Comics: Meet the Artist
With Bill Griffith
"Zippy the Pinhead" Cartoonist
Hosted by Suzanne Tobin
Washington Post Comics Editor
Friday, Sept. 27, 2002; 1 p.m. ET
Welcome to the Washington Post Style section comics discussion, hosted by Comics page editor Suzanne Tobin. This week, Tobin is joined by "Zippy the Pinhead" cartoonist Bill Griffith. Since its inception in 1970, the cartoon has become an international icon, appearing on the Berlin Wall and making Bartlets Familiar Quotations with Zippy's oft-said "Are we having fun yet?".
Tobin and Griffith were online Friday, Sept. 27 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss "Zippy the Pinhead" and the art of cartooning.
The transcript follows.
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.
washingtonpost.com: Welcome, comics fans, to another edition of "Comics: Meet the Artist." Today our guest is Bill Griffith, creator of "Zippy the Pinhead," who is joining us from his studio in Connecticut. Welcome, Bill, and thanks for taking time out to join us Live Online.
Bill Griffith: Hello, everybody, it's great to have a little interaction with the Zippy fans, and even the Zippy haters, if that's the case, because a cartoonist spends all his time staring at a blank sheet of paper, so it's nice to have a little contact with the outside world occasionally.
Baltimore, Md.: Talk about disillusionment -- I once sat in one of those generic, seen-one-seem-'em-all Loew's movie theaters before the film started. To either pass the time or subliminally torture us, the projectionist began flashing trivia questions on the screen. Well, one of the questions asked who first said, "Are we having fun yet?" And here's where I nearly gagged on my day-old popcorn: the answer was Carol Burnett in some 1981 movie she did with Alan Alda. Say it ain't so!
Bill Griffith: I, too, have seen the same thing in movie theaters that you have. It is not true, Carol Burnett, did not first utter "Are we having fun yet?" Zippy did in 1979 and it's attributed to him in the current edition of "Bartlett's Familiar Quotations." So, end of argument.
Northern Virginia: Mr. Griffith --
I thoroughly enjoy your strip. I also enjoy the fact that your strip is so misunderstood; it is apparently some sort of Rorschach test that most readers of the comics pages just don't get.
If memory serves, I believe The Washington Post cancelled the strip, only to have to restore it. How long ago was that?
Is that a typical trajectory with regard to many newspapers? How many papers have dropped and restored you? At the risk of touching a nerve with your syndicate, how many newspapers carry Zippy?
And whatever happened to the movie deal alluded to in the strip?
Sorry for so many questions, but inquiring fans want to know.
Bill Griffith: Yes, The Washington Post has canceled Zippy twice over the years. The last time was within five or six years ago, but each time the strip was restored within a month. This is a very common phenomenon with Zippy. It's due primarily to the dreaded comics poll, which is something that every cartoonist has to endure every few years for most newspapers. In these polls, Zippy inevitably comes out as the most hated strip. The next step is that Zippy is removed from the newspaper, followed immediately by a cry of protest from all the fans that were too cool to participate in the comics poll. As long as I can take this horrible psychological battering, I will continue doing Zippy.
As to my "movie/TV deal," it's currently dormant because Zippy retired from show business on May 24th this year. There have been many offers to make a Zippy movie or do an animated TV show over the years, several of which seemed very appealing and got very close to production. But something always happened either on my side of the deal or the other side of the deal to kill the project. The most recent example was an offer from Klasky-Csupo, the company that produces the "Rugrats." My suspicion is that they wanted to turn Zippy into a Rugrat, so the deal fell apart in May. As a result, Zippy is just too disillusioned to go on in show business, and so he just retired. But he is forever grateful for all the great show biz anecdotes he will be able to tell at cocktail parties for the rest of his life.
Arlington, Va.: Mr. Griffith,I love Zippy. But where do you get some of your ideas, such as Pip and Flip, twins from Yucatan?
Bill Griffith: Pip and Flip were two real circus sideshow pinheads whose careers mostly focused on a Coney Island sideshow where they worked for many years. They also appeared in a famous movie called "Freaks," made in 1932, and along with another pinhead in that movie named Slitzie, were one of the main inspirations for Zippy. Pinhead is the slang term for a birth defect called microcephaly, which literally means small brain. Microcephalics' brains are missing the frontal lobe, and therefore their circuitry is kind of scrambled and they have a very fluid sense of time. The few times I've encountered so-called pinheads in my life, it's been a very unnerving experience, but ultimately an inspiring one. They have a wonderful way of fracturing language that makes it come out as a kind of sublime poetry.
