by Sarah Wernick
Most people don't realize that cartoonists sometimes buy their funny ideas from gag writers. For the article below, which appeared in the June, 1995 issue of Smithsonian, I interviewed four leading practitioners of this little-known art.
The family farm is rented out now, but Al Batt hasn't shed the dairyman habits of his father. He's up before the sun, “cursed,” as he puts it, “with whatever it is that causes you to rise at an ungodly hour.” From 5:00 to 8:00 every morning, seven days a week, he sits at his desk listening to Minnesota Public Radio and scanning the Wall Street Journal or a book. Occasionally a phrase strikes him, and he writes it on a pad. Today's crop includes: “adopt-a-highway program,” “one out of every six members of Congress is a millionaire,” and “extra-crispy chicken.”
From time to time after the sun comes up, he swivels to check for birds or deer in the backyard that he's gradually turning into wildlife habitat. At some point he returns to the list and writes: “Man looking at invoice says: 'Just my luck to have adopted a highway that's in medical school.'”
Batt is a cartoon caption writer, one of the best. Though he is unknown outside the dwindling circles of his curious profession, chances are you've seen his work. Indeed, if you're in the habit of displaying apt cartoons, a Batt creation might be hanging on your fridge.
The open secret of the cartoon business
Few outsiders realize - though it has long been an open secret in the cartoon business - that many artists buy ideas, on occasion if not regularly. Some simply prefer drawing to writing. But even those who normally produce their own gag lines might turn to caption writers if they hit a dry spell. Or they may need a helping hand because (to give a real-life example) a trade magazine has requested twenty cartoons that would draw a chuckle from a turkey breeder.
Hank Ketcham, creator of Dennis the Menace, says, “Any professional humorist is out of his mind if he doesn't surround himself with talented writers. Otherwise you get to the bottom of your own barrel too quickly.” Currently, most of Ketcham's daily Dennis gags are written by Batt. “He gives me ideas I'd never think of.”
The top captioners are astonishingly prolific. In a week of three-hour sessions. Al Batt comes up with 150 cartoon ideas for the thirty artists with whom he currently works. Under their signatures, his lines appear in every major cartoon outlet, including the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, Parade, Omni, Good Housekeeping and Playboy, plus numerous trade journals.
Rex May, who's been called the king of cartoon gag writing, produces 150 to 200 captions a week. Most are written during three 90-minute sessions at a karate dojo near his Indiana home, where he waits while his wife, Jean, and their twelve-year-old son, Bjorn, attend class.
Sitting on a metal folding chair in the stark second-story loft, oblivious to guttural shouts and bodies slamming onto a mat just inches away from his feet, May scribbles captions on a yellow pad at a rate of up to one per minute.
In the early years at the New Yorker
In the glory years of magazine cartooning, which lasted from the 1930s through the 1960s, it was possible to earn a living as a caption writer. That's no longer true, except for the handful of writer-partners who collaborate on popular syndicated comic strips. The cartoon marketplace shrank. Weekly outlets, such as Collier's, Look and the Saturday Evening Post, folded in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, and many surviving publications curtailed their use of humorous art. Also, new cartoonists reduced their reliance on captioners.
Lee Lorenz, cartoon editor of the New Yorker since 1973, says, “The biggest change over my career - I started here as a cartoonist in 1958 - is that the generation of cartoonists that came to prominence in the sixties and seventies all do their own writing. For the first twenty-five years of the New Yorker, captions were nearly always written by people other than the artists - writers on the staff or outside gag writers.”
At the New Yorker's now legendary Tuesday art meetings, chronicled by James Thurber and others, editors reviewed not only artists' sketches but also submissions from gag writers and non-preferred cartoonists. “They would buy your idea for eight or ten dollars and give it to one of their regular artists,” recalls Hank Ketcham, who was a non-preferred cartoonist in his pre-Dennis years. “They would say, 'This is a Helen Hokinson gag,' or 'This is a Bill Steig,' or 'This one Peter Arno should do.'”
The distinctive style of the New Yorker cartoon owes as much to the caption writers of those early years as to the artists, according to Lorenz. “E. B. White should get credit for helping establish the tone,” he says. “One of his functions here was sharpening gags, and he was sensationally good at it.” White also wrote many captions, including the line immortalized in a drawing by Carl Rose: A mother says, “It's broccoli, dear,” and her daughter replies, “I say it's spinach, and I say the hell with it.”
