Michelle Urry, Playboy, and Gag Cartooning
A Meandering Conversation and a Fond Farewell
Every time I ran into Michelle Urry, Playboy’s cartoon editor, she was smiling. I didn’t run into her very often. But every time I did, as I say, she was smiling. Not a broad smile, but a definite, pronounced smile. Nothing tentative about it at all. It was not, exactly, a friendly smile; it wasn’t unfriendly by any means, but it was not the sort of smile a person puts on to greet a friend. It bordered on being a smirk, a smile of secret amusement. But I was not the cause of the amusement. Not directly. I always had the feeling that she was smiling at some private joke or some deeply personal appreciation of one of life’s absurd hilarities—like, for instance, the realization that human beings in the usual fornicating position have assumed the posture of a swimming frog. Her smile, or smirk, if that’s what it was, seemed an invitation to join her in being amused by such mental images.
She said she had an “inordinately dirty mind,” and she said it by way of explaining a successful life-long career as cartoon editor of a magazine renowned for publishing the nation’s best naughty cartoons. But she knew, as did the cartoonists she worked with, that the secret of her success was not that she enjoyed a so-called dirty joke. Her success depended upon more than that. When she died at her home in Manhattan on October 15, 2006, she had been Playboy’s cartoon editor for more than 34 years. You don’t survive in the hothouse of cartoonist egos for three-and-a-half decades just because you like jokes about sex. It helps, but it isn’t the whole reason for survival. She lasted at the job because she did very well what Playboy’s founder and editor, Hugh Hefner, needed her to do: she screened all cartoon submissions, more than a thousand a month she once said, picking a dozen or so of what she thought were the best for Hefner to choose from, and she kept track of cartoonists, handling correspondence with them and coaching new talent and nurturing the old hands. She was both administrator and manager. And cheerleader. Jules Feiffer had it exactly right when he told Douglas Martin at the New York Times that Michelle Urry was “mother superior to cartoonists.” She famously held poker parties for cartoonists at her loft and Christmas parties for them at Playboy’s New York offices. She liked cartoonists, and she cared for them.
When I had my fling at magazine cartooning in the late 1970s, I was surprised, pleasantly, to learn that the cartoon editor of the nation’s preeminent men’s magazine was a woman. In a publication whose most visible raison d’etre was affording male readers an unimpeded view of barenekkidwimmin, it was refreshing to find that a major editorial position was held by a woman. It was symbolic: it meant women liked sex, too. It was more than symbolic. We don’t know if Urry liked sex any more (or less) than the rest of us, but we do know that she enjoyed laughing about it, and that, undoubtedly, influenced the attitude of Playboy’s cartoons. The girls in Playboy’s cartoons are invariably depicted as having fun with their sexual cohorts. Playboy cartoons do not leer at sexy women in the manner of Army Laughs and an armada of Humorama digest-sized magazines in the 1950s and before. The women in Playboy cartoons are not sex objects: they are sexual partners who delight in a romp in the hay as much as the men they romp with. It’s the attitude, a very modern attitude, and Urry fostered it. She may not have made the final selection—that, she was always quick to say, was Hef’s role—but she culled out the good stuff for him, and in the good stuff, women enjoyed sex. Sex was fun for everyone.
As I sent cartoons around to other men’s magazines, I learned that many of the cartoon editors were women. At first, I was delighted by this seeming sea change in American attitudes about sex. And then I realized that the sea wasn’t changing at all. It was the same old sexist economic tide, running, as always, against women. And in this case, it also attested to the nearly absent esteem for cartoons at the low-budget imitators of Playboy. Women would work for less money than men, and since picking cartoons wasn’t all that important in magazines of salacious gynecological color photographs, women, usually the secretary to the editor, got to pick the cartoons—or screened them for their boss’s final selection.
I don’t know about Urry’s salary, but I suspect it was a good deal better than the average secretary’s: Hefner, after all, was a frustrated cartoonist—and, by all accounts, one of the best cartoon editors, capable of giving insightful and comedically crucial advice to cartoonists and demanding that extra chuckle—and he surely held cartoons and his magazine’s cartoonist in the highest regard. He would scarcely scrimp on his cartoon screener’s pay. Urry’s route to her exalted position, however, began at a secretary’s desk.
She was born Michelle Dorothy Kaplan on December 28, 1939, in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her father was a clothing manufacturer, and Michelle, even after majoring in English at the University of California, set her sights on being a dress designer, opening her own shop in Los Angeles. She left there to try New York but didn’t like it and wound up in Chicago in 1964, taking her portfolio to Playboy, where, for a time, she did secretarial chores until she protested and got a new assignment—answering phones at the Playboy Mansion. Then when she went to a party at the Mansion and made her boss laugh, she was invited to help with cartoon submissions. The job, she said in a 1971 interview in the National Observer, came with “some onus”: her predecessor had been one of Hef’s girlfriends and gossip was rampant. But Urry demonstrated a surpassing knack at her task. “The fact that I brought to it an inordinately dirty mind was my own doing,” she said, “—I mean, I don’t think he expected that kind of bonus.”
However unexpected, Urry’s attitudes and her efficiency yielded a life-time career. Cartoonist Eldon Dedini told me in late 2004 that Urry had told him that she was going to retire; a year later, Dedini said she’d told him Hefner talked her out of it. And so she kept on until she died, in one of those supreme ironies in which fate sometimes deals, of ocular melanoma, a cancer of the eye. That a person who made a living looking at cartoon art would die of an eye ailment is ineffably numinous. Some would see it as punishment for a lifetime of looking at naked bodies engaged in sexual rambunctious; others, like me, would say she simply wore her eye out in her devotion to the job and the craft—the art—of cartooning, a noble conclusion to a praise-worthy dedication. She is survived by her second husband, Alan R. Trustman, a screenwriter, and her son, Caleb Urry. Her first husband, Steven Urry, a sculptor, died in 1993. Her legacy, so to speak, can be found in the cartoons of Playboy, one of the last great venues for gag cartooning, the haiku-like art of eliciting laughter with a single drawing and a revealing caption.
Homo sapiens began scrawling goofy pictures on cave walls before the dawn of history as we know it. But gag cartooning probably began in the 18th century with the publishing of broadsides, single-sheet publications displaying caricatures or vignettes of moral import--the work of such irrepressible British wags as William Hogarth (1697-1764), James Gillray (1756-1815), and Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827). This custom was perpetuated and refined in weekly and monthly humor magazines in the 19th century, the most conspicuous British contender being Punch (launched in 1841), which inspired many imitators on this side of the Atlantic—Wild Oats, Phunny Phellow, and others, most of which failed after a few issues or months. Among those that lasted were Puck, Judge, and Life, all introduced in the 1880s.
The cartoons in these magazines fell handily into two categories--political and simply humorous. Typically, the political cartoons were given the greatest play: they appeared on the covers (front and back) and sprawled across the double-truck of the centerspread. Other cartoons often honed a political axe or two, but they, and the strictly humorous cartoons, were spotted throughout the magazines amid paragraphs of light-hearted prose. Some of the drawings were half-page in size; others, quite small. Virtually all of these efforts were captioned with several lines of type. Usually, the captions consisted of dialogue among two or more of the characters depicted in the drawing. Often the dialogue was itself comedic and self-contained: the reader didn't need the picture to understand the joke. The picture served merely to set the scene. These are the "multiple speaker captioned cartoons" (the fondly recalled "he-she" cartoons in which He says something; then She responds with something funny).
By the 1920s, cartoonists were beginning to streamline their comedy. They had discovered that cartoons were funnier if the humor arose from yoking picture to words in such a way that the one "explained" the other. And vice versa. The joke gained comic impact from the "surprise" that was sprung upon the reader when he or she understood the import of the picture or the caption. The hilarity was further enhanced if only one of the characters in the picture was speaking: this maneuver effectively heightened the importance of blending picture to words to achieve an economy in expression that increased the "surprise" inherent in the blend--and, hence, the comedy of the joke. And so emerged the "single speaker captioned cartoon."
