I can’t be sure exactly when my interest in cartoons and the comic strips began, but I know that as a young boy growing up on Long Island, we’d get Newsday every day and I’d always read the comics page. It was the 1950s, and there certainly wasn’t anything else worth reading in the paper—for a kid, anyway. Sometimes I had to ask my mother what was going on in a comic strip because I didn’t yet get many of the gags. (I know some adults who still can’t get them. Humor is like that.)
There was one strip called The Toodles about a suburban family that included two young kids (twins) and an older daughter. Anything featuring the little kids was warm or fuzzy; dramatic storylines were reserved for the older daughter, who at one point had a bearded beatnik poet for a boyfriend. I still remember that after almost 70 years.
I also read the standard strips of the time: Nancy (even then I thought Sluggo was the more interesting character); Henry; Dennis the Menace; and particularly Little Lulu, which included two of my favorite characters, Witch Hazel and Little Itch (although these two latter only appeared in the comic book version).
There were also the more serious strips such as Terry and the Pirates, Rex Morgan, MD, Brenda Starr, and Mary Worth, but I was too young to appreciate them. I stuck with amusing content. Frankly, I still do. Life is already too complicated without Mary Worth stirring up the mix.
As I got older, I couldn’t decide who I liked better—Betty or Veronica. Regardless, I still think that Archie and Reggie are both jerks. Those girls can certainly do better. (And what’s with the tic-tac-toe pattern on Archie’s hair? I remember Mad Magazine doing a spoof on Archie and filling that hair pattern with X’s and O’s.)
In 1970, I found myself at Laney College in Oakland taking science and math classes in order to fulfill the requirements for optometry school. It was an intense academic load, but when I saw in the college catalogue that they were offering Cartooning on Monday nights, I couldn’t resist.
The three-hour class was taught by Morrie Turner, creator of Wee Pals, the first American syndicated comic strip that featured a cast of ethnically diverse characters. Early in its history, the strip was in five newspapers. That changed in 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. when the syndication number went up to over 100.
Morrie and I hit it off, and I soon discovered that he was a co-chairman of the White House Conference on Children and Youth. He later became close to Fred Rogers after appearing on the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood TV show. During his lifetime, Morrie received awards from a wide range of groups including the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.
In his class, Morrie taught both aspects of cartoons and comics: the actual drawing as well as the writing of the gag or storyline. During one class break, I shared this with Morrie:
So, Moses is really stressed, sitting on a rock complaining, “Oh my God! I have such a headache!”
A few seconds later Moses hears a voice that roars from the heavens:
“Moses, I am the Lord thy God. Take these two tablets and call me in the morning.”
Morrie responded with his classic laugh, which was something like “Heh, heh.” Then he added, “That’s good. Can I use that?”
“Sure, but you know I didn’t make it up.” He brushed my objection away.
I had actually heard the joke from my cousin Eddie, who’d heard it from his father, my Uncle Ben, who probably first heard it from George Burns or Henny Youngman, who stole it from some other vaudeville performer.
A few weeks later, Morrie hands me a check. “Here, this is for the Moses gag.”
Thus my career as a professional gag writer began.
I’d begun reading Wee Pals and felt I knew the characters well. My favorite was Diz, a little kid who wore a dashiki, a beret, and sunglasses. I started feeding Morrie gags for his strip, but he rejected most of them.
“These are good, but they’re too funny,” he said. I was confused.
I got it. Much of Morrie’s newspaper audience included women of a certain age who wouldn’t appreciate over-the-top humor. His strip was mild, warm, sober, and educational. It was months before he accepted a story line from me for a strip. It ran for a week, and was about a bunch of kids playing miniature golf. It included mild, golf-related quips: “Mind if we play through?” “I just got a hole in one!” Not very funny, but for his audience, it worked. I’d finally figured that out.
