Interview with Bill Griffith, creator of Zippy the Pinhead

Bill Griffith has been one of my artistic heroes since I was a teenager. I’ve been fortunate enough to interact with him several times. I’ve contributed photos for use in his daily Zippy the Pinhead comic strip, which earned me several of his coveted “Tips o’ th’ pin.” I’ve also interviewing him a couple of times, the most substantial being this lengthy conversation that was originally published in the wonderful but now-defunct arts journal The Drama.

Bill Grffith is the best kind of rebel, the kind who aggravates the system from within. The Levittown, New York-born cartoonist somehow managed to shift his surreal, socially aware comic strip Zippy the Pinhead from the underground comix scene to America’s funny pages in the mid-1980s, much to the chagrin of Marmaduke fans nationwide. Griffith’s nonsense-spouting, muu-muu-sporting, taco sauce-slurping lead character quickly gained enough cult icon status to ensure himself a place in shady corners of our national consciousness for the next two decades. Ira Brooker spoke with Griffith recently about Zippy’s twentieth year of syndication, the difficulties of being the smartest strip in the room, and the importance of getting collateral before lending anything to the Ramones.

 How do you explain the longevity of such an unorthodox strip?
Totally my own perseverance, encouraged by my tiny but elite cult following. A lot of people are encouraged by money or success. I’m just encouraged by the occasional fan letter or e-mail, so I know somebody’s still reading it, and King Features is still paying me, so I keep doing it. I’m just grateful for the whole thing because it’s really what I feel most comfortable doing.

So you still hear from fans regularly?
Oh yeah. I have plenty of interaction with fans. Enough to make me feel I’m connecting with enough people. It’s actually much more than it used to be because of e-mail and the Zippy website. I remember when I first started the website a friend of mine asked, “How many fan letters do you get a week?” and I said about five or ten. He said, “You’ll get that per day if you go online,” and he was right.

Do you also get a good volume of detractors?
Surprisingly few, although they do happen. At this point I think it depends whether Zippy has been suddenly introduced to somebody’s newspaper. They might have a violent spasm of hatred, but that doesn’t happen too often. I think the people who were initially angered by it or didn’t get it wrote to me a while ago and then kind of faded away. Although I do get the occasional hate mail. Sometimes it’s specifically directed at… if I’ve offended somebody’s political viewpoint.

Like the trip to Cuba?
Yeah, that and whenever I do something anti-Bush or Cheney, making fun of them, I usually get somebody writing something outraged about how politics doesn’t belong on the comics page. “Get over it, you dumb liberal. Get over the fact that you lost,” things like that. But my strip is not usually political in the obvious way, so that doesn’t happen a whole lot. The guy that does “This Modern World,” Dan Perkins, he gets big doses of that every day. My more common hate mail is something along the lines of… I’m accused of doing a dumb strip. Stupid and dumb and unfunny. I once asked Garry Trudeau, when he gets hate mail what’s the typical complaint. He said, “Dumb, stupid and unfunny.” Those are things that it makes the people feel who don’t get it: dumb and stupid. They know there’s humor but they can’t find it. And I have to kind of agree. You can accuse me of not being funny, but to accuse Zippy of being stupid I think has to reflect more of a frustration with the strip than anything justifiable. What I should be getting is hate mail saying, “It’s an elitist strip aimed at very few people. What nerve do you have doing this and ignoring millions of readers who appreciate humor on a more Garfieldian level?” But I never get those. After a while you realize those people are satisfied with what they have and the other ones who don’t like it are reading it almost by accident. They shouldn’t be reading it, in other words. Their eyes should be passing over the Zippy part of their comics page. But they have to read every strip on the page and then they get annoyed because the punch line didn’t happen.

Well, there is a tendency to read it just because it’s there. I’ve never stopped reading “Rose Is Rose,” even though it drives me crazy every time. How would you say public reaction has changed since 1986, when Zippy was first hitting people’s breakfast tables?
Well, I had a lot of reaction from people who had read Zippy in his underground comix incarnations and were sort of blown away by the fact that it was in a daily newspaper. They were happy, but they didn’t get it. How did this happen? How did Zippy go from an obscure underground publication to the Washington Post? It’s a question I’ve asked myself a few times and I can’t really explain it either.