Harold Ross's New Yorker (which debuted in February 1925) became the foremost exponent of this economy in cartoon humor, and the subsequent success of the magazine changed the nature of gag cartooning forever. As such magazines as The Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, and Look began using more and more cartoons, the cartoons were soon exclusively of the "single speaker" type. In less than a half-dozen years, the venerable "he-she" cartoon disappeared from the face of magazine cartooning.
In the fall of 1933, Esquire was launched, inaugurating the next phase in the evolution of the magazine cartoon: the full-color full-page cartoon. Judge and Life had occasionally published a cartoon in color, but Esquire made it a regular practice. (Collier's also eventually published cartoons in color but not as full pages.) At The New Yorker, Harold Ross continued printing cartoons in black-and-white, and when he was urged to consider doing color cartoons, he responded with a typical Ross-ism: "What's funny about red?"
During the heyday of magazine cartooning, which lasted, by my calculation, from the mid-1930s until the 1960s, the major weekly magazines used over 200 cartoons a month. Adding in such monthly magazines as True and Argosy, the monthly market probably devoured well over 400 cartoons. When the great general interest weekly magazines folded in the sixties, that enormous market evaporated. Or, rather, dissipated into scores of special interest magazines. But two great markets remained (albeit publishing together only about 80 cartoons a month)—The New Yorker and Playboy, the publishing phenomenon of the century's second half.
Introduced in the closing weeks of 1953, Hefner's magazine was a racier, more youth-oriented version of Esquire, which, by then, had become decidedly stodgy. Although its most sensational aspect was doubtless the liberal use of photographs of young women en deshabille, Playboy also published first-class fiction. And full-page color cartoons. Hefner, who had drawn cartoons himself while in college, made gag cartoons a prominent feature of the magazine from the very first. Among the early stars on its pages was Jack Cole, whose cartooning genius was established in the 1940s with his creation of Plastic Man, an elastic comic book superhero whose adventures were more tongue-in-cheek than tuschi in tights. Cole took up watercoloring for rendering his cartoons for Playboy, setting a stunning standard for his colleagues that was extended and firmly established after Cole’s suicide by Dedini’s luminous paintings of Rubenesque wantons.
With its emphasis on high-quality art in cartoons, Playboy has done more to elevate and refine the visual character of the medium than any other magazine in recent times. In Harvey Kurtzman's Little Annie Fanny, for instance, the comic strip surely reached its apogee: fully painted (not just "colored"), the strip was a lavish (even extravagant) example of the cartoonist's graphic artistry. For most of the magazine’s history thus far, Michelle Urry was its cartoon editor. What follows, eventually, is the transcription of a convivial conversation I had with Urry in July 1996 at her New York office at Playboy Enterprises.
My only other visit to a Playboy premises had been in the fall of 1958, when, as a campus cartoonist attending a college journalism convention in Chicago, I had played hooky one afternoon to take some of my cartoons to the magazine's headquarters, then at 232 East Ohio Street. The building was one of those shotgun structures--narrow across the frontage but burrowing deep into the lot beyond. I walked into the first floor reception area, stated my business to a striking-looking blonde lady at the desk, and was directed to an elevator that would take me to the fourth floor. The elevator stopped at the second and third floors, and each time the door opened, I was treated to another blonde vision at a reception desk. When I told the blonde at the fourth floor desk my errand, she summoned someone by phone. Another blonde appeared, looked over my drawings, and then asked me to wait. I did. She returned shortly and escorted me to the office of Jerry White, one of two assistants to art director Arthur Paul. White (dark-haired, bearded) looked at my drawings, made sympathetic sounds, and told me to keep at it because they were looking for younger cartoonists who could bring to the magazine a somewhat less jaded view than might be found in the work of such mature cartoonists as Gardner Rea. I remembered he mentioned Rea specifically. I left with my portfolio intact, my sales record unblemished. (Due to the press of other adventures, I didn't try again for two decades; my sales record remains entirely virginal.)
My 1996 visit to the New York Playboy nerve center was much more engrossing than my 1958 pilgrimage to the Chicago mecca. I saw no blondes in 1996. The interview almost didn’t happen. At the time, I was producing an article for every issue of Jud Hurd’s quarterly journal about cartooning, Cartoonist PROfiles, and Hurd had set up the interview to coincide with one of my periodic visits to New York. But the interview was very nearly cancelled when, a couple weeks before the visit, I was making final arrangements with Urry’s secretary and remarked innocently about how the article would serve to tell potential contributors what they needed to know in order to contribute to Playboy. Next thing I knew, Urry was on the phone, cancelling the interview because, she explained, the last thing she wanted was more unsolicited contributions being sent in from multitudes of unknown persons. So I, caught completely unaware, back-peddled right away and said, Well, okay—instead of encouraging submissions, we'll DIScourage them. On that basis, she consented, somewhat reluctantly I thought, to the interview. I also said I’d let her read the whole article when I finished, and she could make corrections, additions or subtractions, as she chose. She then imposed another condition: once I'd finished with the tape of the interview, I was to send it to her. She wanted the physical evidence, the only irrefutable evidence of our encounter—her words in her own voice. Cloak and dagger stuff. So what would prevent me from having a copy made of the tape for my own lascivious purposes later? Dunno. But she wanted the tape.
My only other contact with Urry was several years later when Little Orphan Annie was, briefly, revived by Bill Schorr and Ray Lago, with lettering by Don Wimmer (who is now doing Rose Is Rose). I interviewed Schorr and Lago at great length and then, at lesser length, Urry. When the piece was published in the Comics Journal, she phoned me, aflame with rage because the reproductions of a couple Annie pages didn't include credits to Playboy. I pointed out that the Journal's practice at the time was to clump all credits together on the last page of the magazine, but I don't think she was much happier. And I didn't ask her if she still had the incriminating tape of our interview.
One other oddity that emerged during our 1996 interview (albeit of a much lesser order of seriousness): she refused to let me photograph her, saying she had a cold and her eyes were all puffy. Simple vanity, doubtless. (I almost typed “simple female vanity.” And maybe I should have.) For the published article, we used a "stock" photograph that she subsequently sent me, the one you can see here. My impression, then and subsequently, was that Urry’s seeming paranoia was probably brought on by Hefner. Over their long working relationship, she learned what he wanted and what he disliked. He probably had a distinct aversion to what in the political realm are called “leaks”—revelations of inner workings by those on the inside. The content of the magazine and Hefner’s life style invited the most lascivious speculation, and he had been scorched by scandal over the years, usually accused of doing things he didn’t do. Probably Urry had been burned, too, in interviews early in her career. She attracted a good deal of media attention during the heyday of the feminist movement: as cartoon editor working at a magazine that ostensibly aided and abetted the transformation of women into sex objects, she was a highly visible target—despite her outspoken feminist convictions. She defended the magazine, pointing to Playboy’s support of feminist goals like access to abortion. And she reminded critics that the women who posed nude in the magazine did so to advance their careers. “No one ever coerced anybody to take their clothes off,” she said in a Los Angeles Times interview in 1971. She was, in short, unapologetic, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out, quoting her in her obituary: “If women would laugh more—at themselves and their situation—it would ease the tension,” she said. But she didn’t give many interviews through most of her tenure. She seemed more than ordinarily cautious about what she might say for publication. Moreover, her professional posture tended to be self-effacing. In the realm of Playboy, she was unequivocally an invisible presence: Hefner’s name went up in lights over the magazine’s cartoon reprint collections.
I also suspect she was a little uncomfortable whenever she was in a public setting. She could be hit on in either, or both, of two ways. Strangers might assume that since she was cartoon editor for Playboy, she had to embody in her personal approach to sex an attitude that was consistent with the magazine’s laissez faire exuberance. I could be (and probably am) entirely, categorically, wrong in all of this armchair analysis. I met her only a few times and always in gatherings of cartoonists, most of whom did not know her at all but might aspire to getting published in Playboy, which fostered the opportunity for the second kind of hit. They might assume that she, as the magazine’s nominal cartoon editor, had the power to advance their careers, and she, aware that they might be thinking that, was probably more reticent than she might otherwise be, hoping to forestall conversations that would get awkward as they edged up to her selecting someone’s cartoons for publication. She didn’t, after all, make the final determination about which cartoons the magazine published. Hefner did (although he admitted to Martin Douglas that Urry occasionally persuaded him to use a cartoon that he had at first rejected). Still, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Urry avoided most such gatherings of unknown cartoonists for something akin to the reason I’ve just offered. But, then again, I could be dead wrong. I might be simply projecting an attitude I might have in similar circumstances.
