Comedy through cartoons: an interview with New Yorker cartoonist Liza Donnelly
on feminism, handling rejection, being married to another cartoonist and more!
Liza Donnelly was one of the first people I met during the Substack Grow fellowship earlier this year. She was so kind and hilarious and curious, and I immediately thought "man I'd love to be pals with Liza but there's just no way she's too cool for me I mean she does cartoons for The New Yorker and me? I'm just a putz who doesn't even subscribe to The New Yorker."
But somehow, friendship finds a way. We kept seeing each other in the Zoom breakout room for humor writers and I became low key obsessed with her cartoons and her newsletter Seeing Things. After studying the wikihow guide for how to “Shoot Your Shot”, I finally worked up the courage to ask Liza if I could interview her for Both Are True.
AND SHE SAID YES.
Here is that interview below. We cover a bunch of stuff including:
how the portrayal of female characters in cartoons has changed over the last 40 years
what its like being married to a cartoonist (and the tv show that was almost made about their marriage)
I hope you enjoy and more than that even, I hope and frankly implore you to subscribe to her newsletter here and buy her brand new book Very Funny Ladies: The New Yorker’s Women Cartoonists (oblong books / amazon).
Alex: So The New Yorker has a reputation for being like the smartest of the smart, like whenever someone brings it up I get NERVOUS because I'm like 'uh oh I'm not smart enough for this conversation' - are you intimidated within that environment still (or were you ever)?
Liza: Are you kidding? I always was and still feel intimidated. Even though it's the cartoons that everyone likes, I always feel like we cartoonists are the embarrassing relative in the room when it comes to the writers.
In an interview you said that cartoons help open the door for people to talk about uncomfortable topics. You've been a professional for over 40 years now - what has changed or stayed the same about the topics people find uncomfortable during that time?
Over the last 40 years, I have witnessed the acceptance of the word “feminism,” and now, in most circles, it’s no longer a bad word. And perhaps even more exciting is that I can easily draw and write captions about radicchio and risotto and it is understood by one and all.
And related to the above: Before reading Funny Ladies, I hadn't ever realized the huge role cartoons have had in comedy as a whole, especially how they help shape and thus change public opinion. What boundaries are you and your colleagues pushing now?
I don’t know about my colleagues, but I am pushing the boundaries of age. I have no choice but to push at them. I refuse to let my age define me or restrict me! I think cartoons are pushing boundaries via social media, trying different forms out on IG, mostly. It's interesting.
In Funny Ladies you write about how the comedy of female characters has changed over time from befuddled simpletons to man-chasing bimbos to the older club-ladies (I love the "I shall now quote the passages which I consider obscene" cartoon) all the way to the status of 'everyman' where the comedy had nothing to do with the fact that the character was a woman at all. What sorts of female stereotypes are cartoonists of today and tomorrow playing with, subverting, etc. (apologies if you cover this in Very Funny Ladies - I couldn't get that one at the library!)
Very Funny Ladies is my new edition of Funny Ladies, and it has a lot of new stuff in it, plus, I profile the newest cartoonists (as of 2022). Anyway, when I first started, when I drew a person in a cartoon, generally speaking, I drew a man. I didn’t give it any thought. But then I realized a little later in my career, hey, I can make a WOMAN speaking, and it doesn’t have to mean anything. She is a person first. And by the time I started in cartooning, “everyman” would be a woman. Before my generation, if you drew a woman, the topic was usually required to be about shopping, cooking, raising children, being chased by your boss around a desk, or generally being clueless. No longer the case. BTW, the cartoon you mention above was by Helen Hokinson, one of the greats from the early New Yorkers in the 20’s and 30’s.
I get the sense that as a cartoonist you have to become pretty good at handling rejection and failure. How do you do it?
It’s tough and you never fully get used to it. I have to audition every week, probably like you actors do. Only I don’t have to be there in person, which is nice. I email my drawings into the magazine in order to be rejected. The key is to look forward to the next cartoon, you will always draw another good one and maybe one that they will buy. You can't get stuck on what you did before. Keep moving forward.
