Dan Berry: This is Make It Then Tell Everybody. I’m Dan Berry. Matt Diffee and I sat down to talk about Hand Drawn Jokes for Smart Attractive People like you, confidence and ‘flipping the funnel’. This is Make It Then Tell Everybody. Hi Matt Diffee, how are you doing?
Matt Diffee: Good, how are you doing Dan?
DB: Pretty good. Got a bit of a cough. Now people will know you as a New Yorker cartoonist.
MD: If they know me at all, yes.
DB: I guess my first question, did you always draw?
MD: Yes, I always drew. I was always the kid that was, you know, just a little bit better than the other kids, and then eventually everyone else stopped drawing and I was still doing it.
DB: You just carried on.
MD: Yeah, I’ve always done it. You too I assume, right?
DB: Oh sure, yeah. I was the one that was always that little bit funny with drawing. Just a little bit. Enough to make people go, ‘Ah ha ha, ah. Hmm.’
MD: I remember, in whatever age it was, probably kindergarten, I remember realising that there was something different about the way I was doing it, because I remember everyone was drawing trees with crayons, and they would make the trunks brown. And I remember looking out the window…
DB: Because obviously wood is brown, of course.
MD: Yeah, brown, and every tree was an apple tree, because that’s how they’d seen somebody else next to them draw it. I remember I started drawing them with a black crayon, the trunks were black, because I grew up in Texas where all the trees are, like, these twisted oak trees and the trunks are grey, dark grey, so I remember drawing them that way because I was like, ‘Hey, well look outside. Look right there, they’re clearly not brown.’ Everyone thought I was nuts, I was drawing trees wrong.
DB: I teach grown-ups, I teach an illustration, comics degree in North Wales, so these are grown adults who have an interest in drawing, and they still just draw the trunks brown and the leaves green, and I’ll say, ‘But…’ you know, I drive past purple trees, blue trees and bright orange trees on my way to work, and they look at me like I’ve lost my absolute mind.
MD: Well it’s really interesting when you see an adult draw who hasn’t drawn since they were six years old. They draw exactly like they did when they were six.
DB: Yeah, absolutely.
MD: There’s a skipped development there that… most people that don’t draw for a living, didn’t keep up their skills.
DB: I think that’s one of the things that, you know, informed the way I developed. I mean, one of my teachers at college said that illustration and drawing, it’s not so much about drawing, it’s about looking. I was like, ‘Ha, ha, ha. No, it’s about drawing,’ you know, because I was a teenager. I knew everything at the time. Then, you know, the older you get the more you realise, ‘Oh, it’s all about training your eyes, not your hands.’
MD: Yeah. I remember my first class in college, you know, Drawing 101, or whatever, and at this point you’ve got all the hotshots from all their high schools, who all think they can draw perfectly, so we sat in this room and the professor brought out a wooden box and put it in the centre, and said, ‘Okay everyone, draw that box.’ Then he left for 40 minutes, and of course we were done in three minutes, because we knew what a box looked like, and we all just quickly did these 3D boxes. Then he came in and he would look at your drawing and he would get down where your eye was and look at the box, and he’d look at your drawing and look back at the box, and he’d say, ‘Well, you’ve drawn a pretty good box, but it’s not that box.’
MD: He would say, ‘Alright, try another half an hour on it.’ We did that for most of the first semester, just drawing different boxes of different proportions, until we really learned to get really specific about drawing exactly those lines and those angles that were in front of us. It was a good lesson.
DB: It sounds like you appreciate it now, did you appreciate it at the time do you think?
MD: Probably not. We were bored. Bored out of our minds and we’d draw the box and then we’d start, you know, shading it way more than it needed.
DB: Comfort drawing.
MD: Yeah, and start, you know, making sculptures out of our gum erasers. But yeah, I often think back to that. That’s when I learned to be really specific about looking, because it’s one thing when it’s a box, but when you go to draw a likeness of a person you have to be so specific, because one fraction of an inch, moving the nose this way or that way, or up or down, it no longer looks like the person.
DB: Yeah, it does.
MD: That’s what people don’t realise, I think, about drawing, is the discipline underneath it. Even to draw loose and, you know, and distort things, you have to have that foundation knowledge of stuff.
DB: Now here’s an interesting question, this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, and I find it very difficult to articulate. I work with a loose style. You know, I like to work quickly and I like it to feel like this is the first time I’ve drawn it, even if it’s the ninth time I’ve drawn it. I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of what I do is all about confidence. If I have confidence in the line, then it works better. Do you have a similar feeling with your work? Is it about the confidence?
MD: Several things you said resonate with me. One is that trying to make it look loose or fresh, and you might be surprised if you look at my work, it’s pretty realistic for a cartoon style, but my sketches are even more realistic.
DB: Oh really?
MD: Yeah, really tight and if I’m not careful, I can develop the sketch so much, and then put it on a light board, and then put a nice piece of Bristol over the top, and I can just be way too careful on tracing, essentially, that preliminary sketch. So I have to work really fast, faster than I would normally, and the sense is that I’m going to do three quick finishes on top of this sketch, and throw out the two that don’t work. There’s something in the third that is accurate but a little bit loose, and a little bit fresh, and that’s the one I keep.
