Interview with Stephan Pastis–Part 1Posted: February 6, 2013
In the mid-1990’s, Stephan Pastis was a successful lawyer in San Francisco. It would’ve been great if it weren’t for the fact that he despised being a lawyer. To break from the stress of his day job, Pastis began cartooning at nights and on weekends and submitting comic strip ideas to syndicates across the country. Lucky for us, in 1999 Pastis finally ditched his lawyer’s suit and briefcase after a syndication deal with United Media. His strip, Pearls Before Swine, now appears worldwide in about 600 newspapers. His latest book, Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made, is coming out later this month.
Kevin Sheil: For starters, why do you love what you do? Why do love being a cartoonist?
Stephan Pastis: It’s one of the rare commercial art-forms where you have total control over everything. So if you’re sort of control freakish, which I think is a common denominator of most cartoonists, that’s appealing. Whatever you can think of that morning is what goes into the paper. It’s a pretty G-rated field, which can be restricting, but if you can play within those rules, you have pretty much total control.
KS: What did cartooning have that other platforms, say, novel writing, did not?
SP: I think a cartoonist is someone who has this weird combination of skills. They can write a little bit. In theory, they can draw a little bit and that’s why we choose it, or I guess it chooses us because that’s what we can do.
KS: Do cartoonists share personality types? Having met and worked with other cartoonists, is there a certain kind of person that tends to do this?
SP: Yeah, I think they’re the kind of person that, if you were in a bar and wanted to pick up women, they are the last person you’d want to be with. They are, on the whole, shy, awkward in social situations, smart, open minded. Interestingly, not always funny in person. Most people expect them to be funny and that’s rarely the case. There are a few of them that are, for sure, but most of them are not.
They are loners, by and large. You have total control in this field and by that token, you’re alone most of the time. You spend most of your day as I am now, in a room by yourself. Sometimes the only voice you hear is on the other end of a phone, when you order a sandwich from the grocery store.
KS: How does the process start for you?
SP: If I think of new ideas at home, I’ll write little notes and leave them all over the house. Then when I go to write–usually in a café–I’ll take those little notes, which are kind of step one, and then I’ll turn them into a strip. I pretty much know, based on the quality of the note, whether I’ve got something there, and then it’s just a matter of working it into something that I know is funny. If I don’t have any notes and I’m doing it cold, I’ll definitely have days where I go 3 hours and not come up with anything. Then there are other days where circumstances in the café are perfect and you can come up with 5 and it’s like you’re barely trying. The whole process is very brain chemical induced. Unfortunately so much of it is beyond your control. I try to control as much as I can, but there are going to be days where you’re just not very good.
KS: Do you usually get a family member or someone for a second opinion?
SP: No, never. I used to run them by my son and get a vote but at that point they were already done. But no, I don’t trust anyone else because if you do that and you listen to the person, inevitably that person is going to become your coauthor. If I were to run it by somebody, I would subconsciously try to please them, so it wouldn’t be my strip; it would be our strip, and I don’t want that. The beauty of the comic strip is, it’s so individualistic. It’s just you. So the weirdness in my head, or the strange predispositions all come out. Sometimes for good, sometimes for bad, but always my voice.
KS: I read the story of when you met Charles Schulz. You were still a lawyer at this point, and you took the day off work to meet him. Why that day?
SP: I was in the middle of a terrible, shitty case. It was the only time I was ever a plaintiffs lawyer and there were like 20 defense lawyers against us. It was just one nightmarish day after another. I had read an article in an independent weekly paper in San Francisco about CS, and it was about what he’s doing these days. It mentioned that he was going to this café each day to have his breakfast and the café was attached to this ice rink. So I asked my wife directions and took the day off work–which may have been literally the only day I just plain took off work–just on the off chance that the article was right and that he would be there. He didn’t show up for an hour and then he finally did.
KS: What’d he say to you?
SP: I waited for him to finish his breakfast and then I knelt beside his table and said “Hi Mr. Schulz, I’m Stephan Pastis and I’m an attorney.”
