questions, and of course, he introduced us so I know he’s out there. I know he’s listening. What do we have here? Kirkman answered back. He says, “I haven’t been able to do much because oh, I keep losing the connection.” Several people in the Mr. Media chat room are very fond of the “Baby Blues” parody. I want to ask you: character-wise, you were talking about your fear of dogs, and if I’m not mistaken, I think the only dog in “Pearls” is chained up and never goes anywhere.
PASTIS: Yes. He’s a new character and in fact, I just did like five more of those strips. You won’t see them till May or June. But that little dog, it’s a little dog that sits on a chain, and for whatever reason, he really resonated. You never know what characters will resonate and which ones won’t, but that guy really did. And I think it’s just that chain metaphor. I think everybody feels that, in one way or another, they’re chained to something. That’s one reason, but the second reason is that dog, his name is Andy in the strip, that dog is the only character, I guess Pig is one, but he’s really the only character that is optimistic, like really optimistic. The strip is so cynical, but that little dog really thinks that he’ll get off that chain one day. And I think, I don’t know, I think that sort of resonates.
ANDELMAN: He’s going traveling, as I recall, most recently. Didn’t he have some travel brochures?
PASTIS: Yes. He was gonna travel. And I think, I don’t know when this appears, in February or something, he gets a girlfriend, and well, I won’t give it away.
PASTIS: I almost said it.
ANDELMAN: Stephan, we’ve got another call here. Did you have a question for Stephan Pastis?
MARK TATULLI: Yeah, dammit, I thought I’d call in.
ANDELMAN: I thought I knew who this was.
PASTIS: Yeah, I do too. I recognize that smoke-filled voice.
ANDELMAN: Hey, Mark, is that you?
PASTIS: What’s going down, Mark?
TATULLI: Stephan, let me think if I have a question for you. Can you expand on the whole theory about comic polls?
PASTIS: Yes. Should I say more? Did I not say enough about that?
TATULLI: Did you get it off your chest?
PASTIS: I know. I really went off on that, didn’t I?
TATULLI: No. I agree with you a hundred percent.
PASTIS: Hey, by the way, I’m giving this strip away. Everybody’s gonna know this now, but I did a strip this week, I don’t know when it’ll appear, next summer, and Pig is holding a newspaper, and it’s a newspaper that is for comic strip characters and only comic strip characters. But the headline of the paper, if you use a magnifying glass, it says “LIO Kid Waterboarded, Won’t Talk.”
TATULLI: You made it work.
PASTIS: Yeah, I stuck it in.
TATULLI: I don’t think you can get much more out of that, I’m telling you.
PASTIS: It’s really small, too.
TATULLI: I’m not well known enough, and it would be just too inside. You’re too big to do anything.
PASTIS: I don’t know. Buddy, you’ll see it.
TATULLI: I can insult other comic strip characters with complete immunity right now cause they can’t get back at me because nobody will know what they’re talking about.
PASTIS: That’s really funny. See, Mark’s great because Mark draws more flak than me now, and he runs cover. So that’s terrific.
ANDELMAN: People on the web chat, I can see that they’re kind of wondering who we’re talking to, Stephan. This is Mark Tatulli, creator of “LIO” and also “Heart of the City.” “LIO” is one of the fastest-growing strips of the last couple years. What are we talking now – 250, 300 papers?
TATULLI: Well, let’s just say 400, shall we?
ANDELMAN: Oh, sorry!
TATULLI: Yeah, somewhere in that neck of the woods. I have no idea. It changes month to month, but it’s around the 300 range right now.
PASTIS: I’m in 1,500, Bob.
ANDELMAN: Well, Mark, it’s only been 18 months/two years. Mark, you can see this. If you look, Mark was actually the first cartoonist interviewed on Mr. Media. But, Mark, I know you’re a “Pearls” fan, obviously. You wouldn’t be calling in other than to hassle Stephan.
TATULLI: I think I’m the original “Pearls” fan. I could send it to Stephan Pastis way back when, and they said, “Look at this shit in the paper.” Oops, can I say that?
PASTIS: Can we drop the S-bomb?
ANDELMAN: You can, actually.
TATULLI: Sorry about that.
PASTIS: I would’ve done that an hour ago.
TATULLI: What is this? Flat characters talking on a wall? And I said, “People, you’re just not reading the strip. It’s great. It’s nothing like it in the paper now.” “Get Fuzzy” came out a little earlier. I think it came in 1999, I believe, and Darby really changed things up cause he had a great drawing style that reminds me of “Tintin.” I think that, if newspapers were more part of the national dialogue now, “Get Fuzzy” would be introducing new words to our vocabulary because he just comes up with new phrases that are just great. But then Stephan came along, and his strip was just so acerbic and so just that he was rude, and it was funny everyday. And that’s what just made it just great, and I thought, “Oh, this is great. This is a new way for comics coming through. This is gonna be huge.”