DB: I think the thing that you gain, because I think you lose, like, an ego as you go along. I think the difference between drawing and tracing is something to do with your ego. I make the distinction, like, my roughs are really, really rough. They’re dog rough, they’re basically illegible. They just have to be good enough for me to know where I’ve got to draw it, not how I’m going to draw it. But I find that if I end up tracing I get a case of the ego, and I’m like, ‘It’s got to be good. It’s got to be right. I’ve got to get this line in the right place,’ but by the time, you know, if you do a couple of variations I feel that I lose my sense of ego, and I don’t get precious about it. Do you think it’s ego that kills the line?
MD: Well, I mean, there is a sense in which, you know, I draw the way I draw for cartoons because I want to prove that I can draw.
DB: I mean, I think you’ve fairly successfully proven that now. (Laughs).
MD: Yeah, I suppose I could loosen up now, but that is something that I’ve thought about a lot, and I think it was because early on, you know, I wanted to prove that I studied and that I could do it. But what you’re talking about, about confidence was interesting too, because I think that is the case. When you’re doing a drawing, or when I’m doing a drawing and for one reason or another, whether it’s skill or luck it’s going well, I can finish out the drawing nicely. I’m lifted by that confidence to keep drawing well, but if a drawing goes wrong early on, it just continues downhill.
DB: Yeah, you’ve got to have the right trajectory, don’t you?
MD: Yeah, I think that might be confidence. I’d never thought about that, but I’ve though about confidence lately in life. It is a very powerful, interesting thing. I’ve tried stand-up.
DB: Oh yeah?
MD: Yeah, and what I lacked when it wasn’t working was confidence. You know, some of my peers have gone on to great careers in stand-up comedy, and mostly I would attribute it to confidence.
DB: Do you know, I agree.
MD: Even when you didn’t have the material, they would always believe in it, and the audience would be comfortable and the audience would go with them.
DB: I did stand-up for a while as well, talking like… how long ago now? Maybe ten years ago.
MD: Yeah, me too.
DB: I did a bunch of gigs in small clubs around the Midlands in the UK, and it was good. I really enjoyed it. I think I was pretty good, but I agree, it was very much about confidence. I think it was about, if you show the fear I think they smell it, and they turn on you.
MD: Yup, and there’s that same sort of momentum. For me at least, if I started well, I would rise to the occasion and the whole set would be great. If I started poorly, it would kill my confidence, and then it would kill the atmosphere in the room, and the whole thing would just, kind of, go south.
DB: But I think for me, if I followed someone who did really well, consciously I would know, ‘Right, this person just killed it. They did really, really well, so therefore the crowd is warmed up and they want to laugh, and I’m going to have an easy time. They’re primed, they’re coiled up, they’re ready to go,’ but because they did so well, that would give me the fear. Like, ‘Oh, now you’ve got to live up to it,’ and I would just ruin it. I’d kill it.
MD: Yeah, it could go either way.
DB: The ego, yeah.
MD: Confidence, it’s a fascinating thing, and you could even extrapolate it to the length of a lifetime. You know, if you’re confident in your childhood, you’re probably going to do well in high school.
DB: I think we’ve cracked it. We’ve unlocked all the secrets here.
MD: Pretend to be confident. To get it back to drawing though, there’s something about speed that connects me to confidence. Does that hold up for you? The speed of drawing.
DB: Yeah, for sure.
MD: If you slow down too much, you start worrying. I don’t know, maybe that’s not accurate to say, because there are certainly times where you have to slow down, and you’ve got to be precise.
DB: So you work pretty quickly then?
MD: Once the sketch is developed and I’m going to the final I try to work as quickly as possible, just to keep that freshness, and maybe it’s confidence. It’s interesting, I’ve never put it in those terms.
DB: How did you think about it previously, or did you think about it previously?
MD: I guess I just knew that I’d rather draw two versions of something and keep the best one, and it wasn’t necessarily hinged to confidence, like which one… hmm, I don’t know if I know how to answer that question. I guess I didn’t think about it.
DB: And I’ve just ruined everything for you now, by forcing you to examine it. You’ve disappeared inside your own head!
MD: (Laughs). I’ve always wanted to have options, so I always do more than one finish, and that is a bit of a problem, because I’ll do two finished pieces of art and no one will see the difference but me. ‘Ah, it’s not right, I’ve got to do it again,’ and no one would care. It doesn’t hurt the joke at all.
DB: Is that something you had to learn the hard way, or is it something that you’ve always been comfortable with? I remember when I first started drawing, I would do my one drawing and that would be all I was ever going to do. ‘I’ve finished this drawing, this is done now. I don’t need to do it again. There’s nothing wrong with it, and I will never fix it.’