Whatever the reason, Urry wanted the tape of our conversation. And after I’d transcribed it, I sent it to her. What follows here is the verbatim transcription of that tape—just as it could be heard, not as it was published in Cartoonist PROfiles. In reviewing the article before publication, Urry had tinkered with a few word choices, but made no substantive changes. I’d already cleaned up the syntax, removing sentence fragments and false starts. Here, they are preserved, exactly as they happened, in a wholly unexpurgated transcription. A few weeks after our visit, she wrote me: “I appreciate the tender handling and the ease and elegance of your interview style.” Which I quote here by way of suggesting that the unedited transcript, although fraught with sentence fragments, contains nothing she would object to—except, perhaps, that I appear to be violating the treaty ostensibly governing our conversation.
By the time of our July 10 interview, Urry was one of the nation's longest-tenured cartoon editors. She had watched the field closely for years and had much to say that is probably still of interest to magazine gag cartoonists as well as students of the medium. Her office in Playboy’s New York headquarters was around the corner and down the hall from a lofty two-story reception vault in which spiraling staircases aspired to offices on the second level. Urry’s sanctum was far less imposing: it was arranged for informality and comfort. No desk. Just a round table in the center of the room, bookshelves on the wall to the left of the entry, a couch against the opposite wall. Piles of paper and cartoonists' submissions on the table and the couch. I took a chair next to the couch; Urry sat on the couch. She smiled.
Harvey: Hefner drew cartoons himself when he was in college.
Urry: We all drew cartoons until we saw what the real stuff looked like. I used to draw Angelfood McSpade. I loved drawing from stuff. I used to draw all the Dogpatch characters. And the Shmoos. As a kid, I used to draw Shmoos.
Harvey: I learned they were phallic symbols, two or three years ago.
Urry: No. Are they?
Harvey: So you started out working as assistant to the art director?
Urry: No, no. I started out in the magazine, period. I started working in a totally different--. I'd been a dress designer. I went to Chicago to visit a friend after having sold my boutique to move to New York to work on Seventh Avenue. I'd never been to New York before, and I hated it. After Los Angeles, New York seemed--. I had long hair and I wore pale powder blues and oranges and lots of rings on my fingers, and here there were women with haircuts all clipped very crisply, walking very fast on the street. You couldn't own a car in New York City--cost a fortune to own a car. And everything was so dirty and so hard to get done, and everything little thing--you had to learn a whole new vocabulary. People were rude. And Seventh Avenue was full of these gorgeous women with voices like macaws--squawk! Bloomingdale's was amazing, just amazing. It was too much for me. I wasn't used to it, and I didn't like it at all. I went to visit a friend in Chicago, and I fell in love with Chicago. If you don't know what Chicago is, you have no idea what Chicago is. Stockyards and gangsters. Instead, it's a beautiful city on a lake with lovely open skies, very livable, very easy to get around. So then I needed a new job; I was going to be there. I didn't want to work on Seventh Avenue. There was nothing in the design field. Somebody said, Hefner's got Playboy--you've got a portfolio. Why not try there? So I did. And I said, I'd like to change my career. I'm as good verbally as I am visually. Put me someplace and I'll learn. So they put me in a department where I composed letters to would-be Bunnies--all those fourteen-year-olds who want to run away from home and become a Bunny. And I did that for a rather long time, campaigning all the while--because they said if I did that for awhile, they'd find me job as an assistant editor or something.
Harvey: That was the come-on.
Urry: Yes. It didn't work. Then I met Hef, and I made him laugh, and at some point, he said, I'm going to apprentice that girl. I would never have dared ask him for a job. He was the only person I knew that you didn't ask for a job.
Urry's assistant, Keli Phox, brings in cokes. They talk about pending jobs and what's been finished; it's about five o'clock in the evening.
Urry: He needed an assistant. It didn't occur to me to ask him for a job. He was Hugh Hefner, the great brilliant graphic genius, who knew everything. But apparently, I made him laugh, and he thought I was funny and might be able to do it. And he had no way of knowing exactly how much of a cartooning enthusiast I was. I had the biggest collection of comic books of any girl, I think, in a radius of fifty blocks in my hometown.
Harvey: So you were a comic fan to begin with.
Urry: Absolutely. In fact, I did some cartooning: I won poster contests when I was a kid. I took some art history. But I thought I was going to do dress design. It never occurred to me that I could actually get a job--I mean, who thinks they're going to get a job as a cartoon editor? What a wonderful job.
Harvey: Well, is it?
Urry: Oh, it's wonderful. After doing it for many years, I still feel that I think it's kind of the most interesting--it's hard for me to believe that I'm still a fan. And I am. I'm still stay fresh and open to new work. I look forward to opening stuff on the off-chance that there'll be some brilliant new talent there. And I'll giggle. I really do. I don't know how people keep on doing it over and over and over again. But cartoonists are special. They aren't like other people. Oh, sure--they come in all sizes, shapes, and breeds. But gag cartoonists particularly are a special breed, and they're dying out. I mean, it's not a good way to make a living any more.
Harvey: In fact, Lee Lorenz [cartoon editor of The New Yorker] said in a recent issue [of Cartoonist PROfiles]: Gag cartooning has been melting since the early sixties. People are now clinging to what used to be a glacier and is now about the size of an ice cube.
Urry: Well, he ought to know: he's a gag cartoonist.
Harvey: And he's dead right. You look around. There aren't many places for gag cartoonists to sell to any more.
Urry: There aren't that many magazines publishing. And the people that do publish cartoons, all have ideas about what they want, and that lets out a lot of people. But the really smart guys saw it coming a long time ago and started branching off into children's books, into teaching, into doing--. I don't think it's possible to do a syndicated strip and still do freelance and stay fresh. I just don't think it's possible.
Harvey: Well, if you're going to do a syndicated strip, you should be putting your time into the strip. Is that what you mean?
Urry: I mean, doing a syndicated strip is a killer! How do you come up ideas--. At least, gag cartooning--you don't have to do it. You've got a little leeway of time. The syndicated cartoonist must turn things out to meet a deadline. People just get burned out. I've seen lots of people who have no idea of the toll it takes on them and think they can still do other things. But I think the most successful people are those who do some gag cartooning--in the gag cartooning area--and other things. Many of them paint. Many of them play jazz. Donald Reilly spends at least sixty percent of his time playing jazz.
Harvey: When you say they paint, do they paint for a living?
Urry: Paint and show, exhibit--yes.
Harvey: Galleries, one-man shows--all of that?
Harvey: It's interesting that so many of the cartoonists who appear in Playboy I don't see anywhere else. I suppose the arrangement is something like an exclusive contract, isn't it--with some of the regulars?
Urry: We don't--it doesn't have to be exclusive just so long as they give us first look at the kind of stuff we do. And they can't work for any competitor. The New Yorker is not a competitor. The New Yorker, I think, has the same arrangement. Basically, it's a first look contract.
Harvey: But they don't appear anywhere else? I think Rowland Wilson used to do advertising for some insurance company--great, wonderful full-page color drawings. But I never see his stuff anywhere else except Playboy.
Urry: Because he's an animator now.
Harvey: Ahhh, that's where he works. What about Sokol?
Urry: He's a political cartoonist.
Urry: In Germany.
Harvey: I love his stuff. I love Dedini's stuff. He's been around a long time.
Urry: Dedini just does that, but he does enough. He does stuff for us and for The New Yorker. He does a lot of other things that he likes to do. He paints. So he gets to do what he wants. But he's one of the ones that I think --he could have done anything he wanted to. He could have taught if he wanted to. He could have done children's books. He could have done all kinds of things. He occasionally does advertising jobs, but he could do a lot more if he really wanted to.
Harvey: When did you start?
Urry: I'm not going to tell you.
Harvey: Then I'll ask it another way.
Urry: I've been doing it for a long time.
Harvey: I know you've been doing it for a long time.
Urry: I became the cartoon editor officially in 1972.
