Brooklyn, New York.
Age: 47. First
job: Coloring in needlepoint canvases for two women on the Upper
East Side, who sold the canvases to local shops. ("Giraffes. Raggedy Ann
and Andy. It was pretty horrible.") Career highlights: Regular
cartoons for Redbook, Scientific American, Fast Company, Harvard
Business Review. ("I've never had a full-time
job. My first cartoon for The New Yorker was when I was 23. I was very
fortunate.") First Sunday Times
section she reads:Crossword puzzle.
ADAM WASSERMAN |
It's pretty much a known fact that only two things
were funny after September 11: The Onion and Roz Chast. During these
troubled times, who else but the popular New Yorker cartoonist could
have come up with the "AfghaniGap," offering cargo-pocketed and slim-fit
Lycra burqas? For over 20 years, Chast, who works from her home in suburban
Connecticut, has distilled her social observations about modern life into cartoons
laden with equal parts Jewish guilt, motherly self-deprecation, and Xanax-addled
anxiety. Her work has never felt more timely than now.
The people in your cartoons seem to be very nervous.
If it's somebody else's anxiety, it can really
be funny. I really admire people that aren't anxious. There's strength of
character, maybe they experience it, but they don't give in to it.
Who are some of your influences?
I grew up loving Charles Addams. I've always just adored him.
But influences are like handwriting. You consciously or unconsciously copy what
you like, and eventually it becomes your own. I like [cartoonists] Sam Gross
and Gahan Wilson. I loved The Twilight Zone when I was growing up. I
went through a big UFO phase. I think my parents were probably my biggest influence.
What is an average day like for you?
My kids get up and I'll get up with them. They go to school, and
I go to my studio in my house. Then I work, fool around, or kill time staring
at Bill Woodman's New Yorker cartoon called "Blazing Island of White"
(it's just [blank] paper). I'll try to come up with ideas or finishes or some
other nonNew Yorker job. I do a cartoon for Scientific
American. Around 2:30 or 3, the kids start coming home. Tuesday late
afternoon, around 6, is my New Yorker deadline. So I usually get back
to work a little bit at that point.
What was your first published cartoon about?
It was in Christopher Street [the now-defunct gay literary
journal], although I can't remember what it was about. I was paid 10 bucks.
It was a turning point for me. I always loved drawing cartoons. Still life didn't
do it for me. I majored in painting at school, but when I got out, I fell back
into drawing. I missed it, I guess. I was living in Brooklyn, and I started
taking around an illustration portfolio. I'd occasionally have a little bit
of luck with it, but it was pretty horrible, because it was not what I wanted
to do. The portfolio really didn't have cartoons it was sort of a pastiche,
a dog's breakfast of whatever styles were out there.
In April of '78, I submitted a batch to The New Yorker.
I didn't even know what I was doing. I just knew that they used cartoons. I
had been reading The New Yorker my whole life and looking at the cartoons,
but I didn't even know who the editor was. I was pretty naive. I found out what
their drop-off day was and put 100 cartoons in a brown paper envelope, the kind
you can get at a stationery store for 79 cents that gets tied with cheesy shoestring.
They took one out of the batch, and I started doing stuff for them.
was that like?
I was flabbergasted! It was a combination of feeling like
they'd made a mistake and thinking, "Why didn't they take more?" I
draw what I think is funny, and I'm completely thrilled when anybody else thinks
it is, too. I always feel at any minute somebody might say, "This is terrible!"
and I'll never sell another cartoon again.
How much inspiration do you draw from your own family?
My life definitely filters into my cartoons, but it's a blend
of a lot of things. I don't think of myself as just a family cartoonist, like
Erma Bombeck. No offense to her but that would kill me.
Have you ever had the desire to take on things more serious
than the foibles of a household and family?
I have occasionally. When Ralph Nader decided that he was going
stay in the presidential race, that annoyed me. I did a cartoon that was "Thank
You Notes" to him as the spoiler. Yes, he has had some valid points to
make, but at what price?
Did that surprise people?
I got a number of letters about that, and I got some weird responses
to a "Written Test on Gun Control" that ran on The New Yorker's
back page multiple-choice questions and essay questions, like, "When
I have a gun in my hand, I feel..."
There were a few people who filled it out for real with some pretty
horrible things, like [in a heavy Southern drawl], "I feel like
blowing the head off of every cocksucker I see!" [Laughs.] It was
just unbelievable. People were crawling out of the woodwork and you think, "Why
are they reading The New Yorker?"
What is the process for a cartoon getting approved for publication?
The New Yorker has a weekly art meeting on Wednesday. The
deadline is late Tuesday. I used to go in in person with the original [artwork],
but I haven't done that in years, as I live outside of the city now. It took
too much time; it cut my week down by an entire day. I fax now. I work on The
New Yorker mainly on Mondays and Tuesdays, because I like the pressure of
a deadline; then I work on the other stuff the rest of the week.
