BoxJam Does Boffo! (Interview-style, That Is)
Joe Martin has produced 30,000 individual strips, by his count, has Mr. Boffo, Cats With Hands, and Willy 'n' Ethel in current production, and produces other strips as well. He does all these without collaborators. He's been able to keep all his strips among the consistently funniest around, and his productivity has landed him in the Guinness Book of World Records.
He's also written other strips, he paints, he writes books, he writes songs, and has written for TV. We didn't ask, but he probably writes ballets and operas as well.
Among all those creative endeavors, he was kind enough to take the time to answer some questions for us.
Although UComics carries Mr. Boffo, Cats With Hands, and Willy 'n' Ethel online, you have your own web page besides. Why is that?
The Boffo site also has a few thousand of my favorite jokes, my songs, and, on the fourth of July, I hope to be showing live action Boffo films.
"Live action Boffo films" – that's tantalizing. Can you say any more about it right now?
About six months ago, Warren Zide, the producer of American Pie (and a big Boffo fan from Detroit) asked me if I'd try to come up with a concept that would work for Boffo for movies or television. He's still thinking about them, but in the meantime I'm putting together what will be a twice a week sit-com/soap opera. There are some technical things to work out, but that's the plan.
You paint, and while you keep humor in your painting, your sense of humor seems different there than what is in your strips – Three Men Falling Down Bottomless Pit (Same Three Guys Six Months Later), I Think Carlos is Quitting, Jack Dempsey vs. The Invisible Man, etc. (nice George Luks styling, by the way). Do you perceive a difference between the flavor of humor in your paintings and your strips?
The humor's the same, the paintings are just made from funnier jokes.
Ever send anything to the New Yorker?
For over a decade the New Yorker inadvertently did at least a dozen of my jokes every year. (They would buy jokes from gag writers to supply their artists.) Some clever gag writer simply took my jokes and sold them to the New Yorker. I asked Lee Lorenz, the Comics Editor in '91 at the time, if the New Yorker might consider eliminating the middle man and buy the jokes from me. He didn't think it was funny, but since then I haven't had a problem.
How'd you pay your dues? Letterer for Mark Trail or anything in your past? Did you get any one-shots in magazines before syndication? How did you make the transition from employment counselor to cartoonist?
For two years I sent in four weeks of finished comics every month, then finally wrote and inked six weeks of comics in one week before the Field Syndicate had me meet with Brant Parker, who with Johnny Hart got me my first break. The comic strip was Tucker, based on a guy who ran an employment agency. It lasted a year and a half, and was canceled the day it finished Number 1 in a Buffalo newspaper survey.
You're in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most prolific cartoonist. Does Mort Walker know about this? Seriously, is it a goal of yours to see how much you can produce? How many jokes you can come up with in a day? Did you go to Guinness or did they come to you?
My goal is to get into one thousand newspapers, a goal Mort Walker probably achieved before he started shaving. As to my Guinness record, the New Yorker (again) did an article bragging about one of their cartoonists having published an "astounding 1400 jokes in his lifetime"…I do that many every year, so I sent Guinness the New Yorker article with my statistics. I've now published over 30,000 jokes, so I guess I owe it all to the New Yorker.
You recently did a great Mr. Boffo wherein the title character snuck a tambourine into the most tambourine-secured place on earth (that comic is only online in the premium section of UComics now). In an absurd strip, it was a particularly absurd joke. Did you fully get the joke you were making? Do you do strips that strike you as funny, but you yourself don't know why? How do those comics come about?
I did the tambourine joke months before I sent it out. I kept holding it back because I thought I was the only one that thought it was funny. Maybe I'd better go through my old joke file a little closer.
Do you worry about the types of jokes you're telling? In Mr. Boffo, for instance, would you worry if you came up with a good joke but that was a very vanilla, old-school Lockhorns kind of thing, that it wouldn't "fit"?
The best jokes are always the ones you can't figure why they're funny. Here's a strange one that everyone laughs at: a patient tells his psychiatrist, "All of my friends think I'm crazy." The psychiatrist responds, "Why don't you kill them?"
I've never laughed at a Lockhorns, Garfield, or Family Circus joke in my life, but I know many people who love them and think they are hilarious.
I've never thought of this before, but maybe subconsciously this is how I came up with that psychiatrist joke.
Suppose tomorrow you decided to start a new strip, Silverware that Solves Crimes, or something. Is the process for getting that syndicated different when you already have a strip at a syndicate? Or are you really so amazing you can get syndicated four separate times starting from scratch?
The most difficult thing for the budding cartoonist is to be consistently funny. The newspapers and the syndicates have seen my work over two decades and know in my own strange way I can do this.
What's it like at the secret syndicated cartoonist meetings? Is the food any good at the awards dinners? Does Lynn Johnston have as crude a mouth as everyone says?
I'm a member of the Writers Guild, but I'm not a member of the Cartoonist society.
What's the state of the comics industry? What's the future?
I think there would be a great improvement in the comics pages and a grand future if the person in charge of buying the comics for the newspaper was the same one that had to read it every day.
Berke Breathed got back into cartooning last November with Opus – it's once a week, and he requires the newspaper provide a half-page, no shrinking. Overall, is that good for comics or bad?
If people buy more papers to read Opus and it generates excitement, then it's good for the comics.
Kevin Holbrook, in addition to a couple of wonderful syndicated strips, draws Kevin and Kell as a deliberately internet-distributed strip. Have you ever considered anything like that? Why would or wouldn't you?
I wouldn't do an internet comic because I think the internet is a better medium for film, animation, and live action.
In Lake Geneva, do you always feel like you're living in Sidney Smith's shadow?
Sidney Smith must've been a nice guy because everyone's pretty friendly to cartoonists in Lake Geneva.
What's your ultimate goal? Have you reached it?
People are always coming up to me saying for a long time they would read my comics, and they just didn't get it. Then one day, all of a sudden, they got it, and now it's their favorite. I guess my ultimate goal is to wake up some day and find that everybody got it.
BoxJam is a contributing columnist and apparent closet interviewing genius for Comixpedia.