Pip and Flip were most likely born in and around New York City and were sisters. They were billed as "The Twins from Yucatan," and I imagine that was their moniker because in the 1930s, the Yucatan seemed as exotic as Mars would to people now. They were also occasionally billed as "the wild Australian children." They were very short, and looked very childlike.
Herndon, Va.: Have you ever met Robert Crumb and, if so, what did you talk about?
Bill Griffith: I know Robert Crumb well. We've been friends for 30 years and we talk about everything. It's funny you should ask about Robert because I just received in the mail his latest comic book, "Mystic Funnies No. 3," which confirmed once again my opinion that Robert Crumb is the best cartoonist who ever lived. He has managed to put out a remarkably extensive and high quality body of work since the mid-'60s, with the occasional time out for rehabilitation. And still, at the ripe old age of 59, is doing better work than most cartoonist half his age.
Arlington, Va.: I imagine that quite a few thesis papers have analyzed the characters in the strip -- e.g., Griffy as the controlling (super) ego, Zippy the unleashed id -- and that some have crossed your desk. Which analysis best reflects your view of what the strip and its characters are all about? Thanks for your comments.
Bill Griffith: Yes, there have been quite a few specifically Ph.D. thesis papers written on Zippy and what he's all about. They have been consistently humorless and impossible to read, which isn't to say I'm not flattered. And yes, they do tend to categorize Griffy as the controlling superego and Zippy as the unleashed id. While that might be true occasionally, it is not how I look at it. I see Griffy and Zippy as two equal parts of my own split personality forever in dialogue and forever in conflict and forever intertwined.
Edgewater, Maryland: Griffy visits Levittown occasionally. Did you ever live there?
Bill Griffith: Yes, not only did I live in Levittown, Long Island, it's where I grew up. It's my hometown. And unlike Billy Joel, who also grew up there, I am not ashamed of my roots. I'm forever grateful to have been raised in the artificial suburban bubble of Levittown. It was a great place to escape from.
Baltimore, Maryland: I have some of your earliest Zippys in various collections of, ahem, underground cartoons. Do you ever regret that, in order to do a daily strip that would be remotely acceptable to syndicates, that you had to make Zippy less surreal? I remember one story that ended with Zip in a raccoon costume "handing out samples of Bottoms Up pantyhose to perplexed derelicts," then saying to a street bum, "Please come home with me...I have Tylenol." Could something like that get into the paper?
Bill Griffith: Less surreal? Tell that to all the people who vote Zippy out of the paper every once in a while. Although I do understand your point, in the early years before Zippy was appearing in such esteemed papers at The Washington Post, his personality had a lot in common with the ball in a pinball machine, bouncing from one thing to another without any apparent connection. Writing dialogue for a character like that was a lot of fun, because I tapped into a stream of consciousness part of my brain that seemed to have a lot to say, but after awhile, I got a little tired of it, much in the way someone might who was trapped in a stalled elevator for three hours with someone who spoke only in non sequiturs. I figured if I was getting a little antsy about his conversation flow, my readers must also be feeling the same way. That's when I introduced the Griffy character, so that Zippy could have someone to bounce his ideas off of who represented the rational approach to life.
Annapolis, MD: Are the diners and giant roadside advertising statues (or whatever you call them) that you use in your strip based on actual locations? If so, how do you get the info: actual road trips (a nice tax deduction!), readers' tips?
Bill Griffith: Yes, the diners and giant roadside icons that Zippy encounters are 100% real. Recently a reader wrote to me and said that it looked like Zippy had "escaped into the real world," which I could not have said better. The information on where these places and objects are is available on the Zippy web site, www.zippythepinhead.com, under the title "Zippy's real places." While I take a lot of road trips myself and do alot of picture taking, the majority of the material that I receive comes from readers, God bless 'em. In any strip where I've used reader's research, I include a "tip o' the pin" with their name. Keep those photos coming!
Reston, Va.: I'm a Zippy hater. I don't read it because I feel it is a waste of a few seconds in my life. If not humor, what are you hoping your readers will feel when reading the strip?
