There's this cartoon that appeared in the
New Yorker last year. Looks like a kid drew it. Four tiny pictures, skinny little lines. A vase modeling a string of pearls. (Not just any vase, a vase with a flower -- a child's rendering of a flower.) A grandfather clock with a flowered print skirt and straw picture hat. (Not just any old hat, a hat with a flower sticking out of it.) A toaster with a bow tie, against striped wallpaper. A smirking kitty-cat in top hat (a rakish tilt) and waistcoat, tail a-wag (two lines indicating movement), and...yes, little bitty kitty evening pumps. The caption for this elegant tableau? "You can dress them up, but you can't take them out."
This picture never fails to make me giggle. It has the one-two punch -- the mundane made exotic, then the exotic made ridiculous -- that is characteristic of Roz Chast, one of the newest, zaniest, and, at 25, youngest cartoonists in the
New Yorker's prestigious stable. Anyone who reads the magazine would recognize her stuff. She's the one who does those simple, silly things drawn in the naive, resolutely
two- dimensional style of most fourth-graders, and her cartoons usually have titles instead of captions ("Non-Caloric Episode," "Rudeness Galore").
Of course, not everyone familiar with Chast's work is a fan. I once nearly disrupted a dinner party by mentioning her to a friend of mine, an avid
New Yorker-phile who hotly exclaimed that she was his "pet peeve." Still, when confronted with a choice handful of memorable Chasts, even her detractors can't help betraying a thin smile of reluctant amusement. After all, who can reject someone who asks such burning questions as "Barney L.: Dunderhead or Nincompoop?" Who can resist a woman who introduces such fascinating characters as Glenda Bodacious ("She's bodacious!"), Fairmay LePorte (Little Known Star No. 6444281) and Lucinda Headcheez from Hermetically Sealed, NJ? Who can afford to ignore an artist who invents such modern-day miracles as "Cable Blender" (it gives you 4120 more ways to process food) and who imparts such valuable scholarship as "World History Through Cheese" and "Some Actual Names of Towns in Arkansas"?
Not me, buddy.
Chast's style of humor is not, needless to say, the house brand at the
New Yorker, home of Charles Addams' macabre sight gags, George Booth's shiftless hound dogs and Edward Koren's psychobabbling fuzzy-wuzzies. Compared to the
New Yorker's typically representational, punchline-oriented cartoonists (lovable old friends or stodgy old farts, depending on your point of view), Chast is a downright radical.
"What amazed me at first," says cartoon editor Lee Lorenz, "was that her drawings seemed so different from anything else we were getting and, really, that anyone would even consider them cartoons. They weren't gags, in the sense that most of our material is. They seemed to spring full-blown from an entirely different kind of soil." Lorenz, a cartoonist himself, screens all the unsolicited material, which he says amounts to a couple of thousand drawings a week. "What we're always looking for is a fresh voice and a distinct personality. When I saw her things, they immediately suggested something we hadn't seen before."
Roz Chast herself was something I hadn't seen before. One always imagines cartoonists looking like their cartoons, so I thought she would resemble the girls she often draws who have popeyes and curly hair. She's actually short and skinny with dark blond hair pulled back in a ponytail flip, and she has a prominent, interestingly beaky nose -- a New York version of Sissy Spacek. When we met, she was wearing shorts and a ripped white blouse. She's a funny, friendly woman, and she does share with her cartoons a camp sensibility -- not gay camp, high school camp. Minutes after meeting her, you find yourself constantly on the verge of laughter at the way she seizes on the cosmic humor of, say, an HBO special called "Australian Surf Lifesaving." And minutes after leaving her, you find yourself wandering into your neighborhood magazine store and buying ballpoint pens in the shape of vegetables.
"I'm convinced that cats can take objects into another dimension," Chast confides, serving me a tall glass of club soda with red syrup in it (a homemade recipe). Her evidence: she once bought her cat Harriet a dozen rubber balls, all of which disappeared, and a determined search turned up only eight or nine. "And this is not," she points out, "a big apartment." True. Chast's Upper West Side home is essentially one big room, albeit efficiently arranged with space for everything: sofa-bed, bed-sofa, workspace, Hoosier cabinet, dinette. I spy the B-52's album leaning against the hi-fi. "My favorite line on the whole record," she says, "is, 'We went to the beach/Everybody had
We sit at the "dining room" table. "Where did you get your sense of humor?" I ask bluntly.