You're married to another cartoonist! Who do you think is funnier, you or him? I ask because I am in the depressing position of being a comedian and comedy writer / actor who is FAR LESS funny than his wife who does not do anything comedic for a living (she's usually the funniest part of all my videos which I know you've watched some of).
You know, this is a non-answer answer probably, but I think we're equally funny. But we are different funnys. He can be silly and playful , and I am dry and acerbic. Michael (Maslin) is incredibly prolific at drawing cartoons, he draws at least one a day, if not more. I can't find that many cartoons every single day!
In the last chapter of Cartoon Marriage you say that you and Michael now work in separate buildings several hundred feet apart - is this still the case? What happens when you try to work too close together?
Early in our relationship, we tried working in the same room. It was disastrous. There were threats, knives, boiling oil, bad tuna salad. We learned our lesson quickly to keep our creative lives to ourselves. All kidding aside, we do share our work sometimes, but not often. And we do talk about the biz ALL THE TIME. We live and breath cartoon. Our daughters speak cartoon.
I saw that Cartoon Marriage was being turned into a movie or tv show by Jennifer Garner's company in 2011? Is that project still alive? How has that experience been? Who would you ideally have play you AND Michael in a movie?
Yes! It was very exciting and came within an inch of becoming a pilot. I want to shop it again, maybe Hollywood would let me. Do you think they would? I would like to be played by Laura Linney, and I think Michael should be played by Jason Bateman (I loved Ozark. Our life is nowhere near as nefarious). Or if we can go into dead actors, how about Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant? My favorite pair of all time.
You've done some children's books - they're amazing! I was able to take a couple out from the library and my 16 month old loved them both (The End Of The Rainbow and A Hippo In Our Yard). How is creating children's books different than cartooning?
I like communicating through pictures, so children's books are just an extension of a cartoon. So glad your kid loved my books! I did a series for Scholastic that were very popular, all about dinosaurs (Dinosaurs' Halloween was the biggest seller) . Only available digitally, or used on Amazon.
The internet has created such an explosion of independent publishing and direct access to audiences across all creative mediums - how has that looked for cartoonists? And how has being able to publish directly to Substack changed your relationship to your work and your audience?
There are fewer outlets to sell cartoons now than when I started. So places like Substack and Medium are places I can publish my writing and cartoons and get a little extra income. It's not a lot, but it helps. The internet has helped me get more people to see my work, I have for years put it out there on twitter and IG for free. I still do, but now I can use some new platforms to supplement my income and interact with my fans more.
What are some things you're enjoying right now (tv shows, movies, podcasts, other newsletters, etc)? And are there any that feel lo-brow that you would be embarrassed to talk about with your New Yorker crowd?
TV and Movies, a sample of some faves: Somebody Somewhere, Ozark, Bridesmaids, Severance, Handmaid's Tale, The Bear, The Morning Show, Schitts Creek, Fauda, The Americans, Mad Men, Fargo (movie and tv), any Harrison Ford movie or Denzel Washington movie, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Dopesick.....I could go on. That's an odd assortment of things.
For mindless tv, I also love the Great British Baking Show, The Voice, Shark Tank, Chopped.
Ok and finally and most selfishly: I'm always doodling lil faces like these - see attached. What would it take for me to turn these into lil cartoons? I feel like I could write some pretty funny captions but I suck at drawing stuff. What would you recommend to someone like me as a next step for how to get to a non-suck stage of drawing?
Keep drawing. Draw a lot. Draw, draw and then draw again. Look at other people's cartoons. Your humor is great and you probably do write good captions, not having seen any. But remember with captions: less is more. And it has to really work with the drawing, and sound like someone is speaking. Look at the cartoons (and writing!) or James Thurber. He's the best.
And there you have it dear friends - Liza Donnelly everybody! Once again it is VERY IMPORTANT THAT YOU subscribe to her newsletter and buy her book (oblong books / amazon). You can also check out Liza at the links below:
I hope you enjoyed the interview - I've got a few more in the works including each and every member of the Obama family.
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okay this is really cool
you're gonna interview sunny obama yeah