For Better of For Worse: The Art of Living With Humor

Copyright The HUMOR Project, Inc 1990 -- All rights reserved
This first appeared in Laughing Matters Volume 7, Number 2

I've really enjoyed my pen-pal and phone-pal contacts with Lynn Johnston over the past year. I was honored (and the participants were delighted) to have her present at the Fifth Annual International Conference on The Positive Power of Humor and Creativity. Drawing (literally and figuratively) from her presentation, this article will capture in words and cartoons Lynn's special ability to see the humor in this thing called "life".

Many of you have already have an on-going relationship with Lynn. In fact, her popular syndicated comic strip, FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE, is carried by more than 700 newspapers, consistently ranks among the top five comic strips throughout the U.S. and Canada, and reaches more than 60 million people daily. Lynn is the former President of the National Cartoonists Society and is the first woman and first Canadian ever to receive the Reuben Award (the cartoonists' equivalent of the Oscar).

Lynn's warmth and humor has appeared in eleven books, including: DAVID, WE'RE PREGNANT... KEEP THE HOME FRIES BURNING... I'VE GOT THE ONE-MORE-WASHLOAD BLUES... PUSHING 40... JUST ONE MORE HUG... IS THIS "ONE OF THOSE DAYS," DADDY?... and her tenth anniversary collection, A LOOK INSIDE...FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE.

Lynn believes, "Cartooning is like singing, dancing, or acting: it's a physical expression of something deep down inside that has to come out." Come on in and see how Lynn's comic spirit and comic vision can help all of us to turn serious matters into laughing matters.

(Our sincere thanks go to Universal Press Syndicate for permission to reprint the FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE cartoons which have appeared in Lynn's books published by Andrews and McMeel. All cartoons copyrighted by Universal Press Syndicate. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.)

Q: Drawing on your childhood, what are some cartoon-like images you have of your own cartooning roots?

Lynn Johnston: When I was a little kid, I remember my mother taking me on a bus. There were only two seats left on the bus. There was one up at the front, and there was one at the back. My mother asked, "Which would you like?" I said, "I'll take the one at the front, because the lady there has smile lines." Smiling and being funny or even laughing is an honesty that a kid can pick right out of the air. You can't suppress a laugh. It's like a sneeze-- it will come out. And it's really healthy. There's something that makes you vulnerable when you laugh. It makes you human; it reduces you down to the basic you.

I inherited my mother's ability to draw. From as early as I can recall I drew tiny pictures in boxes, row on row, bringing thoughts and fantasies to life. The way I've always dealt with everything is by drawing. I used to get into a lot of trouble when I was in school, because I used to draw all the time. In exams, I would do doodles all the way around the edge and I'd get a mark back saying, "You get D in math but an A in art."

My mother had a tremendous vocabulary in English, and she had my brother and me learn a new word everyday. My father liked to play with those words. He'd make puns, and my mother would groan and snort. Despite my mother's rather Victorian upbringing, she, too, had a gift for puns and wordplay. So dinner time was usually fun and pun time.

My father was one of these people who dealt with one-liners all the time. He was the basis for me for the work that I do now. From my father, I inherited the love of silliness. He was the kind of guy who would trip on a carpet and then do it again, just to see how he did it the first time.

Once, my father had ordered a cubic yard of manure. When the truck came it backed up to the yard, the bucket started to lift up, and the manure pile started to come down. My dad cried, "Whoa, wait a minute," as this pile started to hit the ground. Well, the bucket kept coming and the manure kept falling and it just started piling up. He said, "Okay, boys," and he went and got a shovel. He said, "I'll help you shovel it back into the truck. I don't need all of this." Suddenly the guys in the truck started to drive away. He started to chase the truck with the shovel in his hand while screaming, "Come back! Come back!" He ran to the end of the block, and the truck disappeared.

I remember him coming back to me, as he looked at God in Heaven with the shovel in his hand and he said, "For the first time in my life I get something for nothing and it's a mountain of manure." I was this little kid, and I thought, "What a great life. What a great life." So, I was brought up on one-liners, and wherever I went I looked for humor in people.

Q: So, even when you feel "dumped on," it's possible to laugh about it.

LJ: The business of being able to laugh at yourself is something that a lot of people don't allow themselves to do. It's the most effective way of complaining-- to laugh at yourself or at anything that drives you down. Nobody likes to hear a whiner, and yet everybody's got something to complain about. My father used to go on and on about how poor we were, about how my mother used to crochet wool into the carpets because they were thread-bare or say something like, "We're so poor that burglars break in and leave stuff." People will listen to your complaints if you make jokes about them.

It's easier to say things in jest than it is straight-out sometimes, especially when you're in a tense situation. One time, I was riding along in a car with somebody I absolutely adored, and he absolutely adored me. Neither of us was saying a thing to each other, 'cause we didn't know what to say. I didn't know how much he liked me, and he didn't know how much I liked him. He turned to me and said, "You know, I'd rather not talk to you than not talk to anybody else." You can communicate in free, easy one-liners.

Q: What led you to communicate in free, easy cartoons?

