ON SATURDAY EVENING in Northern Virginia, just west of the home of cartoonist Richard Thompson, the guitarist Richard Thompson took the stage. Somehow, the symmetry of the day was fitting.
The British singer-songwriter, who performed that night at Wolf Trap in Vienna, is often called “the guitarist’s guitarist” — a moniker that speaks volumes about the respect accorded him within his industry, as well as the underexposure he receives outside of it, given his musical gifts.
It’s almost uncanny how the other Richard Thompson, the longtime Arlington, Va., resident, has been readily characterized within his art form as “the cartoonist’s cartoonist” — which is another way of saying that he was held in the highest regard by fellow cartoonists and humorists but was far from a household name among the general public. You surely have heard of some of his greatest admirers and champions — Pat Oliphant, Garry Trudeau, Bill Watterson and Pixar director Pete Docter (“Inside Out“), among them.
Some of them gathered Saturday afternoon to remember Richard.
In a public memorial at the National Press Club in Northwest Washington, his professional colleagues were among those who spoke of the artistic and satiric gifts of Thompson, the “Cul de Sac” and “Richard’s Poor Almanac” creator who died last month at 58 of the effects of Parkinson’s disease. And as several hundred friends, relatives and admirers gathered, I wondered whether more of the world would justly come to know the glorious art of Richard Thompson — which often, without clichéd hyperbole, has been dubbed “genius.”
Richard did not arrive at syndication until this century, as overall comics sales to newspapers began to dry up like Dust Bowl topsoil. He once repeated to me the refrain that timing is everything in comedy and that his was rather unfortunate. And those flagging syndication sales coincided with the rise of social media and its insatiable hunger for the divisive and incendiary words that are often cheap rhetorical chum.
Richard, you see, did not write “mean.” Instead, he wrote skewed human truths, sharply observed.
That is to say, Richard did not stoop to the easy surface gag, be it about Donald Trump or Bill Clinton. And Richard did not write “jokes”; he wrote wit that was rooted in the real, as interpreted through his own kinetic bent. He was part Twain and part Thurber in his gift for the just-right word and perfectly struck comic tone, yet his slight body also housed an artist whose line could rival that of Ronald Searle or Saul Steinberg.
In other words: In an Internet world that often thrives on the simplistic, lizard-brain binary — us vs. them, black vs. white, left vs. right, men vs. women, cis vs. LGBT — Richard did not stoop, and so he did not conquer. And yet, ultimately, in his way, he won.
Richard was the most heavenly gentle soul with the most devilishly sharp sense of humor. His was wit born of erudition and illumination. He challenged assumptions and led you to see things anew. He could create both silly and urbane simultaneously. He was as mischievous as Bugs Bunny co-parent Chuck Jones, and he could be an ink-stained wiseass when the situation called for it. Yet comedically and artistically, he never was caught working without élan or aplomb.
No situation could not be leavened by his askew view. Several years ago, while he was receiving deep-brain stimulation treatment for his advanced Parkinson’s — basically, imagine your exposed noggin being jump-started by battery cables — he was asked to draw to test his dexterity while hooked to the juice. So Richard sketched his own brain, uttering the thought balloon: “Whee!” Below that, Richard noted that this napkin-sized brain was not drawn to scale.
And when Richard got “political,” his style was not to rail and rant. Instead, he craftily composed a Bush the Younger inauguration speech entirely from the president’s very own words:
I say all this because what place does the subtle and humane humorist have in the mainstreams of an Internet culture that, as Time magazine’s Joel Stein recently noted, has a Galactus-like appetite for vitriol served piping hot and obvious? In these streams of the virtual realm, you are not only what you eat but also what you spew back up after you have some rhetorical red meat to chew on. And there is not enough antacid in the world to quell those parts of the Internet.
My central hope is that the Internet does not lose the better angels of its humanity to the infernal instincts loosed by some parts of social media
Ken Burns once said to me, while working on his Twain documentary, that deeper humor that probes humanity will always outlast the ephemeral topical one-liner. And just as key, he added: When Twain satirized the damned human race, he always included himself in that equation; he was not only the head that sprung the joke but also was, as part of this only semi-evolved species, the butt of it. He was We.
Richard, too, typically made sure that he was not only the inky archer but also that he had included himself within his painted bull’s-eye.
Richard never lost his comedic integrity or humane authenticity, and so he never surrendered his dignity. And that is how he, as artist, won.
May the kinder corners of the Internet rise to appreciate both profoundly gifted Richard Thompsons.