The Johnny Hart Interview
Johnny Hart is the most self-effacing of geniuses. He is the quiet center of a powerhouse of talented writers and artists; he has directed the fortunes of precious creative properties; he juggles activities that include one of the country’s major charity golf events; unknown to his millions of fans he serves and ministers to others as he immerses himself in spiritual study and growth. And since he created B.C. in 1958 (and since 1964 in the case of The Wizard of Id) he continues to write some of the funniest material in the comics. Modest about his many triumphs, he is as quick with a laugh as with a laugh-line.
Laughs are a large part of what Johnny Hart is about; he is very serious about being funny. He is very serious about serving others, to which his weekly program of teaching Sunday school attests. But he also has a funny way of being serious. During a conversation he’ll stop, cock his head, and speak a Greek-chorus type of line about the dialogue. He lapses into voices—his own alter ego; John Wayne; W.C. Fields. Almost every sentence is punctuated with a chuckle.
He is also serious in funny ways about his interests. A little movie theater and a professional motion-picture editing studio now have some gathered dust on dozens and dozens of 16-mm reels of vintage films—an interest that for John has waned. A drum set is in one corner of his two-story studio’s living room, and a piano in another; during a break in our conversation, I returned from a phone call to find Johnny playing some Broadway show tunes on the ivories. Most interesting of all is his library—totally stocked, these days, with Bibles, Bible studies, commentaries, and Johnny’s voluminous notebooks on subjects from ancient scriptures to yesterday’s headlines. In these notebooks are clippings, Biblical passages, quotations from books and articles, and Johnny’s thoughtful notes. It is a room worthy of a seminarian—or even a seminary professor.
This interview was conducted at Johnny’s studio in Nineveh, New York. (I felt like Jonah, being sent there!) We laughed and talked all day, until time came to go to the airport—and we weren’t anywhere near finished. Johnny thought a moment, called a limousine service, and arranged for a driver to take me home—about four hours!—so we could first finish laughing and talking.
The interview tapes were transcribed by Nancy Marschall and edited by me and Johnny. Perri Hart, Johnny’s daughter, assisted in gathering documentation and illustrations. Thanks too to Jim Whiting and David Folkman for providing vintage artwork and memorabilia. [Editor’s note: This interview was published in Hogan’s Alley #2 (1995)]—REM
Rick Marschall: One of your very earliest gags had B.C. making a sand sculpture of the cute chick and then clubbing it to smithereens. Later on the Fat Broad would use a club to smash the snake. You don’t show that stuff anymore. You show the aftermath and let the reader fill in.
Johnny Hart: Yeah, I used to have her up in the air with her club always beating. And then after a while I figured probably by now everybody knew! Now I substitute a panel that says, Wham, wham, wham, wham! I probably don’t use that gimmick as often as I should.
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Marschall: Sound effects?
Hart: Yeah, a lot of times we draw more than we need to draw. It’s always really classy to let the reader in on it, let him do most of the work [laughs]. That’s why radio is so much better than television in my estimation. You can imagine the hero. If you needed a hero, you’d get an actor with a really nice deep, beautiful voice; and the girl had a real sweet voice; you could visualize what you want them to look like.
Marschall: So you couldn’t see William Conrad break the back of a horse on Gunsmoke.
Hart: [laughs] See, you have a knack for saying things a little easier than I do. But, yes, those horses were safe.
Marschall: But that’s what it comes down to in comic strips, isn’t it? The imagination of the reader? You putting things, what would you say, on a silver platter just enough to meet them half-way?
Hart: You have to be really clever to work that out. It all depends on each individual gag, of course. And there’s something masterful about being able to initiate what part to let the reader imagine, how much to show…This is good, I’m re-educating myself now! These are things I probably don’t think about when I’m doing them, and may miss them a lot of times.
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Marschall: Well, a lot of it’s instinct, isn’t it?
Hart: Well, you fall into a pattern of doing: “OK, this is the dialogue so we do a couple of people talking, a couple of people arguing, and draw a couple of characters and three balloons, and whatever”…and there are probably a lot of things that could be eliminated or alluded to.
Marschall: When you do that—when you show sound effects instead of B.C. bashing the sand sculpture—has that been a streamlining process, have you gotten reactions from readers, have you looked back at your old stuff and figured this would have been funnier if you had done it this way, have you run out of visual schticks and you experimented . . .?
Hart: I’m not sure. What do you mean by “streamlining”?
Marschall: Well, you described a panel showing “Wham, wham, wham, wham” sound effects. You didn’t do it as often during the early years of the strip. What was the evolution of that?
Hart: I was tired of drawing her beating up on the snake! I’m not going to say that the violence police came to my door—there is no violence in comic strips [laughs] . . .
Marschall: They get up in the next panel, anyway.
Hart: Sure; they’re malleable.
Marschall: You used to have a postmark on your own postage meter that read, “Think Funny.” Do you still have that?
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Marschall: You gave me a tour of the studio and I don’t see a plaque that says “Think Funny” but obviously you do Think Funny all the time, distilling things to their funniest aspects.
Hart: I try to.