Harvey: Okay. That's what I was going to guess. The reason I'm asking, I guess--this is sort of idle stuff; I don't know if I'll ever actually use any of this, and since you're going to be able to veto it anyway, it won't make any difference.
Urry: Oh, I don't mind what questions you ask under those circumstances.
Harvey: You just want to be able to say, I didn't want that to go in. I understand--
Urry: It depends on how you make it fit. What the main thrust is. My major thrust is to prevent another fifty or sixty batches coming in every day. [Harvey laughs.]
Harvey: What I want to do is a kind of historical slant, I think--in a way. But this question isn't really directly related to that. But Michael Berry, for example, submitted stuff to Playboy very early on and was never printed in Playboy. And he was one of the --maybe The cartoonist drawing cartoons with glamor girls in them in the fifties, late forties even. He never made it. And I think he never made it because he wouldn't --because he'd had too much exposure elsewhere, and there some kind of clubishness or exclusiveness Hefner was looking for with his stable of cartoonists.
Urry: It's true that when Hef started, he wanted people—he wanted to be able to tune the magazine. He wanted to make it an inner circle of people that he wanted who would do our cartoons and wouldn't do the same cartoons for other magazines, or the same kind of cartoons. And he didn't want, I think, overexposed people--even though--. I don't think that was a major thrust. I think he just wanted the best as he saw them. And I think he did an extraordinary job considering that he was in the midwest and not in New York, shaking hands. When I moved to New York from Chicago, I was very surprised at how few people--they knew of us, they knew the magazine--how few people thought we were accessible. The guys were used to coming in on Wednesdays and seeing the cartoon editor; they didn't want to send in by mail. They didn't know Hef because they hadn't been around. Gahan [Wilson] mostly got in because he went to the Art Institute [in Chicago]. So did Sokol.
Harvey: They were in Chicago.
Urry: They were in Chicago.
Harvey: They could go down and say hello.
Urry: Exactly right. But most of the people who actually didn't make the trek out to the midwest to meet him didn't know for a long time that he was the cartoon editor. And he was acutely aware of who was publishing in Saturday Evening Post and Collier's and all of the good magazines that were publishing cartoons. Esquire. And he wanted to use really classy cartoons. Now, overexposed--I don't think is a word I ever heard used here. Ever. So it may have been a factor of taste. I'm always surprised, actually, at how unrelated some of the cartoon material we get is.
Harvey: Unrelated to?
Urry: Unrelated to--I mean, this is what the magazine looks like [she holds up a copy with a beautiful woman on the cover]. What do you expect to find inside? It says "Entertainment for Men" right there on the cover. That's the first clue. And the second clue is that it's boys with toys, it's men interested in sports, it's macho feelings, it's feelings of not macho-ness, confessions. It's the sense that men have done this too long and should be doing this [other thing]. But it's a dynamic that's different from other magazines. It doesn't say what The New Yorker is trying to say or doesn't appeal to their people.
And we get stuff that is so weirdly far removed that I think people don't read the magazine. I think a lot of cartoonists don't pay enough attention to the magazine. If they really want to do cartoons for the magazine, they have to acquaint themselves with it. And most of them will not. Most of them--that immediately tells me something: they're not smart enough to work for us. I mean, that sounds strange, but many of them cannot see the reality of the range of material that we publish. Lord knows, we're eclectic! We appeal to eighteen-year-olds and sixty-five-year-olds. So we have a wide range of things that we're willing to deal with and that we wish to deal with--the human condition, the male condition, is what we're interested in. In all of its panoply--except that it has to stay under the heading "Entertainment for Men." That means that we don't do cartoons about people taking out the garbage. Those are domestic, and we're not interested in reminding people of that. They have enough of that. Not very entertaining for the average man. So we don't like that sort of-- We're perfectly willing to poke fun at them. But it's better if it's universal fun. We're all in this gene pool together, and let's have a sense of humor about it.
But I get stuff that is so unrelated. And then there's that whole new fad of anti-cartoon drawing I think of it as. Sort of the Beavis Butthead type of ugly cartooning. We get a lot of that.
Harvey: I was going to ask you about that. When you see a cartoon, what's the first thing that you see? The drawing.
Urry: Absolutely. I mean, it doesn't matter what the gag is. The gag could be brilliant. If the drawing isn't up to snuff--or it isn't our kind of drawing--and we accept a wide range of whimsey. We don't do the little googly fellows that the Europeans do; they like little googly men--huge noses, clunky feet, and large ears, that sort of thing. We don't--have never done that. Mr. Hefner has always loved reality cartoons. But within that range, there's still a lot of cartoony cartoons that we do. And they just have to be adapted. They can't be faddish; they can't be a reaction against because we are not doing that. We like whimsey.
Harvey: Oh, yes--particularly in the back of the book. I don't think there's any question that the artwork in Playboy's cartoons is absolutely at the top of the scale. It's beautiful stuff. Especially the color stuff.
Urry: The color, there aren't any other people-- We have sixteen foreign editions, and I'm not going to be able to replace any of the cartoonists that are so good working for us now. There are very few people, I mean, the few people that we've gotten--there's a guy from England, a guy from Spain, somebody from France that we've added. But very few Americans. First of all, I guess anybody that draws brilliantly enough to do full-page color cartoons in Playboy is also going to understand that there's a limited number of outlets. Who else does it? The New Yorker doesn't do it. Nobody does full-page color cartoons. Just us.
Harvey: Some of the other men's magazines use color cartoons full page.
Urry: They did, they did. But I don't know how many do now. Some of our competitors did do it. But they won't pay enough for it.
Harvey: My sense of it is that most of them have almost stopped using cartoons altogether.
Urry: That may be true.
Harvey: They're pretty strictly skin magazines, and that's it.
Urry: That's because it's expensive to do full scale editorial content so that a man can pick up a magazine and find ten different things in it for entertainment.
Harvey: When Esquire published a 25-year anniversary collection of its cartoons, in the foreword, they said that they thought that The New Yorker--the characterization of the New Yorker cartoon was that were “whimsey.” And at Esquire, they liked to think of their cartoons as "whamsey." [Urry laughs.] Do you see Playboy occupying some position in the history of the development of magazine cartooning--apart from the elegance of the color work?
Urry: That's too philosophical, and it would be too self-serving to even make an attempt at answering that. I certainly think that we've brought it along. I think that we took the old men in the wingback chairs from The New Yorker and up-dated them, putting them on motorcycles. And certainly we've contemporized that whole range. But again, I think we pay a lot more--Esquire doesn't do it anymore, and I think we really like love and relationships and how men relate to each other that we can poke fun at. I think we've pushed that along a great deal. How men relate to each other. We've seen them from the great classic ideas about relationships. And I think the fact that so many of the other magazines think that vulgarity is the way to go, and we haven't. We still make room for charm and wit. We print stuff that nobody else does because it's about sex. But I think we stop short of the vulgar or pornographic--stop way short of it. Some of the women's magazines try to do this--about men and women's relationships. But they do it from a female viewpoint.
Harvey: Actually, I've started subscribing to Playboy again. For the past couple years. I'd stopped for fifteen or twenty years.
Urry: Why did you start again?
Harvey: Well, because I started picking them up in used magazine stores for the interviews, believe it or not. And I thought if I can get this kind of pleasure out of the magazine--quite apart from the enjoyment of the cartoons. I go through an issue and tear out the cartoon pages that I like and save them.
Urry: How did you get into the whole cartoon thing?
Harvey: Well, I must confess that I'm also a cartoonist.
Urry: Oh, you are.
Harvey: I've been one all my life. I've submitted stuff to Playboy and never made it [laughs].
Harvey: I also submitted stuff to The New Yorker and was never printed either [laughs].
Harvey: I did it in about 1978--well, I started out in life thinking that I was going to be an artist, and when I got to about seven or eight I realized that what I meant when I said artist was cartoonist, and from that point on, I was going to be a cartoonist. And I've always been a cartoonist. Like my father, who retired and started doing watercolors. Somebody asked him at some show what he did, and he said, I'm retired. And the guy says, No, no--you're a painter. Well, I'm a cartoonist. I've always been one. I don't make a living at it; and I don't do much of it any more.
