Issue 237, Summer 2021
There’s a certain type of comedy in which the comedian will examine and even dismantle a joke in service of the truth. I don’t think it has once occurred to Roz Chast that truth can possibly exist outside of funniness. To her, the truth, even in its barbarism, is screamingly funny. And, of course, if something isn’t funny, it isn’t true.
One can divide comics artists into two categories: storytellers, who use drawings in service of their narratives, and illustrators, who take care with things like intricate, full-color cityscapes, and whose work is read with the part of the brain used for looking at paintings. Chast lands in the storyteller camp, because the story is what she cares about most. But she is a nonlinear and deeply visual thinker, equally likely to deploy line and color as a string of words to tell her stories. Her pictures are not illustrations of the things she’s saying but story itself. Chast’s cartoons—populated by disgruntled men; horrible storefronts; dumb, square-toothed horses; gourmandizing pigeons; bottom-of-the-barrel bourgeoisie in optimistic little hats—are, at their heart, about deeper things: loneliness, family, the impossibility of maintaining order, and the batshit, bonkers ridiculousness of life.
Chast once described William Steig as “not a minimalist”—an artist for whom every sofa, wall, and shirt was a blank canvas on which to explore pattern and color. Chast, who draws with Rapidograph pens and then adds watercolor, is the same way—she is a details person, as delighted by the gratuitous joke in the title of a book in the background of a cartoon as by the slam-dunk punch line in the caption.
Chast was born in 1954 in Flatbush, Brooklyn. An only child, she grew up with her mother—an intensely decisive assistant principal—and her father—a sweetly anxious French and Spanish teacher who couldn’t screw in a light bulb. She went away to college at sixteen, first to Kirkland College in upstate New York, and then to the Rhode Island School of Design, where she studied painting and was benignly ignored by her peers and professors. She came to Manhattan after college with a portfolio full of cartoons and no backup plan. I imagine her wading through a sea of older Jewish men, the career gag cartoonists, many of whom had cut their teeth writing for Charles Addams and now traveled the weekly cartoon circuit—The New Yorker, Playboy, there were others. I doubt these men knew what to make of young Roz and her drawings. Most cartoonists have specific-looking characters. Chast’s are defined, if anything, by their amorphousness. They are blob-faced, with bad posture and changeable features. Awkward, out of place, in the way. There is a 1997 video clip of a crowd of these men milling about, with a small, fearful shape making its way behind them, toward the exit. That was Chast, who has been faithful to The New Yorker ever since she sold her first cartoon there.
After her parents died, Chast published a graphic novel, Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? (2014), about the awful experience of caring for them in their decline and about who they were, as parents and as people. Created in a startlingly intuitive mixture of handwritten blocks of text, comics, and cartoons, it catapulted Chast to a new level of acclaim, reaching the top of the New York Times best seller list and winning a National Book Critics Circle Award. It has been followed by three other graphic novels—Going into Town (2017), a loving and funny book about what to do in New York City, and two books cowritten with Chast’s old friend and collaborator, the humor writer Patricia Marx.
I met Chast for this interview uptown, at her studio apartment, which she started renting when she won a Heinz Award and uses to escape Connecticut. Chast has the watchful air of someone who grew up surrounded by elderly New York Jews: like Max in Where the Wild Things Are. Manhattan is still her refuge. Her apartment is small and nicely spare, and contains some beautiful outsider art (why is it even called that?) involving birds, and a pair of slippers, like the room in Goodnight Moon. The first time we spoke, Chast was in the middle of a tour to promote You Can Only Yell at Me for One Thing at a Time (2020), a book of accurate marriage vignettes she’d written with Marx. The tour doubled as a musical junket for their extremely serious ukulele band, Ukular Meltdown. We had the first half of our conversation in person in the apartment, and the second half on the phone during the COVID-19 lockdown.
What are some things that always make you laugh?
Sometimes it’s dumb things, sometimes it’s a stupid, pratfall-type thing—like, some Buster Keaton comedy. Or sometimes it’ll be The Office, the original British series . . . Certain sitcoms, but not the scripted sort of laughs, the punch line thing—God, I hate that! I hate when I feel the construction of a joke. It makes me sad.
Oh, interesting. Do you not like Seinfeld?
Oh no, I like Seinfeld. It’s more like when you watch some sitcoms, and you can feel it—setup, setup, setup, punch line, setup, setup, setup, punch line. I cannot bear it. And I don’t know why, but things that are very, very earnest—immediately, I want to make jokes. I don’t know what it is.
Do you want to make jokes because you’re angry and want to pinpoint the hypocrisy of it all, or because you’re genuinely amused by things like earnest people?
I think there’s probably . . . deep down, there’s anger, but usually it’s because really earnest things make me laugh—and it’s like that song, “I am woman, hear me roar,” and I think [high-pitched], I am woman, hear me squeak. It’s very hard for me to be very serious. It makes me sort of embarrassed.
Cartooning feels like the one of the least “hear me roar” of the arts. How, if at all, is being a cartoonist different for a woman than for a man?
I had to make up my own way of making cartoons. I knew that I didn’t want to imitate male cartoonists—and they were almost all men at the time—whether they were traditional cartoonists or underground cartoonists. I don’t know whether this was because I am female, or whether that was just my personality. A friend of mine has a kid who is an artist. The mom is an artist, too. Sometimes my friend would try to show her kid a more efficient, better way of doing something, and her kid would say, No, I want to do it the child way. I completely identify with that.
How does empathy enter into your art?
Maybe empathy is a way of acknowledging that whatever feelings you have, other people are feeling those . . . they don’t necessarily feel the same way, at all, but they have feelings. And maybe, if you’re a person who wants to be as truthful as you can, empathy is also a way of trying to figure out how to say something difficult without making somebody feel awful.
Being funny can be complicated. I don’t want to accidentally make somebody feel bad. On purpose, I might want to make somebody feel bad. But I wouldn’t want to do it accidentally.