Continued from part 1 of the Joe Dator interview.
Simon: What are your views on cartoon clichés, those frequent setups for cartoons?
Joe: They’re great for us, the cartoonists, because they present a challenge: How can I do this cartoon that has been done so many times in a new way?
Max: You’ve got to provide a topper.
Joe: I was thrilled when I got my first desert island gag published because it had been, at the time, over 80 years of island gags running in The New Yorker.
Max: That is the king of clichés.
Joe: After all of those island jokes from all of those great cartoonists throughout the history of The New Yorker, I came up with one that no one had thought of before. That was a great day in my life as an artist. For the readers, it may have been, “Oh, Christ, another desert island cartoon”. But who cares what they think? It’s not about them; it’s about us. [Laughter]
Simon: Can you predict which cartoons The New Yorker will accept of yours?
Joe: No, I never know. When I think I’ve really hit it, and I’m going to get one that’s definitely going to go in, it’s so good, it’s got to go in … nothing, never. It just doesn’t work.
“What’s really great is when you get something but you’re not sure what. And you have that wonderful time of sitting down with your sketchbook and working it out.”
Max: You’re also a video star.
Joe: I am?
Max: There was video feature on you. It showed you drawing in a diner. You seemed to describe a process where you draw first and then work your way into the idea or into the caption.
Joe: Sometimes it’s the other way around, but usually at the best of times, it’s a back and forth. I’ll write down a sentence, then draw something. But then the drawing will make me think of something else. Then, I’ll write down a different sentence. Ideally, it should go back and forth like that, because that’s when you’re doing what I call the real work.
The real work is not you get a flash of an idea, and you write it down, and it’s done and it’s perfect. That’s great when that happens. But what’s really great is when you get something, but you’re not sure what. Then it becomes something else. And you have that wonderful time of sitting down with your sketchbook and working it out. Then you can completely lose yourself in that mindset.
This is my sketchbook right in front of me, the actual pages of which I will not be showing you under any circumstances whatsoever. [Laughter] I don’t show my sketchbook to anyone because the sketchbook is like my brain on paper. If I showed it to you, it would be like letting someone inside my brain. And your brain doesn’t work unless you’re the only one in there.
I don’t show my sketchbook to anyone because the sketchbook is like my brain on paper.
Max: I understand, it’s very personal.
Joe: Yes, exactly. Much like the inside of your mind, it needs to be a completely neutral zone, where you feel complete and utter freedom—freedom to draw something that isn’t very good, or explore an idea with complete and utter candor.
If I think that someone one day is going to look at what’s in this sketchbook, then I become inhibited. So you need a complete lack of inhibition, in order to be creative, at least, in this one area.
I did a cartoon a couple of years ago of a couple of pelicans. One of them had a beak pouch filled with giant boxes of stuff, because it had just come from Costco. That came about simply, because I had nothing to draw up, so I started drawing pelicans. When I have nothing to draw, I will draw either birds, a horse, or a gorilla.
Joe: Those are my go-to’s, if I have nothing else to draw. Usually birds; birds are just fun to draw. So I just started drawing pelicans. What do pelicans have? They have a beak pouch. What if one of the pelican’s beak pouch was way bigger than the other one? Then, why? It’s full of stuff. Well, why is it full of stuff? Because it just came from Costco.
It’s the simplest process, but it started with having no idea whatsoever and just drawing pelicans, because my brain wants to draw pelicans. I have no idea why.
Max: Was your trip to Australia related to cartooning or art?
Joe: No, it was just a vacation, although I was very fortunate that I got to hang out with some Aussie cartoonists down there – two of whom actually have been in The New Yorker.
Max: You’re a life-long New Yorker, aren’t you?
Joe: No, I lived in Seattle for two years. I love the Northwest still; I visit whenever possible. I love Seattle, and Portland. I love that whole area.
I lived in New Hampshire for two truly awful years of my life. I’m not saying it’s because New Hampshire is terrible. I’m saying, it’s because New Hampshire is really fucking terrible. Don’t, if possible, go there. There’s a rejected cartoon I’ll show you. I don’t have it handy, but it was simply a toll booth. The toll booth said, “Welcome to New Hampshire”. The person at the booth said to the driver, “Oh, there’s no toll, we just want you to stop and really think about why you’re going here.”
