Mondo Bizarro: The Dan Piraro Interview
In today’s culture, nothing breeds imitators like success: The Osbournes begat The Anna Nicole Show, Nirvana spawned a flannel-clad host of grunge bands, and we can blame Survivor for the scourge of reality programming. Similarly, in comics, the blockbuster popularity of Gary Larson’s The Far Side created a demand for single panels showcasing oddball humor. Dan Piraro’s Bizarro benefited from good timing but too often became relegated to the burgeoning category of Far Side clone; however, no clone could so successfully entwine artistic virtuosity with a unique comedic perspective. Since Bizarro‘s January 22, 1986, debut, Piraro has taken his panel in directions simultaneously surreal and topical. In a comic universe where world-weary talking dogs exist alongside nihilistic housewives, Piraro gives his cartoons heft by skewering his own betes noires: wasteful consumerism, environmental destruction, corporate greed and sheeplike people, to name a few. (He also espouses animal rights in his work, for which the Humane Society honored him in January with its Genesis Award.) Though his humor is never didactic, Piraro’s work is remarkable in its unwillingness to pander, even when the occasional panel borders on the inscrutable. (For example, he once used the Etruscans as a punchline; if you skipped history class that day, tough.) The 44-year-old Kansas City, Mo., native (and current New Yorker) has also begun participating in the nascent vaudeville revival with his one-man Bizarro Bologna Show, an entertainment potpourri into which he incorporates puppetry, song, ventriloquism, mind reading and drawing (not to mention slides of Bizarro cartoons too blue for newspaper publication). Creatively restive, Piraro also produces fine art, some of which uses the Catholic imagery that he was exposed to at parochial school. Yet after 17 years of deadline-mandated creativity, Piraro has refused to coast or repeat himself, and his peers in the National Cartoonists Society have acknowledged their respect for him by voting him the winner of its Best Newspaper Panel award for three years running, a string of victories without NCS precedent, not to mention its top prize, the Reuben Award, in 2010. Although from time to time Piraro mulls over leaving cartooning for other creative pastures—again, shades of Gary Larson!—he won’t be hanging up his brush any time soon, having recently inked a multiyear contract with King Features Syndicate. Since sustained excellence like Bizarro‘s is rare in any medium, his willingness to shepherd his panel into its third decade is great news for comics fans and for the more than 200 papers that carry the strip. Though Piraro maintains that Bizarro is a comic strip for people who don’t read comic strips, we all know better: Bizarro is a comic strip for people who love comic strips. —Tom Heintjes
Tom Heintjes: When did you determine that the water buffalo represented the pinnacle of feminine coiffure?
Dan Piraro: [Laughter] It was kind of a gradual process. I grew up in Oklahoma with ladies who looked like that. I was also a big fan of The Jetsons, and the women in The Jetsons always had this retro, futuristic, lacquered look. I liked that look. Also, I get bored sometimes. It’s easy to get bored when you have to do something every day, and quite often that boredom shows up in a lot of people’s work. Their work doesn’t change at all over the years and they’re just rehashing the same ideas and characters. So I try to keep it fresh for myself and my readers by changing things. And at some point I kept trying to draw women funnier, and the hair just got bigger and wackier. I’m not tired of it, so I keep doing it.
Heintjes: A lot of the furniture you draw has a retro look to it as well.
Piraro: I’m a big fan of furniture. I love furniture designs, especially chairs. I get a kick out of drawing chairs that I would like to have. I actually own a lot of the furniture I draw in my cartoons. A friend of mine builds furniture, and I’ve had him build some of the furniture I’ve drawn.
Heintjes: I especially like some of the coffee tables you’ve drawn.
Piraro: Some of those are based on ones I own, and some of them are based on ones in my head that I’d like to own.
Heintjes: Your gift for cartooning manifested itself pretty early on.
Piraro: My favorite pastime has always been drawing, even when I was two or three years old. I also played sports and army and all the stuff that kids regularly do, but my favorite thing was always drawing. I spent hours and hours a day in my room, or by the TV or somewhere.
Heintjes: Did your parents encourage it?
Piraro: Yeah, they recognized that I had a real passion for it. They would show stuff that I drew to their friends, or they’d ask me to draw stuff for people.
Heintjes: Did they have any artistic talent?
Piraro: The funny thing is that they both do, but neither of them uses it professionally or ever has. In my immediate family—my parents, sisters and cousins—all of us are either into some sort of professional art field or are heavily into hobby art. There’s a lot of artistic talent in the family. I have a cousin in Kansas City who’s a successful illustrator and does some work for Marvel Comics. I have another cousin who’s an art director and designer. But it’s pretty much a normal Midwestern family. When I wanted to go to art school instead of regular college, they were a little reticent about it. My mom’s attitude was, Be an art student, but have brain surgery to fall back on. “Falling back” was a big theme in my family. You had to have something to fall back on, when what you wanted to do failed, which it would. You needed to be able to fall back. I try to deny that at every turn.
Piraro: I went to Catholic school, Latin Mass every morning. The nuns dressed up like penguins in black-and-white habits where just their faces were showing.