It’s important to differentiate the type of gag writing I was doing from what the television and stand-up comedy writers do. If you’re writing material for the Tonight Show or Seinfeld or Laugh-In or Saturday Night Live, or even Bob Hope, that’s at a level far beyond where I was living.
When I was in grad school, a couple of my younger classmates were friendly with Carrie Snow, a rhetoric major at Cal who used to send gags to San Francisco columnist Herb Caen, famous for his “three-dot journalism” column that ran for many years. Some of her submissions were included in his column and elsewhere, and she was very proud and excited about these early successes. Her comedy writing and performing career eventually blossomed, and her career led to standup performances all over the country. For a long time she wrote for Roseanne Barr.
Carrie’s own shtick was that she was overweight, and she did a lot of fat jokes. I saw her at a comedy club in San Francisco one time and was impressed at how well she was able to skewer a male heckler with a direct sexual attack that left him slinking under his table.
The line I remember best from her routine went something like this:
“It was a rude awakening when I realized I wear the same bra size as a Corvette.”
She was very successful with the fat humor until she had surgery, lost a ton of weight, and had to shift gears in a major way. She was always funny.
During the few years I was submitting gags to Morrie, I subscribed to one of the cartoonist and gag writers’ magazines. Included was a list of artists who were looking for gags. At the time, the market for individual panel cartoons such as you might see in Playboy or The New Yorker was already dwindling from its heyday. Pulp and girlie magazines had once been a big market, but they were becoming more rare. Yet, trade journals and industrial magazines still provided an opportunity for specialized cartoons. Think farm and agricultural equipment journals, stuff like that.
I managed to link up with a guy from Connecticut named John Brlej, and we were successful in placing a number of cartoons targeted to manufacturing, agricultural, and other trade journals. They weren’t particularly funny, but as I had already learned, funny isn’t always the goal or purpose.
When Morrie learned that I’d be visiting my family in New York he suggested that I drop in at Bruno’s Pen and Pencil Restaurant on East 45th Street where a number of cartoonists met for lunch. This roundtable had been a weekly fixture for decades. Morrie told me whom to look for, and said I should mention his name.
So my artist friend John and I met in Manhattan at the appointed hour and got a table for two. It wasn’t long before the cartoonists filed in and took seats at a long table nearby. At an appropriate moment, we walked over and met Morrie’s friend, who was overjoyed to hear that Morrie sent his regards. The group at the table included a few names that we recognized, including Henri Arnold, who drew Jumble, a word game that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and many other papers. After a few minutes of chatting, our mission was accomplished, and we returned to our table, but not before I had received an invitation by one of the cartoonists to send him some gags. While I was excited and did send him some of my best material, it all eventually went nowhere.
By 1972, I was in graduate school and only saw Morrie occasionally. But one day I got a call from him. “I need your help with a special project.”
When we met he told me, “I got a great contract from the Bank of America to draw 12 panels for them that will appear monthly in a national finance publication. But I don’t know what it is that they want.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s not about banking. The theme of the panels needs to be about ecology. I don’t know anything about ecology. I figured you would.”
I was younger than Morrie and perhaps more aware of the changes that were going on in the science world and how these changes were affecting the public’s view about nature, the climate, and the atmosphere. I took on the challenge—knowing that the gags couldn’t be too funny—and submitted a few dozen ideas to Morrie.
“Perfect. This is just what I needed,” he told me.
I’m embarrassed when I think of the silliness that Bank of America paid Morrie (and thus me) for what we produced. One panel featured a scuba diver swimming amongst the fish and encountering a large metal wastebasket featuring a sign reading, “Please Don’t Litter!” I think we did the same sign but with an astronaut walking on the surface of the moon. Another featured a hippie asking a young woman behind the counter of a health food store, “Are you sure you don’t have any blue-eyed peas?”
Apparently, I was in the right groove, and Morrie paid me $50 for each one of the dozen gags we produced. For a student in the 1970s, that was big bucks!
