A glum man explains to a bartender, "I feel like a man trapped in a woman's salary." A tourist at the pyramids notes, "Yeah, but the one in Vegas has an endless shrimp buffet." Matthew Diffee's cartoons for the New Yorker are deliciously funny, wickedly clever, and drawn with endless wit and skill. His Rejection Collection books gave us a chance to see the best of the hundreds of cartoons turned down by the New Yorker editors. And now Diffee has produced a collection of his own work, Hand Drawn Jokes for Smart Attractive People. Clearly, I am smart and attractive, because I loved it.
Diffee appears in the documentary Very Semi-Serious, about the history of the New Yorker cartoons, and speaks to groups about creativity. It was a lot of fun to interview the very smart and attractive Matthew Diffee.
In the book, you thank your mother for inspiring you to write and your father for inspiring you to draw. Which one of them is funnier?
Yeah, I dedicated the book to my Mom and to my Dad who passed away fourteen years ago. You probably noticed that I drew a couple of flowers on that page. Those are the blossoms from the two types of flowering trees that used to fill the woods in the springtime in Texas where I grew up. Mom loved the Redbud and Dad loved the Dogwood and those trees are pretty good metaphors to me for each of my parents and what they gave me as an artist and writer and I guess as a human.
The redbud is a pink explosion with lots of branches packed with tiny intricate blossoms. Mom's like that, outgoing and effusive, a bubbly storyteller and always my biggest fan. The Dogwood has fewer, larger, plain white blossoms that hang like a veil in the gray trees. It's almost austere in its tastefulness. That's more like my Dad. He was more reserved and harder to please. He was funny and even occasionally silly but always in a very dry way. As a kid I often didn't really know he was being funny. It was a surprise for me in my early teen years to learn that he was the funny guy among his friends. The story in the book about choosing our Indian Guides names is a perfect example of this. I had no idea at the time that his Indian name, "Falling Rock," was funny at all. Mom on the other hand was always funny to me and continues to be.
Which one laughs at your cartoons more?
Both enjoyed them, but again in different ways. Mom chortles and Dad would slowly smile and nod.
In a general way, they just always allowed me to pursue whatever interested me, day to day, but also in terms of my career. I was never pressured to pursue a practical career or to consider doing anything just for the money. I was pressured to be a good person, but not a doctor or lawyer or anything like that. I don't take that for granted because I know a lot of families where that is not the case.
Mom was the biggest influence for books and writing. She was an English major in school and always a book lover. She would read to us constantly. We had to work really hard to get her to buy us candy or toys but it was always surprisingly easy to get her to buy us a book. The best days were when she'd pack me and my brother and sister into our two-tone blue Suburban and truck us off to spend an afternoon at the library. She also encouraged my own storytelling just by being an enthusiastic listener. I can remember coming home from kindergarten and sitting on the kitchen counter or pacing around the center island while telling her every single detail from my day at school including full re-enactments of the story that the teacher had read to us that day.
Dad influenced me more on the art side of things. He was an airline pilot by day but an artist and musician in his spare time. He would draw and paint and he played dobro in various bluegrass bands all my life. He designed the two houses our family built and a lot of the furniture inside. I learned an artistic tastefulness from him. His style was never flashy or gaudy, always simple and solid. He also influenced me just in the fact that he always had his own artistic hobby projects going. I grew up thinking that was normal. He'd drag us into things too, whether it was trying to form a family band or just video taping our skits and stuff. And then later, the first time I tried standup comedy, when I was under-aged in a dark scary comedy club, he surprised me by showing up with a video camera. I guess I was surprised and bolstered to know that he cared about that at all. And it was my Dad who pushed me to study art in school, which is kind of remarkable when I stop and think about it now.
You're from Texas and live in Los Angeles. Yet your cartoons appear in the New Yorker, which exemplifies an East Coast version of sophistication. How does your take on humor fit in with the magazine whose famous Steinberg cover showed only the vaguest acknowledgement of anywhere outside of Manhattan?
Well I've just moved to Los Angeles so I'm not sure how that will affect things. I lived in New York City for twelve years, but Texas still shows up a lot in my work. And I lived in North Carolina and South Carolina for a lot of years too. I do a fair share of cowboy cartoons, of course, but I also do a lot of your general southern rural material that I guess a cartoonist growing up in a sophisticated city-slicker bubble might not do. I'm privileged that way I guess. I like to think my work fits in the New Yorker in a similar way that George Booth's work does. He's my cartooning hero. He's from rural Missouri and has always covered the bumpkin beat pretty well. Maybe it's good territory for the New Yorker because it's slightly exotic. Maybe my background helps me see some New York City stuff from an outsider's perspective too.
You have a chapter of lumberjack cartoons? Lumberjacks are funny? And tattoos? Have you heard back from any lumberjacks or people with tattoos?
Not yet but it would be great if I did. I'd love to think that there's a tattooed lumberjack sitting in a cabin somewhere thinking, "finally some cartoons just for me!" There's also a chapter with cartoons for people in prison. I should make that part of my book tour. I could be like Johnny Cash.
In your appearance on The Moth, you talked about seeing an episode of Nightline about the New Yorker cartoonists and taping it so you could watch it over and over. What was it that you found so compelling?
Everything really. Just seeing the cartoonists, what they looked like, how they walked and talked, what their studios looked like, which pens and pencils they used. I just had no idea about any of this. I'd never thought about being a cartoonist before which is kind of crazy because I'd been independently pursuing both art and comedy for close to ten years at that point. So watching this was like a revelation to me. It was my first glimpse into what the actual life and work of a cartoonist was and the process for submitting cartoons to the New Yorker or any magazine for that matter. It was the sudden appearance of a path that I knew I was supposed to take.