Heintjes: And another piece of the Piraro puzzle falls into place.
Piraro: It was a very conformist environment. They weren’t real into creativity for the most part. They were trying to stamp out good little Catholics by the dozens. But at some point during the week, they’d tell us to take out our Big Chief tablets and our crayons, and they’d assign us some art. Well, as soon as she’d say, “Take out your crayons,” I’d start. I didn’t need any help deciding what to draw. I always had something in my head I wanted to draw. Art time was maybe the only part of elementary school I didn’t find excruciating. One time, Sister Miriam Theresa came by my desk and said,”What is this a drawing of?” And I said, “It’s a cowboy and a horse.” She said, “What Bible story does it depict?” Apparently, the assignment had been to draw something from a Bible story, but I didn’t hear that. I just started drawing cowboys and horses. She took the drawing from me, and I was so hurt. She couldn’t have hurt me more if she’d taken my puppy and twisted its neck off. I thought I was in big trouble. Later that night, my mom called me over and she had the drawing. She said, “Sister Miriam Theresa gave me this drawing after school today.” I thought, “Uh-oh, I’m in trouble now.” Mom said, “Why did you draw this cowboy so big?” I said, “Because he’s close, he’s in front.” She said, “Why did you draw the horse so little?” I said, “Because he’s far away, he’s in back.” I was thinking, “What the heck is all this about?” I had no idea what was going on about this drawing. Later on, I found out that they couldn’t believe I drew this in perspective, and kids just don’t do that. It’s just the way I saw things.
Heintjes: Did you go to art school after high school?
Piraro: I didn’t want to go to college at all. I really felt that after high school, I was ready to be unleashed on the world, which was sheer arrogance on my part, but what the heck—I was a kid. But my parents just didn’t think you could make a living without a college degree, so they made me apply for scholarships. My mother would put things in front of me and make me fill them out. She would take pictures of my art. It was really kind of sad; I wasn’t lifting a finger to help. I was such a spoiled ass. I was not a troubled teen or anything, but I was not interested in going to college. We argued and argued, and she finally made me agree that, if she could get me a scholarship, I’d go to college. She ended up getting me a fine arts scholarship to Washington University in St. Louis.
Heintjes: That’s a very good school.
Piraro: Yeah, it’s very good. [Mother Goose and Grimm cartoonist] Mike Peters graduated from there. I went there as long as I could stand it, which was a semester, and then I dropped out.
Heintjes: You flushed the scholarship.
Piraro: I flushed a four-year scholarship. I gave it all back and convinced my parents that I tried. And they said, “OK, well, you have to pay rent now.” So that was pretty much what kicked me out on my ear. Once I was not in school, they weren’t willing to support me anymore. So I started working. It took me a lot longer to get rich than I thought it would. In fact, I’m still waiting.
Heintjes: In 1981, you began illustrating advertisements for Neiman-Marcus.
Piraro: I was doing a little illustrating, but it was mostly designing ads like direct-mail cards and some of the photo ads in magazines. It was nothing cartoony at all. In fact, my art never really ran toward cartooning until I decided to become a cartoonist. Before that, I was doing serious art. I wanted to become a painter. The stuff I did commercially was pretty realistic or was very stylized. It had nothing to do with humor.
Heintjes: You never came up with humorous ideas as you do now?
Piraro: No. In fact, that’s sort of how I got into cartooning. The atmosphere at Neiman’s was fun. It was a bunch of edgy, art-school kids who worked there, so it was kind of a fun place to work, but the work itself was really dry. To entertain myself, I would draw these odd, nonsensical cartoons of odd people doing strange things with little narrations. They didn’t make much sense, but people liked them. I guess they had a certain kind of odd charm. My friends started collecting these little photocopied collections of my cartoons, and from time to time they would try to convince me to get them published. I would say, “Oh come on—people don’t publish this kind of stuff. People only publish Dennis the Menace.” Then one day, someone brought me a newspaper, and I had long since stopped reading newspaper comics. Someone brought me a paper and said, “Look at this thing called The Far Side.” I was like, “Wow, look at that! How strange is that! They’re publishing things like that!” I couldn’t believe it! So while Gary Larson wasn’t a direct influence on me, the fact that he was in the paper was an influence on me. So I started making my cartoons a little more intelligible, and I started submitting them. I figured if you could get signed to a syndication contract, you’re probably making 50 grand a year right off the bat.
Heintjes: Boy, you were green.
Piraro: I know. And I also figured it wouldn’t be hard to get syndicated. I said, “How hard can it be? Look how bland the newspaper page is. It must mean not many people are trying to do this” [laughter]. So I decided to come up with the perfect idea: Science fiction was popular, and women’s causes were popular, so I came up with a science fiction strip about a woman. I said, “It will have a running commentary about society like Doonesbury, and it will appeal to this, that and the other group.” So I drew up a bunch of these strips and titled it Babs Bizarro. The title came to me out of thin air. So I sent this off to a few syndicates, and I got the usual, “These are interesting, but it’s not really what we’re looking for.”
Heintjes: So you had already figured out how to submit material to the syndicates.