PASTIS: The thing is too, thank you, and now I gotta be nice to Mark.
TATULLI: I know, and that’s a real struggle for you.
PASTIS: The great part too is, with Mark coming along and like “Cul de Sac” and “F-Minus” and some of these, it is really, really opening things up. When you’re in a newspaper and you’re the only edgy strip, you just get killed. Every complaint is about you. You’re just the most hated thing. And when there’s five or six of you, there’s safety in numbers. And so that’s one great thing about having someone like Mark on the page, and another great thing is the more of these edgy strips you have, the more likely that the paper will draw young readers and all the better for you if you have sort of a young, edgy strip. So, yeah, we need more like that.
TATULLI: And what I’ve noticed, too, is that editors, as they become younger and, I guess, more hip to the kind of strips that we do, is they defend us a lot stronger now. When there’s a comics poll, I’ve noticed, and my strip is not volunteered as one that will be dropped, older readers will call in and volunteer and say, “Why don’t you get rid of ‘LIO’? Get rid of ‘LIO.’ Get rid of that crap. I don’t know what that is.” But the editors will come to my defense so I think they’re catching on. And it’s a tough process because they don’t want to lose their old readers, but at the same time, they want to attract new ones.
PASTIS: To add to what Mark is saying, I do think that change is happening. I do think that newspapers are now pretty much well aware that they are losing, I think it’s about three percent every six months, so they’re losing quite a few readers. And I think what that is, I’m not an expert on newspapers, Bob, maybe your wife could say more about this, but I think what it is is just a factor of the older people passing on and not being replaced by a younger reader. So they are learning that they need to take a shot at really attracting these younger readers. And so you are seeing some of the legacy strips go and some of the younger strips coming along. At a minimum, what you’re seeing is editors who are trying to balance the page. Do a few strips that appeal to older people and some that appeal to younger people. So, yeah, it’s happening.
ANDELMAN: Stephan, let me ask you while we have Mark on the line. I know there was news in the last couple months that “LIO” was optioned, I believe, for a movie, and congratulations to Mark on that. Is there any action, and this came up in the web chat too, is there any action on maybe a “Pearls” cartoon or movie?
PASTIS: It’s really weird. Mark knows about this. I talked to him about it. But in July, August, September, October, for whatever reason, I started to get contacted by producers. And it happened a little bit in the past, but a bunch of them hit all at one time, and I don’t know how that happens. I don’t know if your name gets bandied about somewhere or something, but for whatever reason it happened, and they all seem to want to do the same thing, which is something related to TV. And I think I’m a little more leaning toward movies because I kind of like to write the script, and TV, you almost have to live in Los Angeles if you’re going to do that. It’s a lot more ongoing work. So I don’t know. I’m kind of keeping everything open right now, and I would like to animate it one day. I think that would be pretty fun, and I am, as we speak, trying to write a movie script. It centers largely around the crocodiles, but yeah.
ANDELMAN: Well, then that matches up well with a question that came up on the web chat and that is, “What do the crocs sound like?”
PASTIS: Oh, man. You know I hate to do it because then I influence people, and I know everybody has a different take. I have probably had 60 different ethnicities suggest it to me, and all of them think they know for sure. The most common I hear is Cajun, but to be honest with you, I don’t really know what a Cajun accent sounds like so I can’t say whether those people are right or not. But, yeah, that’s a very common question.
TATULLI: I’m gonna duck out of here now.
ANDELMAN: Alright. Hey, Mark, thanks a lot for calling.
PASTIS: Thank you, Mark.
TATULLI: My pleasure. I’ll talk to you. Bye.
ANDELMAN: Take it easy. Well, that was nice. That’s kind of a twofer for people listening, I think.
PASTIS: That is a twofer. Now if Cheryl Hines will call in, my day will be made. She’s not gonna call in is she, Bob? It’s not gonna happen.
ANDELMAN: I’m working on connecting you. I’ve got the wheels turning on that.
PASTIS: I’ll even take a Jeff Garlin.
ANDELMAN: You need two Jeff Garlins for one Cheryl Hines. In terms of adapting “Pearls” for another medium, what about the comic book like the Bongo adaptation of “The Simpsons”?
PASTIS: I would like to do that. It’d be so much work. The other thing that I’m trying to do is I’m trying to write a book, sort of like Scott did with The Joy of Work and all that, sort of my perspective on life but then fill it with a lot of strips that sort of illustrate the stories I’m telling. It’s not what you’re saying, but it is something different. It’s hard because when you’re a comic strip guy, you have pretty much full control. My editors don’t say very much to me. And when you go into any of these other realms, even writing a book, you walk into a little more editorial supervision in terms of, I don’t know, your editor is sort of a partner on the book. When you start doing screenplays, then you really give up a lot of control, and it’s hard. Comic strip guys, if they have one thing in common, well, other than depression, I suppose, is I think we’re control freaks, and we’re all juvenile. We all drink a lot. We have a lot of things in common, but I think we’re all control freaks. I think that’s one of the things. We are all control freaks.
