Garry Trudeau, heading to Park City, draws it like he sees it
What: Pulitzer Prize Winning Garry Trudeau
When: 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 13
Where: Eccles Center for the Performing Arts
How much: $30 and $90
Garry Trudeau has let his progressive colors show throughout his career.
Since the early 1970s, the creator of the Pulitzer Prize-winning comic strip “Doonesbury” has relayed his sharp perception of social and political life through characters such as journalist Roland Burton Hedley III, two-time Grand National Tanning Champion Zonker Harris and Mr. Butts, the walking, talking cigarette who represents the tobacco industry.
While these are fictional characters, Trudeau has also peppered his comic with real people such as former President Bill Clinton and a former New York real estate developer, President Donald Trump.
In fact, his not-so-complimentary take on Trump over the past three decades have been compiled into two books — 2016’s “Yuge!: 30 years of Doonesbury on Trump,” and “#SAD!: Doonesbury in the Time of Trump,” which was released last month.
While some familiar with “Doonesbury” would label Trudeau a brilliant political commentator, others disagree. Readers of the Saturday Review literary magazine voted him one of the “Most Overrated People in American Arts and Letters” in 1985, and the editorial board of The New York Post called him a “terror apologist” following the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015. Parkites will have the chance to judge for themselves when the Park City Institute presents a talk with Trudeau at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 13, at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
The Park Record conducted an email Q and A with Trudeau earlier this week, lightly edited for clarity.
Park Record (PR): You have been observing Donald Trump since the 1980s. What was so fascinating about him back then?
Garry Trudeau (GT): How difficult he was to ignore. He had this big, honking presence in New York since the early ‘80s, and we New Yorkers couldn’t understand what we’d done to deserve him. All he’d done was renovate a hotel and build a big, brass-and-glass eyesore to house his ego — both projects with his father’s money, as it turns out. With the help of three publicists, two of them imaginary, he turned himself into a human airhorn, and no one could look away.
PR: Has he, in your eyes, changed over the years? Or is he still the same person on a bigger stage?
GT: The underlying pathology has remained remarkably stable. He doesn’t really have personality traits — they’re more like a cluster of symptoms, with high notes of mania, a mid-range of fear and resentment, and low notes of aggression. He doesn’t have even trace amounts of empathy. All of that’s been constant for decades.
PR: While Trump was on the campaign trail, did you ever think he would become president? What was your reaction when the votes came in?
GT: No, and: horror.
PR: How has the public views on political commentary changed in the time between Watergate and the Trump administration’s scandals?
GT: Political corruption has always been with us — the Grant and Harding Administrations being the most well-known examples — but when Watergate broke, impeachment was a very exotic concept to most Americans. We didn’t even have the political and legal vocabulary to discuss it. There was a loss of innocence with Watergate, and we’ve been threatening the removal of presidents ever since. The unthinkable has become the plausible, and the question surrounding this extraordinarily corrupt administration is, if not now, when? What’s the threshold for removing political rot? There’s exponentially more commentary brought to bear on this question than existed during Watergate, but not a great deal more clarity. There’s obviously a huge appetite for opinion that ratifies our own views of the matter, but with the extreme polarization this president has generated, it’s not obvious how many minds are being changed.
PR: Throughout the ages, some artists have become visual commentators on social and political issues. Was that one of the reasons why you initially wanted to become an artist? GT: For a long time, I didn’t really think of myself as a commentator, but as a storyteller. “Doonesbury” has long been misunderstood as a political project, when in fact, it’s mostly character-driven. About 80 percent of the strips have no political content whatsoever. Now, obviously I have strong positions, mostly progressive, on a range of topics, but my primary focus is on American life and how it’s experienced by a variety of people of different ages and backgrounds. It’s part imagination, part anthropology. I feel more driven to notice than to comment.
Of course, today, politics is defining; it’s a salient feature of an individual, no matter how sparingly expressed. Last weekend, Taylor Swift revealed a political preference to her 110 million Instagram followers, something she’d always avoided. She will never escape it. It will affect her brand for years to come. And “Doonesbury” will always be “that liberal strip,” even if I never write about politics again.
PR: When did you start your transformation from artist to satirist – or is there a difference?
GT: Satire is just a subset of art, but I think I know what you mean by transformation. I started “Doonesbury” as a simple entertainment, a one-off sports strip that broadened into a look at late ‘60s campus life. Not knowing any better, I wrote about what my peers were talking about — sex, drugs, politics and rock ’n’ roll — but these weren’t exactly staples in the comics those days, and there was a lot of pushback. A couple years in, I sent out a silly questionnaire to some client editors, asking them to check off which subjects they thought I should avoid. Most complied, but one editor ignored the list and wrote back that it didn’t matter what I wrote about as long as I approached the subject with care and a certain seriousness of purpose. That got my attention. I realized I had a remarkable opportunity to move an audience to thought and judgment about things that concerned me, so I stopped being a punk, and started focusing in with intentionality.
PR: How has social media challenged or changed the way you approach your work?
GT: Mostly it’s given me one more thing to write about, how social media has affected different generations. I can argue the cost/benefit question both ways. For example, Facebook and Instagram have clearly helped stunt the emotional development of young people who use it to avoid the messiness of direct interaction. But on the other hand, I love the way they allow people who would otherwise drift apart to stay fully connected regardless of distance. It’s a big, rich subject, and I’ve taken many stabs at it, but it hasn’t really affected the way I approach the strip. Work is still just filling a blank sheet of paper.
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