Were you accused of selling out?
I’ve had a sprinkling over the years. People who say Zippy has changed in a way they weren’t thrilled with. They liked him more insane and chaotic. Very early Zippy was a loose cannon. Today Zippy’s character has kind of adjusted to the amount of satire I want to inject into the strip. He has conversations. Even though they’re circuitous and not point A to point B, his attention span has lengthened over the years so that he can actually carry on a conversation. In 1972 there was no hope of a conversation. If he encountered a person or an object, there would be a series of non-sequitors that he would shout and then run away or have a reaction that was seemingly inappropriate to the stimulus. Now he doesn’t have a normal reaction, but he bounces off what other people are saying, whether it’s the roadside attractions that he’s prone to talking to or the cast of characters of the strip. I don’t think any strip doesn’t change if you do it for as long as I have. It evolves. I suppose in some cases it freezes or stultifies, but I’ve tried to make it something that works for me. What I wanted to do in the beginning of Zippy is not what I want to do now.

It seems pretty natural that the strip should mature, especially since you’ve had a surrogate of yourself as one of the characters for so long. Has the Griffy character reflected your own artistic maturation?
Yeah, having Griffy as the foil, sort of the straight man, for Zippy, made a huge difference. I think that started around 1980 or so. It’s a way of putting myself into the strip more or less unfiltered. Every cartoonist’s cast of characters represents facets of themselves, that’s kind of a given. But when you actually put yourself as a character into the strip, you’re allowing yourself to be more direct about it. It kind of allows me the freedom of letting the other characters go their own ways too. If your characters are all based on aspects of you in a steady, consistent way, that could be a little boring. Making one character be me lets the other characters be… I mean, they’re me in the sense that I’m putting words into their mouths, but I’m trying more to channel them than use them as a sounding board for my own thoughts. When I do Claude Funston, I kind of find that part of me that feels a connection to the redneck male from Oklahoma City. And I think that’s an essential part of satire, to feel some sort of affection for your target. Otherwise it just comes across as mean-spirited.

One of my favorite things you’ve done is your “Cast of Characters” story. In that one you directly addressed all the psychological aspects of your characters as they related to you. That story always struck me as one of the more honest things I’ve seen in a comic book. You really seemed to pull no punches against your own psyche.
Right, and they started talking back to me. I still occasionally do a strip where Mr. Toad gets out of control and comes at me in some way I can’t quite handle.

You mentioned the early craziness of Zippy, when he was more grounded in actual microcephalic style behavior…
Yeah, Zippy was inspired first and primarily by the Schlitzie character in the movie Freaks. I found out about five years ago that Schlitzie went on to live into his late seventies and last was performing in a sideshow in Hawaii. He was alive when I was doing Zippy. He died in about 1978. The original Zippy, the way he looked and to some degree the way he spoke, was based on what little I could understand of Schlitzie’s dialogue in the movie, which was not scripted, of course. Years and years ago a friend of mine had a 16-millimeter print of the film. We slowed down the film including the soundtrack and I could actually understand some of the dialogue. It was surrealistic and random, as you would expect. But it was very emotional, as if you were verbalizing your emotions without content. Just words as emotion. It’s hard to explain… But I was fascinated with that whole way of life. I met a microcephalic right around the same time, in a situation where I was able to talk to him for about fifteen minutes. He was very verbal. He processed the input that was thrown at him very quickly. When I met him he had just seen the TV news, so he was talking about the news as if it was real and it was happening to him.

So there is a level of comprehension?
Well, there are all different degrees. I was in a situation where I was surrounded by seven or eight microcephalic patients in a mental institution in Oakland, California. They were impossible to understand. They had that Schlitzie quality of just sort of yelling and giggling, a lot of them just grabbing whenever I tried to tape record them and take pictures. They took my tape recorder and ran away with it. I had to basically escape. I had a friend who was a nurse there and she’d said they’d be happy to talk to me, but it was a disaster. Anyway, the original Zippy was based on how I interpreted the way a microcephalic thinks, as far as I can figure out. I was interested in the poetry of the way they spoke, the emotional directness that they exhibited. But you know, someone once reviewed Zippy, in an early review I read – it wasn’t really a negative review, but it said Zippy was best in small doses because it was like being stuck in an elevator with a crazy person who wouldn’t stop talking. It was about that time that I started bringing Griffy into the strip.

