Right now, if Roz Chast were a cartoon character, smoke would be steaming out of her ears and lightning bolts would be shooting from her eyes. My bad: Iâve just asked the author of Canât We Talk About Something More Pleasant? an unpleasant question.
“I still have my stupid life and these stupid thoughts that go through my head.”
Weâve been talking in a gallery at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, where 250 of Chastâs drawings and watercolors, from “New Yorker” cartoons to illustrations for books authored by the likes of Stephin Merritt, are on view through September 3, 2017, for “Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs.” After tossing her a few softballsâWhen did you start to draw? When did you realize you were funny?âI’d served up a curve. How, I had asked, do you manage to get through each day without drawing a cartoon about Donald Trump?
âItâs difficult not to do that every time my pen approaches the paper,â Chast replies, her mouth immediately contorting into one of her characterâs trademark scowls. âHe’s such an assholeâsuch an asshole,â she repeats, almost spitting the words, as if to exorcise a demon that’s taken up unwanted residency in her spleen. âThe despicableness of that person trumps every feeling Iâve ever had about a politician. His horrible voice, that stupid hair, the way he pushes his mouth out like that.â Chast purses her lips like a deranged baby duck.
âThe courtesy he shows his wife,â I offer, goading her on.
More lightning bolts. âOh, God, that’s so terrible. That picture of them getting off of the planeâitâs like she’s just a thing to him. I feel terrible for her.â Chast takes a deep breath.
I ask Chast if sheâs been taking a lot of deep breaths lately.
âYeah,â she says, âbecause I don’t want to think about him that much.â Chast pauses briefly, shakes her head, and then asks, âDo you know he actually said that he got higher ratings than 9/11?â
âWell,â I suggest, choosing the words that follow carefully, âat least he was comparing apples to apples.â
And with that, the furrows in Chastâs brow clear, her frown transforms into a mischievous grin, and a conspiratorial chuckle sneaks out of the corner of her mouth. âYes, that’s true,â she says with a sly smile.
Iâve just made Roz Chast laugh, and it feels like Iâve won the Pulitzer Prize, albeit in a new, and very nichey, categoryâBest Joke Told to a Writer’s Favorite Cartoonist. âBut my God,â she adds with a quick grimace, âwhat an asshole.â And, weâre back.
In Chastâs cartoons, humor routinely flows from dark and absurd sources. Trump, of course, is a heaping helping of both, but most of Chast’s subject matter lies closer to home. Since 1978, when the first of her 1,200-plus cartoons debuted in the âNew Yorker,â Chast has made a career out of chronicling the garden-variety anxieties, deeper-seated neuroses, and bald-face lies we all tell ourselves to make it through our imperfect days.
Chastâs cartoons revel in the inevitable disconnects that result from this well-honed self-deception, often pairing a flat, innocuous scene, or perhaps a few simple images, with words or phrases that instantly imbue her drawing with unexpected depth. For example, the boy, middle-age male, and old guy in a cartoon called âThe Three Ages of Manâ go fine with their title, but when the words âYounger than your doctor,â âThe same age as your doctor,â and âOlder than your doctorâ are added above each successive drawing, Chastâs cartoon is transformed into a funny, wickedly bleak, rumination on death. In one glance, we see our doom, from which there is no escape. We let out an involuntary laugh, followed by a groan, and then remember that we havenât yet filled out that advanced-directives form our health provider sent us a couple of months ago. This, I would argue, is the perfect Roz Chast cartoon.
To be sure, Chast can do light and airy, as many of her childrenâs-book illustrations at the CJM demonstrate. Truth told, I skipped most of that (Chastâs adorable red bird, Marco, does nothing for me, but my kids are adults, so…), choosing instead to bask in the cynicism and paranoia of all 26 drawings, plus the cover art, created for her 2011 book What I Hate From A to Z, as well as the despair and trainwreck-inevitability depicted in the 139 drawings and watercolors that comprise Canât We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, which chronicles the decline and death of her elderly parents.
Which actually brings us back to Trump and the definition of funny. When Chast was a little girl, admiring the work of her idol, Charles Addams, and drawing to amuse herself, funny was simple. âI remember being a kid and noticing that other little girls really loved to draw horses. I did not like to draw horses, I had no interest in horses, but I wanted to submit a drawing to ‘Highlights for Children’âmy schoolteacher parents had a subscriptionâwhich always published drawingsÂ of horses that little girls would send in. So, one day, I filled up a sketchbook with some horses that I drew. I named all of themâBrighty, Whitey, Blackie. They were terrible, but they were also so funny. I remember looking at them and laughing like a nut. It wasn’t like, âOh, I see, I’ll be a cartoonist,â but when you’re a kid and you can make yourself laugh by drawing something, thatâs funny. Or, it could be that maybe the way I draw is just kind of funny.â
Some things, then, strike us as funny, and if the world decides to laugh along, thatâs fine, too, but not really essential. Other things, however, are never funny. For example, would Chast have published Canât We Talk About Something More Pleasant? while her parents were still alive?
âNo,â she says, without hesitation. âWhat’s not funny?â she asks, repeating my question. âWhen I get deeply into a worry, that’s not funny. In retrospect, it can be funny, but at the time, when I’m in it, it’s not funny.â
Timing, comedians tell us, is everything when it comes to funny. Consider the panel in Canât We Talk About Something More Pleasant? in which a cartoon Chast is sitting on a cartoon couch in her cartoon home watching a cartoon TV. At this point in the book, Chastâs mother has had a fall, an event that almost always seems a sign that death is right around the corner. After an older person falls, any younger numbskull can see that things are only going to get worse, but as the cartoon wall phone rings loudly in Chastâs cartoon living room, her first thought is âGod! What sort of person calls AFTER MIDNIGHT?!?â A box in the bottom-right corner of the watercolor explains that this outburst has come âOne Half-Second Before Thought Process Kicks In.â
At the time, Chast, says, âthat was not funny. In retrospect, yes, of course it is. I still remember letting the phone ring a couple of times before it dawned on me that âThis will not be good.ââ The question posed by the cartoon, of course, is why wouldn’t it have dawned on Chast instantly that something else bad had happened to her poor mother? âExactly. The lag time makes it kind of funny.â
With Trump, whose pre-dawn Tweets and official pronouncements are as relentless as the media coverage that inevitably follows, there is no lag timeâno opportunity, say, to admire the cosmic irony of comparing oneâs presidency with the worst terrorist attack on our soil in our nationâs history. Chastâs solution to coping with an unhinged leader in the age of media echo chambers? Why, more media, of course.
âI watch Stephen Colbert,â she says. âI had stopped watching him when he started doing ‘The Late Show’ because I don’t care about some starletâs new movie, or whatever. But Iâve joined the chorus of people who say that he’s come into his own again with politics. That’s really his thing. To see him do his monologue and take apart Trump is pleasurable. It’s a relief.â
And then thereâs the coping mechanism that has served her well since she was a little girl drawing ridiculous horses in her sketchbook. âI still have my stupid life and these stupid thoughts that go through my head,â she says, âwhen a thing or a remark that has nothing to do with Trump will suddenly seem funny. At that moment, it’s like, âOkay, good. I can push that Cheeto out of my head.ââ
Roz Chast's first cartoon for "New Yorker" magazine was "Little Things," 1978. Image via the Norman Rockwell Museum. ÂŠ Roz Chast. All rights reserved.
(All images via the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, except as noted.)