The most influential and successful of the New Yorker's freelance gag contributors was Richard McCallister, who continued writing until shortly before his death in April, 1995 at age eighty-six. McCallister supported himself and his family in Connecticut for fifty years on the proceeds from New Yorker cartoon captions. “I didn't need another job,”he said. One week, when he arrived at the New Yorker to deliver his latest submissions, he discovered that six of the cartoons in the current issue had been drawn from his gags. Long after the magazine itself stopped buying ideas from gag writers, McCallister continued to sell captions to individual artists.
His career is not likely to be matched, even by writers who don't limit themselves to a single magazine. Current demand provides only part-time employment for at most 200 or 300 captioners. Some find supplemental humor gigs, such as writing funny greeting cards or slogans for “social expression” products like T-shirts or coffee mugs. Al Batt has a separate career as an insurance agent. Rex May draws his own cartoons under the name “Baloo,” and he's a part-time postal clerk.
Cartoon gag writing's basic rules
Hartland, Minnesota (pop. 270), where Al Batt grew up in the 1950s and still lives today, is a long way from the Manhattan boardrooms and cocktail parties in which so many New Yorker cartoons are set. It's a place where you can get your name in the local newspaper by inviting your sister-in-law for Thursday supper or locking yourself out of your car.
Unlike Woody Allen and other angst-driven comics, Batt enjoyed a happy childhood. His sense of humor was nurtured by a mother who had “the best laugh in the world” and an older brother who kept him supplied with issues of Mad magazine.
Batt's first comical captions, written when he was still in high school, were entries for the Sunday “Foto Funnies” contest in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “They'd have a clip out of a movie, and you'd send in a caption,” he explains. There were five winners each week, and when a Pioneer Press editor noticed that Al Batt's name had been on the list nearly every week for two years, the paper ran a story about him. Then someone told him he could sell cartoon ideas. Batt learned the basics from the classic book on the subject, Cartoonist's and Gag Writer's Handbook by cartoonist Jack Markow.
For an enterprise that traffics in whimsy, gag writing's rules of the road, as codified by Markow, are surprisingly rigid. Captions are typed on 3-by-5-inch index cards and mailed to cartoonists in batches of ten or more, along with a stamped return envelope. The artist keeps any that seem promising and sends back the rest. If a resulting cartoon is sold, the writer gets a cut, usually about 25 percent. This share could amount to pocket change if the cartoon appears in a small-circulation newspaper, or a low-three-figure check if it's placed in a premier market like the New Yorker or Playboy.
Since ideas that have been passed over by one cartoonist may be accepted by another, Batt and May keep hundreds of gags in circulation. The paperwork - keeping track of gags written, who's seen them, captions held by cartoonists, and cartoons that sell - is onerous. “I used to keep a lot better records,” says Batt. “But I hated doing it, and I figured out that the benefits didn't override my dislike.” In a corner of his basement is a storage unit five and a half feet high, plus a stack of eight large shoe boxes, all packed with gag-stuffed envelopes - about a quarter of a million gags, sold and unsold. Batt says with a sigh, “I always think there's something I should do with them, but I don't.”
Rex May, whose garage and work shed contain a similar accumulation (“I have a whole shoe box of unsold Gerald Ford gags”), has been entering his captions into a computer database for four years - mainly so he can check that a new gag doesn't inadvertently duplicate an earlier one. He estimates that it would take six months of doing nothing else to type the backlog into the database. And why bother? It's much more fun, he says, to come up with new captions.
A changing collaboration
Back in the golden years when the cartoon business was centered in New York City, artist and writer might get together to go over ideas. James Reid Parker, a New Yorker writer, met weekly with Helen Hokinson, whom he supplied with captions for her suburban-matron cartoons. Richard McCallister worked directly with several artists. He recalled, “I'd spend two, three hours a week in Peter Arno's studio. We'd talk about what was happening in the world, what we thought we could satirize.”
One of Arno's most famous cartoons was inspired by an experience McCallister had at a newsreel theater in the 1930s. “I could hear hissing,” he said. “I thought it must be one of the radiators. Then I looked around, and I realized people were hissing the President.” In the cartoon version, two couples, obviously well-to-do, stand outside a mansion and call through a window to their counterparts: “Come along. We're going to the Trans-Lux to hiss Roosevelt.”