Piraro: Someone had given me this big book on how to be a cartoonist, which had about a pamphlet’s worth of information in it. I just needed to know where to send them and how the industry worked. I didn’t know if I needed an agent or anything like that, but the book told me that if I send it, they would look at it. So I started doing that. I’d send 20 or 25 samples with an envelope so they could send them back to me with their response.
Heintjes: And you began receiving the time-honored “encouraging rejection.”
Piraro: Yes, the encouraging rejections. I did that for a while. For maybe a couple of months, I probably drew up 30 or 40 of those strips and sent them off. Then I gave up—”Oh, they don’t know what the hell they’re doing. Look at this garbage in the paper.” I guess I got my feelings hurt, and I wasn’t very good with rejection. But at some point I decided to try again, and I figured I’d send in the wacky stuff I used to do to entertain myself at Neiman’s.
Heintjes: You didn’t draw new material? These were your drawings from the department store?
Piraro: Yes, and these were some really crummy scribblings. But the key was—and I tell this to people who are trying to get started in the field—that it’s what comes from your heart. If you’re not entertaining yourself, you’re not going to be entertaining anyone else, either. To hell with the formulas. A lot of people try to be so professional and so formulaic that it comes off stiff. It looks like they’re copying what’s already in the paper, which is what syndicates complain about: “Don’t send me something like Blondie—I’ve already got Blondie.” And those strips I sent in are the ones that got the attention. It’s a simple thing to see now. Then, I started getting the personalized letters from the syndicates, not the form letters. The most encouraging thing was when Stuart Dodds from Chronicle Features called me on the phone, and he just loved them. He said they would love to continue talking to me about them. He said they wouldn’t be able to do anything about syndication at that moment because they had a very small sales force and they already had The Far Side. That was when The Far Side was still in its first five years, and it was with Chronicle Features. They said they didn’t feel they could take on another odd cartoon feature, because they didn’t feel that they could sell both of them. At that time, Larson had been doing The Far Side for about three years and it was still in under 100 papers. It was sort of a slow launch for him. But Stuart said they really liked my stuff and asked me to keep working on it and sending them things as I did them. I was all excited about that, and then a couple of months later he called and said he was going to be in Dallas on a sales trip, and he wanted to take me out to lunch. I was 25 years old at this point, so it was really exciting. It was the first time a businessperson had ever taken me to lunch and paid for it. It was like the first time a limo picks you up at the airport, and there’s that guy with your name on a sign. The first time that happens is very exciting. So about a year and a half later, I’m still doing stuff and sending it to him. He would come to town every now and then, and we had three or four meetings in Dallas when he was in town, and we became friendly. He liked the stuff I was doing. Then one day he called me and said, “I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that Gary Larson is jumping to Universal Press Syndicate, and we had no idea he was even thinking about it. But the good news is that we’ve decided to pick up your strip because we now have room for it.”
Heintjes: Chronicle Features launched you into eight papers, which is a toehold in the marketplace but hardly provides a living wage. How did you manage with that client list?
Piraro: Like everybody else—I worked during the day and came home and cartooned all night.
Heintjes: You were also starting a family around this time. You really had your hands full with a full-time day job, a syndicated strip and a small child.
Piraro: Yeah, I did. That aspect of the situation was not great. We were not trying to have kids at that point, it was just one of those things that happens. I was 23 when she was born, and raising a kid wasn’t where I thought I would be at that age. That was difficult.
Heintjes: Were you still at Neiman-Marcus?
Piraro: At that time, my day job was in an illustration studio, so I was doing illustrations of stuff like Pepsi and Taco Bell and Frito-Lay, like you see on coupons. It was dry, dull stuff and it drove me nuts.
Heintjes: So cartooning was a welcome creative outlet, even with the other demands in your life.
Piraro: Yeah, it was my only creative outlet at the time, because I didn’t have time to do anything else. So I’d some home, and I’d have my daughter on one knee and my sketchpad on the other knee, and I’d be working.
Heintjes: How long was your contract with Chronicle Features?
Piraro: I did 10 years at Chronicle. At the time I left Chronicle, my client list was not that strong. Again, Chronicle had a very small sales force, and it was a very small syndicate. As small as my list was, I think it might have been the biggest one they had.
Heintjes: By the time you left Chronicle, how many papers was Bizarro in?
Piraro: Maybe 100 or 110. I wasn’t making money hand over fist, but by that time I was making a living, and I was able to quit the illustration job. I guess I had been doing the illustration job for about five years.
Heintjes: So around 1990 you were able to focus full-time on cartooning.
Heintjes: Chronicle must have had a feeling of deja vu when you went to Universal, since that’s the same path Gary Larson took. How did they feel about your departure?
