Doonesbury at 30: Garry Trudeau
When Doonesbury launched on Oct. 26, 1970, no one would have guessed that 30 years later that Mike would have divorced J.J. and been seduced into the software business by stock options, that Zonker would end up a nanny or that Duke -- Duke, of all people -- would mount a presidential bid. Or that in between the characters' antics, creator Garry Trudeau would still be deflating oversized political personas with his razor-sharp commentary and satire.
Doonesbury is celebrating its 30th anniversary in the most 21st-century way: re-launching a redesigned version of the Doonesbury Electronic Town Hall (www.doonesbury.com. Trudeau answered via e-mail questions submitted last week by washingtonpost.com readers.
The transcript follows.
Trudeau, 52, became the first comic strip artist ever awarded a Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in 1975. He wrote and co-directed the Academy Award-nominated animated film, "A Doonesbury Special," for NBC in 1977, and wrote the book and lyrics for the Broadway musical, "Doonesbury," in 1983. Trudeau, a Yale graduate, took a satirical look at the Reagan administration off-Broadway in 1984's "Rap Master Ronnie." In 1988, he wrote and co-produced "Tanner '88" on HBO with director Robert Altman, a satire of the Bush-Dukakis presidential campaign. The show won several awards, including an Emmy.
In addition to the strip and the Doonesbury Web site, Trudeau contributes to publications including Harper's, The New Yorker, The Washington Post and Time.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control
over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Annandale, Va.: When the "Doonesbury" strip was a mere seven or eight years old, there was a story (I think in Newsweek) about you and the "Doonesbury Phenomenon." Among other interesting facts, I remember the story mentioned that several of the characters were based on real people, mostly folks you knew at Yale. In later years as you have introduced new characters, I wondered if that axiom still held true. For example, is Rick Redfern based on an actual Post reporter past or present?
Garry Trudeau: Only in a vague, tangential way. "Rick Redfern" was a twist on Robert Redford, who played Bob Woodward in "All the President's Men." In general, there seem to be fewer vivid personalities in my life these days, so new characters are less directly inspired by individuals and are usually created to serve some specific story need.
Washington, D.C.: Does Doonesbury still resonate with the same audience? Do the fans from 30 years ago still identify, or is it a constant turnover, always reaching the young and idealistic?
Garry Trudeau: I'm not entirely sure about this, but in general, it seems my audience has aged with me. Part of this is because the strip has always been written from a generational perspective, and part of it is because newspapers have fallen in serious disfavor with the young. Much of the potential audience now experiences the world largely through screens, which is why I've spent so much time developing the feature for the Web.
Fairfax, Va.: Mr. Trudeau, we haven't seen much if anything of Mike's younger brother (the Walden College condom salesman) for some years, it seems. Can I offer my theory on why this is so and get your reaction to it, as well as any other thoughts? You introduced the brother in the middle of the Reagan administration, and painted him as an apolitical hipster whose detachment and refusal to get involved was supposed to be cool and sympathetic. His roommate, the Navy ROTC eager beaver, was meant to be the butt of jokes and scorn. Along come the Clinton years, and with an administration more in line with your thinking, suddenly Gen-X disengagement and cynical apoliticism doesn't seem so cool to you anymore. So Mike's brother sort of quietly disappears. Can we suppose that his reappearance or continued absence hinges on this election's end result?
Garry Trudeau: I love that you've given this so much thought, and wish I could oblige you by confirming a commensurate amount of thought on my end. The truth is I stopped writing about Mike's brother because I ran out of ideas.
Belleville, Ill.: I love your "empty hat" for Dubya. Where did you come up with that?
Garry Trudeau: Not sure. I originally thought of it while he was running for governor.
There's a Texas phrase -- "all hat, no cattle" -- that seems particularly appropriate for someone who's built a career on a smile, slaps on the back, and major name-recognition.
Washington, D.C.: Will Zonker ever settle down with the right man, woman or house plant?
Garry Trudeau:Have no idea. I can barely think a week out, and this week I'm not thinking of Zonker's sexual orientation.
Alexandria, Va.: Putting aside the very serious issues that are at stake in this election, it seems to me that the two candidates (or four or six, depending on how you count Nader and Buchanan) are potentially extremely funny. One is brilliant but occasionally condescending; the other is an old Deke brother in whom people either see warmth or stupidity; the vice presidential nominees are less impeachable, to coin a phrase, what with a pious crusader and a sometimes thoughtful oil executive. Then we have a fascist and a left-wing megalomaniac (how novel!) What do you make of this mix and what the winner promises during the next four years?