These days, cartoonists and gag writers are rarely brought together by art editors, as McCallister and Arno were. A small number of cartoonists solicit gags via professional publications. Usually contact is initiated by would-be gag writers who track down published artists and submit ideas. (Some cartoonists won't admit to using gag writers, not because they're embarrassed at needing assistance, they say, but to avoid being inundated with unusable material.)
Human contact is rare these days, even for enduring partnerships. Harald Bakken, a 21-year veteran of the business who's now semi-retired from gag writing, has met only four of the approximately 100 artists with whom he's worked. As a beginner he received valuable instruction from Randy Glasbergen, a widely published cartoonist who sent back helpful suggestions along with rejected gags. “He was very specific,” Bakken recalls. “He'd explain, 'This won't work because ...' or 'This is great because ...'” For months Bakken had no idea that his mentor was a precocious teenager who'd made his first sale to a national magazine at age fifteen. Then one day Glasbergen wrote, “Congratulate me! I just graduated from high school.”
Personal relationships with other caption writers are uncommon too. There's no professional association; the closest thing to a trade journal is Gag Recap, a monthly newsletter with a few hundred subscribers. Recap, founded forty years ago and published by Al and Jo Gottlieb since 1961, lists hundreds of cartoons that appeared in major outlets during the previous month. Descriptions are terse, with as many as fifty cartoons summarized on a single page. To the Gottliebs and their readers, a parched man clad in tatters, who's searching on his hands and knees for an oasis in the sand, is known simply as “Desert crawler.”
Anonymity precludes public acclaim for gag writers. What passes for applause is the heady experience of finding their creation tacked to an office bulletin board or supermarket cash register. When Harald Bakken took a fiction-writing course in which everyone showed examples of their work, he passed around some cartoons. He says, “I realized it was the first time I'd ever heard a laugh at my captions, and I thought: Wow!”
Every year or so, Rex May and Al Batt - who have never met - break the isolation with a telephone chat, “like Luciano Pavarotti calling Placido Domingo,” May says. What do gag writers talk about? “Of course if there's ever anybody that doesn't pay, that's the first thing,” says Batt. “But there are very few of those.”
The challenge of a quick laugh
Harald Bakken - who has a Harvard PhD and a non-captioning life as a history professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell - has given serious thought to humor in general and cartoons in particular. “A magazine cartoonist is supposed to get a laugh from a total stranger in under seven seconds,“ he observes. “No one else who professionally tries to make people laugh is expected to do it quite so quickly.” Moreover, the artist must communicate under less-than-ideal conditions. As Bakken points out in the Cartoonist's Muse: A Guide to Generating and Developing Creative Ideas, a book he wrote with longtime New Yorker cartoonist Mischa Richter, cartoons are viewed not in a gallery but in a doctor's waiting room or perhaps (to use Bakken's delicate description) “in the smallest room of the house.”
It all starts with a premise. Says Randy Glasbergen, “It's not as difficult to be funny as it is to find something to be funny about. Sitting there with a blank piece of paper is hard, but once you zero in on penguins it's easy.” As a beginning cartoonist, Glasbergen challenged himself by selecting random objects on the street and trying to find something funny about them. “I would look at a crack in the sidewalk and think: A family of ants would take pictures of themselves next to it, like the Grand Canyon. Or a nurse would put a Band-Aid on it.”
Almost anything can be a cartoon premise. Rex May says, “I've heard that a general can't play golf without thinking about where he'd put tanks. I see everything in terms of turning it into cartoons.” Glasbergen, who once spent a week with May when the two were working on a project proposal, confirms this. “Rex never put down his notebook; it was chained to his belt. If we were watching television and an ad for Grecian Formula came on, Rex would write a gag about it. Thank goodness,” he adds, “we didn't have yeast infection commercials back then.”
Though few subjects are taboo, a cartoon premise is limited by artistic considerations. Rex May, who sometimes receives submissions from writers who have seen his Baloo cartoons, says with exasperation, “A guy sent me a gag that started 'Man to brother-in-law.' Now, how the hell do you draw a brother-in-law?” Many artists shun ideas that require elaborate illustrations, such as the inside of a cathedral or a full symphony orchestra. “I don't do galley slave gags,” says May. “I'm not going to draw a ship with fifty oars.”
