If I haven't mentioned it before, let me mention it now: Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury is one of my all-time favorite comic
I am well aware that a number of comic strip buffs stare at it with what I call the "Springtime for Hitler" look, offended that a strip
could be so popular with such basic artwork. (Well, actually, the number of horrified comic art fans seems to be decreasing since the graphics
on Doonesbury have improved over the years. And the buffs are busy staring, in twice the horror, at Cathy and Dilbert, two
other strips I like.)
But, even after a quarter of a century of skewering everyone in public life, Trudeau still has the sharpest rapier ever wielded in a
mainstream comic strip. And he is often the funniest, sometimes even achieving the near-impossible: He makes me laugh when he takes a shot at
someone I like. After all, it's easy to evoke laughter when you're preaching to the choir.
It really is. Get up in front of folks who loathe Bill Clinton — they are not hard to find — and say anything about
him being a draft-dodging, wife-cheating, McDonald's-eating, issue-waffling, one-term excuse for a Chief Exec and you can get a standing
ovation. No wit is required on your part.
Or, conversely, take the stage at a convention of folks who think Bob Dole is the Anti-Christ and, well, it's pretty easy to garner
cheers with jokes about how, if you ever needed a heart transplant, you'd want Bob Dole's 'cause it's never been used. In fact, you can be a
lot less clever than that and still kill. To me, the true test of a political humorist is not whether he can make you laugh when he slams the
other guys...it's whether he can make you laugh when he slams your guy.
Trudeau has proven himself an equal opportunity offender. If he has spared any public figure who warrants ridicule, I can't name
him. He has certainly taken us a long way from when most folks' idea of political humor was Bob Hope, joking about how he clobbered Eisenhower
in their golf match last Sunday. I don't always agree with Doonesbury — there probably isn't anyone anywhere who always agrees
with Doonesbury — but I find him usually fair and always funny. Notice I did not include, "nice" in that description.
Political humor is not easy...and I know of what I speak. My senior year, some of my friends decided to start an underground
newspaper to circulate in and around our high school. Much of it was devoted to topics like the Viet Nam War and racial discrimination but
there were pieces aplenty trashing the school administration. In particular, they went after a hapless principal named Mr. Foley. Insofar
as I could tell, Mr. Foley had no connection whatsoever to the war or racial discrimination or any of a half-hundred other injustices the paper
sought to see righted. But he did respond to every criticism by turning beet-red and making the sounds of an Evinrude outboard motor...and that
was not without its value.
Everyone on the staff was a capital-L Liberal — everyone but me, at least. I never much went in for labels but, if pressed
to proclaim mine at the time, I would generally say I was a conservative who didn't like most of the prominent conservative leaders of the day.
Knowing I could be pretty silly at times, the editor of the underground paper asked me to write a column imitative of Art
Buchwald. I adopted the pen name of Charles Marvin and attempted that most difficult of comedy challenges — political humor from a
conservative POV. This is kinda like writing a Marx Brothers movie and trying to make Margaret Dumont the funny one.
Comedy, after all, usually involves a knee-jerk attack on the Establishment. Even today, you won't get a lot of laughs mocking
the underprivileged and disadvantaged. (Well, maybe at Pat Buchanan's house...)
Still, I made the attempt. And since few folks on campus knew who this "Charles Marvin" guy was, I got to hear classmates
laughing and/or fuming over his columns, unaware the author was but inches away. One good friend of mine was determined to find Mr. Marvin and
indent his nose. He asked me to help him ferret out clues to the identity of the soulless, arrogant numskull who penned the words that enraged
him so. I ventured a few errant deductions and merrily sent him scurrying in the wrong direction. It can be fun being Clark Kent.
A leading catalyst for the paper was comedian Mort Sahl, then doing local shows on both TV and radio. Our editor — a skinny
kid named Tony — worshipped Sahl and would take each issue, warm from the press, down to the studio to hand-deliver it and to troll for some
spark of approval.