Bill Griffith: Zippy is clearly not for everyone. Unlike, for instance, Scott Adams and his "Dilbert" comic strip, reaching the widest possible audience is not my goal. I'm happy with my highly influential cult audience. What I ask of the reader is to meet Zippy halfway. I am not purposely trying to be obscure or impenetrable and Zippy's non sequiturs, to coin a phrase, do have a point. The reader's job is to decode the hidden message. If this annoys some readers and puts them off, they merely have to slide their eyeballs over to Garfield.
Boston MA: Mr. Griffith:
Has Zippy ever considered public office, either elected or appointed? I'm reminded of Peter Sellers' role as Chauncy the Gardner and his influence on public policy. What advice would Zippy give the current administration?
Bill Griffith: Not many people may be aware of this, but Zippy did run for President and he was on the ballot in 1984. Although the votes were never counted, because I couldn't afford the $10,000 registration fee, I always like to say Zippy won that election and just disguised himself as Ronald Reagan for the next four years.
Prostrate in Washington, D.C.: Bill Griffin online! WE'RE NOT WORTHY!
Bill Griffith: It's Bill Griffith! You're not worthy!
Bethesda, Md.: I, now in my 80th year, and one of my sons, Mike, with IBM, on the "other coast", are both Zippy fans! We discovered this when I referred all six of the children to your strip featuring the Maryland children's fantasyland (whose name I can't retrieve) where we spent many happy picnic days in the 1960s. Do you have a sense of this intergenerational appeal among your audience?
Bill Griffith: The strip you're referring to took place in The Enchanted Forest in Ellicott City, Md. A number of readers sent me great photographs of the place, and I'm grateful they had the courage to climb the walls and trespass to get such wonderful images. Yes, I do get the sense that Zippy appeals to a number of generations at once. From my original fan base from underground comics days in the early '70s, to what seems to be a constantly renewed college-age readership, I think Zippy's refusal to grow up may have something to do with this. My favorite encounter at a book signing was in San Jose, Calif., some years back, when two elderly women approached my table and told me they were identical 96-year-old Scottish twins who challenged each other with Zippy non sequiturs at the breakfast table each morning.
Bethesda, Md.: Just out of curiosity, what is your educational background? I wonder if MORE education would stifle rather than inspire such a free-thinker (and free-associator) as yourself?
BTW, back in the 1940s, I was a big fan of Levittown plans and designs, through publications such as Architectural Digest. From my faraway college library in Alabama, I "watched" it all being built!
Bill Griffith: I am proud college dropout. I attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., for two years and will be forever grateful, because having received my student loan check for the third year, I promptly cashed it an took off for Europe.
At the time, I saw myself as Vincent Van Gogh Jr. and it took me another six years to realize I was more like Milton Berle Jr.
Just before I started doing comics in 1968, word balloons began appearing in my paintings. A friend suggested I make what he said would be a tiny leap and put down the oil paints and try doing comic strips, which I did. And I am forever grateful for his advice.
There is no way one can be taught how to be a cartoonist. It's genetic.
Washington, D.C.: Why did you decide to start putting "titles" on each strip? They didn't always appear above the frames.
Bill Griffith: I figure the reader needs all the clues he or she can get. So I include a title at the top which is intended as a lead-in to the strip. This was actually common practice in daily comic strips up until the 1930s and I would welcome other comic strips following my lead, if for no other reason than to have an additional place to tell a joke.
Arlington, Va.: Mr. Griffith --
Thanks for your time. I've been reading your strip for some years, at first out of contempt for something I found just plain weird and now because it's just plain weird.
Do you ever tire of questions from readers that try to delve too deeply into the "meaning" of the strip? Are you ever tempted to tell them to relax and enjoy it, it's only a comic strip after all?
Bill Griffith: Well, your trajectory from contempt to understanding is a common one. I find that many readers write to me and tell me that they read Zippy every day for six months to no avail, never understanding what it was all about and then one morning, while chewing on their granola, it all began to make sense. From this I conclude that there must be a kind of learning curve in appreciating what Zippy is all about. All I can say to the confused amount you is "Stick with it, one day Zippy will rearrange your brain too."