Piraro: They were upset about it. They were very upset that, just as The Far Side was becoming a national sensation, Larson jumped ship. That’s how Chronicle saw it, but Gary Larson felt that he wouldn’t have become a national sensation without a larger sales force. Chronicle felt he was about to become a national sensation with them, and when he left it sort of yanked the rug out from under Chronicle. Stuart Dobbs and I had become friends, and he’s a great guy. He was a very British guy…well, he still is, since he’s not dead [laughter]. He was also into Zen Buddhism and meditation, so he’s a very peaceful man, so it’s not like he ever said anything bad about Gary Larson. If he really hated something, he’d say [affecting a British accent], “Yes, well, it’s not quite what you’d like it to be, is it?” But he understood my situation. I had stuck it out for 10 years. I did not want to be the bad guy. I knew Chronicle had been hurt when Gary left them. My first contract with Chronicle was for five years. At the end of that contract, we talked, and I said, “I really think I’ve got a product that’s worth more than 60 papers.” I really believed I should have more papers. So we talked, and I decided to renew for another five years. At the end of another five years, they were still having a lot of trouble breaking the 100-paper mark, and I just wanted more. I called Stuart and told him that. We talked, but he admitted there wasn’t a lot more that they could do. They just didn’t have manpower to hit the streets and drive a feature home.
Heintjes: What was the change like when you went to Universal?
Piraro: Universal is a terrific company to work with. They really do trust you to know your audience. When I was coming up at Chronicle, there were times when I really did have to be edited. I would send in ten strips, and they’d call up and say, “Three of these are good. We don’t get this one, and this one we get but it’s not very funny, and in this one, you can’t talk about that in a newspaper.” So I was used to being edited, because you have to be taught what works, what doesn’t and why. But by the end of my 10 years at Chronicle, they had pretty much stopped editing me at all. So when I went to Universal, I asked about the editing policies, and they said, “Nobody knows your readership better than you do, so unless it’s something really objectionable, we’re not going to bother you.” And that’s exactly what they did. Even when I sent in something controversial, they called and said, “I think editors are going to have a fit about this. Editors might get some bad mail, and they hate to get bad mail. Is this something you really want to do?” Then they leave it up to you, and they go with it. They’re very good at standing behind their talent. There have been a number of times when I’ve said, “You’re right, I really didn’t think about it that way,” and other times I’ve said, “I really feel strongly about this gag; let’s go with it.”
Heintjes: So there have been times when individual papers objected to Bizarro strips, but the syndicate never blocked you from publishing one of them.
Heintjes: Are you able to see a common trait among the strips to which editors object?
Piraro: That’s a tough question. There are certain things you know you can’t get away with. Even if they’re very benign, you can’t get away with sexual references. You know you can’t get away with certain religious references. I was just thinking about this, because I have a joke about the nativity scene that I want to run on Christmas Day. The three kings are giving Jesus their gifts, and Mary says, “Just three small gifts? This isn’t going to look very good under the tree.” I called the syndicate to ask their thoughts about it, and they said, “That’s not so bad—you can get away with that.” The rule in my mind is that you can draw God in heaven, you can draw Moses, you can draw angels, the devil and all that stuff, but you can’t draw Jesus. People get bent out of shape. So drawing the nativity scene was a question: He’s in the manger with the hay and you can’t really see him. And there’s Mary, and a lot of people are sensitive about Mary.
Heintjes: You know that as well as anyone, having been raised Catholic.
Piraro: That’s how I know that. But I’m very against the commercialization of Christmas. It’s just disgusting. I find the whole thing to be a disgusting display of American consumerism.
Heintjes: Dan, there are three words I can use to describe you: stink, stank, stunk.
Piraro: Yes, totally. I’m always rooting for the Grinch. But I’m not opposed to Christmas because I don’t want people to be happy. And some people say, “Oh, you just don’t want to give gifts because you’re not generous.” That’s not it. Christmas is not about generosity anymore; it’s really completely about selfishness. You go out and give a bunch of gifts and you get a bunch of gifts, and if you don’t get the right gifts you’re all bent out of shape. I’m also an avid environmentalist, and all this consumerism wreaks havoc on the planet. There’s so much trash and so much pollution. The modern American Christmas has nothing to do with the traditional Christmas. This so-called tradition of piling gifts on was invented by department stores in the early twentieth century. Before that, it did not exist. There was no concept of showering people with gifts. I find the whole thing really empty and gross. Are you familiar with the cartoonist Nina Paley?
Heintjes: Sure, she’s got a new strip titled The Hots. She’s great.
Piraro: She lives in New York, and we’ve become really good friends. We share the same political outlook, and she’s got a website devoted to the Christmas-resistance movement. It’s at xmasresistance.org, and I always try to point people to it.
Heintjes: There is a basis for believing that readers see some of your own beliefs in the strip.
Piraro: Yes, definitely.
Heintjes: Some people have also read animal activism into your strip.
Piraro: Yes, especially recently.
Heintjes: Are animal rights a new passion of yours?
Piraro: Yes and no. If you look at my strip over the years, I’ve always had a form of animal sympathy and animal rights.
Heintjes: As an example, you’ve done strips regarding the cruelty of caging birds.
