Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Should Gag Cartoonists Use Writers?

It's kind of an open secret that some gag cartoonists do not do their own writing.

For instance, Dan Piraro notes that Wayno wrote his BIZARRO panel by writing his (Wayno's) name at the bottom.

The gag panel cartoonist Kaamran Hafeez will sign his name at the bottom, and then "with ________ (name of gag writer)."

Here's a revised essay on gag writers and cartoonists that I wrote in 2006. I've edited it slightly to update some links.

Above: Lee Lorenz and one of his cartoons from a 1960s hardcover giveaway cartoon collection titled Compliments of Your Volkswagen Dealer.

Here's a snippet from the book:
Lee Lorenz, cartoon editor of the New Yorker since 1973, says, "The biggest change over my career — I started here as a cartoonist in 1958 — is that the generation of cartoonists that came to prominence in the sixties and seventies all do their own writing. For the first twenty-five years of the New Yorker, captions were nearly always written by people other than the artists — writers on the staff or outside gag writers. 
— Behind the Cartoonist by Sarah Werner, Smithsonian Magazine, June 1995 
My cartoonist pal Tony Murphy asked my opinion about gag writers. He wrote in an email:
I'd be interested to know more about why the NYer editor then was deciding he wanted cartoonists who could write their own material. In other words, why didn't that happen ten years earlier — or later?
A good question! I don't know, but being a good American, I'm lousy with ill informed opinions and my right to pontificate about 'em.

Let's go back in time, to when cartoons were gorgeously illustrative -- but clunky.

In 1925, when the NYer mag began, Harold Ross, who as we all know started the magazine, wanted a different type of cartoon. So many of the cartoons had dialogue back then. Not just a one line quip, but 2 or more lines of dialogue. Looking back at it from 100 years on, it was darn clunky looking:

Voice from bank — Hey, mister, your oars are driftin' away!
Contented lover — That's all right. We don't need 'em any more.

These cartoons are from Judge magazine, a leading humor mag if the 19th century, created by Puck magazine contributors who jumped the more successful Puck ship to create their own rival humor magazine.

Gamin — Carry your bag for a nickel, mister.
Pater — No, never mind, boy.
Gamin — Carry the kind fer a quarter.
(Ahh, the street urchin gag! So rarely seen these days!)

So, how did we get away from the multi-line single panel cartoon?

E.B. White is generally credited with crafting the typical one-line New Yorker style cartoon in the aryl New Yorker Magazine days. Cartoon captions were routinely handed over to White or Thurber for "tinkering."
It was never easy, and still isn't, for a new artist to break in to the New Yorker. Some of those whose names have become well known tried for months, or even longer, sending in dozens of rough sketches week after week. If an unknown's caption, or sketch, seemed promising, it was often bought and turned over to an established staff cartoonist. Arno usually got the cream of the crop; the wonderful Mary Petty has never worked from any idea other than her own; James Reid Parker did most of Helen Hokinson's captions; and other artists either had their own gagmen or subsisted on original inspiration, fortified by captions and ideas sent in by outsiders or developed by the staff. 
— The Years With Ross by James Thurber

I believe that since the NYer was run by writers and editors, then the approach with cartoons was the same: Great cartoons are not written, they are rewritten and rewritten and edited and poked and prodded at by many on the staff. It's odd to think that Charles Addams had writers who would write for his distinctive style of humor. But this is all part of the branding of these different cartoonists. James Reid Parker, who wrote the introduction of The Hokinson Festival cartoon collection, is cited on the book jacket as the guy "who wrote most of the original captions" of her cartoons. Gag writers are, as Ms. Wernick writes, "an open secret of the cartoon business."
Most gag cartoonists buy some of their ideas from outside sources. They pay the writer 25 percent of what the cartoon earns and keep 75 percent for themselves. Only the cartoonist signs the cartoon. 
— Cartooning by Roy Paul Nelson
"Any professional humorist is out of his mind if he doesn't surround himself with talented writers. Otherwise you get to the bottom of your own barrel too quickly," says Hank Ketcham in Sarah Wernick's Smithsonian article.

One cartoonist I know who uses more than 3 dozen gag writers. He tells me that by using them, he can concentrate on drawing and be more prolific.

Gag writers tell me that the cut for magazine gag writers is 30% of the sale price.

I don't use gag writers myself.

I like Dave Coverly's note to gag writers at his Speedbump site:
Note to Gag Writers: I don't buy cartoon ideas. It's nothing against you, I'm sure you're damn funny. I just don't. I like the daydreaming part of my job too much.
Bob Mankoff, who took over the cartoon editor position at the NYer after Lorenz, says that there are people who like to draw and there are people who like to write. Cartoonists are the rare combination of those two types.


"Gag Writers Are Funny People" by Larc Relhoc from Mother Earth news, 1970.
Rod McKie interviews prolific gag writer and cartoonist Rex "Baloo" May on his Cartoon Fiend blog

EDIT: The Daily Cartoonist "Can a Cartoonist Use a Gag Writer or Is That Cheating?"


RandyGlasbergen said...

I enjoy writing all of my own ideas. For me, writing a good cartoon idea is the most satisfying part of my job. Now and again, I'll find one of my captions quoted alongside Mark Twain or Woody Allen and that feels fantastic! :-)

mlester101 said...

I don't hear a "voice" in a strip that buys gags. There was a time I was inundated w/ gag writers who wanted to sell me gags. It's flattering but having a background as an illustrator for years you are often just a pair of hands. I wanted to write AND draw. If I'm lucky a couple of times a week I make myself laugh. You can't buy that.

I also drew a week where we literally killed a weeks worth of gag writers. They stopped calling for some reason:

Love your blog ML. Always entertaining.

John R. Platt said...

With Piraro, more often than not, ideas from others evolve after they hit his brain. He details the process quite well on his blog, and sometimes his writers (Wayno, especially), look at it from their angles on their own blogs. It seems like a very fruitful collaboration.

Tom Falco said...

I think if the cartoonist knows the gag writer and has an arrangement, it's not a problem, but some buy from total strangers with submissions in the mail. That I don't agree with. Who knows if they are original or resold to others, etc.

Dan Reynolds said...

This is a red hot topic for me. It's very simple in my mind.
When a person buys a gag, they're acting as an illustrator - not a cartoonist.
It opens up a can of worms as you don't know where that gag has been or who is may REALLY have come from.
The whole enjoyment of being a cartoonist is the birth of a creative thought, looking at it as a proud parent, and seeing your reflection in its eyes.