Sometimes the premise for a gag line is supplied by the cartoonist. Doug Sneyd, an artist on contract with Playboy who regularly uses ideas from May, recalls, “Playboy wanted some Christmas gags, so I called Rex one morning. By noon he'd come up with seven or eight, and they wound up buying three.” In one of them a lecherous Santa pauses to reflect: “I was going through that 'naughty or nice' routine for the millionth time, when suddenly it hit me: Who am I to judge?”
The leap from Christmas to a self-questioning Santa is inspired. But professional gag writers don't sit around waiting for inspiration to strike; they use techniques to “work” the premise. Harald Bakken likes to demonstrate with the familiar story of the princess who kisses an enchanted frog and turns him into a prince. “First think about the frog,” he suggests. “Perhaps he has political views on monarchy. What do his friends and his parents think about this? Consider the princess. Is this her first go at kissing a frog?”
Bakken continues: “Move forward in time, after the wedding. The couple could have in-law problems. 'Dammit, Gertrude,' says the prince, "you knew when you married me that my mother was a frog.'” Bakken once sat down and spun twenty-five captions from this fairy tale.
Because so many cartoons are based on stock situations - shipwreck survivors on a tiny island, a lawyer addressing a judge, a child bringing home a report card - most captioners write only brief descriptions on the gag slips they send to artists. Bakken says, “For a while, I made a game of trying to get the non-caption part down to as few words as possible. Instead of something like 'Wife says to husband' I'd just write 'Wife' since that implied a domestic setting and the whole works.” Others, including Rex May, add a sketch. “I put the facial expressions in just the way I want them, which is very hard to describe in words,” says May.
The business side of cartoon captioning
When the week's output is ready for mailing, it's time to decide what goes to whom. In general, top-selling cartoonists get the first look; others see the leftovers. “As Baloo, I'm number four on my own list,” May admits. He currently sends ideas to about twenty artists.
Though he'd like to encourage beginning cartoonists, he's reluctant to work with them. “The postage is murder,” he says. “It costs me at least a buck to mail a batch to somebody. A new kid can be a great cartoonist, but can he sell? Can he take the rejection? Ninety percent of people can't, and after six months they quit.”
Certain ideas - such as Batt's captions for Dennis the Menace - are created for particular artists. Or the gag itself might suggest a certain cartoonist. Bakken recalls, “I once wrote a cartoon with a husband and wife arguing. She says, 'Let's face it, Ralph. The only time we meet each other's needs is when we fight.' It was a very grim idea. I thought immediately: That's for Joe Mirachi. He had a very mordant sense of humor. I knew he'd take it and sell the cartoon to the New Yorker - which is what happened.”
Rex May comments, “Some gags are best drawn by me or somebody else who doesn't draw ears on people unless they need them; others are best drawn by Doug Sneyd or some other fine artist.” He cites a caption that he wrote for a Sneyd cartoon: a woman turns down a marriage proposal, saying, “It would never work, Rodney. You're a Benny Hill person and I'm a Monty Python person.” Says May, “If I did that, it would be mildly amusing. But Doug drew it elaborately, with a beautiful woman and a beautiful setting, and the absurdity worked so much better.”
A gag's content may rule out certain artists. Some won't accept X-rated material; others would have little interest in a caption geared to a trade journal. Says Bakken, “One cartoonist told me, 'Never ever send me horse gags; I can't draw horses.' Another said, 'Don't send me anything that has to show the inside of an automobile under the hood. I cannot draw that.'”
Because most freelance cartoonists sell to many publications, the submission process can take a long time. Says Batt, “Bo Brown, a wonderful cartoonist and a wonderful guy, will send you a check for a gag you wrote fifteen years ago. He never gives up. He'll say, 'Here - I sent this to 946 places and somebody finally bought it.'”
Ideally, the final product delivers more than a tickle. Rex May reflects, “I doubt I'd be doing this if I didn't have convictions. I like to make people laugh - but after they've laughed, I want them to think about why they laughed and to reexamine how they've been looking at things. If it's funny, there's something serious at base.”
POSTSCRIPT: For more on cartoon caption writing, see The Cartoonist's Muse: A Guide to Generating and Developing Creative Ideas, by Mischa Richter and Harald Bakken (McGraw-Hill, 1992). Though this delightful and informative book is now out of print, new and used copies are usually available on Amazon.com
© 1995 and 2004, Sarah Wernick. This article is not to be reproduced or distributed in any manner or medium without the written permission of Sarah Wernick's estate. Reprinted here by permission of Willie Lockeretz, Sarah's very funny husband.