Garry Trudeau: Campaign 2000 has been what the Gulf War pilots used to call a "target-rich environment" -- all a satirist could ask for. Regardless of who wins, I anticipate no letup in same.
San Francisco, Calif.: Mr. Trudeau,
Long time reader here. Have you heard anything from Hunter S. Thompson on the Duke 2000 campaign? Has he finally decided to just get over the Duke character?
Garry Trudeau: No. In a recent New Yorker story, he continued his tirades against the strip. He appears to feel ripped off, although that's a novel way of viewing a parody of a public figure, which he is.
Arlington, Va.: Mr. Trudeau --
Do you ever look back at strips from years past and wince at things that are no longer humorous or what you now think are wrong-headed? I recall looking at your original Yale cartoons and seeing Mike making a joke about rape that would be considered absolutely beyond the pale today. Given that you can't take individual jokes back, are there any characterizations or situations you wish you hadn't done, like Phuong as the lovable Viet Cong or maybe some of Duke's foreign exploits in countries that later became more generally known as tragedies?
Garry Trudeau: Many of the early strips from college make me cringe, especially the one you mention, which I deleted from subsequent editions of the book. Post-college, I have surprisingly few regrets. For instance, the characterization of Phred was never intended as an apologia for the Viet Cong, but rather as an acknowledgment of the shared humanity of common soldiers on both sides of the conflict. The strips from that era were a little simplistic, but I don't regret the sentiments.
Omaha, Neb.: Mr. Trudeau, As a 24-year-old who has chosen to use "The Doonesbury Chronicles" and other such fine publications as an added source for history and political science papers, I wanted to ask you how you remain topical while keeping so many storylines going? From Mike, JJ, Nicole and Alex, BD and Boopsie, Mark, Zonker, Duke and Honey, JJ, Zeke, and all the other wonderful characters...it seems to me like I see a week's worth of Zonker as I start to think, "I wonder what Zonker's up to?"
Do you have a schedule, or are you a part of some large conspiracy consortium reading my mind?
Garry Trudeau: There is no schedule, indeed, sometimes I start drawing without a clue of where I'm headed. The story arcs evolve more or less randomly, although I do make a conscious effort to have the various characters collide serendipitously as often as possible.
Trento, Italy: I am studying in Italy and subscribe to the Herald Tribune. Your cartoon is included with the others, and not on the editorial page. Because your cartoon is so politically motivated, do you think it belongs on the eddy page as well?
Garry Trudeau: Although it doesn't seem so at this particular point in the political season, "Doonesbury" isn't usually about politics. Months can go by with no political content whatsoever, so the editorial page is an odd home for the strip. That aside, there's another, more compelling, reason why I prefer being on the comics page -- it enjoys a much bigger readership.
Silver Spring, Md.: Great strip! Where did the name "Doonesbury" come from? Do you get any ideas from your wife and kids?
Garry Trudeau: "Doonesbury" is an amalgam of "doone," a college slang word for a good-natured fool, and "Pillsbury," the last name of one of my college roommates. My family doesn't give me ideas per se, but they do provide inspiration.
Madison Manor, Va.: Hello! I have been a fan since the late '70s (reading it since I was in middle school) and am wondering how you feel about many of the popular cartoon strips "retiring" after only a few years ("Calvin & Hobbes," "Far Side," etc.) I have not seen any other creations from those cartoonists and yet you have gone for 30 years with one strip. Do you see yourself continuing "Doonesbury" for another 30 years, like Charles Schulz did "Peanuts," or are there any plans to slow down production? To what do you attribute the continued popularity of "Doonesbury" (I have my own reasons, but am more interested in yours)? Keep up the excellent work!!
Garry Trudeau: In regard to my colleagues who've retired, I envy the sanity they've presumably restored to their lives. I certainly wouldn't presume to second-guess their decisions to call it quits. As for my own strip, I suppose that someday the wheels might come off if I don't slow down, but I haven't worked out any decommissioning protocol as of yet. I assume I'll know when it's time to quit, and if not, people won't be shy about telling me. Lastly, I can't explain why I'm still around: I'm as surprised as anyone else.
washingtonpost.com: In an interview last week, you told [Post Reliable Source columnist] Lloyd Grove that you thought Texas Gov. George W. Bush is a better source of material than Vice President Gore. Who has been your favorite politician to satirize?
Garry Trudeau: It's a tie between California Gov. Jerry Brown, for his New Age solipsism, and George H. W. Bush, for his Old-Boy cluelessness.
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