Interview with Stephan Pastis–Part 2

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Here continues part 2 of our interview with cartoonist Stephan Pastis…

KS: Since we mentioned standup comics, have you seen that HBO special, Talking Funny?

SP: I’ve seen it twice. I thought that was so fascinating.

KS: It really is. Do you think you have the same responsibility as a standup?

SP: Yeah, to put something out everyday that I find funny, which is a difficult standard. To not pander, which I am guilty of sometimes. To produce something I’ll be proud of. Ricky Gervais talks a lot about that. We all die we all go away and are forgotten, but there is the illusion we like to cling to that when we die, there is a body of work left behind that someone down the road will find instructive or influential. I think if people are honest that’s all they want. That’s what it comes down to for me, using my small field of cartooning. There’s a stream of ideas and goodness and insanity that comes from Herriman and goes through Sparky (Charles Shulz), Watterson, and Larson, and you want to somehow dip your toe in that stream. You want to  carry that water forward so when the next generation comes along, you opened the door for them like Sparky did for me. I think that’s the ultimate test for an artist. Their influence. I can’t think of any higher compliment or praise than “you changed the way I work.”

KS: Have you seen the Woody Allen documentary, by the way?

SP: I have. It was great.

KS: Woody Allen made a point about how an idea is at its very best in your mind and beyond that, you just have to avoid screwing it up when you put it to paper.

SP: Ooh yeah, that’s interesting. There are all these steps that can get in the way of that instinct. If you over-rehearse it, it loses its freshness. Like Jackie Gleason in The Honey Mooners–no rehearsal. They’d have to put a stand-in for him in rehearsals. And remember, in his days, it was truly live TV. And he’d love those moments where you didn’t know what would happen, and seeing if he could recover. Those were often the best moments of the show…

I’ll tell you something too–the best advice I could give anyone who does something creative; whatever you do creatively, you have two big dividing ways you go about it. One is this voice that, whether or not you know it, is designed to make other people laugh, and it results in you trying to be funny. The other voice is you actually being funny, making yourself laugh. They sound a lot alike. You can fool yourself into believing that something is funny because you’ve put a lot of work into it and would hate to think otherwise.  On the other hand, you could be at a party with your five closest friends, shooting the shit, and say something offhand in the middle of a conversation that gets the guy next to you laughing, and that’s what it’s all about. And yet, when you go to write or perform, the other voice creeps in; it’s what you should do to make people laugh. The ability to tell those two voices apart and be faithful to one voice and not the other is the difference between a hobby and a career. And to this day I struggle with it.

KS: Really? Still?

SP: All the time. Because it’s so easy to fool yourself. “Am I really laughing at it?” The best example I could give was a guy who was an animator at Pixar who invited me to tour, because he also did a comic strip and he wanted  me to look at it. So this guy–super creative, now very high up–he pulls out the comic strip and it’s not very good. Now I’ll remind you he works with the best and the brightest in his field. And I said to him “so what do your colleagues think of the strip?”

He said “oh, well I haven’t shown it to them.” And that just stopped him cold. Because I asked “why not?” And he said “Because I don’t think they would think this is funny.”

And I go “Why would anybody else?”

And that was it. I could tell, the light went on. That’s learning to write to the first voice as opposed to the second.

KS: What else was I going to ask? Do you have any dating advice? (laughs)

SP: Yeah I do! Man, confidence is everything!

KS: Is it really?

SP: That is by far the most important trait. And not just in dating, in everything. God, if you are confident, people just glom onto you. It must be biological. Like that’s why you see guys who aren’t very attractive who get a lot of women. It is always confidence. You see it in stand up, boy if you don’t have confidence, the audience will eat you alive. You can’t fake that.

KS: Does that include faking it if you don’t have it?