For the New Yorker meeting, basically, everybody gets their
"batch" in rough sketches from five to 15 drawings. I love
being able to do a lot of different ideas and try a lot of different things.
That keeps it from being boring. I can't imagine doing a weekly comic strip,
where you're dealing with the same rhythm, the same format, and the same characters
week after week. After a while, you just want to cut your throat. I can basically
do anything I want on any subject in any format.
I find out any given week if I've sold a cartoon. There is no
guarantee. Sometimes you go weeks and you haven't sold anything, and it's horrible.
It's a terrible feeling. You feel like, "Oh my God, I'm never
going to have another good idea!" I like to tell myself that it's part
of the cycle; of course, you never know whether you're now in a new cycle of
never selling. Sometimes they take one, occasionally they'll take two. Then
you just feel like everything is really wonderful, until the next week when
you have to do it again and you're back to square one.
Have you ever written?
I feel like I do a lot of writing in my cartoons. I've written
occasional short pieces, like the introduction to The
New Yorker Book of Kids Cartoons. I have to say I have the same problem
I had when I was a painting major: When I was a painting major, I missed the
words. When I'm just writing, I miss the pictures.
How has your humor changed post-9/11, after a supposed "death
of irony"? Were you at an impasse trying to come up with funny stuff?
On September 11, I was at home in Connecticut, watching the news
in horror. It knocked everybody who does funny things for a living off their
feet. Few people were able to remain standing. David
Letterman was pretty good. Everything seemed so trivial after that, but
I think time has a way of enabling you to get back and get life going.
Do you remember the first cartoon that you drew after it happened?
I actually did a cartoon inspired by my parents. They live in
Brooklyn still, in the neighborhood I grew up in, and for the last 20 years
or so, it's had waves of different immigrant groups. There's been a Haitian
wave down on Coney Island Avenue; there's been a Russian wave; and now there
are tons of people from the Middle East. There are Pakistani and Afghan restaurants
about a block away from their apartment, and mosques, too. It's always made
my parents a little bit edgy. The occasional weird thing has happened: A couple
of years ago, they caught one of the guys in on the '93 [World Trade Center]
bombing in the neighborhood. My parents can get very worked up between the pull
of their liberal instincts and this paranoia of "Who's the spy?"
I did this cartoon where there's this Afghan restaurant in the
neighborhood and my parents actually started having this argument, the
same day, about whether or not they were going to go to this restaurant to prove
how they didn't think all people from Afghanistan were mad bombers. They just
had this hilarious, absurd discussion, and they wound up compromising
by saying that they would walk there but one of them would go inside and get
the take-out menu.
What do you think is funniest today about the current state
Bush saying we have to look around and remain alert. It fuels
anxiety, I know what he is talking about, but as if this could prevent anything!
There is this feeling of real despair. All of my looking around, and seeing
whether somebody looks suspicious is unlikely [to make a difference]. We were
at the airport a couple of months ago, and I got pulled out of line, much to
my kids' amusement. I was wearing these Dansko clogs, and this lady had to wave
her wand over my clogs. There I am with shoulder bags and my kids snickering
in the background. I guess you just can't do nothing!
The Onion was great [after 9/11]. They were the only funny
stuff I read after it happened. There was an article about a woman not knowing
what to do, so she bakes a cake. "Women
Bakes American-Flag Cake" that is just brilliant. It was so
touching; it was hysterical; and it was heartbreaking, because there are people
like that, and is it any less pointless than just looking around and seeing
whether somebody looks suspicious?
What is your favorite cartoon that never got published?
I've got a few that I have submitted over and over again. I don't
know if I have one favorite. I have one that is basically a mixed marriage one.
It's about a bathing suit. A wife is showing the husband this bathing suit,
and he makes a comment about it being gaudy and not liking it. They've never
published it, but I hope that someday they will. Some I've submitted four or
five times. I know they have seen it before. I just hope that they will just
suddenly see it in this brand new hilarious way or they will buy it and it will
never be seen again. [At least] to pay me off. Some hush money.
These wonderful disposable Rapidographs.
I tend to hoard them, but if you hoard them for too long they tend to turn on
Will you ever use different mediums?
I do, very slowly. I think one of the things about being a deadline
artist is that you don't always get enormous amounts of time to experiment.
Especially the way my life is right now, with two kids, it's like a jigsaw puzzle.
I feel like I have enough time to do my best work and to do mom/parent things
as well as I can. As far as blocks of time to learn how to use egg
tempera, it doesn't exist right now.
How would you describe your style?
Are there any books in the works?
Yeah, I am probably going to put together another collection.
Aesthetically, what catches your eye?
I love looking at cartoons. I don't like comic books at all. They
are very boring to me. That is such a personal thing. I know people who love
them, who can go into rapture at the foreshortening of the Green Lantern's arm.
[Laughs.] I'm not saying that's not something to be admired, but my eyeballs
roll back in my head, like looking at an annual report. I like looking at paintings.
There is a lot of fine artists' work whose I really like a lot.