Politically, Tony was slightly to the left of Leon Trotsky...but it all struck me as the kind of worldview formed less from philosophy
and more from faddism. Pressed into a discussion, Tony could parrot any number of books and pamphlets he'd absorbed. But it you dragged
him into a topic that forced him to think a bit, you got back those blank Barney Rubble eyeballs. I came to feel that he really didn't believe
all that stuff he was saying and writing; he simply liked the role. Some folks dress a certain way to define themselves. Some chop off
their hair or get tattooed. Others proclaim their politics.
Tony's viewpoints seemed calculated to make him into Sahl-Lite. He thought Mort was the coolest, neatest guy in the world and
even took to wearing red sweaters (a Sahl trademark) and carrying a newspaper everywhere, as Sahl did when he took stage. He was therefore
crushed when Mort finally weighed in with an on-air plug for our little underground newspaper, and said the best thing in it was this article by
someone named Charles Marvin.
Up until that moment, I hadn't liked Mort Sahl one bit. I owned an exhaustive collection of comedy albums but it was deliberately
minus his. I thought he was smug, arrogant, uninformed and, on certain issues, almost dangerously obsessive.
That, of course, all changed the minute he praised my columns. He suddenly became a consummate and wise scholar spreading
incontrovertible truths. Tony wasn't the only one on the staff with shallow convictions.
Sahl must have been desperate for material. Only that could explain why, one evening, he read parts of my column aloud on his
show and said, "You know, this isn't easy. Most writers could generate piles of pages of jokes against Lyndon Johnson over a lunch hour...but
to write humor criticizing Johnson's critics — that's not easy, people." He was also impressed by the fact that Charles Marvin, though
quite the conservative, still took some shots at our then-governor, Ronald Reagan. (A line I wrote about Reagan was later quoted in
Newsweek. Ah, the frustrations of anonymity...)
Sahl told Tony that he wanted to see next week's issue of the paper so that he might read the new Charles Marvin column on his
program(s). Tony — who would have said yes if Mort had asked him to swim to Cape Hatteras — swore to deliver the first copy, warm
from the printer.
Which left him with one teensy problem: No paper had been planned for the following week. We were a bi-weekly. Tony
immediately rushed back to everyone and announced that we were now publishing every seven days so as not to disappoint Mort Sahl.
I sat down at my little manual Olivetti-Underwood — a device I cannot, today, believe I ever wrote on — and banged out
another Charles Marvin commentary. It took ten times as long as the others, since I knew that it stood a good chance of being read on the
For the next few weeks — until he abruptly disappeared from both L.A. radio and TV — Sahl would read the occasional line
from my column on his program. One that he quoted came when I wrote a line that was, for about the first 50% of my life, the best-received
thing I composed. It went, "Every political movement has an idiot element. If you can't see the idiot element in your movement, you're
I was very proud of the line and, like all authors, I complimented myself on being the first person in the history of mankind to think
of it. Then one day, I was reading a novel penned in 1933 and I found this line about playing poker: "When you sit down at the table, look
around. And if you can't spot the sucker, you're him." Apparently, it's an old saying. Oh, well.
But I still think it's valid. Today, my views are like my socks and underwear: All over the place.
This is a good place for one's views to be. To me, being liberal on every issue or conservative on every issue is like trying to
get through a true/false test where you don't know a thing by answering every question "true" or every question "false." With luck, you might
wind up right about half the time — which is not a passing grade.
Garry Trudeau is probably a liberal on anyone's Political Preference Chart, but he's delivered a few good body-blows to this nation's
more prominent liberals. (I have a friend, conservative to the extreme, who thinks those are the only funny Doonesbury strips.
When Trudeau goes after Ted Kennedy, he's a brilliant political satirist; when he targets Newt Gingrich, he's an unfunny, know-zero propaganda
monger. This is the kind of thing that convinces me Trudeau is fair, especially since I have liberal friends who think just the opposite.)