LJ: Why do people become cartoonists? It's because we're insecure comedians. We want to get out and perform and be on stage, but we're terrified to do so. And so, we create these little characters that get out there and perform for us. I know that I'm very thin-skinned, and if somebody teases me or makes jokes about me or my weight, I'm very hurt. But allow me to make the jokes about myself.

Q: Is there a recent example of when the joke was on you-- or by you?

LJ: Somethings that often bring out humor are sex and bodily functions. People talk about it all so freely now; I'm so fed up with it. I was sitting in a restaurant the other day, and I said to my friend, "I am so fed up with sex! I am so bored with sex! Everywhere it's sex!" I looked around and everybody in the entire restaurant was quiet and wanted to see who's bored with sex.

Q: Woody Allen might make a trilogy out of Sex, Love and Death. Do you think humor is a matter of life and death? In one of our phone calls, you told me about how you were dealing with your mother's recent death.

LJ: At the time that she was going downhill it was an incredible experience for both my father and me. You can only go down so far, and then you know if you go down any further you're going to just collapse in an abyss somewhere, so you've got to stop and bring yourself up.

At one point my father and I were so desperately miserable, standing there hand-in-hand looking at her. In the pressure of our hands we could feel all these feelings between us-- how am I going to be? Is she going to die now? How will I react? Will I shake? Will I cry? Will I be able to function? And while we were looking at her, my mother opened up her eyes and said, "Got any peanuts?" And my dad said, "Peanuts! Oh peanuts!" and he ran off to the concession stand and he came back with a bag of peanuts. She was back asleep by then, and he dropped the peanuts on the bed and said, "Oh, I've had it. I've had it." He sat down on one side of the bed and I sat down on the other and we told jokes, as many jokes as we could think of, until about 10:00 or 11:00 at night and the nurses came in and they told jokes. Now and then my mother would smile. That saved our necks, and we knew she was listening.

Eventually she died, and I had to go and find an undertaker. Since my mom wanted to be cremated, I asked the undertaker if I could see the crematorium. He said, "Mrs. Johnston, this is not usual....." "Come on, I'm paying $600 for you to just bring her from Hope down to Chilliwack," I said, "so the least you can do is show me the oven." I don't deal with things easily, so I joke about them. Well, this undertaker didn't know what to do with me.

Anyway, he opened it up and I said, "Wow! Everything goes in there-- the coffin, everything? So, when it's done, how do you know how much is coffin and how much is mother?" The guy wouldn't smile. It was like being five years old again, getting on the bus and looking for the smile person. I desperately needed that connection. If you're going to do this personal thing for my family, if you're going to get this close to me and touch me, you're going to laugh by God.

It was one of these deals where you had to bring all the clothes to the hospital, 'cause they won't take the body and cremate the body unless the body is fully dressed. Well, my mother would say, "Are you crazy? You're going to burn something good? Why don't you just burn the body?" I had to go home and get all these clothes. I was in this sort of outer space world where your body does something and your head rides along separately saying, "Now she's getting the lingerie, now she's getting the suit. Blue was always nice, or maybe the pink one...." It's the craziest thing, so I just chose a pink suit that I bought for her, and all the time I'm hearing my mother say, "You're crazy. That thing cost $200!" I took that and matching pink shoes. You might as well have the shoes match. And I thought, "If my mother didn't have a sense of humor, she never would have allowed this to happen, because it's bizarre." It's probably good to see death because it renews my belief in spiritual things. I remember asking my mother, "Why is sex the way it is? Why can't you just shake hands?" And she said, "Because God has a sense of humor." And if God has a sense of humor I think it's the humor that we have in us.

One of the problems with being human is that everybody wants you to be perfect. In order to be accepted you have to be a certain size, a certain color, a certain weight. You have to be perfect, and when you read about how a baby is formed it's amazing that anybody has got anything at all that works.

Q: It's amazing how you work-- how do you do it?

LJ: Even though I've been in this business for ten years, I still find it fascinating. When I first got into it I called Cathy Guisewite (Editor's note: See interview with Cathy in Volume 6,

Q: How do your kids feel about your using them in your cartoon?

LJ: I take my liberties, but I'm never going to hurt them. If I do anything that really is close to home, I show them first and make

sure that they understand what I'm doing. And with my husband as well. I ask them first.

I write and draw myself and my family, but the insights and personal glimpses are, for the most part, scenes from my childhood. Aaron and Kate, Rod and others are the innocent models for the characters that play out my fantasies and innermost feelings on paper.

The one character I find the hardest to draw is Elly, and I always draw her with a slouch. My mother was a stickler for good posture, so this is my way of getting back at her. But I really have a rough time drawing this character, because I'm so close to her. When I draw her, I draw myself, and when my husband sees her fat and sloppy he knows to stay away.

My son, Aaron (who is Michael in the strip), is now 17. Boy is he 17! But in the strip I have him about 3 years younger, and nothing for him is right. I can give him a lecture for 15 minutes and he'll say, "Ma, did you know that you've got hairs on your chin?"