Marschall: About your type of funny: When B.C. started in the 1950s, it was hip and sarcastic and clever as its hallmarks. You’ve done commentary and you’ve even done puns, but the laugh is the bottom line. I don’t know anyone who analyzes humor like you. I remember when I was your editor [at Field Newspaper Syndicate]—not that you needed an editor—you used to talk about agonizing, maybe not agonizing, but spending a lot of time on what word to bounce in a balloon because it’s in details like that where the real humor is.
Hart: Yes. By bouncing a word, visually, you’re putting in an inflection, you know, the way a sentence should be if somebody heard it spoken. And I think a lot of humor depends on inflection, how a person says something. Certain things you could say as a question, and as a statement.
Marschall: There was a kind of humor that was big in the ’50s, not so much anymore. I don’t know if it was called black humor that early, but it was in the college papers and beat comedy. Were you seen that way, as part of that movement, or did you get tarred and maybe not want to be classified that way?
Hart: Black humor, did you say? What is that; give me a definition.
Marschall: Well, a little sarcastic, a little sardonic, certainly…
Hart: Yeah, I think I was. If you really look at humor, that’s what most of it is anyway. Somebody wisecracking at somebody else. Putting them down. If you look at all the sitcoms, that’s all sitcoms are today. Things never change. Sardonic, sarcastic humor is always prevalent. It’s hard to do something funny without being that way. It’s classier if you didn’t have to resort to it, I think.
Marschall: Do you see it as something you have to resort to?
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Hart: No, I just see it as something that everybody does. I probably didn’t even think about it. It’s not something that I calculated at all. You just set up your characters for somebody to put them down. It’s always done, all the time. Most humor relies on that, unless it’s visual slapstick, some guy falling down a flight of stairs, mechanical gags . . .
Marschall: Chaplin talked about feelings of superiority in humor; he analyzed slapstick, and always returned to guys getting kicked in the butt. Al Capp supposedly said one time that all humor is based on cruelty, meaning to him that the little guy gets socked in the face; to which Walt Kelly is supposed to have said that that revealed more about Capp than it did about humor.
Hart: [laughs] That’s great!
Marschall: But do you see that kind of thing—as a Them versus Us kind of thing? Actually, all of your characters get it, everyone puts down each other…
Hart: Yeah, I don’t have any favorites! What’s interesting, though, is that you’re making me think about this thing and it’s something that I never really think about. Some of my characters, like Curls—he’s a sarcastic wit, you know, he’s noted for that, being the Master of Sarcastic Wit—and so when we have really surly gags I just usually bring him in and let him deliver it. You know, who’s going to say this? It’s not the kind of thing that B.C. would say; he’s not really sarcastic—he’s usually the patsy, as a matter of fact. So we bring Curls in to say it. It’s a funny thing: I don’t organize or calculate or put humor together like that. I can’t really describe what I do…it’s funny. One of the things that I always sort of pride myself on—although we’re not supposed to have pride; “Pride goeth before the fall”!—as an attribute of mine is that my sense of humor, if anything, was well-rounded and you know how I discovered that? It’s because everything funny that ever happened to me, or everything that happened to me, made me laugh. If I fell down the stairs I’d lay there and laugh.
Marschall: And you just reflect that attitude in the strip?
Marschall: Is your method of gag writing to come up with a gag first and then figure who’s going to play the role that day or do the characters write the gags from their personalities?
Hart: The characters a lot of times suggest it; sometimes the characters sort of write the gags for you. [Pauses and laughs] I don’t know what the process is, I can’t explain it to you, but somehow I know what they’re going to say. One’s going to be domineering, another one is going to be surly, the other one is going to be naive . . .
Marschall: Will you do something like that, if perhaps you’re dry . . .
Hart: I won’t do mechanical things like that. I remember years ago when we first started gag writing, we used to try to come up with games, all types of games, for magazine gags, you know. We’d make a list of types of people, and we’d put a garbage man, a maid, a shoe salesman, a whole list of people like that on one side and then a whole list of places, and situations, and so forth on the other side, and then we’d number them and roll dice. We’d do all kinds of stuff: We’d come up with a garbage man in a china shop, and try to figure out a gag. Those things were fun for a few minutes, you know, but I don’t think anybody ever used them. It was more fun coming up with that idea! It took the meditative element out of the creative process.
Marschall: Tell me if this is fair about your characters: When you started the strip, the characters had really, really defined personalities, and quirks, and it seems that they still have their traits now but they’re not as strong. It seems that you don’t build as many gags around their personalities, traits, strong character types as you used to.
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Hart: It’s true. I think that somewhere along the line the Laugh became more important to me. Right or wrong, that’s what happened. When I look back, I see it becoming like one-liners—Henny Youngman with cavemen! Any kind of a joke or gag about anything that we think of, we manipulate it and put it into a prehistoric situation. But the bottom line is the laugh, to really make somebody laugh. So I wound up with my characters being like stand-up comics, but I think that somehow that the character traits do still show through; a lot of people still see that business. Their personalities show through because we think of them that way—you don’t have to carry signs around saying what they are, but one of the things we did when we first started out was that Wiley had a fear of water. I don’t know if that was all that funny in the first place [laughs]—if you mentioned the word water, he would scream. A couple of times that was pretty good. But, what’s so funny about that? But some people do like the fact that, they read the little blurbs up front [in the reprint books], that says this guy had an enormous fear of water, and if somebody would come up and say, “What’re you doing today?” he’d say “Ahhhhhhh!” We did that once and got a laugh out of it, but there are not all that many gags you can make out of it. Grog—you know that he can’t talk—so we did a gag the other day where he said something! Is somebody going to write me a letter and say, “How come you’ve got him talking?” I wanted him to talk, I wanted him to say that. So he did!