MD: I never drew things twice until I started needing to turn in cartoons to The New Yorker, and then I guess it seemed so important that I did it right, and also, this is an interesting thing about me. My first cartoons were for The New Yorker, essentially. So I did not know what my style was going to be when I started. So from the very beginning I drew lots of versions of it, just because I was trying to figure out what my style was going to look like. In fact, the first cartoon I ever did for The New Yorker was done with a brush and ink, just because I thought that’s what a New Yorker cartoon…
DB: That’s what you were supposed to do.
MD: Yeah, exactly. So then after that, even that first one, I did do several versions in dark pencil, which is what I’ve ended up using, but I turned in the ink one as a finish, and after that I had to ask the editor, ‘Is it okay if I work in dark pencil?’ and he said yes. From the get-go I was doing multiple versions, I guess not really for the same reasons as I do them now. Now I just do them, like I said, just to get the one that has the most life, and it’s usually the second one.
DB: Can I ask you a difficult question? How do you define which one has more life? How do you measure it? I know what you’re talking about, but I don’t know how to articulate that.
MD: Man, I don’t know if I can articulate it either. You just know, right? I mean, usually the first one I’m still, kind of, hung up on all the work that I put into the sketch to get it right, so I’m still following it a little too closely. I have to get that one out of the way, and then I’m like, ‘Okay, well I’ve got one. Worst case I can go with that one, so let’s have some fun on this next one.’
DB: This one’s in the bank, I can afford to spend it.
MD: Exactly. Then you try to do it kind of quick, you put on some music or whatever and loosen up. You know, you make accidents that either ruin it or they make it.
DB: Yeah, for sure.
MD: Try to find that one accident that made it. You know, just the width of a line when you’re drawing a face, or something can make all the difference.
DB: Yeah, it can. You mentioned about the style. So the way you draw now, is that the result of a conscious extended period of study? Like, trying to think, ‘Right, okay, I need to fix this, I need to fix this, I want it to look like this,’ or did it emerge more intuitively?
MD: I mean, I worked at it. I figured it out I guess. I grew up not really wanting to be a cartoonist, I wanted to be a real artist.
MD: And I wanted to be a comedian, so I had these two different pursuits that I was following, and I didn’t think to put the two together until I was 29 years old.
DB: And you compromised.
MD: Yeah. I said, ‘Well I’m not going to make it as a real artist, I’m not going to make it as a comedian, let’s put the two together.’ The New Yorker actually had a contest that I entered, and I didn’t really even know about The New Yorker much. I mean, I sort of did, but not really growing up. So somehow I heard about this contest and entered it and met Bob Mankoff, who’s the cartoon editor, who had just become the cartoon editor a year before. So he said, ‘Oh, you should start submitting cartoons.’ Then I was in a place where I had to basically teach myself about cartooning and about The New Yorker cartoons, so I checked out all those great big, you know, volumes, albums of cartoons and looked at different people’s styles and, kind of, figured out I guess, what I do that’s similar enough to what fits in The New Yorker. I guess one of the first decisions I made was to draw them in a square. I don’t know why, I used to paint abstract paintings and always loved doing them in a square shape, so decided that. Decided I wanted a border around mine, I didn’t want them just to float off into white space, and I think that comes from being a ‘real’ artist, painter, whatever.
DB: With a frame?
MD: Yeah, because you’re used to having the edges, and that was very important for me compositionally to have the defined space, and to know how my shapes and lines work in that space. So those were my first decisions, and then like I said, I tried to figure out whether to use ink or pencil, and I had more experience with pencil, so even though that first one was in ink, I eventually went back to doing them in pencil. I had to do them in dark pencil because for reproduction I thought it would work better than what… you know, left to myself I love a fairly light pencil sketch, but for reproducing in the magazine it needed to be darker. The magazine actually, they darken them a tiny bit before they print them. It’s nice to be on a podcast where I can talk about all this geeky, nerdy art stuff.
DB: Well Matt, strap in, because I was just about to ask you a really geeky, nerdy question. The first one’s a technical question. With pencil there’s a weird thing, I think sometimes, where pencil always feels like a preliminary tool, rather than a finished tool. Did you have any hang-ups about that to begin with?
MD: I guess not, and I probably should have, but I never thought about it that way. So much of my work was already done in pencil, as far as portrait drawing and even still life drawing that I had in shows that I had done, so to me I did think of it as finished work. You know, I just love the fuzziness of it, and the sketchiness of it, and the fact that you can go from very light to very dark and you can control it, whereas with a pen, I do some drawings with a pen and every line is black, you know? It’s a different feel. You can’t really find the line with light movements, you have to commit to it.
DB: Do you have any magic tools?
MD: Well, I’ll give you the rundown. For sketching I use a really cheap – I’ve got one here right in front of me. It’s a Paper Mate mechanical pencil, just the yellow ones. I buy them in big boxes. I usually use those for sketching because they have a nice, tiny little point, and then I’ll just do that on typing paper, put it on a light board which is the most essential tool.
DB: I completely agree.
