ONE SIMON — famed playwright Neil Simon — likes to say that comedy can come from the friction of a person’s wants and desires running smack against some obstacle.
To that equation, another Simon — Internet-famous animator/author Simon Tofield — might add “cats.”
Since 2008, the British cartoonist has garnered hundreds of millions of YouTube views by rendering the conflict between “Simon,” the beleaguered petowner, and “Simon’s Cat,” the appetite-driven feline who puts the “purr” in persistent. Over the years, Tofield has added the Bird, the Bunny, the Hedgehog and (perhaps most notably) the Kitten to this “meow” mix.
Tofield’s bewhiskered empire has continued to grow: Since last summer, Walt Disney Animation Studios has released his “Simon’s Cat” shorts; he draws a “Simon’s Cat” comic strip; and on Tuesday, he releases his latest paperback, “Simon’s Cat in Kitten Chaos.” (On Sunday, Tofield will come to D.C. to discuss his new book and work at Politics & Prose bookstore at 1 p.m.; the Washington Animal Rescue League’s cat and kitten adoption truck will be on hand.)
Comic Riffs caught up with Tofield to talk about pets, pet owners and the endless cartoon inspiration that comes from living with a quartet of cats:
MICHAEL CAVNA: Your line [has] a just-right mix of playful looseness and tight precision. How did you arrive at your illustration style for ... was there much trial-and-error? And do you use pen-and-ink, or draw straight to screen?
SIMON TOFIELD: I do a lot of drawing in sketchbooks in either pen or pencil. The style of “Simon’s Cat” is reflective of that, with a simple line and no color. When I draw for the animated films, I draw directly into the computer using a digital stylus and tablet. But it’s not that different in look and feel to when I drawn with a pen onto paper. For my books I usually draw with pen, which doesn’t leave much room for mistakes. I like this style of drawing because I feel the line has more energy in it.
MC: When I used to draw cat cartoons based loosely on my felines, [I] was fascinated by how endlessly inspiring their antics and actions were. Do you find that to be true? How much is “Simon’s Cat” inspired by your own four felines, and how much is pure imagination and inventive storytelling?
ST: It’s definitely true. Living with four cats provides an endless source of inspirational material. Cats are such expressive animals, who tell you what they think through body language. So they make great subjects for animation. All of my cats [Hugh, Teddy, Jess and Maisie] have played a role in providing antics for basing stories around.
MC: Are you a fan of, or have you ever inspired by, any other cat cartoonists — be it a Kliban, Larson or other?
ST: Definitely Gary Larson. “The Far Side” is brilliant and I’ve been a fan of his since I first discovered his work. I also really like “Calvin and Hobbes” by Bill Watterson.
MC: [I’ve read that] it takes you, on average, about six weeks to create each “SC” animation. Could you walk us a bit through your creative and technical process, from start to finish? What’s the most fun, and what aspect is the most challenging?
ST: It’s actually closer to seven weeks of animation and one week of sound work. But because the films are all different lengths, this can sometimes be less or more. Normally the films start life in my sketchbook as a funny idea that might come to me anywhere -- I even draw on the train. If I still like the idea later, I’ll flesh it out as a series of drawings, a rough storyboard, putting in more details and funny things that could make the story a bit richer. And if I still like the idea, then it will go into the animation, which I do in Adobe Flash. The hardest part is definitely coming up with good ideas. And the most fun part is when a film is done and hopefully making people laugh!
MC: You’ve now amassed hundreds of millions of YouTube views over several years. Does having such an audience — and a dedicated YouTube following — affect at all how you create? Do you feel any sense of obligation or external expectation with each new video, or do you more create with only yourself in mind?
ST: I always take the time to read feedback on the videos and it is saddening when you see negative comments. But I’m very lucky to have a fantastically supportive audience, who are mostly hugely encouraging. I’m really greatful for this, and after my cats, the audience is the greatest inspiration to make more films with their constant requests for “More! More!”
In the back of my mind, I do have a clear vision of what “Simon’s Cat” would and wouldn’t do -- and that is very guided by my experiences as a cat owner. It’s always my mission to make people laugh while still keeping a touch of true catness to the film or drawing.
MC: Part of the engaging magic, of course, is the interplay of personalities between Cat and Kitten. Once you began to tap that relationship and inherent conflict, did the story ideas grow along with that?
ST: The new kitten is based on my cat Teddy, who was a kitten at the time I was drawing the book. He’s my fourth cat, and because I already had three adult cats in the house, there was a lot of settling in that had to be done. Every day, stories would appear in front of me with how Teddy and the others would define their personal boundaries and hierarchy within the house. It is a very interesting thing to watch and you can see a lot of it in my book “Kitten Chaos.” Luckily, everything has settled down at home, so it’s mostly happy families now.
MC: Will there ever a title “Simon’s Dog”?
ST: There already is, sort of. When “Simon’s Cat” first started getting popular, I was approached by the RSPCA to help promote healthy diets for pets. I think the equivalent charity in the U.S. is the ASPCA. Because Simon’s Cat is far too smart to eat badly, the task of illustrating the topic fell on Simon’s Sister’s Dog, which is a character based on my sister’s real-life Jack Russell Terrier. He’s made quite a few appearances in my books and I think we’ll see more of him in future films, too.
MC: Then I have to ask the requisite: Who is smarter, the cat or the dog? And which makes a better pet?
ST: In the world of “Simon’s Cat,” the cats are definitely smarter. I often use dogs as the poor fall guys for the cat’s antics. And of course, Simon is also the ultimate loser of the cat’s schemes. In the real world, I love dogs too. If my house and garden [were] larger, I’d have a dog, as well. They are great to draw, too.