A Cartoon Maestro Talks Comedy
I interview New Yorker cartoonist Drew Dernavich.
Posted April 18, 2014
Drew Dernavich is a funny man, a great artist, and a regular in The New Yorker. I interviewed him by email to talk all things knee-slapping.
Mark Peters: Your cartoons don't look like any other cartoons I've ever seen. Why is that?
Drew Dernavich: The medium I use is called scratchboard. It's the poor man's version of a woodcut, but done essentially the same way. I'm more comfortable drawing this way, and I found the typical "cartoony" style—googly-eyed, bulbous-nosed people—to be limiting in terms of what I wanted to do for a career. That sounds like I made a clear decision about it, but in reality it took years of trial and error to figure it out. Error, mostly.
MP: It makes for such a distinctive style. It also has a very serious look. Do you think that adds to the humor of your cartoons? Your style feels like the ultimate deadpan.
DD: Well, it means the joke has to work, right? You can't rely on your drawing to be like a laugh track from a 70s sitcom, announcing to the audience ahead of time that "hey! This is humor! You should start laughing now!" Sam Gross says that there are people who draw funny things, and there are people who draw things funny. I guess I'm the former. Plus, it seems like it's more respectful of the audience that way, which also seems like a very New Yorker-y thing to do. So there's that.
MP: Which cartoonists, New Yorker-y or not, make you laugh?
DD: Well, I'm not gonna play favorites among The New Yorker cartoonists for now, because I don't want a bloody cartoon horse's head in my bed. Growing up, it was The Far Side, Life in Hell, and Zippy the Pinhead, and I was a big fan of the howlingly disturbed John Callahan. Today, I'm a fan of the work of Michael Kupperman, Ruben Bolling, Kate Beaton, Ben Katchor, and Tom Gauld, to name a few. And I like a lot of what others are doing that involves visual humor that's not necessarily in cartoon form, like Jessica Hagy, or the illustrator Noma Bar.
MP: I will check those names out... Do you have any recurring obsessions when it comes to humor? Or just things you particularly love to draw? I have an artist friend who is cuckoo for chickens. Do you have anything like that?
DD: I like drawing knights and some animals, but no real obsessions other than drawing my signature, that big 'Dd.' I've drawn it on walls, cars, dinner plates, etc. I only mention that since we're on the PT blog and I think maybe that's my big cry for help.
MP: Ha. Nice self-diagnosis.
You're also active on Twitter as a joke writer. What appeals to you about that forum for intellectual discourse?
DD: Intellectual discourse is a pretty generous name for what goes on on Twitter, no? But it is a pretty great medium. If I had to spell it out, I'd say that the challenge of limiting a statement to 140 characters is great practice for humor writing, as is being able to watch—and participate in—people spontaneously riffing off of each other. And the utter disposability of it is a great asset—I mean, sometimes I'll be on the bus and tell myself that I have to write something funny about the news before I reach my stop, and most times it's pretty terrible. And the idea of polluting your own brand, if you will, with subpar material is something that seems counterproductive. Or it would have maybe 10 or 15 years ago. But, in a minute it will virtually disappear anyway, so who really cares, and you worked your brain out for a second, and so—all good. And in terms of a pure information sharing platform it's been valuable. I've learned a lot and met a lot of people there. We met on Twitter, right? Readers: for those who don't read Mark's feed, you should.
MP: Thank you!
I guess it's not really intellectual discourse...more like very important intellectual discourse!
OK, here's a goofy question to maybe finish things off. Who's on your Mount Rushmore of comedy and why? Any genre of comedy. I think mine would be George Carlin, Jack Handey, Will Ferrell, and Larry David.
DD: Oh, man. That's a tough one. My tastes in comedy change almost as often as they change those faces on Mt. Rushmore. They change them every two years, right? Maybe I'm thinking of something else. I'll go with Jack Handey, Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld, and Louis CK. In terms of the why? With the exception of Jack Handey, those guys translated their standup into film and television, and Martin is also a great writer. And Jack Handey's recent novel, if you can call it that, manages to sustain the funny over the course of the entire book, which I think is a pretty tough thing to do.
MP: Yes! God, I love that book. Handey should be on the real Mt. Rushmore. He's the best.
OK, to wrap things up, let's plug things. Where should readers go to find more Drew Dernavich? Besides The New Yorker and here, of course.
DD: Ha ha—I'll get that petition going. I'm working on the first of two children's books and I have some other writing and cartoons which will be published online elsewhere. The best place to check is my blog, wordspictureshumor.com, which is where I'll be updating all of that stuff. And of course twitter: @drewdernavich. Thanks, Mark, and thanks, PT!