Piraro: I’ve long been against the caging of birds. One of my favorite cartoons along those lines was a guy in heaven in a tiny cage. And there’s this guy saying to him, “We were going to send you to hell, but your old parakeet Petey had this idea.” So I’ve always had this thread in my cartoons. But I got married recently to Ashley Smith, and she’s a really avid animal-rights activist and has been working in the animal-rights industry for quite a while. She’s been a vegetarian since she was 12 and a vegan since she was 19 or 20. I had not been a vegetarian, because I felt that eating animals was OK but being cruel to them was not OK, but I had not ever investigated what goes on with farm animals or agricultural animals. And although Ashley is not preachy, she’s got a lot of information around the house, and I read a pamphlet about the conditions animals live in. It was horrible, and it’s not necessary. It’s all about the almighty dollar. It disgusted me, and that day I turned vegan. The milk and dairy industries are even worse than the meat industry. Well, the pork industry is probably the worst, but the dairy and egg industries are right behind it.
Heintjes: But as an entertainer, do you feel any obligation not to turn your forum into a soapbox?
Piraro: Yes and no. I really feel that people’s best work comes from what they feel and believe. I don’t want to come off preachy. I might be coming off preachy because I’m a new convert and I have all this zeal. And I want to be clear: It’s not about not eating meat. It’s about not supporting an industry that abuses animals.
Heintjes: In 1995, you began a book tour that was entirely reader supported. How did that come about?
Piraro: At that time, I had my e-mail address in the strip every day, and I was encouraging people to write me. I was getting about 30 to 50 e-mails a day. People would regularly say, “I’m a big fan, and if you’re ever in L.A., I’d love to buy you lunch, or you could stay with us.” People would just offer these things. When I got the idea for a book tour, I couldn’t finance it myself, and Andrews McMeel didn’t want to finance it, and rightly so. It’s an expensive proposition. So I got the idea to write these people back. I had put together a database of their e-mail addresses, so I sent out a letter to everyone saying that I wanted to come to their town, but I couldn’t afford it on my own. So I want to pretend to be your friend and stay in your house and eat your food. I was looking for people to give me plane tickets, pick me up at the airport, feed me and let me stay at their house. Instantly, I got all these offers! It was just that easy! Nobody was more surprised than I was.
Piraro: Sometimes it was really fun. Some of the people were incredibly cool. You’ve got to be an interesting person to invite a stranger to stay at your house or to give a stranger a plane ticket. All the plane tickets were purchased with their frequent-flier miles, so they tended to be people who traveled a lot, and people who travel a lot tend to have more open minds and have seen a lot of the world. I also met a lot of people who couldn’t give me a ticket but who would put me up, and some people who had no way to put me up but they would buy me lunch. I met everyone from the rich and powerful travelers to the edgy, Lower East Side artists to students to families with kids, every walk of life. I stayed with an old retired professor in Cleveland. I spent a quiet evening at home with him and his wife. Then I stayed with this really weird, artsy guy in the Mission in San Francisco with barbed wire all around his building, with people coming in and out at all hours of the night, and people were sleeping on the floor. It was just crazy! Some people were terrific, some people were really boring, and one guy was really scary.
Heintjes: What was scary about him?
Piraro: He pretended he was going to kill me.
Heintjes: [laughter] Yeah, that’s scary.
Piraro: He was an oddball. He brings me back to this horrible ghetto apartment, and he says, “You know, I’ve never seen Bizarro. I’d never heard of it before I saw your letter.” I said, “How did you see my letter?” He said, “I saw it on the computer of a friend at work. He wrote you one time, and you wrote him back. I stole the letter off his computer, so I wrote you back and invited you out. I was really surprised when you came.” I said, “Well, that’s odd. At least I know where I stand with you.” And he said, “Yeah, that will make my plans a lot more fun.” I said, “What plans?” And he said, “Oh, you’ll see.” He was really creepy and evasive.
Heintjes: What did he say to make you think he was going to kill you?
Piraro: It was just this implied strangeness. He was clearly trying to scare me with this evil plan he had that he wouldn’t tell me about. He didn’t know who I was, so he had no interest in me or my cartoons or my career. He just invited me on a lark, and I came. Everyone else would ask me questions or tell me that they’ve been a fan of mine for years or have friends come over for drinks because they wanted to meet me. There was none of that with this guy. But after a few hours, he told me that he thought it would just be fun to try to scare me. But all the other stuff was true: He really did steal my e-mail off someone else’s computer and all that. There was this other guy and his wife who picked me up at the airport in a tiny pickup truck. A couple of other fans who had brought me there in a private plane were with me, so there were five of us. The three guys got in the cab of the truck, and the guy’s wife and this other woman who was with us got into the back of the truck. The guy driving the truck had not said a word to me. It was getting kind of creepy. It was dark, the headlights were hitting the snow that was falling, and it was weird. We get to a red light, and this guy turns, glares at me and said, “Don’t you even think about f—ing my wife!” I looked at him, and I looked at the guy I was with, and then I burst out laughing because it was so weird! Then he burst out laughing and said, “I’ve been waiting months to say that!” [laughter] They turned out to be a couple of the coolest people I met on the whole trip. He just wanted to make a big impression on me. The tour was exhausting, though. I would never do it again.
Heintjes: And you arrived home to find that your marriage was over.
