When I first started drawing cartoons, I lived in a very small apartment in Los Angeles on a shady street near the corner of Fairfax and Willoughby. It was the second floor of a two-car garage. Actually, it was half of the second floor. In the other half lived my neighbor Sharon. Sharon was okay, but her laugh carried. Which was bad, but not as bad as the family who lived in the building about five inches from my window. They generated an ungodly amount of noise, most of it centered around a baby that they seemed to call “cha-tool” for some reason.
So there I was, living in a space that was meant to hold just one car and maybe some old boxes or tools or whatever it is people put in (half of) a garage. I had very few possessions, but, even so, it was quite cramped in there. That’s why I drew not at a table but sitting on my bed, hunched over like some kind of beetle. After a few months of that, my back began to hurt from the hunching, and I came up with a new system. I sat on the floor and placed my pad on the low platform bed, atop which a flat, flat futon rested.
Oh God, remember futons? This was the late ’80s, and I was in my early 20s. I had come to Los Angeles thinking I would stay for a year or two. But, of course, I never left. I just drifted from one bad assistant job in the entertainment business to another. For many reasons too horrific to go into, the worst was as a production assistant on a cerebral palsy telethon where the entire staff was at war with one another.
For a while, I had a steady job as an assistant to a television producer of variety specials, but then he went to Europe for six weeks. He didn’t want to pay me while he was away, so he indentured me to a writer friend of his during the interim. Does any of this make any sense? Maybe you had to be in Los Angeles in the late ’80s. But, to tell you the truth, I was and it didn’t.
Now I was the assistant to this woman who hadn’t written anything that had been produced in 10 years. And so she had gone mad, although naturally she had been very highly paid in her downward descent. It was unclear why she needed me, since the only thing she ever wanted me to do was pick up 2-liter bottles of Diet Sprite for her. She made this request constantly, over and over again. She would call from various locations around the city, asking me to go to the supermarket and drop them off at her undecorated house in the Hollywood Hills. I would say, “But, ______, you already have a lot of bottles in the pantry. I put some in there yesterday.” She would be annoyed when I pointed this out, but she didn’t back down. She needed her Diet Sprite, I needed to support myself, and so the pantry got more and more crowded. She must have drunk some now and then, but, honestly, she didn’t even seem to care much for Diet Sprite.
I wish I could say that my personal life was better than my professional life at this time. But it wasn’t. I took random stabs at romantic relationships, but somehow I could never seem to . . . now why am I telling you all this? I’m not sure, except that I was just thumbing through the drawings in my new collection, and I stopped to look at one and remembered that I was sitting on the floor of the half of the second story of a garage on a street off Fairfax when I drew it. And I remember which job was paying my bills at the time, who I was not in love with, and what song was being played every 10 minutes on the radio. I also remember what I was scared of, how intensely I held my beliefs (which, of course, changed moment by moment) and what people in my life intimidated me. The particular drawing that I stopped at was, in fact, inspired by a person who intimidated me back then — it was someone I had gone to college with who was now much more successful than I was (not that that was so hard) and utterly comfortable with himself and confident of his “gifts.” I thought I could never be that comfortable with myself, and wondered why. The result of these ruminations was a cartoon about a contemplative fish who should perhaps be more secure.
Which is all to say that these drawings are really my journals. I use them to explore whatever I find interesting, confusing or upsetting on any given day. But here’s the beauty part — these private thoughts are filtered through the prism of moody children and blasé pets, disillusioned middle-aged men and weary matrons, among others. And so I get to work through whatever I am thinking about in a coded way. No one but me will ever know what the real seed of each image and caption was. So I can be as free as I want to say whatever I want, and no one can catch me. It’s great.
Every morning (to this day, I have the same routine, except now I have a desk, albeit a pretty crappy one), I sit down and think about why I am disgruntled or why I am not as disgruntled as I was yesterday, and out come these little drawings . . . after much angst and staring into space and occasional lying on the ground moaning. And each week I send off 10 or so, of which maybe one or two are bought. (Or very often none — sometimes I merely pump out insane bile that wouldn’t interest one single person on the planet, just like any other journal writer.)
And then, finally, they are published. Mostly in The New Yorker and here in the Weekly. Maybe they appear days after I did them, but sometimes it is weeks, or months, or even years. And when I look at them, I think back to why I drew whatever I drew and I laugh. Or sometimes cringe. Or, every now and then, just wonder what the hell was wrong with me.
Adapted from the introduction to This Is a Bad Time: A Collection of Cartoons, published this week by Simon & Schuster. Kaplan will sign books at an L.A. Weekly–sponsored event on Thursday, April 1, 7-9 p.m. at Michael’s Room, 1745 N. Vermont Ave., in Los Feliz Village.
He will also appear at Borders, 1360 Westwood Blvd., Westwood, on Thursday, April 29 at 7:30 p.m.