Sitting around a dinner table last night with three other New Yorker cartoonists, I mentioned I was working on an interview with a gag writer. Although none of us were gag writers or had ever used the services of gag writers, I was aware of the novelty of the situation: three out of four of us had contributed ideas to Charles Addams. We had, if only briefly, stood in gag writers’ shoes.
It comes as a surprise to many, if not most, New Yorker cartoon aficionados that some of the magazine’s storied contributors did not write some, if not all of their own work. But as long as the New Yorker has been around –- we’re now talking ninety-one years –- there have been non-cartoonists contributing ideas to cartoonists (there have also been cartoonists contributing ideas to other cartoonists). Here are just a few of the magazine’s marquee names who used gag writers: George Price, Charles Addams, and Peter Arno. Arno and Addams wrote their own ideas but as their careers skyrocketed, they found they needed some assistance to bolster their homegrown work. George Price was the rare bird who totally relied on gag writers.
This arrangement between artist and writer existed at The New Yorker from its inception. It was not unique to the magazine – it was in fact a common practice throughout the publishing world. But somewhere along the way at The New Yorker, the practice came to be regarded as the loony uncle no one wanted to mention.
Two gag writers, Herbert Valen and Richard McCallister became important New Yorker contributors — their ideas used thousands of times in the magazine. However visible their work, gag writers themselves are mostly unsung. An article by Sarah Wernick in the Smithsonian back in 1995 shed light on their world.
For me, I had no contact with gag writers other than a brief period when I first began contributing to The New Yorker. Unsolicited envelopes crammed with index cards full of ideas began arriving in the mail (after opening the first one and discovering what it was, I left the rest unopened and returned them to sender). In more recent times I communicated with Herb Valen when I was researching my biography of Peter Arno, but I’d never met a professional gag writer until last week, when Helene Parsons walked over to me at a cartoonist event in Manhattan and introduced herself. Intrigued by her enthusiasm for discussing her work, I asked her if she’d like to be interviewed
Michael Maslin: When we met the other day I remember you telling me that there were now perhaps only three working gag writers in the business (including yourself, of course). Can you describe the landscape for gag writers when you began in this profession in 1997 — i.e., how many were working at it?
Helene Parsons: When I began writing cartoon gags back around 1995 or so I had no idea if other people wrote gags for cartoonists. I had been writing news and feature articles in high school and college and my career plan was to become a journalist. Somehow I wound up selling print advertising for newspapers, primarily because I loved working in the newspaper environment. And, I found out I really enjoyed selling print advertising. My career plans to be a journalist went by the wayside. However, I was always interested in humor and at some point I started writing one-liners for public speakers, comedians and broadcast personalities. One day I realized that my one-liners could be illustrated and made into a cartoon. I don’t draw at all, but this realization opened up a whole new world for me. I taught myself how to write cartoon captions by studying cartoons – buying or taking out from the library every book I could find about joke writing and cartoon creation. Cartoon collections became my textbooks. Then an aunt of mine started giving me her old copies of The New Yorker, and I was on my way.
I didn’t know any gag writers. I didn’t know any cartoonists. We had lived in Rochester, New York, for many years. It wasn’t until we moved back home to Long Island that I began to meet people. I started by writing for several comedy services and “The Lockhorns.” I found out about the Long Island chapter of the National Cartoonists Society. That’s when I started to meet people. I still didn’t know any cartoon gag writers. Right now I’m aware of about five other gag writers who do this full time. I’m sure there are more.
MM: You say you don’t draw, but do you think visually when you’re writing? Do you see, in your mind’s eye, what the drawing should look like?
HP: I absolutely think visually when I’m writing. I’ve studied thousands of cartoons and know all the stock situations. When I send a gag to a cartoonist I include a brief description of the situation. But, I always start with the words.
MM: The late Herb Valen, once a contract gag writer for The New Yorker, told me he’d sit down and think, “’Well, I’m going to think for Arno.’ And then I’d say, ‘I’m going to think for Addams, and do five ideas.’” How do you work – is it at all like that? Are you thinking of a particular cartoonist’s world?
HP: Yes, I focus my attention on specific cartoonists and try to send them what they want. Certain cartoonists specialize in business gags. I find them very easy to write. Other cartoonists like husband/wife gags. I also find them very easy to write. However, sometimes, for inspiration, I look at old cartoons in The New Yorker and these generate new ideas, which could be sent to several people I write for.
MM: As you know, the idea that there are folks writing captions for established cartoonists has long been considered, by some, as the dark side of cartooning (Roz Chast famously said that using gag writers was “like cheating”). James Stevenson, the veteran New Yorker cartoonist told me that when James Geraghty, the magazine’s art editor at the time, hired him in 1956 to write ideas, Geraghty told him, “You must not tell anybody at the office or anywhere else what you do.” Yet Peter Arno openly wrote of using writers in the foreward to a 1951 collection of his work, saying, “For ideas for the pictures, new minds and fresh slants become a necessity.” Do you have thoughts as to why there’s a discrepancy: why some cartoonists are entirely open about collaborating, and others want to keep it a secret?
HP: Some cartoonists may think it’s cheating if they use gag writers or feel funny about the fact that they ask for help. Others don’t care and are happy to recognize their writers and praise them for their contribution.