Piraro: Yes. I went out on these trips in segments. The longest trip was nine days, out in California. Other times, I would do three- and four-day weekends. I did this over a period of months, and I ended up hitting 12 or 13 cities. Toward the end of the tour, I was at home, and I sat down at my computer to send some e-mail. I turned the computer on, and there was an alert window telling me that a document had not finished printing. I knew that my daughter had been on the computer that evening doing homework, so I thought it was hers, and I printed it out. Out comes a series of e-mails between my wife and this guy she’s been carrying on with. That’s how I found out. So I confronted her and she admitted it. She told me she wanted to move out, and I told her I wanted her to move out, too. We’d been married for 16 years without that sort of problem ever coming up, so I was completely blindsided. I had no idea it was coming. I didn’t know she was unhappy or anything.
Heintjes: Was it because you had been away a lot?
Piraro: Well, these things are so complicated that it’s hard to say, “It was because of this.” What it came down to was that she was a pretty insecure woman. I certainly don’t want to make it sound like I’m trashing her, but she had a lot of emotional problems. We got married at 21, and at that point I was young and immature and insecure in my own ways, and I kind of facilitated her insecurities and took care of her. As I got older and my career was blossoming, I really got more into my own life, and I was pushing her to get into her own life. I had stopped facilitating her life and tried to be less…I guess the pop psychologists would say “codependent.” I stand by that. It was the right thing to do. I was trying not to be the doormat anymore, but she didn’t like that. It made her feel abandoned and alienated.
Heintjes: What was it like to be funny every day while you’re going through a marital breakup?
Piraro: It was hellacious, absolutely hellacious. Syndicated guys always fear that our next idea is going to be our last one. When you have to come up with a joke a day for the rest of your life, it’s like a creative prison sentence. It’s hard enough under good circumstances. Under these circumstances…I was literally writing jokes through my tears. I was sitting there crying and trying to write a gag because I was behind my deadline. It was that weird. It was just exactly that weird. I cursed my career choice. I wished I’d been an accountant, where I could just add columns of numbers and not have to be funny.
Heintjes: Looking back, can you see a darker aspect to your humor?
Piraro: Yes, there was. For one thing, I came up with a number of divorce jokes. And there were a number of jokes that were deliberately aimed at being cruel to her. I did a number of cartoons that were just me taking my anger out.
Heintjes: No one knew but you?
Piraro: I don’t think so. They were just jokes about evil people, but she knew. She would call me and bitch me out about something I’d put in the paper. I said, “Look, I didn’t draw you and I didn’t put your picture in the paper. Nobody knows it’s you. If you don’t like it, don’t read it.” She said, “I don’t read it—my friends read it to me.” I said, “Well, get new friends.”
Heintjes: You didn’t deny that you were doing this.
Piraro: No. And it was therapeutic for me. I did a few cheating wife jokes. My favorite one, which I still think is funny, is a whole line of people in heaven waiting to look into a nickelodeon-type of box, and the label on it says, “See your ex-spouse in hell.” And an angel is in the background saying, “That’s our most popular feature.” I still think that’s a funny gag, because everyone imagines their ex-spouse going to hell. She would bitch me out over that kind of joke.
Heintjes: Bizarro had always had an acerbic humor, but this was an especially dark period.
Piraro: I don’t think people who didn’t know me could tell. People who knew me could tell. Most of my cartoons that year were sort of average Bizarro cartoons, and I don’t think my readers thought, “That was that year Dan was really angry.” Once in a while there would be a misogynistic thread through it, but for the most part they were normal Bizarro jokes.
Heintjes: Speaking of normal Bizarro jokes, do you ever come up with a joke that you consider to be mediocre, but you think you can disguise it with your artistic abilities?
Piraro: By asking that question, are you saying that you think I do that? [laughter]
Heintjes: We’re not interviewing me, Dan.
Piraro: Quite honestly, I do that. I absolutely do. A lot of times I’ll write a joke that I consider totally mediocre, and sometimes in the middle of drawing it I’ll go, “This sucks, I can’t use this,” and I’ll throw it away. It’s a drag when you throw away a joke you were going to use, because you’re one short all of a sudden. Every day I write something that I don’t end up using. I probably write four jokes for every three that I use. But every once in a while, if I think a joke is a little bit weaker than my best stuff, I’ll draw the hell out of it. And I give them something entertaining to look at. I try to give them their money’s worth. There’s nothing worse than a lame gag with two people sitting there talking to each other and no background. What’s the point? I try to pack a lot of crap in there.
Heintjes: Strips like Bizarro, which don’t feature continuing characters, have traditionally not done well in reader surveys, and I suspect your readers are not the type who would fill out a survey. How has Bizarro done in newspaper surveys over the years?