Marschall: What did he say?
Hart: I don’t remember, I think it was just one word. That’s another thing—I never remember any gags I do!
Marschall: Keeps you fresh?
Hart: No, it’s just that I’ve got a lousy memory [laughter]. Maybe none of them are that important to me. I remember a few of them, you know, a few that I think were actually really quite good.
Marschall: If that’s the case, do you ever find yourself repeating gags inadvertently? Has a reader ever sent in a clip saying how you did such and such 12 years ago, or something?
Hart: I don’t ever remember a reader doing that, but they probably have. I know that we’ve caught ourselves doing that. We did a really funny thing one time—talk about a lapse. We did the same [Wizard of Id] gag within a two-month period.
Marschall: Two months?!
Hart: And nobody caught it! [laughs] Well, see, it wasn’t like we wrote out the gag and then did it and forgot to throw it away, and then did it again—it wasn’t that at all. We rethought it up again, you know, and sent it to Brant [Parker] and Brant did it both times!
Marschall: He didn’t notice it either?
Hart: He usually does; that’s what’s interesting about it. If you send him anything, he’ll say, “Hey, we did that about five years ago, I know we did that, I remember doing that,” and we’ll look for it and usually we’ll find it. But, this one we did twice…maybe it wasn’t Brant; maybe it was me; I think it was me; I don’t think it was him; he’s taller. Yeah, it was me [laughs]. Because it was a short span of time, it was almost word for word.
Marschall: Dik Browne told me once that he did the same thing once with a Hagar gag, not a couple months apart, it was 10 years; and he got awakened in Sarasota, Florida, pretty early one morning, by some reporter for a newspaper in the Midwest, who got ahold of his number and called him at some ungodly hour—ostensibly trying to pin him down on why he had reused this gag but probably really trying to pat himself of the back for having caught this guy! The gag was the same germ; Dik had just reworked it. And Dik gave the classic answer to that. He said, “As you go through life, you’ll find that three things repeat themselves: history, bad sauerkraut and old cartoonists.”
Hart: [Laughs] Bad sauerkraut!
Marschall: Not only when you grew up, but today, who were your favorite funnymen? Whose gag construction do you like? Who makes you laugh? Or maybe shaped your sense of funny? Not necessarily cartoonists; radio comedians, stand-up comics . . .
Hart: Jack Benny, of course, comes immediately to mind. Laurel and Hardy; and I loved Edgar Bergen, I thought he was great. Jimmy Durante, of course everybody loved Jimmy Durante. Cartoonists Dick Cavalli and Johnny Gallagher and Shirvanian I liked. Virgil Partch, of course, and Tom Henderson. They’re all the big-nose, big-foot guys.
Marschall: Clyde Lamb, maybe?
Hart: Yeah, Clyde Lamb and Chon Day—more sophisticated.
Marschall: A lot of these people are ones that you mentioned in the feature in Hogan’s Alley #1, your Favorite Gags. What hits you best—drawing style, gag delivery, composition?
Hart: A combination. Dick Cavalli always comes back to mind. It was something that he did—people with straight spines, they always stood there, with their eyes half closed, they weren’t haughty or anything, and their mouths were open and they had a kind of squinted look… how would you describe that sort of expression? A little noncaring . . .
Marschall: Insouciant? A little bit detached?
Hart: Yes! That is what it was. And then they just announced these captions. That was always a look that I really loved.
Marschall: I always wondered who was the first to do that. Was it Cavalli? Or Zeis? When I was growing up everyone who drew magazine gags seemed to draw expressions like that…
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Hart: There was one guy who used to draw characters with their mouths open like they were always screaming. Remember? That used to infuriate me. The guy is just saying something, but…is that a bowling ball or a mouth? I don’t remember that cartoonist, or if he’s still around, but I’ve got a suggestion for him.
Marschall: Close the mouth, open the eyes . . .
Hart: Leave the eyes closed, if you want. The mouth should do it.
Marschall: How about newspaper strips when you were growing up? Did you read the Sunday funnies? Was it more gag cartoonists that turned you on than newspaper strip artists or comic book artists?
Hart: My favorite comic strip was Dick Tracy, because of all the bizarre characters. Dick Tracy was really a good strip, you know? I don’t think it was well-drawn, and I knew that when I was a kid! But there was just some kind of magic about Dick Tracy. It kept you in it, you know? And it just moved you around and you followed all this good stuff it had bizarre things… the same way that Herriman invented backgrounds, Gould invented unbelievable characters!
Actually, my favorite character, I think, was Fearless Fosdick! [laughs] You know Al Capp’s Fearless Fosdick? That was one of my favorite things I ever saw in the comics; it was such a great parody. I always remember this one where Fearless Fosdick runs down the alley, and these gangsters are after him. He jumps in a garbage can. And this big, black limo comes by with machine guns firing, and in the end the garbage can, it’s just like a sieve with 5,000 holes. The lid lifts off, you know, and Fosdick steps out unscathed. He says, “Had to do some mighty fancy dodging there.”