MM: The New Yorker art department (such as it was) in 1925 began as a very cooperative place, with editors suggesting ideas, and moving ideas from one artist’s work to another’s, as well as buying ideas sans drawings (James Geraghty began his association with the New Yorker by sending ideas to its artists). It’s odd, isn’t it that somewhere along the way the idea of using gag writers became somewhat of a lightning rod. Cartoonists, like myself, who began in the 1970s were opposed to using gag writers, yet we’ve seen collaboration come back in the magazine’s pages, including –a first for The New Yorker — identifying both individuals who collaborated: writer as well as artist. Is this the light at the end of tunnel, recognition-wise for gag writers?
HP: I think we have a ways to go before gag writing for cartoonists is openly accepted. I’m proud when I say I’m a cartoon gag writer and I’d like to see gag writers get more recognition, for example, by the cartoonist openly acknowledging that he or she uses writers, or by cartoonists who use writers being more willing to put the writer’s name on the cartoon. I started a blog, “Cartoon Gag Writing – My Experience,” over a year ago, which can be found at: www.cartoongags.blogspot.com. I write about what I do and how I get my ideas. I’d also like to speak to an audience about what I do, letting people know that there are opportunities to collaborate with a cartoonist.
MM: You currently write ideas for, among other comic strips, “The Lockhorns,” as well as supply ideas for single panel cartoons, like “Bliss” – two very different cartoon forms: sequential and single panel. Is there one you find more difficult than the other?
HP: I’ve been writing ideas for single-panel cartoons exclusively up until a little over a year ago, so I’d say I’m more comfortable writing single-panel. However, the opportunity to write multiple-panel was presented to me and I had to figure out how to do it, so I did. Now I can say I write multiple-panel as well. It’s not that difficult. It’s like a little story.
MM: Cartoonists are always asked: which comes first, the words or the drawing. Now in your case, as a text-driven person (to use lingo I picked up during the Tina Brown era at The New Yorker) is there a comparable question? Which comes first: a word or a phrase, a topic; do you sometimes play off of visuals, i.e., something you’ve seen out on the street? All of the above?
HP: For me, the idea/words come first. Absolutely. I spend a lot of time reading articles, books, magazines and jotting down phrases. Let’s say I want to write gags about cooking. I’ll go through cookbooks and write down words like, coffee cake, assemble my ingredients, light the oven, stir frequently, throw something together. I’m very accident-prone in the kitchen so I can easily write about culinary disasters. I can see the humor in trying to put a meal together. The idea always comes first. The drawing is secondary.
When I’m walking around town I’m always looking at signs (again, words) to be used in my captions. I also study published cartoons and use the setting or situation to come up with a completely new idea for a gag.
MM: Can you explain exactly how you work? You have clients who need topical work, so for them you’re obviously beginning with a framework. But do you think non-client as well? Do you just think of ideas and suggest them to your clients? How does this all work?
HP: I currently write for about ten cartoonists and I have my week planned out. Most people receive gags from me on a weekly basis, some twice a month. So, I have it down to a schedule of what days I write for whom. For example, I have a couple of cartoonists I send a set number of gags to every Monday morning, via email. Then I spend the rest of the day reading Sunday’s New York Times, Barron’s, maybe the Wall Street Journal. When I read I’m always taking notes, writing down phrases and words that will be used in creating gags and cartoons. Then Tuesday is a writing day for the cartoonists I send gags to on Wednesday. Thursday and Friday I’m already writing for the people I send gags to on Friday and Monday. Besides reading the aforementioned newspapers, I also read stories on www.newyorker.com where I get new ideas, especially about the upcoming election. I also subscribe to many job boards and am constantly reading job descriptions that help me write business gags. Of course I read The New Yorker each week and Newsday everyday. I’m also a news junkie, and listen to 1010 WINS and watch local and national news on TV. I have to keep up with what’s going on in the world. And, because I’m behind the times technologically, I can write about being behind the times technologically. As far as the method, I send out gags to specific cartoonists either via email or by regular mail. The cartoonist then “holds” the gags they want to draw up and send out. The rest they return to me and I’m able to send to other people. When a cartoon is sold with my gag I’m paid. When a cartoonist is no longer circulating my gag they will return it to me to be sent elsewhere.
MM: Throughout the New Yorker’s history there’ve been just two acknowledged collaborations: Helen Hokinson & James Reid Parker, and Mischa Richter & Harald Bakken. Is there one cartoonist you work more closely with than all the others? In other words, are you responsible for a good percentage of any one cartoonist’s voice?
HP: Well, I’ve been writing for “The Lockhorns” now for almost 20 years so they’ve bought hundreds (thousands?) of my ideas. I’ve also sold a lot of gags to “Dennis the Menace,” both for the dailies and Sunday, and “Bliss.” Regarding non-syndicated cartoons, my work seems to find a home more easily in Barron’s, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker and Harvard Business Review.
MM: As you’ve been studying New Yorker albums of drawings, you’re aware that the king of gag writers, the late Richard McCallister also was a published cartoonist in the magazine (eighty-nine cartoons, from 1957 through 1993). His drawing style is even more minimal than James Thurber’s, yet it works. Even though you don’t draw, do you sometimes think, “Hmmm, maybe I’ll give it a shot?”
HP:I know that I have no talent for drawing cartoons and prefer to leave it to the experts!