ANDELMAN: You’ve often said that Rat is closest to you, and I assume you mean that personality-wise. So I wondered who do some of the other characters get aspects of their personality from?
PASTIS: In the couple times I ever got to talk to Sparky, I asked him that question about “Peanuts,” and he said that they were all parts of him. And I didn’t really understand the significance of that until I did my own comic strip, and that is so true. What he said to me was, “You can’t write one based on someone else because you don’t know anyone else well enough to really get inside the character. And you’ve got to live with these characters for years.” So, like I said, I didn’t know the significance, but when you start to do a strip, you realize that they have to be sort of based on you. So they’re really all me. Goat is me. I read a lot. I read a lot of history books. I’m a little bit cynical. Rat is the most natural voice. If I had my way, I’d probably write only for Rat all the time. It’s just a voice that’s easy for me. Pig is, I guess, the sweeter side of me which rarely shows itself, but that’s me, too. The crocodiles, I will actually walk around the house talking like that, annoying as that may sound. Zebra, I don’t know who Zebra is. I guess that’s me. The duck is me to the extent I can’t stand a lot of my neighbors. I don’t sit out there with a bazooka but something to that effect. So that’s sort of me. They’ve all kind of got to be you.
ANDELMAN: I think you mentioned that Andy, the dog, was the most recent character added.
ANDELMAN: Do you have any other characters coming in the next year?
PASTIS: I keep wanting to do this monkey. Monkeys are the greatest animals. And I have a boy. I have a character who’s a cross between a boy and a monkey, and I love the way he looks, and I just can’t work him in. I haven’t been able to figure out a way to work him in. I think he’s called “The Boy Who’s Just Barely a Monkey.” I think that’s what he’s called. And I really want to work him in, and I haven’t figured out a way to do it yet. There’s a cat who you’ll see more of next year. He’s Zebra’s cat. He was really popular. I’m trying to think. I know I’m leaving somebody out that I just created, and I can’t…
ANDELMAN: I think if you’re going to do the monkey character, you’re going to need as much space for type as the pajama diaries usually has. It’s just that fraction of art, and everything else is text.
PASTIS: Yes. Yes.
ANDELMAN: Hope you get that title in.
PASTIS: That’s true. That is quite a long title.
ANDELMAN: You mentioned that you are working on a book, and you already mentioned Bill Watterson. Do you ever have that day when you think, “You know what? I’d like to take three months off or six months off and not do this for a while.”
PASTIS: Like last Thursday, I really hit a wall. Boy, I’ll tell ya! Any cartoonist you talk to, they’ll tell you this exact same thing: There are days where you look at what you’ve done, you go, “Oh, I will never be able to do that again. It’s over. I cannot think of one idea. I’m in the wrong profession.” I mean it. I’m saying it kind of jokingly, but it’s over. And it is a horrific feeling, and it hits. It usually hits during days when I’m down, and you can’t do anything. And on those days, yeah, you think that. But you think three months isn’t enough. You need a year, but there are other days like Saturday where I wrote, and it just flowed. There were five or six, and it was just a dumb little drawing. I drew a croc in a circle, and the circle looked like he was standing in a sewer. So I thought, you know, I’ve never put them in the sewer lines before. I could probably riff off of that somehow, and that turned into a week of strips where they tried to get into the Zebra’s house through the sewer. By the way, anyone listening, you don’t have to read the strip for the next year because I’ve given away every single plot line. But, no, there are some days where you hit it and you go, “Wow, that’s terrific.” But I will say that, maybe it’s because I was a lawyer for nine years, but I really love doing it. I don’t always love drawing it. Drawing is hard for me, but I really, really love writing it. That process is so…I would do it if I wasn’t paid. I would do it as a hobby. I would do it because I love to do it. That’s always infuriating. If you’re syndicated, you get guys that write to you and say, “Oh, you got this idea from this TV show or this comic strip or whatever and you’re stealing your ideas.” That’s such a strange concept to me. It’s like someone who enjoys fishing, running to the grocery store and buying a salmon. Why would you do that? It’s the act of doing it that you love, and I love writing.
Great interview. I hope he doesn’t stop writing like the creator of Calvin and Hobbes and Far Side did. I worry because the best ones always quit young.
Thanks for the link
Great detailed insightful interview.
Especially thankful for the Transcript because reading it is lot easier than downloading MegaBytes of Audio.
So glad you also post the Text Version.
i am a last-minute expert. therefore, this interview helped me tons considering i have some notes due tommorrow, which i chose to do the topic of “How do the writers of the Sunday comics get their inspiration and what makes them each different?” wait, do they even call themselves writers? oh, gosh. i hope so because that’s what i told my teacher…anyway. i got off track. great interveiw. hundreds of thanks.