"Woolworth's," she says right away. "Kings Plaza."
What's Kings Plaza?
"Oh -- it's in Canarsie, which is...landfill! Everything about Kings Plaza is perfect," she laughs, relishing this treasure of modern suburbanality. "You have to drive through miles of hyperdeveloped swampland, and then you run into Kings Plaza -- you see the letters from miles away coming down Flatbush Avenue or Avenue U. Great place. I think it's the social center of the area. People bring picnics, raise families. Generations are born and die in Kings Plaza. It's real predictable. There's a big store at one end and a big store at the other end and lots of shoe stores and fast-food places and futuristic sort of sculptures that spring up out of nowhere and fountains people sit around and square huge ashtrays. It's pretty funny.
"Did you ever see Dawn of the Dead? Oh, God, it's really a gruesome movie, but the best part is when they have all these zombies, these ghouls, walking around in a shopping mall looking disgusting with this insipid mall music playing. It's a pretty inspired idea."
Chast belongs to a generation of smart kids who grew up simultaneously embracing and disparaging the junk-pop culture that surrounded them. They talk teen jargon in facetious mimicry of
Archie and Jughead comics, and they view such modern phenomena as shopping malls with a mixture of mockery, amusement and admiration.
"I hate the term, but I guess you could say she's a 'new wave' cartoonist," says Chuck Ortleb, who, as editor of the gay literary monthly
Christopher Street, was the first to publish Chast's crudely drawn, print-crammed cartoons. "There's a quality in her work that's like what was going on in the art world a couple of years ago as new wave rock got going. It was also reflected in
Vogue, where suddenly the layouts were a mess, with 20 different typefaces and whatnot. It was an attempt to go back to more chaotic forms of expression. There's something chaotic about her cartoons."
Chast's youthful lunacy is, however, a far cry from the National Lampoon's sophomore hi-jinx or punk nihilism; she tends to stand back from everyday life to make loving fun. One pervasive influence, I think, is modern-day multimedia advertising. the point of advertising, of course, is to sell you something you don't really need. That's the technique Chast parodies in cartoons like "News of the Week in Review" (reg'lar folks reporting "Thursday: Ate lunch at Susan's" and "Saturday: Nothing") or "You can dress them up but you can't take them out."
Her penchant for wordplay is similarly sly. In conversation, she's at once sloppy and articulate. Every sentence includes at least one of the following expressions: "just," "really," "like," "you know." ("It's just, like, y'know, really weird.") But she loves to overliteralize everyday sayings: a cartoon called "Frankly Speaking" rates three likely characters as "More fun than a barrel of monkeys," "Somewhat less fun than a barrel of monkeys" and "About the same amount of fun as a barrel of monkeys." And she'll seize an idea and turn it into an instant verbal artifact -- a gift that makes any absurdity sound irresistibly appealing. She has a way of saying "landfill," for instance, or "matching towels" that makes those words light up in neon. It's the manner that, in her cartoons, gives the most offhanded phrases the lurid hilarity of a Hollywood movie poster.
Roz Chast is from Brooklyn, where her parents (a high school teacher and assistant principal, both retired) still live. She started cartooning when she was very young -- "I used to draw this strip called 'Jacky and Blacky' that was, God, really dumb" -- but her first big influence was, not surprisingly, R. Crumb. Crumb definitely stylized the visual imagination of '60s youth, particularly the ones who helped make marijuana a multimillion dollar industry, and he spawned a whole school of slavish imitators. Some of Crumb's stoned humor creeps into Chast's work, although she claims to drawn under the influence of nothing stronger than rapidograph fumes; her signature -- "R. Chast" -- is perhaps an unconscious hommage to Crumb.
Cartooning is not a career parents encourage their children to pursue, so Chast went to art school -- first to Kirkland, a short-lived experimental women's college, and then to Rhode Island School of Design. "When I went to RISD I thought I'd be real practical and do these things that are good for getting a job. But graphics just made me really bats -- spending hours getting your scotch tape exactly at right angles to the other piece of scotch tape. You know, if your finger's slightly dirty, the tape looks really disgusting, you have to take it off, and when you take it off, a little piece of paper gets stuck...Somehow I could never get it perfect, and the main point of graphics is to get it absolutely pristine."