Urry: No, I understand perfectly. I understand absolutely perfectly. So your interest, you actually are a little more honed about your interest--
Harvey: I've been writing about cartooning for twenty years. I have two books out on cartooning. One came out in January; one came out a year ago--in 1994. One is about newspaper comic strips; the other, comic books.
Urry: So why did you choose funnies and comic books to write about?
Harvey: Rather than magazine cartooning? To begin with, I had been writing about them for a long time, and I knew what I wanted to write about. In fact, the Funnies book is really just a sort of chronological arrangement of numerous essays that I've written over the years about some of the great cartoonists. So it was ready-made material. And when I got into comic books, I had to write an awful lot of new stuff, which I hadn't gotten into. And I thought about gag cartooning--
Urry: How current is the book about comic books?
Harvey: It goes up through Crumb, and Jim Woodring and Bill Griffith--
Urry: So it's still the classics. You're not into all the Marvel off-shoots.
Harvey: Well, it has Marvel stuff in it.
Urry: The early Marvels--
Harvey: Yes, early Marvels. I don't think Marvel is doing much any more. I think DC is where the real experimentation is going on, the real innovation. Anyhow, somewhere along the way, I got sidetracked from cartooning and went into teaching—English in high school.
Urry: Well, you can't tell from the kids that are coming out of the schools that someone is teaching them English.
Harvey: Yes, that's a problem.
Urry: It used to be that the whole point of everybody learning English was that it would unify the country.
Harvey: There's a really-- I had dinner with a friend last night and we were talking about ethnic neighborhoods and how people used to come to this country because they wanted to be Americans. Now they come here and they want to continue being whatever it was they were before they got here.
Urry: It's more than that. They want more ethnicity. They want to be able to distinguish their ethnic group against all the others. And they still want to be able to be Americans, whatever that means.
Harvey: Yeah, right. That means enjoy all the privileges without the obligations.
Urry: Without the possibility of national cohesiveness. It's very painful.
Harvey: I would say that--you don't want to be self-serving--but I'm looking at these things on the wall here [original cartoons in full color, framed], and I would say probably that Playboy has done more to make cartooning a fine art--in purely visual terms, not necessarily the coordination of word and picture--than any other magazine.
Urry: The fact that we give up so many pages to absolute nothing but wonderful, glorious color that nobody else is doing. The New Yorker does terrific covers and always has. They're just not as concerned about--. They used to do beautiful covers.
Urry: And just beauty for beauty's sake, and many of them were not cartoons. But even their cartoon covers were really beautiful. Now they want to make a point, which changes the dynamic a little bit. I'm a great admirer of all their experiments. I think what they're trying to do is very interesting. But I still think that we have a desire to do the most glorious cartoons around. [Picks up current issue.] We have a new guy in this issue. We've just really started using him.
Harvey: That guy, yeah. I was going to ask you about him.
Urry: He's the first new guy we've used in some time. In color.
Urry: Yes. And he worked very hard to get to this where--. Very, very hard to do this. And how many people are going to be able to use him?
Harvey: That's right.
Urry: He's very successful in his own country, and that's the point: we get these people from behind the Iron Curtain. But they don't speak the language well enough; and they don't understand the culture. And Americans like very different cartoons than Europeans like.
Harvey: Take that cartoon for example. He didn't send that cartoon in just like that.
Urry: No, he didn't.
Harvey: He sent in drawings and samples and so on--
Urry: Many drawings and many samples. And he came to visit me.
Harvey: And you realized at some point that he drew in a way that you liked.
Urry: Yes. He drew very well. I picked out one style as opposed to all the other stuff that he did--which was too weird and too off-the-wall--and I said, If you can give me more stuff that looks like this, I'd be willing to consider it. And then if you can get the subject matter right. But he started off that if you'd seen the original stuff that I was looking at, there was one cartoon that gave me an indication that he might be able to do this. And he worked very, very hard. We've had many conferences--sometimes through an interpreter; he doesn't speak English very well.
Harvey: You said he came over here to meet you?
Urry: He didn't come over to expressly to meet me--well, he may have; I don't know. But he came--he had a friend who called me up and said, Would you see this cartoonist? I know him, and he draws very well, and he has some things. And I said, Okay. And he sent a batch of material over. And then he came in with someone. And then he thought he understood. And he thought he understood. And he thought he understood. And I almost gave up. I've tried to make it work before with people who don't speak the language, and it isn't even just the language: they give me the hokiest possible ideas. Because they haven't got the background. He doesn't understand anything about Christmas. Santa Claus. That whole area. They have Saint Nicholas, it's a minor holiday there--and even when they have Saint Nicholas in many different countries, the actual--[big sigh]. I have a letter here from an American cartoonist who told me he had never heard of leaving milk and cookies for Santa as a cultural thing.
Harvey: An American cartoonist?
Urry: A man who's been working for us for a very long time--completely bypassed the whole milk-and-cookies thing. Couldn't understand it.
Harvey: He must not have children.
Urry: No--he has children! I don't understand. I got the letter this morning. I couldn't believe it. [Reads from letter:] “I asked myself, Milk-and-cookies, milk-and-cookies--what's funny about the caption? An hour later, I was having lunch with a dear friend of mine, I told her about the strange caption and was surprised when I saw a smile. What's with the milk-and-cookies? She told me. I felt sure she was kidding! Through all my boyhood Christmases, Christmases with my nieces and nephews, my friends' Christmas, my two kids, my neighbor's kids--I never once heard, as I remember, about the treats for Santa on Christmas Eve.” Can you imagine that?
Urry: I mean--this is an American-born person. You can imagine how hard it is for somebody totally out of the venue to be able to understand anything. It's the slang--all sorts of things. And Americans like belly laughs. They don't want non-captioned cartoons. They don't want to see cartoons that you have to study the picture. In Europe if you sell a cartoon in Switzerland or if you sell a cartoon in France, you may make fifty dollars out of it. Then you have to sell it to Germany; you have to sell it to Italy; you have to sell it all through those other little countries to make what you would make with one cartoon sale in America--to a good paying magazine. And they only sell one-time rights so they can sell a cartoon as many times as they can. They can include it in their books; they can do whatever they want. Nobody buys all the rights. And that's a tough situation.
Harvey: Are some of the cartoons drawn-- Do all of the cartoons that you eventually publish come from the cartoonists? Do they generate their own ideas?
Harvey: Or sometimes do you provide the gag?
Urry: We used to buy gags all the time. We don't any more. It's too much trouble. We're not getting-- Too disparate– Twixt the cup and the lip-- We're just getting too much lack of-- First of all, we're getting good enough gag ideas from the people that we use most of the time. Unless every once in a while a gag comes along that so clearly belongs to another cartoonist--in that cartoonist's real field--you can see that--and then we ask politely if we can buy that gag and give it to somebody else. But it rarely ever happens now. It used to when I first came to work here.
Harvey: So presumably some of the cartoonists are using gag writers.
Urry: Yes, they may very well be.
Harvey: But what you're buying from them is the whole thing.
Urry: Yes, the whole thing. Many of them may be doing it; I don't know. As long as I don't know about it, it's not happening. But we did used to buy them and farm them out to people. And now we just don't.
Harvey: The New Yorker--in contrast--used to write many of the gags for their cartoonists.
Urry: They did--all the time.
Harvey: It astonished me that George Price didn't do his own cartoons! He had such an individual sense of humor. I thought, This man cannot be using someone else's gags.
Urry: But you see, if you analyze his cartoons knowing that, what you can see is that people understood his style--how he drew--I even know a George Price cartoon that he sent in as a drawing and they didn't have a caption for it. They got a caption for it later; they created one. And they have so many great writers that hang around all the time--or they used to have. I don't know if the writers are hanging around to the same degree. And they writers used to love writing captions, to test themselves by writing captions. People had offices there. For them it was a sort of recreation. It was a real challenge to them. And they thought-- And it was a way of augmenting the writers' income. They paid well for gag ideas. It's amazing, that George Price cartoon thing. They still, I think, use some gags that they send to certain cartoonists. But that's the way they got some of the wonderful art they got. They wouldn't have got it otherwise.