MD: I meet cartoonists who don’t use a light board, I don’t know how they do it. So I put it on a light board, I actually have a drawing board that I cut a hole in, and mounted a light board in it, and then I put a piece of Plexiglas over the top of it, so that it has a nice, smooth thing. I can go from light board to non-light board with a little push of a button underneath.
DB: I have something similar planned. I’ve got one of these flat… I don’t know if it’s an LCD or something like that, but it’s only about a centimetre, quarter of an inch, half an inch thick A3.
MD: I’ve seen those.
DB: Oh, it’s great. It’s really, really good. It’s got a slight little give to it, and I keep on propping it up on my desk, and I’m worried that I’m going to lean too hard to it, or snap it in two or something, and I’ve got this vision of how I’m going to do my drawing desk, and I’m going to have a sheet of toughened glass that I’m going to put over the top of it. It’s going to be great.
MD: Yeah, I should have done glass, because mine has now gotten all scratched up. That’s the problem with Plexiglas. I know the light board you’re talking about. I worried about it, I tried it out in a store and I didn’t like the give, but if you put a glass over it, I can see how that would work.
DB: Yeah, that’s my plan. Anyway, back to you. Enough of me.
MD: I have this old drawing board also that I don’t think they make them anymore. I don’t actually know what the company name is, but it’s electric so that it can raise and lower with a button, which I have found very helpful. You know, if you’re in one position, at one height, I start getting shoulder pain and back pain. You’re talking about hours sitting there.
DB: This is a way of spreading the pain out evenly.
MD: Yeah, I can, I guess, damage all my vertebrate instead of just two at once.
MD: But I can also draw standing up, which is kind of nice, especially if you’ve got some tunes on and you’re moving with it, it loosens me up sometimes.
DB: Absolutely. I like to do all my roughs stood up.
MD: So that’s that. So once I develop the sketch and put it on the light board, then I used a piece of Bristol paper. I like really smooth paper for my New Yorker stuff at least. It doesn’t have a lot of texture in the pencil line, it just has…
DB: Oh, kind of, a bit more uniform?
MD: Yeah, and you can get a really nice, slick black when you push down. So then pencils for finishes, I love a Blackwing Palomino. Do you know that pencil brand?
DB: Do I ever! Ooh.
MD: Those are wonderful. They sometimes don’t go dark enough, so I also have some 6B regular art drawing pencils, when I need to really get a really black area.
DB: Can I ask again, like, another geeky, nerdy pencil question? How do you sharpen your pencils? Do you use a blade?
MD: Yeah, I use a blade. I use a box cutter blade to carve them down. Then I can choose whether I want it to come to a really fine point, or if I want it to have more of a chisel point, which is usually what I do. I get a sharp point when I’m drawing by slightly twisting the pencil. You know where that little point is.
DB: I always sharpen the end of my pencils, because I really like the Palominos, they’re like the pen of pencils. They’re lovely. I’ll sharpen them into… now, what is it. Six sides, is that a septagon, the shape of the pencil?
MD: I guess?
DB: I just follow the shape of the pencil.
MD: Sounds right to me!
DB: I was going to say octagon, but I know that’s eight, isn’t it? I’ll edit this out. People don’t need to know that I don’t know what shapes are. So I’ll sharpen it into the shape of the pencil, that’s what I should have said in the first place, with the edges. Ah, I’m not coming across well now, am I? So it’ll have a point at the end, but depending on how I rotate around the pencil, it’ll have a brand new, fresh sharp edge to work on. I find I sharpen it a lot less.
MD: I found that now I don’t even think about rotating it. I know…
DB: Yeah, it becomes automatic.
MD: When I want a point it just happens, and then you want a wider point and you go this way. One thing that’s challenging about pencil is – and this is the reason why I have to develop the sketch first, and then work quickly over the top, is because I have to work from one side to the other, so that my hand doesn’t smudge things. So I start on the left side and work across to the right side.
DB: So you’re right handed?
MD: Yeah, I’m right handed. So that’s something, if you don’t have the sketch worked out, I don’t think you can work in pencil very well that way. Then if I absolutely have to go back and work on the other side, I’ll lay a piece of paper down there and tape it down so it doesn’t move around, just to rest my hand on.
DB: Now, do you make corrections then?
MD: Very rarely. I’m bearing down pretty hard with the pencil, so it’s impossible to completely erase it, but I can lift off the worst of things with a gum eraser. I had a great one, I had an electric eraser, which is just a little handheld gadget that has an eraser on one end, and you hit a button and it rotates so that you can erase out a tiny little point. I had a great one and then it just died on me, and I got three or four different ones from stores and they didn’t work. They didn’t have enough power, didn’t have enough torque. But then I got one, actually in England I think.
DB: We’re very proud of our erasers here.
MD: Some of the best erasers!
DB: It’s our national pride.
MD: Yes, but I think it was actually a Japanese made eraser.
DB: No such thing in the UK, we don’t have those available. (Laughs).
MD: There was about three years, maybe four where I was going in every art supply store everywhere I went, trying to find a good electric eraser. That’s the worst, when you have an art supply that you love and invariably they quite making it, you’re just stuck. So I think that is pretty much the full rundown of how I do the cartoons.