My daughter, Katie (who is Elizabeth in the strip), is now 12 and she's no little kid anymore. There are times when I have a real hard time drawing Elizabeth because there are times when I draw her looking like a little kid, and there are times when I draw her looking a little older. My mother used to say, "They grow up too fast," and they really do.

Q: How did you "grow up" as a cartoonist?

LJ: I was working as a medical artist, and one of the doctors started me doing comics for the medical school. He was the head of the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, and you can imagine it's all numbers and facts. It was our job to make these facts easier to retain and to help break the monotony. Some of the doctors were furious, because they felt that this was really demeaning to trivialize serious information. And yet, when the exams came out the kids remembered all this gobbledegook-- the information conveyed in cartoon form was remembered, where the information on the traditional slides was not. So I did nothing but cartoons for the medical school after that, and they hired more cartoonists because they couldn't keep up with the demand. A new career was born. A fellow artist and I were given the delightful task of making the sublime ridiculous: a virus attacking a cell became a sword-wielding Oil Can Harry, threatening a damsel in distress; a rat with electrodes implanted in its brain to stimulate sexual interest became a rodential W.C. Fields imagining his rat-shaped rubber cellmate to be Mae West. I couldn't wait to get to work in the morning.

One of the doctors was Murray Enkin, a perpetually good-natured obstetrician who put you at ease with a smile. He agreed to have me as a patient when I discovered that I was expecting Aaron. One day, I remember lying there on the examining table looking up at this blank ceiling, stark naked, under one of those stupid little paper-thin white sheets waiting for the doc to come back and examine me. I said to Murray, "The least you could do is put something on the ceiling," and he said, "Well, you're the cartoonist. I challenge you to do cartoons for my ceiling in the examining room." So, by the time the baby was born I had done eighty of what it was like to be pregnant.

I drew about all the things that I thought inside, and I gave them to Murray. And he said, "This is great!" I said, "Great? I'm complaining." He said, "These are great complaints," and he'd stick them on the ceiling. It was Murray's idea to try to sell them as a book, and I did. Then I did another and another. My three books found their way to the desk of Jim Andrews, who, with the success of CATHY, was looking for a cartoonist to do a contemporary strip on family life from a woman's point of view. Universal Press Syndicate asked me if I was interested in doing a daily comic strip.

Q: How did you decide to let the family age through the strip?

LJ: I couldn't imagine keeping anything static, because it isn't. As a kid grows up, you have this whole new scenario, 'cause when they're little they make all these pratfalls and they come to mom with a potty-full of stuff during a family dinner and all the relatives and the neighbors are aghast. As they get older it's more mental games and real psychological warfare that goes on. My son's room is so littered with clothing right now that I cannot see the bed. I said to him, "Aaron, how do you know what's clean and what's dirty?" He said, "The sniff test. If it smells okay I wear it."

Q: How do you create your masterpieces? Do you work alone? Where do you get your ideas and inspiration?

LJ: There are times actually when my husband has been off the hook because he's come out with a great one-liner. I know one time I was so depressed. I was going to one of these exercise classes, where you have to wear these crazy skin-tight leotard outfits. I had gone out and bought my obligatory tights, and I stood in the mirror saying, "I hate my body! I look like a gourd." He said, "You're perfect. The painter, Rubens, would have thought you were perfect. You just were born a couple hundred years too late." He's got this ability to use words and make lines that I can use in the strip.

Ask any cartoonist-- especially the ones who draw kids and chaos, and they'll tell you they remember their childhood in minute detail. Ask them where they get their ideas. Ten to one the answer will be "Who knows?" But, in truth, they come from the research into every obscure corner of that youthful and innocent past. With the recall of every injustice, every fear, every act of courage, each schoolyard stone that's overturned gives rise to inspiration.

I have to work alone, because I really need the concentration time. There are times when an idea comes to me, and I say, "Thank you. That came from someone 'cause it's so good." Sometimes these phantom writers are out to lunch, and I can't get a line to save my neck. That's the worst part of the business-- is no ideas at all. It can last a week or a day. One of my closest friends is Sparky Schulz who does PEANUTS. I called him up the other day and he said, "I can't think of a single thing-- blank, zero, nothing," and I said, "Oh, thank God! The master has no ideas today."

PEANUTS became my favorite, and although my work differs in many ways, it is surely the model on which I've based my style of writing and timing. My friendships within this business are something I cherish. Cartoonists gravitate toward each other as do people in self-help groups who all share the same affliction! Meeting one's heroes is usually just a fantasy. It has been my great fortune to have heroes as friends.

I also dwell on my mother, because even though we didn't get along much of the time, she used to say a lot of important things. She used to say, "The biggest crime is being given a gift and never seeing where it will go, never testing it to its potential." That's what I love about being able to draw. It's a gift that I will never, ever take for granted, ever. I just love the fact that it's magic for me, too.

To know my work, perhaps, is to know me, and over the past ten years this comic strip has helped me to know myself! Just before leaving my room, after tucking me into bed, my dad would turn off the light and say, "See you in the funny papers." Somehow, even though I was just a little kid...he knew.



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