Marschall: Or when he got shot full of holes, he’d go back to the station house and they’d dock his pay for ruining his uniform. He wouldn’t get paid for three weeks until he paid for the hat. So, you did read all the Sunday funnies?
Hart: I liked Skippy, and Napoleon, the dog strip. And Smokey Stover. Who couldn’t like Smokey Stover? I don’t think that I liked the gags in it so much; I didn’t think that they were really that funny. But just the way everything was done and all those labels…the stuff in the backgrounds
Marschall: OK. we’re back in your childhood, so let me ask you about your background. You’ve always lived in this part of the country, right?
Marschall: Born when and where?
Hart: Born in Endicott, New York, in 1931.
Marschall: This was like a factory town, a big shoe center, I believe?
Hart: The town was put together by the Endicott Johnson Shoe Company. One day—Once Upon A Time—George F. Johnson came over here and he founded this shoe company. He built most of the homes in the town; he provided most of the jobs…it was rather, I don’t know if it was true socialism or not, but they had their own medical plan, and built all of the homes, and although my father didn’t work—yes, he did too, he worked for Endicott Johnson at one time, and we lived in one of the homes: EJ Houses, we called them. And so did assistant Jack Caprio; he lived in one.
Marschall: Did your father move to this area? Or did your grandparents . . .
Hart: Yeah, my dad’s father moved here from Pennsylvania. My mom came from Wilkes-Barre or somewhere down there. My grandmother worked at Endicott Johnson. She worked at their cafeteria.
Marschall: What’s your family’s background?
Hart: I think it’s Irish and German—Pennsylvania Dutch.
Marschall: As far as you know, was anyone going back a writer or artist? Is that anywhere in your lineage?
Marschall: So, you’re the white sheep of the family? You said that your father worked for Johnson for a while…
Hart: I think he worked at that cafeteria, too, and during the Depression, he was laid off, or got fired—he probably did something wrong [laughs]. I don’t remember those days, I didn’t even know what he did, I didn’t even know it when he was laid off. He was out looking for work, and I thought he was going to work every day! I wasn’t paying attention. We weren’t that well-off, but my family never let me know that, that’s the kind of people they were. I know that he worked as a volunteer fireman for a while and then he finally got a job with the fire department. He wound up becoming captain of the fire department, which was his last rank before he died.
Marschall: I read about a fire in your studio once…he came in and he injured himself, didn’t he?
Hart: Yes. Sometimes I stayed there overnight, you know, if I were working late, sometimes I’d sack out there and wouldn’t go home; I’d go home in the morning for breakfast. It was about a mile away from home. Anyway, he didn’t know whether I was in there or not, he thought I might be up there sleeping. And he couldn’t get the door open, he couldn’t figure out why it was locked, so he put his fist through the window, and he cut himself. I went up there the next day and there was blood all over the walls and going up the stairs, you know, and we almost lost him in that thing because it was so full of smoke. He went in back and was feeling around the room where the couch was—it opened to be a bed—and he was yelling for me and all that, and he was almost overcome by smoke. He got lost and then couldn’t find his way out. It was sort of a labyrinth; there was a room and a hallway and then another room and a big open room. Anyway, he finally got out and he was OK.
It was really wonderful to me because, you know, like all kids, you wonder whether your father really loves you all that much, because he’s always slapping you in the head. My dad’s favorite expression to me was, “Why, you dumb bastard!” Another thing he used to do was he’d lift his arm over the back of his head like he was going to hit me, and of course I’d duck all over the place. Or he’d say, “Why you . . .” and then as I’d go walking by—slinking by—he’d cuff me in the back of the head, Bink! That’s why my hair stands up there.
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Marschall: You weren’t there in the fire, so you don’t know whether he was calling “Johnny, Johnny” or “You dumb bastard, you dumb bastard.”
Hart: I slept through the whole thing.
Marschall: You were there?
Hart: No, I’m just kidding. I was home. Another great thing that he did—he knew the room that all of my originals were in. It was a little, small room, 8 by 10. And I built shelves in there to keep all the originals, and he knew what room it was and told the firemen not to put any hoses in that room because there wasn’t any smoke coming out, and it was mostly fire coming from another part of the building, the front where I slept! So he saved all those originals; a lot of damage would have been done. Because usually what they do is just fill all the rooms with a lot of water. So the originals today would be strange looking… but probably worth a lot more!
Marschall: Probably so.
Hart: Hmmm…I’m going to put water all over them. Now change the transcript, and I’ll go upstairs… But it’s a funny thing; we had them stacked and where the stacks were offset there were brown stains around the edges. I still find originals like that, with smelly stains.
Marschall: You can still smell it now? Like a sausage?
Hart: If you walk into the room where those originals are, you could still smell the smoke.
Marschall: How early did you want to draw? Did your dad encourage that?
