There’s a great passage written by pre-Beat poet Kenneth Rexroth that was published in an article in The Nation in 1957 lamenting the death of “politically radical humor” and the rise of “New Yorker humor,” which he described as humor that invariably hinges on “the whimsical disaster[s]” that beset those who attempt to “do something as elemental as driving a nail or mowing a lawn.” That was 50 years ago and, true to Rexroth’s foreboding, New Yorker humor has pretty much become the yardstick with which we mismeasure our cultural funny bone, even though so many lampoonable imbeciles rule the land.
In fact, as society retrogresses further into the ridiculously class-conscious oligarchy of its own pre-Revolutionary beginnings and fewer people mow their own lawns, New Yorker humor has expanded way beyond merely describing whimsical disasters, of which there are fewer, to describing political disasters, of which there are an increasing number, leaving only those who were alive and working in the earlier part of the 20th century to know how to actually create politically radical humor, albeit with less ferocity and considerably more weariness than then.
I met one of these few remaining 20th-century radicals last month — Paul Conrad, a man who Time magazine called “an acid-penned liberal” in 1960 — and had a conversation with him that was not particularly radical or even humorous and was barely political, but why should it have been? Why should any artist be expected to mirror the heightened fury or the magnanimous joy of his art when he’s not actively engaged in creating it? I’m reminded of Woody Allen’s surprising description of Groucho Marx upon meeting him at a restaurant in the late 1970s, which went something like this: He was no funnier than anybody’s elderly uncle whom you might get stuck talking to at a family reunion.
What was remarkable, I told myself after meeting this 20th-century radical and recording two hours of a conversation filled largely with meandering twattle and reminiscences so worn out that much of their exquisite detail had been obliterated by years of affectionate caressing, was Conrad’s deep humanity, infectious calm and endearing exhaustion, which is precisely where the greatest art, radical or otherwise, is supposed to eventually lead all of us — isn’t it? Aside from his white-hot contempt for television, George Bush, the death of the environment, the gun lobby and the war in Iraq, this 20th-century radical was at peace, finally.
That said, asking Conrad, winner of three Pulitzer Prizes as staff cartoonist for the Los Angeles Times, to talk about his cartooning is like asking Miles Davis to talk about his musicianship: It’s stupid, particularly because a cartoonist, like a musician, has already found the most eloquent means of expressing himself, and it’s definitely not through conversation with a stranger.
Conrad used the word motherfucker better than any octogenarian whom I’d ever hung out with before; that is, sparingly, and only when he felt he couldn’t make his point by using sonuvabitch, asshole or shithead. Similar to the way he drew his cartoons, he was about as obtuse as a very dark line drawn on a white piece of paper in permanent ink, even captioned for the politically impaired.
He said he hadn’t yet read his new autobiography, I, Con, as he led me through his Palos Verdes home, the décor a finely aged 1970s amber and chrome, the light poor, everything smelling like pipe smoke, old dog and gray coffee. The clutter of the place, which was substantial, spoke of an insatiable mind that sought nourishment in devouring everything that it could, whether it was the most recent news hyenaed from exploded newspapers or more bric-a-brac and knickknacks than his sudden death would be able to prevent from turning an otherwise dignified estate sale into something vastly more attractive to the flip-flop crowd, a sprawling Saturday bazaar of not for sale gimcrackery.
On pedestals scattered around the sunken living room were his sculptures, old and new, and parked at the base of the steps was a 1924 Steinway that was as big as a Buick Skylark, its enormity making the room feel a little bit like a garage, the pretentiousness of such a grand piece of furniture mollified by the happy mess surrounding it.
“I understand that the first thing to go on a person is his hands,” I said, patting the piano as I passed it. “How are yours holding up?”
“Oh, fine. She’s the joy of my life,” he said, his obvious affection for the instrument at once moving and mundane, like a marriage ground into a kind of rote elation. He didn’t slow down on our way through the room.
Covering every inch of wall space were paintings, many of them done by his recently deceased twin brother, Jim (like the piano, also born in 1924), family photographs, framed awards and certificates, all of them fitted together like Scrabble tiles with no room left to brag about the fullness of an old man’s life. In fact, the only thing free of the cacophony of stuff was the ceiling, left open, I imagined, to allow Catholicism to flow massively either in or out of the room, depending on who was judging the world that day, God or Conrad.
“You really haven’t read your autobiography?” I asked.
“No,” he said, leading me up a small flight of stairs, past a television set that had a UHF dial on it that was as smooth as a seashell, to the small, round kitchen table where his dog, Benjie, and his coffee were waiting for him.
“Well, didn’t you write it? I mean, where did the publishers get the words that are in it?” I said, needing to make the clarification because most of the book was cartoons.
“I didn’t write anything for it,” he said, falling into his chair, his impartiality to the power of the written word revealed by something he said 50 years earlier: I have no idea what the readership is of written editorials, but it doesn’t come anywhere close to the readership of editorial cartoons. “They just came out and asked me a bunch of silly questions, over and over again.” I looked down at the silly questions listed in the open notebook that I’d just laid on the table and felt a little like a cheap date.
“And who are you again?” he said, lighting his pipe.
“Wayne Booth,” he said confidently, like so many people do, including many of my wife’s relatives who have known me for 20 years.
“Dwayne,” I said, clarifying, like I always do, except with my wife’s relatives. “Mr. Fish is the name that I use on my cartoons.
“Mr. Fish?” he repeated, his facing saying, Should I know your name from the frozen-food section of the grocery store?
“Yup, Mr. Fish,” I said, setting up my tape recorder and wishing that my name was Wayne.