Harvey: I deliberately read through the last two issues of Playboy, looking for a particular characteristic. I've done the same with The New Yorker for several months now, and frankly, I'm disappointed in the New Yorker cartoons--and have been for a year--although I continue to subscribe to the magazine. The disappointment arises from the fact that so many of their cartoons could be verbal jokes. They don't really need a picture. And there is only one cartoon in the last two issues of Playboy that is a verbal joke.
Urry: Oh, what a wonderful compliment.
Harvey: Are you conscious of doing that?
Urry: I know we think of the American sensibility. And it is a peculiarly American magazine. This is not a magazine-- When Europeans buy the rights to our magazine--when they sell very big in Germany even though the German's have the different sense of humor than other people--when it sells them in England, when it sells them in Japan, they're looking for our sensibility. They don't adapt them. They're looking at what America laughs at. They want to see that; they want to be able to understand it. They talk to each other about it. And we have a peculiarly American brand of cartooning.
Harvey: Is the content the same in the international editions of Playboy?
Urry: They use a lot of our cartoons. They don't have to. They can take a percentage. I think they have to use up to X-percent of our cartoons to keep it still Playboy. But they don't have to do it nearly to the degree that they do, and they tend to do it because they don't have enough people who are as good as those we have. Or they may have one or two. Or they really love--even if they don't quite understand it--they really love the nature of our cartooning.
Harvey: I didn't realize that the international editions were actually different content.
Urry: Sure. The pin-ups are different.
Harvey: My gosh, the whole thing.
Urry: Oh, yes. They usually use our Playmate of the Mont
Harvey: They usually use our interview subject--which is strange because--but they're interested in the Americana. That's partially what they're buying--the American lifestyle. As far as I'm concerned, we contributed to the downfall of the Soviet Union.
Harvey: [Laughs.] Why not?
Urry: I think they definitely like capitalism after they've had one look at this magazine! [Harvey is laughing; Urry is grinning.]
Harvey: When you're looking through piles of cartoons, are you conscious of whether this gag needs the drawing--whether the drawing contributes to the gag or is just identifying the speaker?
Urry: If it's just talking heads, the cartoon is not nearly as interesting--. Yes, I like something where the drawing lends something wonderful to it. Sometimes the trick is to get the caption right--to monkey around with the caption enough so that it really reflects exactly the thing that is making the drawing so funny. The words are there, but the words aren't always the music, so to speak. You want to get the music too.
Harvey: I am reminded of a famous story about James Joyce who was working on Finnegans Wake, and somebody asked him how it was going, and he said he had been working on one sentence all day. And the guy said, What? One sentence! And Joyce said, Yes, I've got all the words. I just haven't decided which order to put them in.
Urry: Very nice. Very nice. That must be a classic English teacher's joke.
Harvey: I don't know. Most English teacher's jokes nobody knows.
Urry: That's the way I feel. I just think--this caption--"Tarzan and Jane get no privacy in the jungle"--we could probably have worked on for another month because it's not quite right. It's more or less right. It's funny. In order to know this, you have to know what the Tarzan and Jane thing is--a kind of Disneyesque version of it. It's a multitude of a thousand different little pieces--
Harvey: Right. It's a real cultural --there's a lot of cultural baggage in the Tarzan and Jane notion.
Urry: Yes. Even a phrase like "my personal best" [from another cartoon in the same issue]--you have to know that it means something for an American. When people from Europe send us stuff, you can see by the awkwardness in the phrasing of captions that they've got the idea, they just can't find--they can't hone it into something acceptable, something small and intact that does exactly the right thing. And we tend not to like long captions. We will run them, if they are needed. Americans like to laugh. They like to laugh a lot. They don't want to just smile. They don't want it to hit a place in their intellect that goes, Hmm, that's interesting. That's neat. That's charming. They want to laugh a lot. They want to put it above their desk.
Harvey: Who's that wonderful cartoonist--William Steig.
Urry: Oh, yes, Steig.
Harvey: You can look all over the page and see dozens of different little things. It's an amusement. A divertisement. It's not a laugh. It's an amusement.
Urry: Steig is really-- He falls into that category where they used to find gags for him because he's such an intricate drawer. And he loves all that strange meandering stuff. That's a very different genre, actually.
Harvey: My sense of it is that it's more in the European tradition.
Urry: It is. It is. Right. Like Steinberg. Very intellectual. Very cool stuff. Appeals to people enormously if they like the abstraction of it. But it isn't an American tradition. Which sort of makes me sad because I think that the funny--the newspaper syndicated things, some of them are getting less funny.
Harvey: [Groans.] Some of them are wonderfully funny but they're so badly drawn. It just turns my stomach.
Urry: Yes, I don't understand how that has happened.
Harvey: One of the problems, I think, is that newspaper editors who buy comic strips are not --
Urry: Art editors.
Harvey: --art appreciators. They are verbal people. My theory is that Charles Schulz was the beginning of the end of newspaper comic strip drawing. The average uneducated newspaper editor--uneducated in art--looks at Schulz and sees the same thing he sees when he looks at Scott Adams, who does Dilbert. Very simple drawing. And the editor can't see that one of them is much more sophisticated than the other.
Urry: They don't demand it. And they don't get it. And they run stuff that they shouldn't be running. Painful, painful. I got educated. Newspaper comics was my first exposure. Before I was old enough to have an allowance that allowed me to go out and buy comic books, I actually saw the funnies. And I devoured them. You think about how Al Capp drew. Brilliant, brilliant artist. There were thousands of people who could draw brilliantly.
Harvey: Capp said one time that the best black-and-white illustration being done in this country was being done in newspapers. That was when he and Milton Caniff and Alex Raymond were still drawing. People like that. That was high quality illustration. Hal Foster.
Urry: Yes. It's hard. [Harvey has Playboy open to a black-and-white cartoon by Charles Rodrigues.] Now that's a very sophisticated work.
Harvey: It is. It is. And I like his stuff, too. He has a bizarre sense of humor.
Urry: Very bizarre.
Harvey: And --now I don't describe this [style of drawing] as badly drawn. This is not Dilbert.
Urry: Oh, no. No, no. No.
Harvey: This is very well drawn.
Urry: Yes, he can really draw. It's tough to draw like that. But when I came to Playboy, I already was a Daumier fan. I already had seen all of them. I'm from Canada, so I had all that classic English stuff--I'm from the British part of Canada--so all that classic English stuff to look at. All those wonderful drawings that Punch used to publish.
Harvey: Ahhh, Fougasse!
Urry: Really. I'd taken a lot of art history, and I knew what different people drew like. And what they drew well like. And what the early cartoonists drew like. And Playboy just tickled me pink. It was just wonderful.
Harvey: Great artwork.
Urry: And then I got a chance at least to be able to laugh-- Being a Canadian, it was easier and funnier for me, actually, to be able to look at the American mind and mores, up close. I recognized it. It jumped out at me. And it wasn't so distant. I grew up on all those Terry and the Pirates comics. I loved all those things. And the Belles of St. Trinians– I saw all of those little Ronald Searle drawings, all those funny little things--and I loved them then. They were all wonderful. And so when "Monty Python" came along--and Terry Gilliam was an old friend, the art director--he was a Texan--came out of that genre--so there was a long already that I could bring to it in terms of what my appreciation level was. Shel Silverstein. Remember Shel Silverstein?
Harvey: Oh, yeah.
Urry: He's doing children's books--some of the most brilliant and scathing comments on hippies and males and females of that generation. Jules Feiffer. Beautiful lyrical line.
Harvey: Silverstein started appearing in Playboy while I was in college, and when I went into the Navy, I did cartoons for the ship's monthly magazine, and every once in a while, I'd try to do a Silverstein "take"--sketches of adventures ashore in Italy or France. That was a lot of fun. But I'm not Silverstein.
Urry: He had a really outrageous sense of humor.
Harvey: Oh, yes. And he did a whole bunch of stuff about his Army experience. What was it called? Something about boots or bootstraps. "Grab Your Socks." That was it. A paperback collection of Silverstein cartoons done before his Playboy appearances. Or right about that time.
Urry: He could do just about anything. But he made a lot of money doing children's books. He was very smart. He did this other stuff--he liked the life style. This guy--the guy we were talking about, Rodrigues--that's what he does for a living. He draws cartoons.