So you think that big cast of characters is part of what’s made the strip so long-lived, that people would get tired of a daily dose of Zippy alone?
Right. My abortive attempts at making a movie and a TV series over the years, that was always a big thing we tried to do, to keep Zippy as the main character but not always the main focus. In live action it was even more important that Zippy’s peculiar way of seeing the world be doled out in not just small doses, but doses that made the story move along, that made him seem like the unwitting protagonist, because he couldn’t really be a traditional protagonist.

At some point in the ‘80s there really was major studio interest in a Zippy movie.
Starting about ’84 and going through the early ‘90s, Zippy was optioned by several places at different times. Brandon Tartikoff, the NBC programming genius, was doing his dance to try to make a movie through NBC Productions, their film division. That went on for a number of years. He himself talked to Michael Richards and got him interested in playing Zippy. Then he left NBC and went to Paramount. After he was at Paramount he gave a press conference where he was asked what to expect, and he mentioned Zippy. It got a lot of play in the press, but more or less as an indication that Brandon Tartikoff must be crazy. He was made fun of for mentioning Zippy, even though he was trying to do it in a humorous way, couching it in a certain context. But the fact that he said the words “Zippy the Pinhead” – probably just the word pinhead itself – made it this weird buzz that was not appreciated by the rest of the studio execs. I remember him telling me shortly after that that he had to make one blockbuster James Bond movie before he could do Zippy. And then shortly after that he had a recurrence of a fatal illness and he died. He was our biggest ally, but we had others. Like Steve Martin’s manager, Bill McKuen. He produced The Jerk, also produced the first Pee Wee Herman movie…

Seems like a good fit.
He was a big player in Hollywood. But we also got him at a point in his career where he would get very inappropriately angry at meetings. He actually lunged across the table during a meeting at Warner Brothers to choke the person we were meeting with. He’d decided the guy we were meeting with was so low on the totem pole that it was an insult. The guy made some comment that you could interpret as insulting but wasn’t necessarily, and he leaped across the table and grabbed the guy. That was not a good meeting. But [McKuen] took out a full two-page ad in Variety to try to encourage interest, he was really into it for a few years.

That’s kind of amazing to me. I don’t know if the Hollywood structure has just changed so much so recently, but a Zippy project seems like such a risky endeavor that I couldn’t picture big studios being interested in it now.
No, although if I had played the cards the way they wanted me to… One of our early meetings was with Mike Medavoy at Orion, and he said he needed a Christmas comedy and he saw Robin Williams as Zippy. At that point, I had Randy Quaid as my choice. He said Robin Williams and something like – and this was in the ‘80s – a ten, twelve million-dollar budget. I said, “I know Robin Williams, and he’s a fan, but he specifically told me once he wasn’t interested in being Zippy.” And Medavoy said, “That’s my job, to get him interested.” I told him I’d really prefer Randy Quaid and a much lower budget. We were out in the parking lot pretty quickly after that. But if I’d said yes to all those things, who knows? Dennis O’Brien of Handmade Films, which was George Harrison’s production company, flew from London to speak to me, and once again had I played the cards he wanted me to play, it probably would have happened. He actually wanted Zippy’s muumuu to be replaced by normal clothing. He said, “We really love Zippy, George loves Zippy, but we see the muumuu as a problem. Is he a cross-dresser? What’s going on with the muumuu? How do you feel about Zippy in a tank top and jeans?” And of course I just went home and did a strip about Zippy in a tank top and jeans. Had I said yes to that, I don’t know. And then the TV show got really close to being made. We had three scripts ready and Showtime was signed on. Then we had the dreaded change of executive. Our champion at Showtime left and we got a phone call saying it had taken too long to get into production. I’m better off, I think, not having done it. I got loads of material out of the whole thing, lots of strips, lots of stories for parties and interviews. That was probably the real value. The world is better off, as well as me.

It could have been interesting, though. Michael Richards as Zippy sounds like a pretty perfect choice.
He was really into it. Although I’ve heard a lot about how difficult he is to work with.