He was taken aback because he thought he was being served with a subpoena. And then I said “I also cartoon.” And the minute he heard that, he cleared off the seat next to him and we sat together and we talked for an hour. It was unbelievable how kind he was. And he asked if I had my stuff, which was very nerve-racking. He was very nice, despite my shitty drawings and we took a picture together. He gave me advice on it and, yeah, it was crazy…
I’ll tell you a story I don’t usually tell…When I got syndicated, when I signed the contract, so I wasn’t in papers–I wasn’t even close to papers–my editor who was also Schulz’s editor invited me to meet him (Shulz) at this big Peanuts ice skating show they did every December.
So I said “yeah, I’ll go,” but as fate would have it, Sparky (Shulz’s nickname) had just checked into the hospital for cancer. He was dying. It looked like he wasn’t going to be there for the show. I told the editor I was going to go anyways because it looked like it’d be fun. And lo and behold, it turns out that day he got out of the hospital. And I was with his editor so I got to talk to him, which was a thrill in and of itself, but what was really weird was that Sparky’s daughter walked up to me and the editor and said “I got tickets for the show sitting next to Dad, but I’ve seen this a million times so do you guys want them?” and I said “yeah!” (laughs)
So I went from not thinking I was gonna see Sparky at all to sitting next to him the entire show, and when it was over, he turned to me–and the audience was all applauding to You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown–and he turned to me and he said “you do that,” which I took to mean create a character that people like like that. But then he said “you do that for the next 50 years,” and he just started crying. It was no reflection on me as a cartoonist. He didn’t even remember that he had met me and he hadn’t seen the strip that got syndicated. It was just a weird thing to say to somebody who, as far as he knew, was never gonna be in papers and it was so unforgettable, especially the fact that he was crying. It was one of those crazy “how did i get here” sort of moments.
KS: I distinctly remember when he died, when I was in about 4th grade and the only comparable thing was when Mr. Rogers died. Just two people who were such a huge part of my childhood. And it effects you in ways that you don’t even realize.
SP: You know whats really weird too, he always said that he would not outlive the strip because he didn’t know what else to do. Like there’s a famous moment of him–he had a little beatnik faze in the 60’s–and he would hang out in San Francisco with hippies, which, for the straight-laced Schulz, is eye opening. They would play this game where they asked “if you weren’t doing the job you’re doing, what would you be doing” and they got to Sparky and he said in an earnest way, “if I wasn’t doing the strip? Well I’d be dead.” Which killed the room, I think (laughs) That was his life. And wouldn’t you know it, on the night he died, literally as he died, that last strip was being printed. He dies with the strip.
KS: Maybe that’s a nice question for you. If it wasn’t for Pearls, would you still be doing law?
SP: Yeah, I think I would’ve, because I don’t know what my out would’ve been. I guess I would never have believed that anything I did creatively mattered enough or would have been good enough to succeed. Now I’m doing all sorts of stuff. The big thing is this novel I have coming out in February. That was a huge departure for me, and I hope one day that I can do more of that, because I like writing more than I like drawing. So I’d like to do that in my next incarnation.
KS: Pearls is going to be 10 years in, which is a hell of a relationship…
SP: I will have done it for 11 years.
KS: You beat Bill Watterson.
SP: That’s crazy. He stopped at 10, huh.
KS: How’s the marriage with your strip and is the spark still there? Do you ever get the hankering to put it in another medium?
SP: Oh yeah. I wrote a whole Pearls screenplay and went round and round with studios twice in terms of getting it made. Again, they didn’t give me the control I wanted, so I didn’t do it. I loved writing the screenplay. I loved writing the novel. I think with Pearls, there’s a natural end to it. I don’t think I could go 50 years like Sparky did. I think a more natural end is somewhere in the 15 to 20 year range. There are parts of the strip that tire me sometimes, that I know people like, and it’s tempting to give them what they like.
KS: That would be so maddening, I would think.
SP: It is. The funny part is, if you give them what they want, but you’re bored by it eventually, they’ll be bored by it. Like the crocodiles kind of ran away with the strip and I don’t really think of strip as being “the crocodile strip,” but people like it, so I’m in the process of making a storyline that puts them in new story lines and stuff. And I think if you’re creative and you’re not doing that, you’re probably stagnating. You have to constantly challenge yourself. My model for that is always Bob Dylan. You look at his career and he was constantly shifting things up for whatever reason. He never stayed still and there’s a great quote from him–“Being an artist is to be constantly in the state of becoming.”
