Once again, greetings from the Bluegrass country of Kentucky. Seems we have entered the perennial mad, red season of America known as Election Eve.
As in past years, many of us have been attentive to the vitriol, bombast and occasional wisdom found on the editorial and letters to the editor pages of this paper. Like Tip O’Neill once said, “All politics is local.” And nowhere more so than in Del Norte County.
The ability to combine rapier wit, wisdom and humor in political cartoons, since my first exposure to the legendary Charles Nast has always impressed me and, so, while residing here in Lexington with the former Lexington Herald-Leader writer (and Editor of Nashville’s Music City News), I chanced to meet the Herald-Leader’s editorial cartoonist, Joel Pett, who graciously agreed to an interview.
A brief CV on Pett, a four-time Pulitzer finalist and 2000 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning. Pett has been at the Herald-Leader since 1984. His sharp edged political cartoons have appeared in publications
worldwide, including the Washington Post, Boston Globe, New York Times, Times of London, USA Today and the Katmandu Times.
Other media credits include France 24 TVm, NPR’s “All Things Considered,” “Morning Edition,” The World, PBS Newsweek, Business Week, MSNBC “All In with Chris Hayes,” and magazines: Time, Newsweek, Business Week, International Investor, Spa Finder, Sierra, and MAD.
Pett also received the 1999 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and five Global Media Awards for cartoons on population issues, as well as an Emmy for television commentary. He is the past president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, a past Pulitzer jury member, and has conducted three overseas seminars on editorial cartooning as a guest speaker of the U. S. State Department.
A sometime stand-up comic, Pett has shared his blend of deceptively simple, primitive and ribald humor at dozens of venues, including the Newseum in Washington, D.C., Boston College, John F. Kennedy Library, Indiana University, Whitman College, Ohio State University, Brandeis University and more.
JA: Nice to meet you, Joel, and thanks for your time. Given your resume, I almost feel like I need a sherpa guide to navigate it. I notice that at an early age, your family went to live in Nigeria. What took you there and did the experience contribute to any impressions that later entered your chosen avocation?
JP: Well, my parents and family were moving, and at age 6 you really aren’t given an option. I think that those who perceive ourselves as outsiders, for whatever reason, often are drawn to commentary and observational roles. To the extent, yes, growing up halfway around the world was formative. Also, not having television may have made my siblings and I explore our own creativity a little more carefully.
JA: You later went to Indiana University, what did you study there?
JP: Ha! French. But really, beer, weed, women and amateur sports.
JA: When did you first develop a talent for drawing and were there any influences to that?
JP: I’m not exactly the most talented artist in this hybrid drawing/writing gig. Fortunately, I am strong in other aspects… like being a hypocritical cynic.
JA: And why political cartoons?
JP: They just spoke to me, see… in the 60’s and 70’s, newspapers were cool and the cartoons seemed ubercool… they got paid to trash Nixon… why not? None of us dreamed we would witness the demise of the industry, of course.
JA: I noticed after leaving Indiana U., you did freelance cartooning jobs for nine years. Did you have a philosophic bent or purpose during that time while you were honing your craft and where did those nine years take you?
JP: Um… as for graduating, I did manage to stretch it out for five or six years, but no degrees. I called those nine years my early retirement… I chose to enjoy myself while I was young instead of betting on the golden years promise thing. I recommend it to audiences all the time... Their teachers and parents probably hated it.
JA: Speaking of philosophy and political cartooning, growing up East Coast, I had a particular reverence for Herb Block. Who were your early influences?
JP: Herblock the Magnificent, Tony Auth, MAD, The New Yorker, my parents...
JA: I see that in 1995 you received and award for cartoons on population issues? Can you tell me how you managed to go in that direction, and what if any opinion you expressed?
JP: Yeah, I’ve got that award multiple times...it’s not terribly competitive, which is my kind of competition. I’m a militant humanity hater, although I truly like most people. I just can’t bear the thought that we’re clear cutting Borneo and murdering the orangs, just so there’s enough palm oil for f----- Oreos. I know animals are cruel too, but f--- the people, who should know better. I also tell kids not to reproduce, which their teachers and parents also hate.
JA: Also, in 1999 you received the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for cartoons on the homeless and the disadvantaged. I have some experience in that area doing pro bono for the homeless during the massive sweeps during the late 90’s. What pushed you to draft cartoons in that direction?
JP: I suppose just general bleeding heart liberalism… at the time I didn’t even realize that some people actually pursue political cartooning, not to rail at injustice, but to support awful causes and people. I could never understand it… if you want to be a tool of capitalist oppression, shouldn’t you at least undertake something that pays better? I suppose Limbaugh and Hannity put the lie to that.
JA: Most folks seem to have the feeling that one of the inherent elements of cartoons, including editorial or political cartoons, is that they’re funny and designed in some way to make people laugh, while driving home a succinct, blunt force or subtle pain. What about population studies, the homeless and disadvantaged: were you able to inject humor into this and what was the point you were making?
JP: Sometimes, although humor is but one vehicle. There are others, Angels and Desperados, also irony, satire, and plain straightforward in-yo-face deliveries.
JA: In 1989 and 1998, you were finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning, capturing that prize in 2000. What was that like for you?
JP: Well, even knowing that all those awards are tainted with insiders, favoritism, luck and many factors, it was pretty great. A gift that has kept on giving, needless to say. And my parents were around to go to NYC to see me get it, which was nice, since I’m basically a kid that flunked out of the university my father taught at.
JA: I see that you’ve been a jurist of the committee that selects the Pulitzer in you chosen avocation.You’ve been a tad cynical about the favoritism involved in such a selection. What do you look for, what criteria applies and does that opprobrium and favoritism still continue?
JP: I look for originality mostly… and rewarding people who go out on a limb. One cartoon on, say, educating girls, is a hundred times better than anything about Trump, for example.
JA: Looking at some of the papers you’ve contributed to and some of your work, some people might brand you a “liberal.” What’s your definition of that word and do you wear its cloak?
JP: Sure, I don’t mind it, nor its bastard incestuous cousin, “progressive.” But I like to point out that a lot of positions I take can be considered conservative if you define it liberally. Surely most of the environment positions connected to conservation could be looked at it that way.
JA: I’m sure you had occasion to see Jeff Daniels brilliant soliloquy, a la Aaron Sorkin, in the first episode of “The Newsroom’ where he responds, “What’s so great about being a liberal, they always f---ing lose.” Do you have any response to that and what propels you to keep up the battle?
JP: Well, if you’re pushing for progress at an accelerated rate, of course you’ll always “lose.” But do you really want to tag Martin Luther King a “loser” on civil rights, just because the struggle continues? Winning is overrated. Except that Pulitzer, of course...
JA: Last question, if you’ll indulge me, its’ alleged that Ernest Hemingway once went on a three-day drunk after reading “The Great Gatsby” because someone else had written the great American novel. With no suggestion of any such remorse on your part, is there any other political cartoon you would have liked to have penned or which resides at the pinnacle of you pantheon of pieces?
JP: Well, I have a lot of contemporaries who regularly make me feel that way. It’s just an occupational hazard to shake your head and ask, “Why the hell didn’t I think of that?”
JA: Much gratitude for this opportunity. It’s been both an honor and a distinct pleasure, Joel.