Harvey: Wasn't he syndicated for a while?
Urry: He was. He teaches art.
Harvey: Oh, for goodness sake.
Urry: And paints, seriously. This man [I've lost track of who this might be; we were looking at cartoons in the August 1996 issue.] was a bus driver in Chicago and worked his way through school and all that stuff. [Could be Buck Brown.]
Harvey: What is he doing now?
Urry: He's in advertising. And he's working for us.
Harvey: He's not doing other kinds of cartooning?
Urry: No, he's a cartoonist. So we came out of a wide range of things. And if you look at them, you can see that they weren't just doing gag ideas, that they kept their options open in many cases--other ways to earn a living--bartending--they really did whatever they had to do.
Harvey: Coming back to Jack Cole, for example, here's a guy--you could really almost use Jack Cole as a touchstone for what Playboy does for cartooning. He came out of comic books, where he drew in black-and-white, with a hard line that would contain the color. And then he drew a comic strip--later, after he started in Playboy--but, anyway, that was the way he drew. Then all of sudden, he started doing wash drawings--still black and white; that was the first stuff like that I saw of his--again, before he started in Playboy. He did them for Humorama magazines, little digest-sized magazines of cartoons and jokes. You'd see some of his stuff in these--signed "Jake." And then Playboy came along, and you started seeing this kind of stuff [watercolor drawings].
Well, he's a touchstone because he went from black-and-white drawing with a hard line into something that is a painting, not a drawing. Watercolor.
Urry: I must tell you that Mr. Hefner clearly wished to take cartooning in that direction. Wanted exactly that. And did it very well.
Harvey: Another thing that is amazing about Playboy is that little creature that decorates the page of jokes--the Femlin. Almost any other magazine would have turned that charming creation into a regular comic character appearance.
Harvey: Which strikes me as symbolic of a certain restraint that somebody is exercising, saying, We're going to use this character in one context--this context--and only in this context. Why are you smiling?
Urry: I got a letter in here that says [rummaging through stack of papers on the couch beside her]-- He's upset because I turned down a request to use a cartoon of ours on a T-shirt.
Harvey: [Laughs.] This cartoon on a T-shirt?
Urry: He wanted the rights. To use it on a T-shirt.
Harvey: [Scoffing noise.]
Urry: So he describes it as--he says in here, they're interested in pursuing this design that Playboy holds the rights to. And I called him up in Hawaii, and I said, You don't seem to understand: that isn't a design; it's a cartoon. [Harvey laughs.] That's exactly what you're talking about. It's an integrated situation. It's not something you can pluck out of one situation and stick into another, willy nilly. And we are not going to start regarding our cartoons as designs. They may turn into something else. But we don't think of them like that. They're editorial material. And we paid a lot of money for editorial material. We think of it as--not a design process. People want to glom onto one thing and slap it something else. It doesn't work. We try to integrate the magazine, which is what the other thing is that cartoons do. The cartoons deal with the lifestyle and the fun and the propensity for good living that Americans wish to have, at least in their fantasies. American men. American men and boys. Wish to have in their fantasy lives. And I think the cartoonists promulgate that; they're one more editorial step into an integral package.
Harvey: I like your use of the notion of fantasy; I've done the same myself to describe cartoons of this kind. How can you draw pictures of naked women, which is what I did, and--that's because that's the fantasy. If you're going to sell cartoons in that market, that's the fantasy. But it doesn't mean that I don't love my wife. This is a fantasy over here.
Harvey: And I get into discussions with comic book people who draw superheroes, which is another kind of fantasy.
Harvey: And you ought to be able to make that leap, from this kind of fantasy to that. If you can understand that, you ought to understand this.
Urry: Well, they may not like it. A lot of people who do cyberspace stuff and heroes think in those terms and don't really think in any other terms. But there are enough people who do and want to see it-- I think that you're supposed to put your cares on hold for a little while. Pick up something and not be-- It's a source of ideas and things-- Hefner wanted very much that the magazine should be a representation of both Right and Left. Hef wanted it to go straight down the middle. But he wanted everything to be able to be shown in it. He did not want to lean it in any one way. And we've tried to do that in terms of cartoons too, except that we don't do cartoons for women--although women love our cartoons, a lot of them like our cartoons. A painter came up to me the other day at a Fourth of July party--a woman. She'd been photographing and painting for years and years, and she said, They're the best cartoons of anybody. [Harvey laughs.]
Harvey: At one time, I think that the final decision about publishing cartoons was made by Hefner. Cartoons came through you, but he--
Urry: He always made the final selection, and he's still very much involved.
Harvey: So you package up a bunch of stuff that you think is suitable.
Harvey: And he takes a look at it and says, Use it all, or use this.
Urry: I've worked with him for so many years. We've had marathon meetings that would go on for two days. He gets very intense. And he can spend forty minutes on four lines of something. Drives you crazy. But he has a great stomach for cartoons--a capacity for spending a lot of time. And he lends himself to cartoonland--I've found the barriers very easy for me to cross, too. You just sort of step through a gate, and there you are in a land where desert island jokes are normal. People write notes and put them into bottles and send them off on the ocean. And all life is a variation on that theme. You can do a thousand desert island jokes. That takes a peculiar kind of access--your own childlike nature, perhaps--and I think Hef has it, too, so that sometimes the conversations we have are utterly bizarre to other people, but I think if you don't have that, you can't really talk about cartoons; the world has to be smaller, more contained. And I think most people like that. It's delightful. It's a delightful place to work. I still get thrilled when I see Disney movies--where Bambi's batting eyelashes and you see a flower unfolding before you. I still love all that stuff.
Harvey: I guess I do, too. I haven't seen “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” yet. I have to go through some sort of mental gymnastic to get ready. I don't see how you can make a comic character out of a cripple--
Urry: The problem with that is that they are classics. Would these kids ever know about the Hunchback otherwise?
Harvey: Is there something you wanted to say that you haven't said? Most of my questions are just ways of letting the subject wander--
Urry: Well, I know one of your problems is that I have already contained the normal questions on what the magazine is looking for because I don't want more stuff. We're not looking for anything. But I guess the thing that I would like to tell cartoonists mostly is that they really have to use their heads and brains when send cartoons to magazines if they want their work to be accepted. Otherwise, you're just wasting time and money. It costs a lot of money to package something up and put backing in it and so on--especially for new cartoonists. And it costs a lot of psychic energy to get ready to do that. To focus on it. And I don't think they focus on it enough. I think they simply don't look at the cartoons and subject matter in the magazines they are submitting work to.
If they give themselves six issues of any magazine that they're going to send to and jot down what they think the subject matter of the cartoons is, after a while, they will see a pattern. So that they would see a pattern emerge--quite apart from the pictures--of the kinds of subjects that magazine is interested in. What the magazine wishes to talk about. It would help them a lot. It doesn't mean they have to pick any of those things, but it would give them a basis of knowing what that magazine is looking for.
And the other thing is that I don't--they ask dopey questions. No cartoon editor who gets the volume of submissions that any major magazine does has the time to answer the questions that they're asking. Can you critique? No cartoon editor can critique submissions--unless the subject is close to home and the cartoon editor is really thinking about using that person. They simply can't do critiques. It's not because the cartoonists are lousy or because their work is disgusting--some of it is, but some of it is good. It's because you'd go crazy trying to do that--you'd spend all your time on it. And you don't have time. I have plenty to do--granting permissions, for instance. There are millions of books that use cartoons, reprints, here and there. Each one of those has to be separately dealt with. We have to get the money settled for the cartoonist. If you really have a vested interest in cartooning as a cartoon editor, you're really not going to be able to do critiques or answer dopey questions.
Harvey: Do the cartoonists own their cartoons?
Urry: They own the rights. And they own the physical artwork. So they can sell them. And we get requests from people outside who want to buy originals. We broker that for them. But we own the copyright, so they can't reprint them without our permission. And we let people reprint them for books and magazines; we give the money to the cartoonists--we don't keep it ourselves.
Harvey: I have a friend who, forty years ago, sold a cartoon to Playboy. And every ten or fifteen years it would get reprinted some place--in a Playboy collection--and he'd get money. And he thought that was just astonishing!