Hart: Yeah, he always encouraged that. His way of doing that was to not mess with it. I found out at one point that everything I wanted to do just involved drawing. He was always saying, “When are you going to get a job?” I was working at this job at what we called a pig stand. Now you could say that to anybody in this town and they’d say “Yes . . .” There was a place here called Grover’s Pig Stand and they made the greatest pork barbecue, they had a special recipe for it and it was all shredded, soaked in a special secret sauce. It wasn’t exactly a chain but there was one in each city—Binghamton, Endicott, Johnson City, they call them the Triple Cities—anyway, that’s where I used to work: I used to wrap pigs. I used to take the pigs out and put them in the buns and wrap them up and stick a toothpick through them. It was a drive-in type of place. We’d go out to the cars and slap a tray on the cars; one of those places. I was working there when I got out of high school from 5:00 every night till 2:00 in the morning. And I was making $20 a week. Which was cool, because I was working—“See, Dad, I’ve got a job.” “My son? Yeah, he’s got a job, he wraps pigs.” I didn’t really like that job much, so I got this bright idea. There was a guy in town, Tom Lawless, who did sign painting and window-dressing displays. And I thought, I’m going to ask him for a job even if I have to offer to work for him for nothing. So I could learn. This guy was fantastic. I figured my dad would go along with me, even working for nothing, if I was learning art.
It’s funny how God works…I never was the sign painter that he was. He was offered a job by Lord & Taylor, he had a great style for sign painting. He was really class. And window displays: he just knew how to drape everything, use colors, you know; he was a genius. Anyway, I wanted to see him and I asked how do you get up to this place? I was told, There’s a door and some back stairs and you go up into the hallway. So I went up the back stairs and I come into this little office and there’s this guy sitting there…and it’s Brant Parker.
Marschall: Is that right?
Hart: Brant said he was leaving there, but anyway the guy I was looking for was Tom Lawless. I said I’d be willing to work for nothing, if he could teach me sign painting and all the stuff. And he said, “Well, I could use somebody like that.” He took me on and he started me out at $45 a week—a nice little jump from $20! But before that—and that’s what I was leading up to—before that I knew that everything was cool with my dad, because I went to him personally and said, “Dad, I see an opportunity to get into the art field.” I really wanted to get out of the pig stand. Somewhere in between there, maybe it was before that, I used to hawk popcorn at a drive-in theater.
Marschall: A barker?
Hart: Amongst the cars. I got to see some really good stuff hawking popcorn. “Knock, knock! Popcorn!” “Get out of here, you . . .!” One night, there was a Marilyn Monroe movie, she just had a bit part in it. There was this one part where she comes in a door and she’s standing in this door blowing smoke. I had this thing timed and I figured the whole thing out—the distance between the projection room and how many steps and all; I had it all rehearsed. And this one night, I was out there hawking popcorn and I waited until the time when she was about to come in the door, and she leans there—“Hiiiiii,” you know, and I went over and I got set, looking all around, over my shoulder like I’m going to pull off a bank job. I crouched down under the projection shaft of light, and then walked out to my position. Marilyn Monroe walks through the door and she’s standing there in the doorway and I raise up and I reach up with both hands, these two hands on the screen, one on each breast, and I’m going like this, you know? Manipulating my fingers… and then I ran like a scalded dog, you know, and I used to be really fast! My dad got a call about that . . .
Marschall: Did he have a sense of humor about things like that? What kind of a sense of humor did he have?
Hart: He was, I guess, not emotional, he never said much. A pretty plain dude. He had a good sense of humor, in his own way. He loved to do practical jokes on his firehouse cronies. It was always a kind of surly sense of humor; that’s where I get that from. And my mom was a person who laughed at everything. Everything was funny. She was just a happy, silly broad, you know. Mom and I were really close and she laughed at everything I did and we really had a lot of fun together.
Marschall: Were you a class clown?
Hart: A little bit. Like anybody, I liked to be recognized and laughed at, or say something funny. I didn’t like to be laughed at, unless I wanted them to laugh at me. Yeah, I used to do silly things, funny things. Probably a lot of it physical. One day my mother said to me—they had a lot of friends over to the house that night and the next morning from down at the bottom of the stairs she yells up to me, “Guess what your dad did last night?” I said, “What?” And she said, “Did you hear Dad come through your bedroom last night?” I said, “No,” because I slept in a room where the attic stairway went up through my room. And I said, “Why?” And she said, “He sneaked up through your room, went up to the attic and got all of your drawings and brought them down here and showed them around to everybody.” I said, “Really?” That really touched me.
Marschall: Yeah, he was bragging about you.
Hart: There had been no sign of anything like that. He was one of those John Wayne/Wallace Beery types—“Ahh, hell, that don’t mean nothing to me”—one of those kind: a soft-hearted guy who doesn’t want anybody to know it. That’s the kind of guy my dad was. Another time the same thing happened. I threw a fit, one time, over something. Dad gave me some money to go to the movie, and I asked for money to get some popcorn, too. And he says “No, you don’t need any damn popcorn.” And I said, “OK,” you know, but the next day I wanted some money to do something, to go buy some candy or something, and the same thing.
Now, this was the time when times were tough. But he never let on, and I got mad and I went storming up to my room and I hear my mother’s voice—she was always talking to me from the foot of the stairs; it was her platform!—and she says, “John, do you remember yesterday when you wanted money to go to the movie?” And I said, “Yeah.” She says, “And you wanted extra money for popcorn and your dad wouldn’t give it to you?” And I said, “Yeah, it’s just like him.” And she said, “Do you know why he didn’t give it to you?” And I said, “No, why?” “Because that was the last dime that he had until next payday.” It only cost a dime to go to the movies then. And I just started sobbing in my pillow.