Piraro: Occasionally, I’ll do really well in a survey, which is a kick. In a survey, I’ll either do really well or really poorly. Or both. In one survey, the newspaper—I think it might have been in San Francisco—they printed a list of their most popular comics and a list of their most hated comics. I was third on both lists. I liked that; I thought it was a good sign. People can either love you or hate you, but they shouldn’t be ambivalent about you. You must be doing something right. But I don’t like reader surveys at all. I think it’s a horrible way to choose comics. I think my readership is bright and active and busy, and they’re not the kind of people who will take the time to fill out a survey. I’ve never even seen a reader survey! I’m too busy to comb through every inch of the paper. People who do that are typically retired, and they’re not huge Bizarro fans. I have a number of old people who write to me—I’m involved in a correspondence with an 80-year-old woman in Seattle—but they’re very hip old people. They’re not your typical Wal-Mart people, and that’s who fills out surveys. So what are you really finding out?
Heintjes: You’ve become part of the vaudeville renaissance with the Bizarro Bologna Show, in which you entertain an audience with songs, stories, drawing and puppetry. For a guy who by his own admission suffers from insecurities, what made you want to get onstage?
Piraro: The funny thing is, I’ve always wanted to do that kind of stuff. You can tell from talking to me right now that I’m not shy with people I know and people I’m comfortable with, and I really do have a performer’s personality, which makes me want to entertain people. I was the singer in a band years ago, and at that time I was painfully shy. I couldn’t go up and talk to a girl in a bar. I couldn’t stand up at a party and sing if they asked me to, but if people come to a club to see a band, and I’m the singer for that band, I don’t mind being that person. I’m not shy to do that, since it’s in an official capacity. It’s the same way when I go to parties where I don’t know a lot of people. I don’t go around starting conversations. But when I’m asked to give a talk at a school or a book fair, my personality is totally different, because they know who I am and they’ve already accepted me. They want to know what I’m like. That’s what I tap into when I perform and do the show. I get a huge kick out of it; it’s tons of fun. And then afterwards, I feel like I know everyone, so I can step offstage and be friendly and be the life of the party. Once somebody says to me, “I’ve seen your cartoons,” I’m no longer shy. I feel like I know them. That sort of thing is actually common; there are a lot of shy performers. There’s a personality type that can be a nut onstage but can barely put three words together offstage without getting shy. I just met Janeane Garofalo the other night. She is so damn good. She was doing a little 10-minute spot in this little art theater, a very small, living room-size thing. I stood in the lobby and waited for her. When I saw her, I introduced myself and said, “I’m a huge fan, and I have a comic strip, and I wanted to give you a book of mine.” She said, “OK, that’s nice, thanks,” and walked away. She was so shy she wouldn’t talk to me. It rang a bell in my head. I know what that’s like. Or maybe she was freaked out that I was a psycho fan.
Heintjes: What gave you the idea to make a show?
Piraro: A couple of years ago, when the National Cartoonists Society was meeting in Boca Raton, they asked me to give a talk. I’ve given talks a bunch of times to different groups. I talk to schoolkids all the time. Then you talk to PTAs and dinner clubs and Mensa groups, and it just builds. It occurred to me that I could take this little seminar and add a little shtick to it, add a few goofy puppets and songs and just have fun with it. I love doing it, it makes people laugh and it gets my name out a little more. I sell some books afterwards. It just seemed like a good marketing vehicle.
Heintjes: I saw one of your performances, and it had a good deal of ex-wife bashing.
Piraro: Yes, but only because it’s funny, not because I’m still angry. I always make that distinction.
Heintjes: How did you handle the business end of mounting a show?
Piraro: I talked to friends of mine who are into public relations and booking and production, and they told me what I might need to do and how to go about it. One thing led to another, and the next thing you know I had booked some shows and I had to do it.
Heintjes: You wrote the songs and made the puppets?
Piraro: Oh yeah, I did the whole thing. I made props and made a little set. It’s kind of a little show, but it’s a fun, creative, honest show, and I don’t do anything that I can’t do. That’s one secret [laughter]. I sing enough to be silly, and I’ve written some silly songs. And I’m finding I’m a pretty good puppeteer [laughter]. But I’ve been doing that since I was a kid, and I used to do puppets for my own kids, just putting a sock on my hand. I don’t do any ventriloquism, but I joke about how I’m not trying to hide my mouth moving. Nobody cares—they look at the puppets, they don’t look at you. The puppets ask me why I mimic everything they say, so they’re making fun of the fact that my mouth is moving. I show slides of Bizarro cartoons, so I’ve got that to fall back on. I’ve got some cartoons I know are hits. I also show some adult cartoons that I can’t publish in Bizarro. I’ve had a lot of success with it so far. I participated in the 2002 New York International Fringe Festival and won their “Best Solo Show” award and got a terrific review in The New York Times. As a result, I’ve received offers from theaters in other cities to bring my show there.
Heintjes: You also produce fine art. What does that do for you that cartooning doesn’t?
Piraro: That’s how I started. Even when I was a kid, it was my biggest interest in life was being a fine artist. I was a huge fan of Renaissance art. Going to Catholic school, I saw that stuff all the time. I thought all the tortured saints and crying people kneeling at the foot of the cross, all that melodrama, was cool. I really liked Michelangelo and Da Vinci and those artists. But when I got older and realized there was no money in it, I gave it up. For myself now, it’s immensely fun to do. That’s what it does for me that cartooning doesn’t do: It’s entirely for myself. There’s no paycheck or standard involved.