DB: Is there much computer in there?
MD: There’s no computer in my life. Not in my New Yorker cartoons. I barely know how to do much of anything, as far as, you know, Photoshopping. I turn them in intact, complete as much as I can. I don’t do a lot of paste ups with different pieces glued down, although some of George Booth’s originals have all these… you know, every figure is a different piece of paper glued down.
DB: I love seeing those things.
MD: It’s really cool when you see it.
DB: I can’t make that work.
MD: Yeah, I think maybe in my time at The New Yorker, which is 15 years, I think maybe twice I’ve asked them to do something in Photoshop, just to clear a smudge or something. I don’t know why, I just try to do it all on paper. It’s also nice, because then you have the original piece of art. If I knew how to do computer stuff I would probably do more. It’s probably a good thing that I don’t, because we definitely did some computer tweaking for this book that I have out.
DB: Oh, you have a book out?
DB: Funny you should say.
MD: Actually I do. Would you like to know the title of it?
DB: Please tell me, enlighten us.
MD: It’s a collection of my best cartoons from The New Yorker, along with, I don’t know, about 30% brand new material, and the title of the book, which you can get at fine book stores anywhere, is Hand Drawn Jokes For Smart Attractive People.
DB: Now in the introduction of this book you state that people who are smart and attractive will understand your jokes, and people who aren’t smart and attractive won’t get your jokes. I don’t know, is this supposed to be some sort of joke? I don’t get it.
MD: No, it’s absolutely true.
DB: Oh, ho, ho, I’m funny.
MD: It’s just my experience.
DB: I mean, I got all the jokes really quickly, I didn’t even need to read the punch lines, I’m that smart and attractive.
MD: I hoped that that would work for people, they would flatter themselves. No, I was just working off of The New Yorker’s reputation, and a lot of people have this thought that The New Yorker cartoons are very esoteric and difficult to understand and we’re not trying to make it that way. We’re not any smarter than anybody else, it’s just a question. Like, if you look through an issue of The New Yorker and there are 15 cartoons in there, you’re not going to know every reference. I don’t know every reference, you know? So invariably somebody will pick out the one cartoon that they don’t understand, and they’ll think, ‘Oh, I’m not elitist enough to understand that.’ But I mean, the truth is, we don’t get them all either. It’s impossible. We’ve got 15 different cartoonists with 15 different life experiences and knowledge behind them, somebody’s bound to reference something that you’re not familiar with.
DB: Something that you’re not smart and attractive enough to… yeah.
MD: Yeah. So the title for me is definitely tongue-in-cheek, and playing with the stereotype I guess. Also it’s fun, because in the introduction as I say, it’s nice for me to say, ‘Well, people that get my cartoons are smart and attractive, and the people who have come up to me and not understood them, they’re all dumb and ugly. It’s just not my fault.’ In that book we did do some Photoshopping of stuff, and for the first time I had to do a lot of hand lettering.
DB: Yes, there’s a lot in there.
MD: Yeah, which I don’t have to do for The New Yorker, because they typeset all the captions, so that was a huge new thing for me. That took forever. Boy, I don’t know how you guys do it.
DB: Yeah, well it is one of those things, isn’t it?
MD: It’s a big part, yeah. Just, I guess, the brutal cuts you have to make sometimes, when you have to squeeze what you would like to say into one bubble or two bubbles. Just fitting it on the page, it’s a whole other level of challenge that I don’t normally have to work with. But in the last couple years I’ve done more long form. We wouldn’t call it long form, but multiple page, I don’t even know what to call it. Comics? Is that the right word?
DB: Yeah, if it’s words and pictures I’d say that’s comics.
MD: It’s so weird that our business, it doesn’t have… even cartooning is not a good name for what I do. It’s confusing. People think, ‘Oh, you do Saturday morning, animated cartoons?’
DB: We don’t really have good vocabulary, do we?
MD: It’s bad. Like, graphic novel isn’t even good.
DB: Nope, it’s a bit highfalutin.
MD: And comics means funny, but most comics are not going for funny, I don’t think.
DB: No, I don’t think so.
MD: So they should be called ‘dramatics’.
DB: (Laughs). Maudlins.
MD: Yeah! Comic books are another thing other than comics, and they’re not books, they’re little magazines, and now comedians are calling themselves comics.
DB: That’s true.
MD: It’s so confusing.
DB: No wonder people don’t buy books anymore.
MD: Exactly, especially comics, cartoon books.
DB: So Matt…
MD: Can I ask you something?
DB: Of course, yeah.
MD: So comics, sequential art, I don’t know what you call them. How do you feel… this is my problem with it, the times that I’ve tried to do it. I don’t like how people can jump to a panel before you’re ready for them to go to that panel. Like, if you draw something in the bottom right corner, and it’s full of bright colours and action, they often will jump down there and read that part before getting there. How do you fix that?