I can imagine. Right now, with the resurgent interest in all the ‘70s underground work – “American Splendor,” the R. Crumb movie – are you finding that people are rediscovering your early work, or have people come to regard you more as a newspaper cartoonist?
I have noticed the rediscovery phenomenon happening, although I think there’s a real separation in my audience between people who are aware that I’ve done years of work pre-newspaper strips and people who have no awareness of that. My website has actually shown that people who are going there to peruse the archives, if they look through the website they’ll quickly see that, oh, there’s a lot of other stuff besides the daily strip. I’ll get letters from someone who says, “I want to check out Arcade, I never knew about Arcade.”

There’s a lot of your older stuff that isn’t readily available, right?
Well, some is and some isn’t. Most of it isn’t. But I was one of those people who’d save large amounts. I’d keep a whole box of my early comics. Not just three issues in a plastic bag, but a hundred. So I’m actually selling a certain amount of those on my website, just because I saved huge amounts of it.

I’d wondered where those stores of t-shirts were coming from…
Yeah, most of those are from stashes I’ve kept. I have the right to keep those in print on my own. When I went to King Features I made a deal that said whatever previous merchandising deals I had would be allowed. Any old merchandising I’d done I could keep doing on my own.

Even back in the ‘70s when it was more anarchic and free form, a lot of your work was more esoteric than most of what people were seeing in the underground field, like, say, “The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers,” or even the “Zap Comics” stuff.
I wasn’t one of the underground cartoonists who reinforced the counterculture stereotypes of drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll. I was off in my own sphere, as I am today. If certain people want to come along and see what I’m doing, great. If not, I’ll keep doing it anyway.

So would you say that put you in sort of a niche group at the time?
Well, yeah, I think. [Art] Spiegelman and I first started doing “Short Order Comics” together, which morphed later in “Arcade” and various other things we did together as editors. We and Justin Green, Kim Deitch, a few other people, we kind of thought of ourselves as having an affinity that didn’t quite fit the mold that people expected from underground comix. Robert Crumb also in many ways wasn’t giving the fans what they wanted, but he was giving them such a large dose of raw talent and facts that they got enough. They got what they wanted out of him, but he was always giving it to them begrudgingly. I remember when Robert first met me he was afraid I’d give him a hippie handshake. I went to shake his hand and he said, “It’s not gonna be a hippie handshake, is it?” I said, “No, don’t worry, I don’t do that handshake.” [laughing] I have a picture of all the cartoonists in Arcade in front of the Print Mint [in San Francisco] in 1975, and Robert has a tie on. Cliques had already begun to form in the San Francisco scene in the early and mid-‘70s. Rip-Off Press had the more drug-oriented comics, the trippy stuff. Last Gasp was trying to be more political. Then there were the more E.C. science fiction derived cartoonists.

It seems like your little group had more staying power than a lot of the more visible stuff of the time.
I guess the price that you pay for being in touch with the zeitgeist is that your bubble bursts quicker. Some people go on to do other things, some people that was it, they peaked at that point.

A lot of it seems so specifically tied to the times.
Yeah, reading a lot the stereotypical, Classic Underground Comix of the 1970s, you can’t not feel like you’re in a time machine. But that’s not really true when you read some of it. Like Justin Green. Justin Green is timeless, always has been.

Zippy was kind of an icon during the rise of the Southern California punk scene, right?
Yeah, I would get a lot of attention from people in that field. Also from the Ramones. I remember one time in the early years of the Ramones, they were playing in San Francisco, and they had an over-the-head Zippy the Pinhead mask, it might have been made out of latex or something, and they had lost it. They called me in the hopes – not in the hopes, actually, on the assumption – that I would just have one. And I didn’t, I just had a regular mask that I had made myself, a Halloween mask. They said, “That’s good enough, we can use it for tonight.” And some roadie came over to my house and took it and I never saw it again. [laughing] I actually did a strip for Rhino Records when they were doing Weird Tales of the Ramones. The liner notes for that boxed set are in comic book form. Everybody was asked to do comics about the Ramones, so I have Zippy directly interacting with the Ramones.