Marschall: Gee. You had laughter in your household and I’m wondering: do you ever think that the stuff you do or the type of humor you have would make your dad laugh or make your mom laugh? Do you ever have that desire to please them, maybe subconsciously? Do you ever think about that?
Hart: Once in a while. I know on occasion I’ve even said so. I always called my mother “Muddy.” I think it came from Red Skelton, his baby-talk stuff. Instead of Mother I’d call her Muddy. Then everybody called her that. I say, “I wish Muddy was still around; this would bust her up.” You know, all that stuff is inside of you.
I’m not a person that thinks a whole lot about things like that…whatever happens to me in my mind and comes out on a piece of paper is just an accumulation of all those things that brought me to this place for that moment. I never have been totally conscious of how.
Marschall: Let me get back to meeting Brant Parker.
Hart: Yeah; I don’t want to get the chronology screwed up. . . Let’s see—I met Brant when I was in high school. Brant was another working of God, as you know how these things work; I’ve got to tell you this? Like you didn’t know? Brant was from California and he was in the Navy and he met his wife, who was from Endicott. He met her out there; she was standing on a dock when he got off a ship, and she said [Whistle] “Sailor!” [laughs] No, no…I don’t know how he met her but anyway they met, fell in love and when he got out of the Navy he came back here to live with her. That brought Brant to town.
He went to work for the Binghamton Press up here as an artist, cartoonist, photo retoucher, you know, all those things. And somebody asked him to judge a high-school art contest. So he went to judge the art contest and saw my work. There were no cartoons or anything. You didn’t do cartoons in those days, that wasn’t considered art. There was no such thing as cartooning in high school!
Marschall: Still life or something like that?
Hart: Well, I did a drawing of the cemetery at night in charcoal—a couple of charcoal things; I used to love to work in it. Anyway he saw my work and was impressed. I don’t think he should have been, but he was. That’s the way God worked; he called me up and he said I just thought I’d like to meet you, I really like your artwork. I told him about a place in town, a spaghetti place, a place where a lot of other people hung out. Well, Brant came over there and we had a pizza and beer. And we had this wonderful night, talking art, and Brant came home with me. When I got home, there was a note on the table that Muddy left there, that said, “Lemon pie in the refrigerator.” That was my favorite pie at the time; she made the greatest lemon pie. It wasn’t creamy, it was clear lemon, yellow but it didn’t have that mushy, creamy taste. So I put the pie out and Brant and I ate the pie. And that night he asked me who my favorite cartoonist was and all. And I said Virgil Partch [VIP], of course. At that time Virgil Partch was the newest thing in the cartoon world. I just loved Partch’s work and he started on me about Partch. That was his wedge—he got his foot in the door there!
Marschall: He admired his stuff?
Hart: Yeah, he said, “Y’know, I used to work with him out at Disney,” because Brant had worked at the Studio. And I said, “Really?”—they were out there at the same time but I don’t think they ever met—I said, “You knew him?” So he starts telling me Virgil Partch stories. Then he says, “You notice the line he has . . .” and he starts getting out some paper, and he’s drawing things and he’s just pulling me in, drawing me in and he’s talking about the genius of VIP’s art and he says, “You notice when you draw a right angle line like a guy’s elbow, on the inside of the arm there’s a curved line, to complement the right-angle line” and so on. Yeah! That’s Right! Wow! And then we’re going through all this stuff and he’s taking Partch’s work apart, line by line, and showing me the genius in every line. Then he gets into the humor part of it and I am totally hooked.
When Brant went home that night, I was going to be a cartoonist. And he knew it, that’s all he was trying to do. So he sucked me in, he’s the guy, he’s the culprit, the one who’s responsible for all this. But I got even with him. I pulled him in, I created a comic strip just to make him work on it every day of his life.
Now I believe Brant left the paper and I guess he worked for Tommy, and that must have been when I saw him there. I believe he was getting ready to go back into the Navy because he was having difficulty landing anything and he figured he’d go back into the Navy and serve another hitch. And every time he came home on leave, we’d get together. Eventually, I’d gone to Korea, gotten married and come back. I was selling to the magazines by then and when he came back and I kept prodding him, because he was lazy [laughs], trying to get him to sell to the magazines. Because I said, “You got me into this, and if I can sell you should be selling, too.” And he said, “I can’t do gags.” And I said, “Of course you can do gags! Anybody can do gags.” And he said, “I can’t. I hate doing gags.” So I said, “OK, you’re right, you can’t do gags. If you won’t do gags, you can’t do gags.” I said, “I’ll do the gags for you and you draw them.” And he said, “Would ya?” And I said “Sure, and you send them in.” So he did and he would send all this stuff in. Marion Nichols of the Saturday Evening Post loved his work. I wrote a letter to Marion and sent some of Brant’s stuff: “This is my mentor, my cohort.” She said she’d love to see some of his work. We sent some of his work—and she bought two of them the first time! I said, “Hey!”
