Who wouldn’t want to know more about a man who visits you every day and hangs out in your kitchen? This month, I cozied happily up to Stephan Pastis, fellow Greek and supertalented creator of the irreverently hilarious comic strip Pearls Before Swine.
I had the hardest time trying to find a conference room in which to interview Stephan–it’s what I get for scheduling an interview on Monday morning. I finally found an empty closet with a phone jack in which to make my call. And I’m very glad I did; Stephan is just as cool as you’d imagine him to be. We talked about everything from Greek mafia hits to Garrison Keillor to Bucky Katt to Stanley Kubrick, and we decided exactly who Spartacus was.
And then I remembered to press record.
Warning: A few crocodiles were harmed during the recording of this interview. But it’s okay, because we un-died them afterwards.
Alethea Kontis: What’s the first thing that pops up when you press “play” on your iPod?
Stephan Pastis: It’s the Bob Dylan album Time Out of Mind. But if you go by which artist is the most played, it’s probably U2.
AK: You’ve mentioned a passion for Hemingway in other interviews you’ve done–what are some of your other favorite contemporary authors?
SP: Historians like Robert Caro, Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough…when I do find an author, I tend to pick up absolutely everything he or she has written and immerse myself in the author’s work. I just did that with Stanley Kubrick, actually–I watched something like 13 Stanley Kubrick films back to back.
This year, my goals are to read up on Roman history, Mayan history, Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, and I want to cover architecture. I know nothing about architecture.
AK: Is there a reason you don’t have characters named “Dog” and “Cat,” or did you make some sort of secret pact with Darby Conley?
SP: Dogs and cats are two animals that have been historically too covered on the comics page, so I have to sort of watch that. That said, I do have a new character who is a dog on a leash that I’m really warming up to, and in the next few months there will be a cat who is a very interesting character.
AK: When you sit down to write your strips, do you find that art imitates life, or that life imitates art?
SP: I do the strip in such a way that it’s not a one-to-one relationship. I don’t see something and it goes into the strip; I sort of let the subconscious run free and what comes out comes out. You know that zone you get in when you’re in the car on a six-hour drive, and suddenly you wonder where the last four hours went? That’s the zone I’m usually in when I’m writing. I make up these scenarios and put them down. Afterwards, things tend to happen in real life that seem to reflect that. And since I write the strip about eight months in advance, by the time it runs everybody thinks that I wrote it after the event…when it’s usually the other way around.
AK: Do you still have the cartoons you drew as a kid?
SP: I do. For some reason, most of those cartoons were based on television commercials. There’s one in particular I remember about the Fruit of the Loom dying in the hamper.
AK: Does picture book star Danny Donkey have a publisher yet?
SP: That would be great, wouldn’t it? People have asked me about that one, and if there would be an Angry Bob book. They couldn’t be by me, of course–they would have to be by Rat. Maybe I’ll compile “Rat’s Complete Writings” someday.
AK: How many times has Crocodile Bob died?
SP: Well, Angry Bob has died 19 times. I know that because there are nineteen strips–they are all numbered. I call them “Author One” and “Author Two.” I think the last one is “Author Nineteen.” The Crocs, oh boy, that’s a harder question. I don’t track them and I should. There have probably been about 50 to 60 croc deaths. They’ve died an awful lot. I know Larry died a few times, too. I just conveniently keep going. I don’t even bother to un-die them. I make no pretense about having any sort of continuity in my strip.
AK: Now, Larry, he’s the one with the wife, right?
SP: There’s definitely a family–I have to ask my son this sometimes because I forget their names–but I think his wife’s name is Patty and his son’s name is Junior. Where they live I don’t really know…somehow they’re next door to Zebra, and the Fraternity of Crocs is next to Zebra and I don’t think they’re in the same house. The Lions are on the other side of Zebra, and now he has Hyenas, so the whole thing’s all mixed up.
AK: Zebra really does live in a bad neighborhood, doesn’t he? Croc Speak is the best, though…the favorite phrase going around here is: “You shut mouf, woomun!”
SP: (laughs) That’s a popular line. I used to hear “Hullo, zeeba neighba,” but now I hear “You shut mouf,” or “Peese shut mouf.” I like when they say “Peese.”
AK: Since I’m recording this, could *you* please say something in Crocodile Speak?
SP: See, I don’t talk like other people hear it. When I do it, I always ruin it for other people. I say, “Hullo, zeeba neighba. Leesen…” and hear something like Russian, but I know that’s not how other people hear it and I end up spoiling it for everybody.
AK: You’ve never accidentally said, “You shut mouf, woomun!” to your wife, have you?