Conrad offered me a cup of coffee by pointing me toward the pot and hollering directions, once I’d left the room, as to where a mug could be found. Pouring my cup, I hollered back that I, like him, was a twin and, in fact, had often wondered if all the attention that I’d gotten growing up had something to do with why I’d become an editorial cartoonist, having developed the expectation that people would always be interested in me and, therefore, that my opinion mattered. “What about you?” I said, sitting down and pressing the record button. “Do you think that the automatic celebrity of being a twin gave you a sense that you had, not so much something to say, but a guaranteed audience who would at least be there to listen?”
“Maybe, although I did most of my drawing [growing up] to spite my father and older brother, Bill, who were right-wingers,” he said. “[My twin] Jim was more of a middle-of-the-road Republican. That is, until they elected this asshole.
“[Bush] is a fucking nut,” Conrad continued, packing his pipe. “I think he borders on the insane.”
“Worse than Nixon?” I said, being too young to have any real memory of the man beyond the Rich Little version that was as benign as Arte Johnson’s Nazi on Laugh-In.
“Oh, yeah,” he said.
I should say, also, that I brought up Nixon not because I’m such a lazy student of American history that I’m only capable of comparing one alleged worst president of all time! with another, but because Nixon was to Paul Conrad what the unshaven, slouched and disillusioned GI was to famed WWII cartoonist Bill Mauldin: not just his bread and butter but also his mortgage and the college tuitions for his children.
What I did refuse to do, however, was to ask the Nixon question that has appeared in every interview with Conrad ever since 1973, namely, What do you consider a greater accomplishment, receiving the Pulitzer Prize or appearing on President Nixon’s enemies list? I wanted to avoid asking it because not only did I already know the answer (can you guess?), I didn’t feel that it truly revealed the relevance of Conrad and his art. Nixon’s enemies list was little more than a ridiculously detailed suicide note from a public figure torn to pieces by his own insecurities. Having your name added to such a list is meaningless.
Similarly meaningless is a quote from the late Gerald Ford that has appeared nearly as often as the Nixon question in profiles done on Conrad: “Laugh, and the world laughs with you. Cry, and you’ve been the subject of a Paul Conrad cartoon.” Likewise with the enemies list, when one recognizes that the most complimentary thing that anybody could think to say about Ford at the time of his death was “he was a man who led by asking questions” and“he used to toast his own English muffins,” suddenly the observation becomes something less than magnanimous.
No, Paul Conrad is not flattered by absurdist criticism or imbecilic praise, but has rather gained all the accolades that he rightly deserves by moving the hearts and minds of his readers with a precision of thought and a generosity of spirit that has remained remarkably steady for more than half a century.
What I did ask him was this: “Your disdain for Nixon’s politics is well documented, but what did you think of his piano playing?”
“I never knew that the motherfucker played,” he said. “And I wouldn’t have listened to the fucking sonuvabitch if I’d had the opportunity.”
Following that question, I could tell that Conrad had finally figured out that he wasn’t being interviewed by a journalist, but rather just another smart-ass cartoonist. Almost immediately, our conversation switched from being something easily transcribed for publication to the sort of zigzagging chitchat that warms only the participants.
Example: I told him that I often found cartooning horribly depressing and wildly elating at the same time because all of my best work usually came out of the most disastrous political circumstances and that, aside from needing to endure the sort of existential nausea severe enough to uncross the eyes of Sartre and the legs of Simone de Beauvoir, George Bush’s re-election in 2004 was the best thing that could’ve happened to our profession. He told me stuff like he went to Mass because it was like eating half a head of lettuce. “It’s just got to be good for you,” he said, spilling pipe tobacco onto his trousers.
Then, before I knew it, the coffee was done and the dog was asleep. I started packing up to go and, already feeling sentimental about the afternoon, thanked him for what he did.
“Huh?” he said.
“You know, what you do with your cartooning,” I said.
“What do I do?” he wanted to know, standing to walk me to the door.
“You know, changing the world for the better, that kind of crap,” I said. He grunted and waved off my comment as if he’d caught a whiff of something too sweet to be entirely pleasant. “You don’t think an editorial cartoonist can change the world?” I said, suddenly wondering if I’d entered the wrong profession.
“Nope,” he said.
I gathered my stuff and followed him into the living room. “Do you think a bunch of editorial cartoonists can change the world?” I said.
“Nope,” he said.
“Well,” I said, “your cartoons can start the conversation that can change opinions that can change the world. Right?”
“I’ve never seen any evidence of that. It’s all the same crap,” he said, as we reached the front door.
I asked him if he knew the famous story about Boss Tweed, the Tammany Hall chief from the 1860s. He said that he didn’t. I told him that Tweed never cared what people wrote about him in the newspapers, but that he despised the mass appeal of editorial cartoons, which he referred to as them damn pictures and were what ultimately destroyed his career and effectively ended the corruption that had gripped the city for that time period.
“Hmm,” he said, opening the door.
“Your cartoons,” I told him, “let people know that politics are not too complicated to understand and that nobody is so stupid that they shouldn’t have an opinion about what goes on in the world.”
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“Do you find that anybody has any idea about what is going on in the world?” he wanted to know.
“I find that people are not used to talking about political issues and that it’s a difficult conversation and I think that what you do is provide a point of reference for the common person to feel brave and empowered enough to look at certain issues, maybe even do something about them.”
“Well, I hope so,” he said, as unaware of his importance as a pen is of what it’s writing. And then: “I promise to play piano for you next time you come by, Wayne.”
I, CON: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF PAUL CONRAD, EDITORIAL CARTOONIST | By Paul Conrad | Angel City Press | 192 pages | $25 paperback