KS: When it comes to doing anything creative, it takes a little bit of an ego to put your work out there and expect people to take the time to read it. When did you feel like you had that?
SP: On my first rejection from an editor at Kings Features, the editor said I had a voice. Before that day, I had nothing. I was just a guy who cartooned for his high school newspaper. When I got that, that’s when it became something that might not just be a dream, but could be a reality. I look at that moment as more exciting than when I found out I got syndicated.
KS: Have you had much brush back from readers? Occasionally you’ll parody other comics, do you hear back from any authors?
SP: Yes. Like the one I do the most often is Family Circus. People always run to their defense. I’ve been to both of their houses and Bill Keane had what most would call the most offensive one I did framed in his studio. Jeff (his son), I visited his home last week. We’ve gone on USO trips, Germany twice, Kuwait. Jeff is like a brother to me. When people get offended, it’s so absurd. That’s not how cartoonists feel. It’s a surprisingly collegial field. Especially when you realize it’s a zero sum game. Like I only succeed at someone’s loss. And you wouldn’t know that at the get-togethers. They’re surprisingly kind. I think it’s because we are so strange and insecure and alone. When you’re at these get-togethers, you can look at the person next to you and say that you hate looking at that blank sheet of paper. That you have nothing that day. That you’re afraid you’ll never recapture it. If I say that to a stranger they say “what?” If I say it to cartoonists, they finish my sentence. That insane, odd profession bonds you more than the realities of the zero sum game.
KS: I was going to say, “what cartoonist’s work has inspired you,” but I’ll open this up to all creators.
SP: Yeah, that’s the way more interesting question. There’s so many of them. I was watching a documentary on Hunter S. Thompson yesterday, and it just made me want to have a career that had as much integrity and individualism as that. Hemingway is the same way for me. Early Letterman. Early SNL–Mr. Bill, Belushi, Chuck Jones. The Honeymooners–that influenced me. How you make a comedy in one room with four strong characters? Showed you how little you need to be funny. The funniest guy now, to me, is Zach Galifianakis. Specifically, it’s not the movies he’s in but its those things he does called Between Two Ferns. I will watch those over and over. That to me is the essence of comedy. I’ve never seen anybody get timing down like that. If you watch those little shorts, the second he goes out is not a frame too soon or too late.
KS: I was infatuated with Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. After Peanuts, it was something I got into. I loved those books. But he retired early… what are your thoughts on the strip or the man?
SP: You know it’s funny. I learned recently that he learned who I am and I was so thrilled to hear that.
KS: How’d you hear that.
SP: In a weird back-way ‘cause my editor was at his house and that was so thrilling. With Watterson, it’s difficult because I think most cartoonists will tell you this. Everybody places him on the pedestal for the cartoon, deservedly so. He influenced all of us. Talk about someone who combines writing and drawing. I think in terms of the person, most of us are sad that he chose to be as reclusive as he did. I sort of understand it because he’d be mobbed and I get that everyone makes their own choices.
I think the model is Sparky. He showed up to the Reubens. He picked up his award, unlike Watterson. He was there to talk to whoever–like me in a café. And nobody will ever–including Watterson–be as successful as Sparky. In 1969, Sparky was on top of the entertainment world. That guy has space capsules named after him and he could still sit down with me and talk. I think a lot of us feel sad that Watterson and Larson didn’t want to be a part. I think it makes us all sad because we want to like him. Again he has every right to do it the way he did it. And Sparky was the model.
KS: And Watterson was a huge Peanuts fan.
SP: Yeah, so that reclusiveness, we don’t understand it and wish it wasn’t the case. Same with Larson. For me, Larson was the pinnacle of comedy in my field. If there was a ranking, Larson is 1, 2, 3, and someone else is 4. He’s so high up there. I even tried to meet him but his wife turned it down. That was really a bummer but that’s the way it goes. We had Sparky and he wasn’t that way, and we should be thankful for that.
Part two of this interview will be up next week…