DB: I think of the page turn as being the punctuation. So if I know that there’s got to be something that’s got to have impact, or isn’t going to give the game away, I’ll put it on the left hand page rather than the right, so when they turn they get the full punch line impact. That’s what I do.
MD: Even if you have to, sort of, stall to wait for the turn?
DB: I don’t know if it’s stalling. Usually for me it’s figuring out the layouts, or the size of the panels rather than the number of the panels. That’s the way I think about it, but I think sometimes you can’t avoid the fact that your artwork is so profound and moving that people are drawn to it ahead of time.
DB: I’ll take that, you know, if my artwork is that good and that eye catching that it will jolt them out of the story.
MD: It seems to me that the e-book, digital stuff is almost a better way to do sequential art in a way, because you can control the…
DB: You’ve got that controlled reason experience, don’t you?
MD: The swipe.
DB: I don’t know, I feel two ways about it. I like the fact that you can do all these things with digital, but I’m also kind of a purist I think, and the older I get the more adamant I become that, ‘No! It has to happen on the page! That’s where the skill is demonstrated!’ I know it’s a dumb thing, and it’s all my own prejudices, but I’ve got it in my head that the story on the page is where I can fix it. My background was pretty much entirely digital. It was all websites and interactive installations and making things do things with webcams, programming and things like that. I spent a lot of my master’s degree trying to figure out interactive comics, and I kind of figured out that I don’t think you can really do it. Not really.
MD: Really? Why not?
DB: I don’t know. Because I’m a purist and kind of a jerk, I think. (Laughs).
MD: I mean, there would be limitations. It seems like if you made every panel the same size, you know, the size and ratio of a screen, and you just flip, flip, flip, it would be a really pure, controlled way of telling a story, but you wouldn’t have the option of doing dynamic shaped panels, or doing full page as opposed to lots of small.
DB: That’s true. I mean, I don’t generally use any kind of dynamic layout. It’s all horizontal, vertical lines on a grid essentially, so I don’t really do anything adventurous at all with the layout.
MD: Well then why wouldn’t it be perfect for you to do it digitally?
DB: The more I talk about this, the more I realise that the project I’m working on at the moment is exactly what you’re talking about.
MD: Oh yeah?
DB: Yes, I’m working on an extended performance comic with a writer called David Gaffney and a musician called Sara Lowes, and it’ll come up as a… I guess the best way to describe it is a timed slideshow, narrated slideshow, which is doing exactly the things you’re talking about.
MD: Are you talking about doing it live?
DB: Yeah. I mean, I’ll draw it ahead of time. It’ll be incredibly stressful to do it on the day, but it’ll be live narrated by David, who’s writing it.
MD: But couldn’t you also replicate that in a digital form? I guess it would be a movie then, a film.
DB: Yeah, and the more you talk about it, the more you realise that I’m completely sold on the idea and I’ve been doing it for a little while, and I don’t know what I’m talking about. (Laughs).
MD: No, I mean, there’s no reason to fit the particular project to the proper format.
DB: That’s true. This is true.
MD: Some would work better in print, and some would work better digital, or even live.
DB: I’m a blowhard.
MD: I perform a lot still. I don’t really do stand-up, but I’ll show a cartoon on the screen and then tell the caption, and tell extra jokes around it, but there are definitely some cartoons that work in that context, and then others that you just have to read by yourself on the page. There are different formats, and I’m excited to see what works where and how to do it. I did a Moth story, do you know The Moth?
DB: The podcast, yeah.
MD: So I did one of those in the last year, and that has just really opened up a whole lot of possibilities for me, just telling a story without pictures. You can do that too, and sometimes it’s nice when you’re sitting down to daydream or write something, that you have the options of formatting them in different ways for different outlets. I like that, I think it’s good.
DB: Yeah, I like that too. Can I ask you a dumb question?
MD: Yes, please.
DB: Matt, where do you get your ideas from?
MD: It’s the classic question!
DB: I should have started with this one really. It’s A material.
MD: Yeah, it’s the dumbest question but also it is the essential question. It’s the one we get the most, and a lot of cartoonists hate getting it, or trying to answer it, but at the same time I love hearing other cartoonists answer it. So I have several answers for the question. I used to say, when somebody would ask me in public, I’m presenting or something and they would say, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ and I would just say, ‘I think of them.’
MD: Which is absolutely the truth, but an unsatisfying answer.
DB: It’s a bit like, ‘How did you win that race?’ ‘I drove really quickly.’
MD: Yeah, ‘I went faster than the others.’ Then if I know somebody well, they’ll say, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ and I’ll say, ‘Your mom,’ which is a whole different thing.
DB: She’s very talented, thank you.
MD: I get my ideas by thinking of them every day. I have to have ten ideas a week to pitch to The New Yorker, you know, sketch form, and to get those ten that I’m okay showing to my editor, I have to have, you know, probably 100. So I sit down every day, try to do it first thing in the morning with a blank sheet of paper and pencil and a cup of coffee, and I just start, you know, with any sort of prompt that I can either find flipping through a magazine or a newspaper, or looking around the room, or, you know, I prefer to just come up with something. Like right now I’ll think of ‘a hippopotamus’, so I’ll write that down and I’ll start thinking about hippos and what they look like, and what situations I can put them in, and mix them up with something. If it doesn’t go anywhere, which it probably doesn’t, it usually doesn’t, I’ll force myself to come up with another starting point.