She sends him money and sends all my cartoons back [laughs]. So I went down to New York. I only went [to the cartoon-buying magazines] two or three times because it usually was all through the mail; also [agent] Don Ulsh would take them around for me. This one time I went down and went in to see Marion and she says “Hi, Johnny! How are you doing? How’s Brant?” She says, “I love his work! I just love it! I’ve got one of his originals. I’ve got it framed and it’s hanging on my living room wall.” I said, “Good!”
Marschall: Oh, man!
Hart: I kept saying to Brant, “See, I knew you could do it. Send her a hundred of these!”
Marschall: It was probably your gag?
Hart: That’s right! No wonder she loved his work.
Marschall: How much older is Brant than you?
Hart: I’m 63 and he’s 72…I think that’s right.
Marschall: Did he have a drawing style that you liked? Did you pattern your own after his when you were starting out?
Hart: Brant’s? No, that’s a really funny story; we had some of the greatest times together. I don’t know what it is about Brant and me. It’s a good thing he lives in Virginia—no, it’s not! Because when we get together it’s just Wacko Time.
Brant probably makes me feel better than any other human being that I’m ever with because…I just can’t explain it. He brings the wacky side of me out. When I’m with him I’m like a stand-up comic. Like a Don Rickles. Laying out one-liners and he just laughs and laughs. And it’s just something, our chemistry there, and he’ll just make an aside or something, and that just gets me off on something else. The result is that we just laugh and laugh. Poor Brant, he almost expires sometimes. It’s like he thinks I’m the funniest thing that exists. And he just brings it out of me. It’s doesn’t come out of me unless he’s around.
All you have to do, if you want Brant in a great mood, is remind him of this early time when we went to New York. We took cartoons down and I was doing these really grotesque characters with big noses and big bug eyes. See, I figured I was going to be different than anybody else, not knowing that the way to sell is to conform, to look like everybody else. So I wanted to be really unique like Partch was, and I devised these characters that—when I think about it, it kills me—had like these big noses with big nostrils on them, and protruding lips and no chin and just to put a trademark on it I put the eyebrows on sticks! [laughs] Really grotesque. And Brant, he was kind. Brant was rather professional, he had gone to Disney and everything. He had really decent-looking cartoons.
We didn’t stop at that. We got, we both did this, we got pieces of posterboard and cut out mats for our cartoons to frame them. Because we had no idea what we were supposed to do. And we put all these things in a big portfolio and we took them and went to see Gurney Williams [cartoon editor of Collier’s]. We were sitting in the lobby and the Berenstains were really hot in Collier’s and they had one of their originals laying there. And Brant and I were looking at it and saying, “Oh, Wow! Look at that!” We were studying it and it came our time to go in and they called Brant’s name and the secretary said to me, “Are you with him?” And I said, “Yeah.” I told her my name, and she says, “I’ll look at you both.” I said, “Well, we wanted to show them to Gurney”—Gurney’s sitting right there five feet away with his feet up on the desk, looking out the window—and she says, “He can’t look at your work now, he’s busy.”
So I pull out this stuff and she lays it out in front of her and she’s looking at it. She doesn’t say anything about the frames and all. I can remember it had burgundy-colored posterboard cut out and framed around the cartoons. I’d even drawn a little line around them; I remember one time—by now Brant would be on the floor, gasping for breath, just hearing me talk about this—on one of them I drew a little line around the frame with a couple of little triangles. It looked like those clocks you see that run vertically on old-fashioned silk socks.
Marschall: Argyle? This is what the pros did, of course.
Hart: I had no idea, but I was trying to make it look good for the presentation. It was tackiest, the most awful-looking things you’ve ever seen—mine! Brant had one of my most favorite cartoons that he ever did—a guy standing with two lumberjacks, one’s like the foreman, and behind him is a grove of trees, going up over a hill, but all the trees have been cut down; they’re just stumps. The trees are just laying there. And the whole ground is covered with oranges. He did this with great simplicity! And in the foreground is this guy, the head lumber person, and he’s got an orange and he’s holding it up against the other guy’s nose, and he’s saying, “From here on, Fathead, we’ll pluck them one by one.” I thought that’s the funniest cartoon I’ve ever seen in my life. Anyway, she’s looking at his work and she’s looking at my work, and she turns around and she looks at me and says, “Did you do these?” “Yes,” I said, very proudly. I’m figuring, boy, am I making strides here—I didn’t realize until years later that she was really saying, “Did you actually do this? Is this a joke?”
When Brant and I think back on that day we get to laughing till our noses start to run. I bring it up to him sometimes on the phone and I’ll start hashing through it all about what those people must have thought of us. And sometimes I’ll hear these funny wheezy noises that he’ll make because he can’t get his breath.
Marschall: If your style was inspired by VIP—taking it to the nth degree—was he an early inspiration?
Hart: Oh, yeah, Partch was. This is the reason that I tell kids, young kids that are coming up, to copy the works of the people they like. What I was trying to do there was figure out a way to be different from all these other guys. I had to do something totally different—“I didn’t want to draw noses like any of these guys draw. That’s why the eyebrows are on sticks. Nobody’s done this before”—you know? When I was 15 I sent…I’ve still got this cartoon, I probably ought to let somebody publish it just to show that I’ve got great humility. When I was 15 I drew a cartoon and I sent it in to Collier’s. It was so bad. Like there are kids in third grade now that do better cartooning than I did…probably than I do now, come to think of it. But I can’t remember if a rejection slip came back with it; I can’t remember that part of it. But anyway, it was just such an embarrassment to show that to anybody and let them know that I was that bad. But my wife, Bobby, is always threatening me, kidding me about bringing that out and showing it to people. It’s like, “Oh, no, I’ll do anything, don’t show them that cartoon.”