When Doonesbury commenced, it represented a triumph of writing over artwork. Trudeau's work was very crude...crude enough,
in fact, to cause at least one person at every school newspaper in America to say, "I could do that." I doubt you could find too many college
or high school papers in the seventies who didn't have their own Doonesbury rip-offs. A few even made it to national syndication.
Doonesbury defied the then-common wisdom of what one had to do for a successful strip. In the seventies, newspapers began
to print comics smaller and smaller, and artists were told that they needed to simplify their strips — less copy, fewer panels, larger
lettering. That has been the trend — one that has finally, in recent years, extended to the two long-running hits. Peanuts
and Blondie have finally made the move from four panels a day to three. (Peanuts occasionally has but one,)
Trudeau ignored all this. Later on, he had the contractual clout to demand his strip not be reduced below a certain size —
but even when he started, his was a four-panel strip that was usually loaded with copy, lettered (by inker Don Carlton) in a pretty small font.
In 1970, I heard a top syndicate editor give some number as the absolute maximum words per panel of a comic strip. You should never, he said,
put more than X number of words in a panel.
I forget what X was but I'll bet Trudeau has never had a week that abided by that rule.
The editor also told us (a roomful of comic fans and aspiring creators) that a strip should not have a large cast; I think he said
eight recurring players, tops. Trudeau hasn't followed that one, either. Doonesbury has so many characters in it that many steady
readers are probably unaware that one of them is actually named Doonesbury.
And the syndicate expert even said something about not being too controversial...not getting newspaper editors riled by usurping the
rightful purpose of the editorial page. We all know what a good job Trudeau has done of heeding that one.
This, of course, demonstrates the value of rules. Doonesbury has followed none of them except the most basic, which is to
have something to say every day. (Or almost every day. Among the many controversial innovations that G. Trudeau has brought to the comic
pages is the concept of the cartoonist taking vacations.) None of this has hurt him. Others may appear in more papers but no one else has
gotten politicians so riled. That alone scores him points in my book. But I do have a beef with the guy...
Somewhere on a shelf in CBS Television City, there sits a big, fancy, prime-time TV special you will probably never see.
It is all done and paid-for. It is all edited and ready to air. But it was commissioned by executives who have long since
been dismissed, and their successors seem disinterested in putting it on the CBS Television Network.
It is a salute to the 100th anniversary of the newspaper strip, tracing its origin, saluting its greats, heralding its
future. There are songs and film clips and we animated sequences from a number of newly-syndicated strips that have otherwise never been
animated. (I say "we" because I wrote the show.)
There are film clips of comic strip creators of the past — Ernie Bushmiller, Al Capp, Chic Young, Hal Foster, Rube Goldberg,
There are interviews with the talents of today — Charles Schulz, Jim Davis, Mike Peters, Lynn Johnston, Stan Lee, Mort Walker,
Mell Lazarus, Cathy Guisewite, and many others.
Four cartoonists turned us down for interviews: Berke Breathed, Gary Larson, Bill Watterson and Garry Trudeau. Their work is
shown and heralded but their faces are nowhere on camera, thereby diminishing those moments.
The non-appearance of Breathed and Larson could be tolerated since both their strips had been retired at the time. Watterson
hadn't folded Calvin & Hobbes when we taped, but we'd never expected to get an interview from him in the first place. (Someone at
his syndicate broke out laughing when our producer went through the motions of inquiring.)
But I felt the absence of Mr. Trudeau. I see him as the most important comic strip creator of the latter half of this
century. He may not be the funniest and he certainly isn't the best artist. And there are times when his politics seem so far off-base to
me, I want to throw to second and tag them out.
Still, I think he's the most important guy to make it onto the funnies page (or nearby) in my lifetime. Dan Quayle said Trudeau
was sick and carrying on a personal vendetta. Janet Reno said that God would punish Trudeau for his strips.
I figure, anyone who can get both those people mad at him at the same time has got to be important.