MD: Rhinoceros, yeah. Often I’ll start off with hippopotamus and I’ll end up writing a joke about a monkey, just because I have that freedom. I can come up with literally anything that I think is funny. I have no assignment. Then how to get the ideas, you know, it’s just noodling on things and considering the endless possibilities, which gives you new variants to react to, and then you’ve got the drawing and you’ve got the line, that both can be tweaked endlessly. There is no end to the combinations you can come up with.
DB: Oh yeah, literally limitless.
MD: I think a lot of people that ask that question, not you, because you’re in the business, but people that don’t do it for a living, implied in the question I think, is the idea that I must do it differently than they would.
MD: That is one of the biggest misconceptions. I would do it the same way anyone would do it, I think. You just have to do it.
DB: I often think that what people are really asking is, ‘How did you perform that magic trick, because I’m unaware of how this is done and I can’t do this.’ I think it’s almost like they’re trying to prove to themselves that they couldn’t do that.
MD: Giving themselves an excuse.
DB: There’s this idea that ideas zoom around the universe, waiting for someone who’s not wearing a tinfoil hat, to zoom into their heads and then they’re struck by this lightening and they’ll have to get it down, this divine inspiration idea, and I don’t believe in that. I don’t think I’ve ever really experienced it, and I like to think that ideas are the product of hard work. I think you’ve got to earn them.
MD: That’s definitely the case with me, and honestly, all the cartoonists I know, and I know all the best gag cartoonists in the universe, they all say that coming up with ideas is hard work. I think that’s a big misconception. People think that we just, sort of, walk around with a notebook in our pocket, and we do do that and hope something comes to us, but really, 90% of my ideas come from just considering it a job, and I’ve got to put in my time and struggle. Most of the time you don’t have an idea. 99% of the time you’re sitting there with nothing, and a novice or an amateur would not be comfortable in that position after five minutes. Five minutes of not having an idea can feel really awful, if you expect ideas to come quicker than that. Professionals know that not only can you go five minutes, you can go an hour, you can go three days, you can go two weeks without really getting a good idea.
DB: This is a bit of a weird question maybe, but I’ve always though the ideas bit is the bit that when it’s going wrong, it’s horrible, you hate it, but when it’s going right it’s the easiest thing ever, you’re channelling them.
MD: Well if I can interject, you know, we talked about confidence earlier, I think something similar to that happens. Maybe it’s more momentum, but it happens in a creative session for me. The first 20 minutes, often I’m just completely stumped and just not going anywhere, but once I start cooking it feeds itself, and I find myself getting into a little bit of a – I don’t know what to call it – a state. Not a trance, but sort of, a place where my mind is operating sort of separate from my consciousness, and I’m writing things down as fast as I can, and they’re leading to other things, and I call it ‘getting in the zone’.
DB: I spoke to Graham Annable a few weeks ago, and he calls that ‘being in the delicious mood’.
MD: I like that.
DB: It’s good, isn’t it?
MD: But it doesn’t last forever either. It’s a momentum thing, and then once it starts turning, like, ‘Ah, that one didn’t go anywhere,’ that thread I was following didn’t come up with an idea, and then it, sort of, stalls. You just have to enjoy those moments, and in the stalled moments know that… have the confidence that it’s coming around. There’s a difference too between just getting an idea that’s going to be good enough to put in my batch of ten ideas, and getting an idea that’s, you know, I would consider one of my better ideas, a great idea, a classic Diffee cartoon. Those come very rarely, honestly. But you’re absolutely right, it feels awful when it’s not working, and there’s nothing better when it is working, because it is somewhat a surprise to you, and the same reaction, hopefully, that you get from a reader who puts the joke together and goes, ‘Ah!’ you get that several times a day on a good day.
DB: And that’s a job!
MD: It’s a job. It beats real work, but it is work.
DB: I guess the work thing is, I think when I started working creatively, I felt like ideas should be easy, because they’re free. I’m changing my mind about that, I don’t think they’re free. I don’t know what they cost, but I don’t think ideas are free.
MD: Well, they cost time for me, and also I guess, the uncomfort you feel when you don’t have an idea. That’s probably a price of some sort.
DB: Maybe it’s snipping minutes off your life every time you’re not having a good idea. I mean, we don’t know, we’ve not studied this properly. We need a control group.
MD: For me the biggest part of it is starting. That’s the hardest part, and I’ve constantly tried to trick myself into making it easier to start.
DB: I was going to say, do you have any rituals to get you into it?
MD: One thing I do do, is I get up in the morning and I make the coffee first, because I like coffee and I would like to sit down and have a cup of coffee.
DB: Same, I love coffee.