SP: Oh, wow. Wouldn’t that be something? I don’t think she would be my wife anymore. I do talk Croc to my kids…it’s probably pretty annoying for them. I don’t think they listen to me.
AK: Is there a reason you chose crocodiles over alligators? Do they live in the Southern Hemisphere?
SP: That’s a good question. Why didn’t I make them alligators? I know crocodiles are bigger, so they’re theoretically more menacing…which makes these guys all the more lame.
“Croc” is just a good sound. A lot of it is based on sound. It’s all rhythm. If you’ve ever watched a stand-up comic–especially the old guys who were really good at it–if they were going along and it came close to the punch line and they said the wrong word and then restated it, the joke was ruined. If it’s just a joke, the word doesn’t matter, but it has the same effect as a pianist hitting the wrong note. You cannot recapture the song. Once you have people in your rhythm, they will find stuff funny even if it isn’t necessarily so.
Sometimes people will ask me to put their name in the strip, but the real reason I don’t is because usually rhythmically it doesn’t fit. “Bob” is such a great word. It’s short, it’s funny, it’s a stupid verb, it’s a whole bunch of things. Anything that’s palindromic or repeated syllables: Fifi, Gigi…those are funny. I don’t know why.
AK: Do you have a lot of storytellers in your family? (Being Greek I can’t imagine you don’t…)
SP: Oh yeah, there are relatives who definitely like to tell stories. No writers, though; I don’t know where I came from. Milkman, maybe.
AK: With all the morbid humor, do you have an undertaker in the family?
SP: Wait let me think about that a sec…no. But you know, coming from a huge family you go to tons of funerals. I’ve been a pall bearer maybe 10 times. And when I’m bored waiting in the wings I talk to the undertakers. They are really creepy. I remember one who took great pride in how well he applied makeup. That scared the $%#* out of me. That’s just wrong.
AK: How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to write comic strips?
SP: They weren’t worried because I had the law thing going–I had done school and grad school and had the degree. It was a side thing I did once I already had done everything. If I had said it to them when I was a junior in high school, I think it probably would have worried my mom, at least. But because of the way I did it, what’s the worst that could happen? I could just go back to being a lawyer.
AK: In some way, shape, or form, do any of your characters reflect anyone in real life?
SP: Ummm…er…ew…yes. Rat is clearly me. He’s the most natural voice for me by far. If I had my way, I would do only Rat strips. You would not want to spend a whole weekend with me. I would annoy you. Pig is me, but he’s also [my wife] Staci to some extent, like the interplay I see sometimes reflects our conversations. Goat is definitely me: smarter, quieter, wants to stay away from everybody. The Zebra and Crocs are nobody. The Duck is me insofar as I hate my neighbors.
If the characters are going to be believable, they all have to be you. Sparky told me that once. I didn’t really understand what he meant then, but now I do. Otherwise, you don’t have a real good grasp on them. Really, you don’t know anyone like you do yourself.
I cannot write from the female perspective; I can’t do it convincingly. They turn out very one-dimensional. I admire writers that can switch genders. It’s an amazing thing. I’m hoping my relationship with my daughter changes that. I think she changes how I interact with females. I think she’s changed me, so I think she might be reflected eventually in a character.
AK: Good for her! So…what is the meanest thing Rat has ever done?
SP: Tearing Cathy’s head off and sticking it in a closet and declaring that her strip had become funnier since she could no longer speak. If I could take something back, it would be that, because I now know her and I feel extra bad.
AK: Do you ever “okay it” before you do a parody of another strip?
SP: I do now, only because I know almost everyone. Bil Keane is actually writing the intro to my next book.
AK: Do you feel impeded by today’s political correctness?
SP: Oh yeah. Other than Hi and Lois, there’s not a single cartoonist who won’t tell you that. It impedes you like crazy. If not for that, I would say “sucks” and “screwed” all the time. I could have references to sex or drugs. It’s like playing a piano and they only give you the black keys. I want to have South Park or Family Guy‘s rules. I got to go to the Family Guy studio one time, and I was looking through the storyboards. Every joke I saw I thought: “This would end my career, this would end my career, THIS would end my career…”
AK: Perhaps when you retire you can go out with a bang. Why is it that comic strip writers (Gary Larson, Bill Watterson) tend to suddenly retire?
SP: My theory on that is that it’s akin to novel writing. There is a natural length a novel should be. There’s a reason you don’t see 4,000-page novels. There’s a natural arc that even the best writers have to close up at some point. It’s about the 15-year mark. Peanuts and Doonesbury went a little beyond that, but by and large there seems to be something magical about the 15-year mark. The secret is to really expand your set of characters, which is something both Sparky and Trudeau did.