That seems fairly natural. Aren’t you also friendly with Fred Schneider of the B-52s?
Yes, that connection came through The Manhattan Transfer, the singing group, actually. In the early ‘80s I got a letter or a phone call from Janice Siegel of The Manhattan Transfer saying they were big Zippy fans and they had a lot of free time on their hands because their European tour was cancelled. I think it was the year Reagan invaded Libya, and Khadaffi was attacked, and suddenly there was the fear of hijacking and reprisal. So apparently a lot of tours were cancelled that summer. Janice told me that she and a bunch of other people – Phoebe Snow and John Hendrix and Fred Schneider of the B-52s – were just hanging around for a month or so with nothing to do and they wanted to do a Zippy theme song, and what did I think and did I have any ideas? I thought about doing the lyrics, but then I thought no, let’s just see what happens. Because my lyrics would be totally uncommercial. I thought, I dunno, maybe this could be my chance for airplay. [laughter] So Fred Schneider did the lyrics and Janice was the lead singer, Phoebe was backup, John  Hendrix did scat, various other musicians came. They did a totally professional theme song. I have it as a souvenir. That’s where Fred and I connected. We communicated and whenever he’d come to San Francisco I’d have a few free tickets waiting for me. So I saw all the B-52s performances in San Francisco for many years. Madonna also did that for a while. Madonna was a Zippy fan.

Really?
Through her publicist, she would send me free tickets whenever she came to the city. It impressed my thirteen-year-old niece to no end.

I never would have anticipated that.
In her tour book of one of her concerts, she said, you know, favorite color and all, and favorite comic strip: “Zippy the Pinhead.” I never had any personal contact with her, though.

You’ve said you structure a lot of the strips around jazz riffs, at least in your recent work. Has that always been the case?
I think that’s always been the case. It’s not a conscious thing, it’s something that… I kind of noticed it and I thought it was an analogy that might help some people understand what I’m doing. That when Zippy speaks, to some degree, he’s playing his instrument. He’s riffing. He’s improvising. In the middle of a jazz conversation, each instrument will have its solo to play with the melody or deconstruct it or whatever they want to do with it. I think that analogy helps me, and maybe it helps some other people get what I’m doing.

Who are you into, jazz-wise?
Well, the old jazz, the stuff that Crumb introduced me to. When I first met him, I was kind of aware of it, but I didn’t have a huge taste for it. Early pre-swing jazz is the big seat of pleasure for me to listen to. In terms of Zippy, the correlations are more Charlie Parker-ish, Miles Davis-ish. I remember trying to talk to Crumb once about Charlie Parker and the conversation just died in a second. But it’s early be-bop especially. Not Sun-Ra, not crazy experimental atonal jazz, but just that kind of free-form be-bop jazz.

People regularly make the accusation that Zippy is obscure for obscurity’s sake, but I don’t think there’s any other strip that makes as regular reference to mass entertainment and pop culture either.
Some newspapers actually put Zippy on the TV and entertainment page. I thought that was appropriate. Zippy is my coping mechanism for the bombardment of pop culture that I seem to be unable to fend off. Not only unable to fend off, but have a need to pay attention to and monitor and absorb, and either be amused by or outraged by or whatever. Zippy’s reaction is always like a sponge. He just soaks it up. And then, of course, Griffy comes in with an analytical approach. That’s my way of saying, you know, pop culture is both something to be enjoyed and also something to be looked at as a mirror of society. A way to understand culture. I feel both. I feel something inside me – I think this is probably true of everybody, to a degree – likes and hates something at the same time, or appreciates and is repulsed by something at the same time. And I don’t think that’s usually recognized. I think one of the things that makes my strip hard to get for some people is that I deal in ambiguity. I like ambiguity. I don’t take a hard position on things. And Zippy is kind of a vehicle for not taking a hard position. Zippy listens to hip-hop and it’s just more stuff to listen to and react to and ultimately enjoy. And me, it puts me off. That’s just me. But when I’m doing my strip, I can allow that part of me that won’t admit I kind of enjoy it too to do that. So Zippy is my vehicle. If that works for me, maybe it works for the reader too.

2 comments

  1. Zippy without the muumuu? No way. I was hoping he would rescue Randy Quaid from Canada and do the movie, I can now definitely see Randy Quaid in a muumuu!

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