Urry: Yes. We don't take the money. And the amount of time we put in on it--even one reprint--is amazing. We have to look at it, we have to see where it's going to be reprinted, we don't want it showing up in anything sleazy. And we pass the money along. We keep the records up-to-date and we pass it along.
I guess what I'm really concerned about is that cartoonists are not using their heads enough. A lot of them are missing because they won't follow certain steps. They won't analyze what a magazine wants. They send us stuff--unsolicited stuff. That works if your style is so individualistic that you have such a new kind of sensibility and that a magazine is ready for something totally new and different than anything you've done before.
We do cartoons about safe sex. We have a desire to do cartoons about safe sex. Not only do we do them. We think it's a subject that we want to remind our readers about. It's important. And we feel that not to do so would be unconscionable--not modern. We can't espouse sex without suggesting that there are cautionary procedures--the fantasies notwithstanding, we still feel we have an obligation to spread an accurate sense of what we think people should do. But you can imagine how many cartoons we get on safe sex. That person has to decide to study some of our cartoons, see how good they are, and see if they can really top them. If they can do something so much better--and yet, what we're getting are sort of high-concept ideas. Where somebody thinks something could be funny. Well, never mind "thinks something could be funny." Is it funny? Could it actually make you laugh out loud? Is there an intellectualized version of it? Or is it an actual visceral connection? I guess people don't seem to understand that. They think it's okay to analyze the focus of our subject matter, and then you have to decide if you can do something better. Whether you really have an offering that is fresh enough and original enough and interesting enough and if you can draw well enough. We get lots of funny ideas from people who can't draw well; they don't study anatomy. That's the first thing that anybody has to do: they have to study anatomy for all of their lives. You can't throw away things--you can't minimalize anatomy until you're an anatomical genius. The best people make people sit in the right way and then make fun of them because they really have the basic form structure. Body language. They always get the bodies right, the proportions right. Do I sound like a fanatic?
Harvey: No, not at all. One of the pitches of this article could very well be that you've been a cartoon editor for some time, and in one of the top cartoon markets in the country, so the things that you say to cartoonists are important things--whether they're to cartoonists who want to be Playboy cartoonists or whether they just want to be a gag cartoonist. And there aren't enough gag cartoon markets--I wrote a piece not so long ago about it: if you want to be a gag cartoonist these days, you have to have a whole batch of things about wind surfing, and you send them to the wind surfing magazine, but then you can't sell them anywhere else after that--at least, not as a batch of wind surfing cartoons. You'd have to trickle them out, one to a batch of other subjects--
Urry: That's right. And that's terrible for those guys. But there are a lot of specialty magazines. That's what's taken the place of the general interest magazines. And that needs research. You actually have to know a little about the subject matter. Or else you have to be able to be funny about anything. It has to be a kind of generic sense of humor that will apply to most human situations, and then you put them into the specialty setting. But it's true: it's very, very hard for these guys. It's just as hard to sell to a sex magazine as it is to sell to a wind surfing magazine. But a lot of people make decent money by selling small things to small markets.
I'm impressed when people send me clips of good material printed in other magazines along with a letter saying, I'm new to this game and so forth. Even if it's a school magazine, I'll pay attention. The problem is that they tend to be pallid cartoons. If they're not going to be really pleased with the cartoon as it is printed--if they don't think it shows the best of their sense of humor--then they shouldn't send them. But if in fact, it's really got something that they want to say, they should--no matter where it's been printed--they should send it along. It's nice that people are in print. It's nice to see that they've got the initiative to send their stuff to small outlets; that they really understand how hard the market is; that they're not going to be crushed with a reject slip. I've watched people for two years--three years. One guy sent me a thing--a letter--telling me that I had sent him a note before he went into the service that said, Look--we're not buying your stuff but you've got something. And he carried that note around in his wallet until it was falling apart, and when he came out of the service and went back into cartooning, and we actually bought something from him. And after we bought it, he told me that I had done this for him. And I had watched his stuff for a couple of years. He was very close even then. He just wasn't hitting in the right way. In the end, he became a greeting card big shot and ruined his line. Well, he needed to make an honest living, and it's a good way to make a living if you have that kind of general sensibility.
Harvey: I wonder how people who want to be cartoonists are going to become cartoonists any more because there isn't as large a market out there. The thing about gag cartooning for magazines is that you could do it in your spare bedroom or on the kitchen table--mail it off--and you could actually make a living that way. A lot of guys did.
Harvey: And that market isn't there anymore. So what do they do? Do they get into animation? Or do they do advertising?
Urry: That's right.
Harvey: Or do pictures for their church newspaper, or--something. And then make a living doing something else.
Urry: That's right.
Harvey: But that whole thing has evaporated.
Urry: But they can actually make a living. You can do specialty stuff. You can look at every single specialty market that there is. You can resell to all the specialty places. Some people make a living selling legal cartoons; others, medical cartoons. [Sneezes. She has a cold.] A lot of the people teach; a lot of the people do other things. There's a guy who we use all the time who sells furniture. That's what he does to make a steady living. And he cartoons purely as an avocation. He hits enough of the time. He's terribly funny. But he wouldn't be able to make a living just as a cartoonist. He does a lot of very macho male type cartoons. I'm not sure if this guy gets married and has kids that he's going to be able to do it any more. Because as soon as people get married, they stop doing "hanging out" cartoons. [Harvey laughs.] I'm not kidding. It's like Alberto Vargas who forgot for a long time about where the tits went. [Harvey laughs.] He could draw these exquisite women, but something would be over at one side--I mean, he's in his eighties.
Harvey: That's like George Petty who forgot that women's legs don't go on forever.
Urry: That's it. And now with computer animation, legs can go on forever. They're making all the ads--adding an inch or two to the legs. They're all giraffes out there.
Harvey: Did you have anything to do with Harvey Kurtzman?
Urry: I did. For a little while, I was the intermediary between Hef and Harvey. Harvey and Hef worked out their deal together originally, and they drove each other crazy--whoever was functioning as the intermediary. Harvey would submit his ideas, and Hef would send it back with comments, and--
Harvey: They strike me as both being very meticulous people.
Urry: They were--very meticulous. And they were very different, each in his own way. But I think they loved each other for a long time, and then Harvey got a little more conservative. And he played it a little safer than he really should have. While he was doing Mad magazine, he was as zany as could be. And he started doing his own thing, and then he got into Hef's turf. Then he's doing satire and wit. A book of political and social commentary. Political and sexual. And Hef knew a lot about the sex part, and Harvey didn't. Harvey was married and had kids, and so--Hef had lots of ideas, and Harvey goes to the Mansion and looks at the hot tubs. And I think there was a slight discrepancy between life styles. Harvey lived in a suburban house. And Hef was constantly pushing him, and at Harvey's funeral, I actually got up and said, Harvey would say--there's too much sex; and Hef would say--more sex. Harvey would say, Less sex. Hef would say, More sex. And they'd go back and forth. But Harvey--Hef found him early and they bonded, and nobody could get in the middle of that.
Harvey: How about Will Elder?
Urry: He went along. He just did what Harvey wanted. I'm not saying he wasn't brilliant and didn't contribute to that strip. He was and he did. That strip cost a bloody fortune! All the people working on it--all the inkers. They always had three or four or five people on it. Always. It was like producing a small book every time they would do it. Brilliant work. Absolutely brilliant.
Harvey: Too bad it's not there anymore.
Urry: Too bad Harvey's not here anymore. People say, Why don't you get somebody else to keep it going? That's like saying, Get somebody else to do Pogo.
Harvey: Too bad. I remember buying the first copy of Mad as a comic book. Gee, this is different!
We talked a little longer, mostly about Cartoonist PROfiles, which she was somewhat critical of—“I think it's muddled,” she said. She likes the idea of a magazine that goes to people working in their garages and attics. Isolated workers. But believes the magazine needs to tell them something. Likes it when that happens. “They need shop talk. Professional conversations.” Jud cares about it: “He’s the real thing.” She was also critical of “old guys” in the National Cartoonists Society. “Stodgy,” she said. But she said she “cherishes people who do wonderful cartoons.”
As do we all.
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