MD: So that, if I partner that up with my creative writing time, that makes it more appealing. I also, while the coffee is brewing, I do dishes, because, I mean, because I need to do the dishes, but also because I hate doing the dishes, so the idea of stopping doing dishes and making myself a cup of coffee and sitting down at a blank sheet of paper is so much better.
DB: Oh, it’s a step up!
MD: So those are two ways. Yeah, it’s, ‘Ah, finally I can stop doing this, and do that other thing,’ that compared to doing dishes is fun, compared to watching TV or something, is not that fun. I also have to keep my writing area ready to go, meaning I often work on a clipboard, I’ll have a clean piece of paper sitting on the clipboard with a pencil there, ready to go, easy to start. Because if I have to dig through stuff and organise my desk, it’s way harder to start. The same with the drawing too.
DB: Everything is easier, isn’t it?
MD: Yeah, it’s got to be ready to go. It’s got to be sitting there waiting for you, instead of… the few times when I didn’t have a dedicated drawing area, and I had to clean off the table and then spread my drawing stuff out, it was just so much harder to get started. For ideas, I’m constantly balancing inputs with outputs. I think of it in terms of a funnel sometimes. When I’m coming up with ideas I’ve got a funnel coming from my head down to a tiny point on the paper, and I try to concentrate really fully on getting my ideas down there, but at some point that funnel empties out, and you have to open the funnel above your head to get more input into it. I try to stay as often as possible in the place where my ideas are focussed onto the paper, instead of getting inputs. For instance, some people say, ‘Oh, do you flip through the newspaper and try to come up with ideas?’ I try not to do that as much as possible, because I’m easily distracted, and before I know it, I am just reading the newspaper, or reading a New Yorker, what ever.
DB: (Laughs). ‘How did I get here?’
MD: Exactly. So as soon as I get anything, even just point towards the newspaper and get one word, you know, the word ‘example’ just popped into my head. So I’ll try to take that, that would be hard to work with, but ‘example’. So I could say, ‘For example,’ some sort of phrase. I try to stay in the place where I’m working, or I’m outputting instead of inputting, but quickly try to get an input as soon as I run dry, just the first thing, quick thing and then get back to work. I don’t know if that helps anybody, but that’s the way I try to think of it. My time is limited, I try to get all my creative time in about an hour or two while I’m drinking coffee, so I want to be on it.
DB: Sounds good. So if people want to find out more about you, if they want to buy this book, if they’re incredibly smart and wonderfully attractive, where’s the best place to get this?
MD: Well, I imagine your local book store, although I’m not sure if we’re in the UK. You might have to buy it at your favourite online vendor. And if you want to find out more about me, you should go to my website, which is mattdiffee.com. The best stuff I do is in my newsletter, which is the Diffeeville Dispatch, and everyone who signs up for the newsletter gets a free Diffee Doodle print.
DB: What’s this?
MD: I started out with the newsletter about a year ago, and made the bold claim that I would do a little Diffee Doodle for everyone who subscribed. A Diffee Doodle is not a cartoon, it’s just a tiny little drawing, just sort of… yeah, a doodle. So I had to cut that off, doing the original drawings for everybody at 1,500, which is still a lot of doodles.
DB: That’s a lot of drawing!
MD: Yeah, so now people that sign up, they get a choice of… I’ve made prints of the top 100 doodles that I’ve done over the years, so the new subscribers get a print of their choice. I mean, it’s not as good I guess, because an original is worth more, but it is good in that you get to choose the one that you want, and you get it immediately, whereas the originals are still a waiting list, and I’m still working my way through it. But yeah, in the newsletter I do personal stuff, try to make it a one person magazine or something.
DB: And very generous as well.
MD: I don’t know, I feel like it’s an even trade, I hope. Building a list of people that like what I do and want to hear about my new ideas and stuff, and in exchange I’m happy to give them a piece of Diffee art.
DB: A little slice of Matt Diffee, nice.
MD: So that’s the best place, and then yeah, the book is available most places books are sold.
DB: And it’s very funny?
MD: I tried to make it as funny as I could. I did my very best on it.
DB: You’ve done well!
MD: Yeah, there’s a reason why the title is Hand Drawn Jokes, because to me, I love jokes. I don’t mean the kind, like, ‘two guys walk into a bar’, I’m talking about just any, sort of, little nugget that’s designed to get a laugh. I love comedians who are one-liner comics, like Steven Wright here in the US, Zach Galifianakis and Demetri Martin. Mitch Hedberg used to be great at it.
DB: Yeah, he was great.
MD: Emo Philips, do you know who that is?
MD: He was one of my favourites growing up too, and Woody Allen, all these classic people. I guess it’s old school in a way, but just the perfect little, you know, diamond cut little joke. I love that, and I tried to make that sensibility in the book. So if you like jokes, whether they’re visual or, you know, just little one-liners that I’ve inserted in the margins, or whatever.
DB: If you love to laugh, pick it up maybe! Who knows. Anyway, Matt, thank you very much for talking to me.
MD: Thank you very much, it was a pleasure.