Several years after his wife died Morrie moved to Sacramento (where his girlfriend lived), and I mostly lost touch with him. In 1976, I moved out of California for seven years before returning to Oakland.
I still read the comics and appreciate what I consider “the best.” The quality of humor in The New Yorker from contributors such as Roz Chast, has always remained high. But after the demise of Mad Magazine, the reduction in the number of daily newspapers, and the folding of many magazines that had previously included humor, the pickings have become slimmer. One of the best strips, in my opinion, was Piranha Club (formerly called Ernie),written and illustrated by Bud Grace. But Grace retired the strip in 2018, and that was a great loss.
In my attempt to improve my Spanish, I also read three strips that are available en español: the aforementioned Big Nate (Nate el Grande—probably terrific in any language), Dilbert (the same jokes recycled every day for decades), and Calvin and Hobbes (a classic that continues to be iconic and brilliant after all these years). I had also been reading the Spanish version of Tarzan, which featured terrific illustrated art and beautiful women, but the story lines were dated and not always p.c. (I’ve written about Tarzan previously in my memoir essay, Tarzan vs. Gutman).
I still see Far Side cartoons, often on Facebook, and they never fail to make me smile.
As we read in Ecclesiastes, there’s nothing new under the sun, and so it goes with written and visual humor. Much of what we see today is simply a variation on an older theme. But it often depends on how that variation is presented, as well as the twists and turns, that make us smile or laugh—even if it’s just “Heh, heh.”
For example, here’s an old saw, probably first heard during the heyday of vaudeville:
“Who’s that lady I saw you with last night?”
“That’s no lady. That’s my wife!”
I remember sitting in the living room one evening with my wife when I looked at our cat, Graciela, and asked her, “Gracie, who’s that lady sitting over there?” To which Gracie responded, “That’s no lady. That’s my Mama!” (It helps to have an imagination during a conversation with a cat.)
A few months ago we were watching a video service via Zoom and on the screen I saw Sharon’s cousin Art, who was sitting next to a young woman. I sent them a private message:
“Hey, Art, who’s that lady sitting next to you?”
“That’s no lady. That’s my daughter!” (That’s what he should have said, anyway. I hadn’t seen Art’s daughter Leah in 20 years.)
On a recent cruise to Hawaii, Sharon and I were on one of the ship’s elevators along with several women. We were standing at the back, and when we got to our deck, one of the women said to her friends, “I think this lady is trying to get out,” and Sharon maneuvered her walker out the door.
As I exited, I turned and said to the women, “That’s no lady—that’s my wife. And I’ve been waiting 40 years to use that line!”
A number of years ago I was thinking of Morrie Turner and realized it had been a long time since I’d seen him. I sent him an email and asked if he’d be in Oakland anytime soon. He replied that he would and I invited him to lunch.
When he drove into the parking lot at the Merritt Restaurant & Bakery, I watched as he slowly and carefully got out of his car and hobbled with his cane toward where I stood waiting. After we were seated I ordered a tuna sandwich. He spent a long time looking at the menu, and when our waitress came over, she recognized him. He looked up, smiled, and ordered an extra large serving of strawberry shortcake.
I questioned his choice. “Morrie, that’s what you’re having for lunch?”
“Heh, heh,” was his unmistakable laughing reply. “Well, they don’t let me have it at home.”
After a lifetime of struggling with racism and the difficulties associated with trying to earn a living drawing cartoons, he probably felt he was entitled to enjoy his secret indulgence. Fortunately, he was acknowledged for his work and tireless community service during his lifetime. I was honored to spend some time with him and pick up the check. He passed in January 2014 at the age of 90.
There are many things I’d learned about humor from Morrie, and from reading the comics, hearing many great comedians, and filtering the work of talented comedy writers throughout my life. It’s all helped create the lens through which I see the world.
And in the end, I hope to go out with a laugh. I’ll do my best.