Max: It’s safe to say, I think, that you identify as a New Yorker.
Joe: That’s true.
Max: Do you have any conscious thoughts about how you incorporate your New York roots into your cartoons?
Joe: I don’t think about it consciously, but when it works out, I’m very happy. I think sometimes I’ll do cartoons that are very New-Yorky, and I do wonder, Are people going to get this? But that wouldn’t stop me from submitting it.
Sometimes I’m surprised. A couple years back, I did a cartoon about the Naked Cowboy in Times Square, and it was published. I had no idea that anyone outside of New York knew about the Naked Cowboy. Maybe David Remnick [New Yorker Editor] either liked it and didn’t care who would get it or not.
But I’m really proud of those—you know, some of the subway related cartoons I do. I think probably because I have an acute understanding of the subject matter, some of those cartoons work better than others.
I don’t do a lot of cartoons about parenthood. I don’t do a lot of cartoons about lawn mowing. I don’t do a lot of cartoons about things that I don’t participate in. I do a lot of cartoons that take place on the subway.
“The cartoon should involve something happening that could not possibly happen, but which has a kind of truth to it.”
Simon: In your Ink Spill interview, you said, “I feel that something impossible should always be going on in a cartoon.” It’s a great quote. Could elaborate on that?
Joe: What I mean is, I don’t really like doing cartoons where it’s too credible or too plausible, where it’s just somebody saying something that’s funny. I don’t like the idea that it could happen. It doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t feel like a Joe Dator cartoon to me.
I feel that the cartoon should involve something happening that could not possibly happen, but which has a kind of truth to it. There should be a give and take between the truth and the implausibility. If those two things are going on at the exact same time, and they’re both equal in weight, then the brain has a conflict that it has to resolve, and it can only resolve it through laughter.
Max: You might be called upon to be a guest lecturer at the Bob Mankoff [former New Yorker Cartoon Editor] University of Cartooning.
Joe: I would accept that, but only with tenure. [Laughter] I’ll add that it also makes cartoons more fun to draw if there’s something strange and weird and absurd and surreal in the cartoons.
Joe: If it’s just two people talking, I like at the very least for them to be saying something that no one would ever say in real life. Because it would be either offensive or rude or just strange. Like, I did a cartoon where a couple is getting ready for bed and setting their alarm. One of them says, “Don’t forget, tomorrow we’re getting divorced.” It’s not a quip; that person is not making a joke to the other person. They mean it. You would never say that like that, if you meant it.
Simon: At one point you were working on a graphic novel.
Joe: That was in the works at one time. I have no idea how it worked out though, I’ll have to check. I’ve had various projects that I’ve begun over time, which are, as of this writing, still in development.
Simon: Who are some of the cartoonists that you like these days, especially New Yorker cartoonists?
Joe: There are so many people that I really like. I don’t really want to single anyone out. So many of my friends and colleagues are doing great, great work. If I have to single anyone out, I would say I’d really like to see more of me in the magazine. I think I’ve been doing some great work. I think I’m very underappreciated. And I would like to just point everyone towards me and say, Take a look at what I’m doing, because I’m doing some great work, and I’ve been a huge, huge inspiration and influence to myself. [Laughter]
Max: Thank you, Mr. Dator, that was the perfect response.
Joe: I know.
Simon: If there’s something else you’d like to say to our readers—
Joe: Buy war bonds.
Max: Well, in conclusion from us, we would just like to reiterate that we really enjoy your work and look forward to seeing more of it.
Joe: Well, thank you. I do my best. You’ve made it much more difficult now, because I’ve just spent an hour thinking about myself, and that makes it harder to work. Now I’m all self-conscious.
But, thanks. I try. I really think that I’m nowhere near as good as I’d like to be, so it’s nice to get compliments. And I appreciate your site, you do express a genuine appreciation for the art form. To your credit, you are quite fair in your reviews.