Zippy as Reagan: "I always like to say Zippy won that election and just disguised himself as Ronald Reagan for the next four years. "
that explains Reagan's occasional non sequiturs
Bill Griffith: Funny you should say that. According to the Reagan biography, "Dutch," Reagan's doodles while speaking on the phone were mostly of pinheads. Further, at one speech given in New Orleans to an audience of construction workers, where Reagan was presented with a gold-plated hard hat, he said "Sorry, fellas, I can't wear this, I'm a pinhead." Also, when asked by the author of "Dutch," if Reagan read the comics in The Washington Post each day, he said he read all of them, but he never understood Zippy.
Zankovia, N.J.: Bill, you're a genius.
That said, of the other, um, more "cerebral" strips out there, and I'm thinking "Non Sequitur," "Boondocks," "Speed Bump," etc., do you have a personal fave?
Also, do people ever suggest to you that your strip would be in a better context if it ran in an alternative weekly, like Red Meat or Jules Kepner, Real Estate Photographer (I think that's the name)?
Bill Griffith: I don't see too many strips on the daily newspaper comics page to like. Sad to say. I consider the epitome of newspaper comic genius to be the late lamented Ernie Bushmiller, creator of the "Nancy" comic strip. Noone, including me, can match his achievement today. When I look for current comics to enjoy I usually turn to the alternative weekly newspapers, where my favorite strip is "Julius Kniple, Real Estate Photographer," by Ben Catchor. It's a work of understated brilliance and evocation of what it means to be human. Plus it's funny.
Capitol Hell, Washington, D.C.: Is Zippy ever gonna' get a shave?
Bill Griffith: This brings up an incident that occurred to me once when I was part of a group pitching the Zippy movie to the Disney studios in the mid-'80s. Disney had requested the meeting because they had recently passed on the PeeWee Herman project, which susbsequently became a big hit. They told me they didn't want to do the same thing with Zippy, because Zippy looked like the next PeeWee to them. As if this wasn't chilling enough, after a few minutes about talking how they would love to exploit Zippy in their theme parks, they said they had one reservation. One of the suits stood up and said, "The stubble, we're concerned about the stubble. We're worried that it might frighten small children." What they were concerned about was how people would react at the gates of Disney World when being approached by a huge-headed Zippy greeter, complete with five-o'clock shadow. Within five minutes of this question, I found myself in the parking lot outside.
Cosmopolis, Outer Crab Nebula: Where is Shelf Life hiding?
Bill Griffith: Shelf Life appears when I need him to. Have no fear, he shall return.
Somerville: The strip where your father entered the quiz show and then lost was the most moving thing I've ever seen in the comics. Can you tell us a little more about your father?
Bill Griffith: Sometimes the person that inspires you to become who you are does so in spite of themselves. My father always pictured me as an electrical engineer. While he always respected my work ethic, he never really quite understood what I was doing in comics, though he appreciated that I somehow managed to make a living at it. The series of strips where I go back in time to my childhood and encounter my father was tremendously satisfying to me because it enabled me to, effectively, speak to my father who passed away in 1972. I think comics are large enough to incorporate this kind of story line as much as they are to be satirical or humorous.
Takoma Park, Md.: Sorry if this is a stupid question -- but why does Zippy wear a mumu? And has he met the Olmec colossal head on Constitution Ave. in front of the Natural History museum yet?
Bill Griffith: Straight answer to your question is because the pinheads in the movie, "Freaks" wore muu-muus. Apparently because of an incontinence problem and the fact that they had to wear adult diapers. But it brings me to a wonderful Hollywood anecdote in the never-ending quest to make a Zippy movie. At a meeting with Handmade Studios, founded by former Beatle George Harrison, the studio representative said they'd love to get involved with the Zippy movie, but does he always have to wear the muu-muu? He said, "How do you feel about a tank top and jeans?" The parking lot reared up again and I found myself behind the wheel driving away from the meeting, a quizzical expression on my face.
As for the Olmec head, he hasn't met him yet, but please send photos. The address is on my Web site.
washingtonpost.com: Thanks to the more than 100 readers who sent in questions. I'm so sorry we didn't get a chance to reply to more than we did, but you can go to the Zippy Web site and click on "e-mail Bill Griffith" and he'll do his best to answer as many as he can. Just a quick plug for our next Live Online chat on Oct. 11, when we will host Mort Walker of "Beetle Bailey."
washingtonpost.com: Thanks, Bill for being here.
Bill Griffith: It's been great chatting and don't forget all life is a blur of Republicans and meat.
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