She tried painting for a while but found it distressingly "all-consuming." So when she got out of school, she schlepped her portfolio around New York, trying to get work doing illustrations for magazines. "I got paid kill fees lots of times," she remembers ruefully. "I could never do exactly what the art director wanted me to do. I think a lot of times they want something real bland, and you try to spice it up. I remember doing something for the
Voice on corporal punishment in schools. I had agreed to do this certain kind of drawing, but when I got home I was bored with the idea, so I did something completely different that I thought was a brainstorm -- this woman in, like, black leather standing on top of a school desk in, like, high-heel boots going 'Yippie!' The woman I was doing this for just looked at me and went, 'Uh-uh.' She decided it was sexist."
Interestingly, the issue of her portrayal of women has dogged Chast. Ms. once rejected a comical illustration designed to accompany a review of
How to Dress for Success because it was deemed "a negative image of a woman." "I can't really follow the line of thought too well," says Chast, "but I think it's a little condescending to women. I think most women would find it very funny, and if not, well, who cares?"
Luckily, her days of second-guessing art directors were limited.
Christopher Street started printing her cartoons, then the
Voice, and soon she was almost able to make a living cartooning -- thanks to a generous grant from Mom and Dad. Still, "getting published in the
New Yorker was a real surprise," Chast admits.
"Before that I had gone to Ms., being real hepped-up, thinking, 'Hey, y'know,
I'm a woman. I'm a cartoonist. I've got talent.' They didn't take anything. So then I went to
Psychology Today, thinking, 'Hey, psychological!' No luck. So I didn't expect anything from the
New Yorker. I don't have any cartoons about cocktail parties in Connecticut, but I thought I'd check it out. I dropped off a portfolio of 50 or 60 cartoons, and when I went back to pick it up, it had a little note on it from Lee Lorenz, saying he wanted me to come back and see him the next week. I was so shocked. I thought maybe it was gonna be a little speech -- like, y'know, 'Keep working' or something. But they took one."
That was in April 1978. In December of that year, Chast was invited to join the approximately 40 artists under contract with the
New Yorker who supply most of the magazine's cartoons. She appears to be incredibly prolific. She showed me a beautifully packaged limited edition book of her cartoons called
Last Resorts (along with malls, cats and household objects, motels are a fetish for Chast -- she has postcards all over her apartment depicting such tacky lodgings as Cotillion Courts in Atlanta), as well as teeny-weeny illustrated storybooks (a special favorite is
Mondo Boxo -- boxes are another fetish) and stacks of unpublished cartoons, including some real gems ("Cable Blender," "Little House on the Polar Icecap").
How hard does she work? "It varies. When the weather gets cooler, I'm more industrious. [In the summer] I feel like lying around being a blob. It's old habits -- July and August, 'No more teachers, no more books.' Then in the fall you go out and get new art supplies, start again. But on a real strong day, I start working around noon, break a little for lunch, and go back and work till 7 or 8. I also like doing nothing. Sometimes I just meander around the house, tidy up, daydream."
Chast has already made it, at the tender age of 25, to the top of her field -- for cartoonists, the
New Yorker is as classy as it gets. In return for first-refusal rights to anything she draws, Chast gets partial medical coverage (including dental) as well as a fee for signing the agreement (renewable yearly) and a higher pay scale. When she first started getting published, she was paid $10 per cartoon by
Christopher Street. Her first New Yorker cartoon earned her $250, and although she's reluctant to divulge her current fee, she indicates that she now averages around $500 per cartoon. Any plans for the future? She's delightfully blithe. "I can't think of anything beyond what I'm doing right now."
"Anything else you want to know?" she asks, showing me to the door.
"Did she tell you she's afraid of kites?" teases her boyfriend Bill.
Any wild stories about the New Yorker? Roz Chast's Secret Life with John Updike? "Hey, Updike, Salinger -- Salinger and I were like that." She holds up two fingers together. "Thurber! I knew Thurber before he died." She holds up two fingers apart. "We were more like that."
Soho News, 1980