Heintjes: You don’t sell it?
Piraro: I have sold a few pieces, but for the most part, I don’t sell my fine art. It takes me a long time to produce and I like to keep it. I’m not able to do very much of it. I don’t have the time.
Heintjes: Who tends to buy your Bizarro originals?
Piraro: I will almost invariably sell a doctor or lawyer joke to a doctor or lawyer. I think it’s an ego thing there. There’s something about those industries where they like jokes about themselves, especially lawyers.
Heintjes: Do celebrities buy them when you make jokes about them?
Piraro: I sold one to Dick Clark, and Sheryl Crow’s management bought a Sheryl Crow joke I did. I became friends with Penn & Teller because of a joke I did. I’m a huge fan of theirs—they’re the coolest, smartest entertainers. I did a cartoon about Penn & Teller, and I got an e-mail from Teller saying, “Now that I’ve appeared in a Bizarro cartoon, I know I’ve made it big.” I wrote back and said I was a huge fan. He wanted to buy the original, and I told him I’d give him the original if he would give me free tickets to their show next time they were in Dallas, which is where I was living then. They came to Dallas a couple of times and set me up with really great tickets. Ashley and I were in Las Vegas just this past spring. We got married in an Elvis impersonator wedding chapel in Las Vegas, and I e-mailed Teller that we were going to be in Las Vegas. He told me to come to the show. During the show, Penn came down the aisle looking for a volunteer to do this very long, elaborate routine on stage, and he picks Ashley. He had never met her and didn’t know where I was sitting. She goes up and they do this whole knife-throwing act. Later, we met at dinner, and he goes, “Oh my God, you’re the girl we threw the knives at!” [laughter]
Heintjes: Beginning last January, King Features Syndicate began syndicating Bizarro. Why did you change syndicates?
Piraro: I still think Bizarro can achieve a much wider audience. I’ve gotten to know Jay Kennedy [King’s comics editor], and he’s really won my respect. He’s an extremely bright guy who knows comics very well. He’s been a huge fan of Bizarro for years and has been courting me for a long time. I’ve been at Universal for six years now. Jay is very picky and wanted to get just the right offbeat single panels, so he has very, very few. He’s not looking for a stable of them. Universal has eight or 10 now, and I’m afraid I may get lost in the shuffle. I decided I would give King a chance; they are very enthusiastic, and they like my stuff so much. I think they’ll give it a lot of attention.
Heintjes: You’re retaining copyright ownership.
Heintjes: How long is your contract with King?
Piraro: Five with an option to renew for five.
Heintjes: You’ve referred to experiencing depression in the past. Is this something you’ve struggled with on an ongoing basis?
Piraro: That’s a family legacy. Almost everyone on one side of my family has some form of depression. Fortunately, it’s very easily treatable with modern antidepressants. It’s something that I resisted for a long time because I’m not a pharmaceutical remedy kind of guy. In fact, I went to therapy for years trying to figure out why I was depressed. I could never pinpoint it. After my divorce I was so depressed that I could not climb out, and my therapist said, “I know you don’t like this, but I would like you to talk to a psychiatrist about the pharmaceutical way that antidepressantswork, because you really need something to dig you out.” Therapy can’t work if you can’t think straight. So they told me that my chemicals were imbalanced, and depression was not something I could control. If your chemicals are not imbalanced, antidepressants won’t work, but mine were. I had a very strong genetic propensity for it. So I tried it, and bam! This cloud I lived under all my life was gone.
Heintjes: Did it alter your ability to generate humor or how you saw the world?
Piraro: Not at all. But that was something I was frightened about. I went through the same thing 15 years ago when I quit smoking, because I would smoke and think, smoke and think. I thought if I quit smoking I wouldn’t be funny anymore. Then I was afraid to take antidepressants because if I’m not depressed I won’t be sarcastic and cynical and edgy anymore. But none of that is true. I quit smoking and I was still funny, and I take antidepressants and I’m still funny. I just don’t have to feel like shit while I’m doing it. I thank God for antidepressants at Thanksgiving. Now my family is a fun place to visit. It didn’t used to be so fun.
Heintjes: Speaking of your family, how do they feel about your career since you never developed anything to fall back on?
Piraro: They’re all thrilled about it. My dad always tells this joke on himself: “I remember telling Dan in high school: If you don’t stop drawing in your notebooks and start paying attention to your schoolwork, you’re never going to amount to anything.” He’s happy that I proved him wrong.
Heintjes: Do you still welcome the pressure of producing a joke a day the way you perhaps did when you were younger?
Piraro: There are a lot of days when I just don’t have it, but so what? It comes back the next day. I will typically have one day a week where I’ll write four or five usable gags in an hour. Then all I need are a couple more to fill out the week. So the dry days don’t bother me, although they used to scare the hell out of me. I’ll tell you, if I could make it through the 12 months after my divorce without missing a deadline, I can make it though anything. If anything, writing jokes gets easier. I can almost always slide into this zone and come up with something. Thank God I can do it.