My friend, the late Roger Ebert, famously entered the New Yorker cartoon caption competition every week but won just once, and many celebrities, even comedians, enter and lose to amateurs. Come on, you can tell me -- what's the secret to winning?
Oh boy, let's see. I'm pretty sure I'm not supposed to reveal this, but the secret to winning the caption contest is this: always end your captions with the word, "zamboni."
Why are some themes, like a desert island and a guy talking to a bartender or someone lost in the desert so popular? Is there some category you avoid?
I don't knowingly avoid any area that I can make a joke about as long as I feel like it's funny and not mean. These classic New Yorker set-ups you're talking about, that's just a fun challenge. You want to see if you can push them further, to put your own stamp on them. To me it felt like a rite of passage when I started out, to do my own desert island or grim reaper cartoon. I'm pretty sure my colleagues feel the same way. It's almost like a long-running inside joke amongst the cartoonists at this point. We're trying to one up each other and even one up those who have gone before. It's impressive how many different jokes have come from those simple set-ups over the years and every time someone adds a new twist, it opens up a whole new set of possibilities. It's like the kids these days with their Internet memes. It creates its own momentum and becomes a common platform from which to launch new ideas without the burden of building any backstory. It's also interesting to track them over time. Some stick around and others die off and new ones are forming all the time. This touches on what I love most about being a New Yorker cartoonist, the history and tradition and the privilege I feel to carry that on and build on it. It probably sounds silly because we're talking about desert island cartoons here, but that's honestly how I feel about it.
Unlike comic books or comic strips, single-panel cartoons have to be able to introduce us to new characters every time, so quickly that by the time we look down at the caption we know enough about who they are to be surprised by where the joke takes us. How do you think about the look, posture, and hair and clothing of the people in the cartoons and what are some of the signifiers you have used?
It's all of the utmost importance because as you say, it has to come across at a glance. A cartoonist is a one person film crew in a way. It's a really short film, but still. You have to do the casting and the costumes and set design, the hair and make-up and all the rest just to support the script, which in this case is just a single caption. All those choices are important in telling the story and they're based on observations of real people or on the visual shorthand our culture has agreed on to represent different character types. In fact, you actually have to stick to those most of the time or you risk confusing people. If you draw God, for example, you pretty much have to draw him as an old white guy with a beard. This isn't the place to express your personal feelings about what God might look like. Unless of course that's part of the joke you're making. Once you get the character type right, then you sit in your director's chair. You have to decide where the camera should be and how the lighting should look. And you work really hard to keep your characters from over-acting. That's probably the most important part, other than the catering of course.
Many of the pages in the book feature a silhouetted guy making a remark that is funny but not related to the cartoon above him. How do you decide what joke gets a full drawing and where these contra-jokes go?
I call those marginal jokes. They're actually tiny self-portraits. It's just me thinking my odd thoughts and they're not exactly cartoons. A pure cartoon needs to be a partnership between the writing and the drawing. Coming from a standup background, I sometimes have a tendency to write a one liner joke then just draw a person saying it. You can get away with it on occasion, but it isn't as pure a cartoon as you would like. You want the visual part of the cartoon to do its share of the work. But I still love the precise poetry of a good one-liner and these little marginal silhouettes allowed me to work some of those in and also just enabled me to get more stuff on the page than a normal one cartoon per page cartoon book. You have a set amount of pages when making a book and I wanted it to be joke-packed. I aim to please. More jokes for your buck!
What did you learn in fine art classes that helps you as a cartoonist? Did you have to unlearn anything?
Mostly it's just general drawing technique, line and shading and perspective. I tend to draw things more realistically than cartoony. I just prefer to draw that way and I think it serves my comedic voice better. It makes the whole thing a little more understated or dry, less wacky, like my Dad's sense of humor or like Monty Python, which was a big influence on me. I like my comedy a little silly, but with a straight delivery.
Another big thing that sticks with me is just an abstract sense of composition that I gained pursuing "real art" that's one of the reasons that I do most of my cartoons with a square border box around them rather than just floating on the white page. It comes from my painting background where the edge of the canvas creates a clearly defined frame for your composition. I still think about that a lot, how shapes and angles in the drawing work to balance the space and to pull your eye into and around the composition and even towards finding the visual detail that makes the joke.
What makes you laugh?
Pompous people making mistakes. That's always funny. Or people or animals that are ridiculous but unaware of it. Two people having an argument on the street while wearing Halloween costumes. A cat walking around with toilet paper stuck to its hind paw. The way a duck dives down under water leaving it's fluffy rump sticking up into the air and then comes up and looks around like, "What? What's so funny? Why's everyone snickering?" Penguins also make me laugh. Dogs. The word bulbous, and spatula. Also comedy. I like comedy and my funny clever friends. I guess a lot of things make me laugh.
Cartooning is by nature pretty solitary. Is that why you enjoy appearing before groups? What are they most curious about?
Well the classic question is, "where do you get your ideas?" Some creative people hate that question because they get it all the time and because it's really hard to answer. When I speak, I get deep into that because it fascinates me and because I think it's crucial. Ideas are everything or at least the start of everything. That's especially true for the kind of single panel gag cartooning that I do. It's completely idea dependent and that makes it a great laboratory for the study of creativity. I share what I've learned from studying the topic and from speaking with others, but mostly I focus on what I've noticed about my own working methods and how tiny tweaks to my mindset, environment and process can increase my creative output and just my ability to enjoy the process. And of course I show cartoons and tell jokes.
That public interaction is fuel for me. I very much enjoy the solitary part of the creative life. I get antsy if I don't have that, but it feels incomplete to me if I can't also be involved in sharing what I've created. And in comedy it's essential. Laughs, or the lack there of, is the only feedback I really trust.