SP: No, I think faking it gets you through a few situations but true confidence is so appealing to everybody around you. I don’t know why, but we respond really well to it and we get so mean when someone doesn’t have it. You jump on that person and tear them apart. Like, when you see a stand up who lost the audience. It’s really key. And that ties back to the thing about the two voices. That is is the key to success. That’s why I love guys like Belushi. For him, it was so clearly about making himself laugh. And it was so ridiculous. Like a samurai with a sword at a deli–that is so…odd. And if you pitched it, it would sound awful. And yet, when he does it, man it just had to make him laugh. And it works! You’d be surprised how many people are like you. The more personal something is, the more universal it is. And conversely, the more you try to reach an audience on a universal basis, the more you’ll fail.

KS: What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve ever been given

SP: Boy… it wasn’t advice so much as what the sales people said about Pearls, which was “don’t do it, it will never sell because it has no demographic. It has no determined base of people that will like it.”

Someone said it much better than I did… if you don’t come up against great resistance in your creative endeavor, you’re probably not doing something worthwhile. Like I worry if I go a long time and don’t see complaints in the paper… like I’ll then seek them. (laughs)

KS: What I’ve found is that as much as you want to bring people together, part of you just wants to fuck with people to keep them guessing.

SP: That’s a good attitude. That’ll take you far. I like reading about works of art that were resisted or considered shit in their time. Everything from Vertigo, to Kubrick’s 2001, to Gervais’ The Office, which got the lowest audience review of any show the BBC had tested. It got a zero. And I could keep going. They were all viewed as shit. Not just shit, but offensive. And they were all pioneers. So I would be very weary of anything I did that was received well by everyone when it came out.

KS: What book or movie have you revisited the most?

SP: A Confederacy of Dunces. Best comedy every written. Talk about fucked up. The author killed himself. Especially the story of how it got bought. Once again, the hallmark of something good, everyone thought it was shit and after the author was dead, his mom brought it to a professor who read it because he felt guilty, and he just started getting into it. So the university published it and it wins the Pulitzer. You know the other advice I’d give you for what field you go into–seek out as much failure as you can get. It sounds odd, but the other hallmark of a successful person, in addition to loving what they do, is everyone gets rejected for good work and bad. Successful people stack those failures up and almost enjoy them in a weird way. Like Scott Adams who does Dilbert, just kept trying different things and hoped he would hit. You’re never guaranteed acceptance, but you have to keep doing it, not blindly. You do want to adjust. The strips I did failed for a reason. That separates successful and unsuccessful.

KS: You had a great line about how one person’s success is another person’s lesson.

SP: Yeah, I might’ve said that (laughs) I think it’s really true. I learned how to do it not by asking Scott Adams how to do it. I learned how to do it by reading Dilbert. It’s all there in front of you. Hunter S. Thompson retyped and retyped The Great Gatsby.

KS: What do you do better than other people?

SP: It’s hard to say what I do better, but the thing I do that other people can’t is my voice. That is all I have. I’m just conscious of it. Everyone’s got a voice. And you need to stay true to it. The worst thing is anything related to drawing, particularly objects or things that are round.

KS: Do you have any addictions?

SP: Control. I am addicted to control.

KS: How do you like to procrastinate?

SP: I wish I didn’t, but it’s always the internet. I just go website to website. It’s just all in front of you. It’s unbelievable. One interview leads to a Jon Stewart video and that leads to Fox News video and it finally ends with that Gangnam Style dance. It’s so dumb and obscure.

There are times in life I’ve heard someone describe procrastinating as the plumbing in your house. Like you go to write and there’s nothing there for a long time. Like what a waste of the day that is. But the truth is, that nothingness was as important to getting to the water as letting the air out of the pipe that’s in front of the water. You can’t get to the water ’til the air comes out. Creatively, it’s no different.. That air is as valid as the water that sits behind it. Both are necessary for the water to get out. That nothingness is serving a purpose.

KS: What’s next for you?

SP: Hopefully more of these kids books. That has occupied all of my free time the last year and will occupy most of my free time this coming year. I’ve written one of them and I’m almost done with the second. It’s called Timmy Failure. I hope it does well because I’d love to write more of them.

KS: Do you have any hopes for a movie?

SP: Yeah, I met with an agent so we’ll see! The kid has a polar bear for a partner so it goes well for CG. (laughs)

Timmy Failure  is coming out later this month. You can pre-order it now.

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