New Yorker Cartoonist: These Days, She’s Changing Her Toon
By Emily Gordon
Special to Newsday
November 26, 2006
For a public humorist, Roz Chast is admirably discreet. She laughs often and may occasionally say, “La la la la la,” as the people in her New Yorker cartoons do, but her humor is also decidedly ironic. The New York Times has described her as “small, blond, bespectacled and self-deprecating—equal parts Mia Farrow and Woody Allen.” In person, whether she’s onstage reading her cartoons to a fanatically attentive audience, casing the umbrella rack at an upscale drugstore or considering the oddness of eyebrows, she’s an appealingly diplomatic personage.
Racing through the 400 pages of her newest and biggest collection, Theories of Everything: Selected, Collected, and Health-Inspected Cartoons, 1978-2006 (Bloomsbury, 400 pp., $45), Chast fans will see her irony in all its dimensions, as well as her sympathy with many (though not all) of her fellow humans—especially put-upon children and parents. Theories of Everything, which documents the best of Chast’s creations over nearly three decades, demonstrates that her range far exceeds the surreal living-room drama and the ominous doily. “For a while I was doing more domestic-type cartoons, when my kids were younger,” she says. “I still do them, but not as much.”
One of the persistent delights in Theories of Everything is Chast’s precise—if not precisely accurate—documentation of peculiar objects. Outer space and amoebas make many appearances in this book, too (Chast also contributes drawings to science magazines), as well as pointed political cartoons. Mortality and melancholy often loom, as does a cheerfully narrated sense of foreboding.
Chast was born in Brooklyn in 1954. In an unusually personal cartoon, she recounts how the kids in her neighborhood would explore only as far as a certain street; she’s more or less the same way now when driving in Connecticut, where she lives with her husband, humor writer Bill Franzen. When she needs directions, she says, she takes a map in which every street is labeled and enlarges it: “Ideally, I’d like to enlarge it so that each street was exactly the same size as the real street, and so you could follow along. One mile equals one mile!” In the stories of her drawings, “Writing is always patching together stuff that happened, stuff that never happened, stuff you wish happened, stuff you would dread happening, somebody you knew that lived in your building, somebody you’ve never met.”
After growing up as the best artist in the class, she became one of many such artists at the Rhode Island School of Design. It was at the Art Students League in New York that, she says, she learned more of her technique. Cartooning seems to have been in her blood from her early years, when she worshipped the work of Charles Addams (her parents subscribed to The New Yorker) and devoured “Krazy Kat” and “Nancy.” She still lives pretty close to the page: “I love the medium [of drawing] because it’s so simple, in a way; it’s just pen and paper,” she says.
She has mastered the elaborately painted Ukrainian Easter eggs known as pysanky, and loves their controllable scale: “When you look at books of pysanky decoration, they all work with geometry.” Many of her cartoons, and her preoccupations, similarly end up being about (slightly awry) organization. She loves the crammed surfaces and spaces of New York City, and recalls one Upper East Side coffee shop: “I loved how everything looked behind the counter. Everything was just crammed in—a turkey roasting on a spit, cereal boxes, pickles and then the water glasses. Every square inch was used, and I just loved it.”
When Chast draws, the light from the bulb illuminating the drawing at hand is almost all she can see; cartoon figures emerge with their own ideas and hilariously formless wardrobes. She relishes talking about the key moments in the cartoons—the tidy, complete worlds they make on a panel or a page—more than chatting about her actual life. When ABC Family animated some of her work not long ago, she was delighted to see one of the classic Chast ladies “walking” across the screen. Ultimately, though, the involvement of a slew of executives and committees took too much of the fun out of the world she had created. In the end, “It’s just about telling the story—and it sounds so cheesy to say it, but communicating a very specific feeling or thought, hopefully a funny one.”
Some of the standout cartoons in Theories of Everything are multi-page, autobiographical tales that she drew first for DoubleTake magazine. They involved adventurous traveling, and she’d love to take more trips, but still has a teenage daughter at home, “so I have to be really careful with projects so that I don’t take on more things.” (She also has a son in college.) Meanwhile, she and Steve Martin have collaborated on a children’s alphabet book to be published in 2007. If some of Chast’s life has to be lived outside the bright circle of her pen, it’s a safe bet that hers is the life to have.
Note: This version varies slightly from the published story.
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