Marschall: What’s the gag?
Hart: It was a several-panel cartoon. The gag was, the mayor of this town closes his office, and is coming down the road. He’s leaving the town past all the city limits signs and he goes into another town, puts on a pair of noseglasses and he’s standing in line in front of a movie theater and on the marquee it says Stromboli. At that time the movie Stromboli was supposed to be a hot, sexy movie, making great inroads into debauchery, one of those movies. Like the Deep Throat of those times, something like that. In the news at that time a mayor had banned the movie from being shown in his city. And so the mayor was disguising himself and going out of town to see this movie.
That was the gag. And it came back. I couldn’t understand it—it didn’t sell? I thought it was pretty good.
Marschall: At 15?
Hart: I had a whole attic full of cartoons and when my sister moved into my mother’s house, she just threw that stuff out. I wish I still had that now, it was thrown out with all the rest of the stuff. It’s not that my sister doesn’t like me—she loves me very much, it’s just that she was cleaning out the attic of all that old stuff—I did a comic book, you know how a kid will sit down and draw his own comic book?
Marschall: Yeah, mine was an updated Happy Hooligan.
Hart: I was doing a comic book about Dopey Duck. At that time when I was really young, one of my favorite characters was Donald Duck, so I created a duck with a pointed beak, if you can figure that one out. (It had to be different from Donald.) See, I was already trying to figure out how to be different, it had to be me, it had to be mine. I finally wised up later in life and said, like I say to all kids coming up, “You cannot, really, actually copy anybody. But set up and copy the best parts of all the guys you like. If you like a Gallagher nose, and you like Tom Henderson feet, and the way that VIP draws ears, or something like that, look at all the guys you admire and copy the parts you like. Copy them the best you can copy them if you want, but ultimately it will evolve into your own style.”
Marschall: It’s the germ of the style, isn’t it? Because if you like the Cavalli spine, there’s something that’s appealing to you in that…You once told me a story about VIP that there was a cartoon pasted to your coal-bin door, or the refrigerator or something like that. And later you saw the original when you visited Partch; when you and Brant visited Partch? It was a Navy gag.
Hart: Yeah, I wish I could see that sometime. I don’t know where I’d ever find it.
Marschall: We’ll find it sometime. It’s got to be around. [Hart recreated it in the feature “My Favorite Gags” in Hogan’s Alley #1.]
Hart: I’d just like to see it to see how accurately I remember it. You know how time changes your memory. Like that game where you whisper something to somebody—“telephone”?—it was in Partch’s studio, on the wall; Brant and I were visiting, and I was standing near the door and Virg was sitting there drawing. I was talking to him and I looked up on the wall beside me and there it was—the cartoon that had been on my dad’s coal bin door! I was stunned. It was like being hit in the back of the head with a coal shovel. Even when I was 19, when I idolized this man, I didn’t connect VIP with that cartoon in our cellar. I couldn’t believe it. I never noticed how it was signed or anything. I never paid attention to any of that. But I always remembered the cartoon, because my mother had cut it out and framed it. It was probably in the cellar ’cause it had the word “damn” on it. A big no-no in those days.
Marschall: And of all the tens of thousands he probably did in between, that was on his wall.
Hart: I looked at it and I thought, “Lord, this man, my hero drew that cartoon” and I didn’t even know it. I’m standing there looking at it and he had three versions of it, as I recall. And the drawing was changed in these three takes. It was like just he was working it up. My brain was oscillating in this time warp.
Marschall: It must have been like Rosebud in Citizen Kane.
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Hart: Yeah. [laughs] But this was bizarre; I can’t remember what I told him. I think I told him about it, but I never had the presence of mind to even ask him if I could have a photocopy or anything. Or even ask him if I could have one of the drawings. It just didn’t occur to me to do that. It was too spooky.
Marschall: I want to ask you about the other cartoonists in this part of the country. Jim Whiting has told me about the group that used to get together…Were a lot of guys you knew aspiring to get into the business?
Hart: Jim Whiting; Reg Hider from Rochester—he was one of the magazine cartoonists that was selling at the time—Brad Anderson, I met Brad later. Anyway, there was Brant Parker and myself. And Jim Whiting and Joe Daley . . .
Marschall: I know that Orlando Busino came from Binghamton.
Hart: That’s right, he did. Reg and Brad and Orlando were guys that rarely showed up at our little get-togethers. There was a guy named John Goetchius who lived in Watkins Glen with Jim. And a friend I worked with at General Electric, Joe Bohanicki. These two were gag writers.
Marschall: So these would be occasional get-togethers . . .
Hart: It was once a month. We met at a hotel bar and grille. And that’s what it was, a back-slapping group we called the UCLA, Upstate Cartoonists League of America. And we’d bring some of the more recent work we’d done and show it around. And everybody would look at each other’s work and make suggestions, you know, cheer each other on.
Marschall: What years would this be? Mid-’50s, maybe, when you started to sell?