Doing the Daily – Pat Byrnes

November 6th, 2017

I had never been a political cartoonist. I avoided topical humor. So I had not considered throwing my hat into the ring to draw the extremely topical Daily Cartoon for The New Yorker. I prefer gags with a longer shelf life, always have. If I have anything like a niche, it’s moral conflicts or taking something that was supposed to be smart and making it dumb. That’s my wheelhouse. My turf. Moral issues, dumb. See where this is going?

Ken Krimstein (NCS member and fellow Chicago-based New Yorker regular) saw the connection before I did, and he prodded me to ask Bob Mankoff about doing the Daily. I instantly realized he was right … a few hours after the second time he mentioned it. Political and topical humor had drifted onto my turf. We have a moral conflict; what’s supposed to be smart isn’t. I dropped Mankoff a line. He thought Ken was right too and, the following week, he handed me a start date.

TOM TORO, WHO WAS WRAPPING UP a wildly successful run on the Daily, gave me tons of helpful advice. The first was: prepare for an all-consuming job. Chris Weyant, who had also done the Daily, told me the same. Now, I used to have a daily comic strip and ran for three years with no trouble meeting deadlines, but this, I was assured, was different. Every cartoon has to be New Yorker-worthy. And New Yorker-style, not editorial cartoon-style. That means no visual allegory, no “Big Government” labels on characters or name tags, no extreme exaggeration. Just a regular gag cartoon you’d find in the magazine, except that it happens to draw from up-to-the-minute current events.

In the early days of the Daily Cartoon, this was challenging. In the Age of Trump, it has become maddening. Up-to-the-minute events can be old news a minute later because of some other event blowing up, sometimes literally. More than once I filed a cartoon at midnight, only to
find it outdated by the time I awoke. I got a 7 a.m. email once suggesting I tackle an overnight bombshell. I was at the airport. I had pen, paper, ink, and brush in my travel bag, but no watercolor for a wash. Nor a container to hold water. Luckily there was a Starbuck’s near the gate. The coffee helped me think and draw fast, and I mixed some of it with ink to make my wash. Drinking and splashing frantically as my group was boarding, I then ran to find adequate light to “scan” my cartoon with my iPhone and email it before being the very last person on the plane. Oh, and the magazine went with the cartoon I had turned in the night before.

But back to the beginning. In the week and a half between being tagged and my actual start date, I whipped up a bunch of cartoons that might be good for days when nothing too specific was happening. I also pulled some evergreen gags from my files and drew them up for days we all needed a rest from the news. So I was ready when The New Yorker asked me to send them two or three of these evergreens for days when a fresh gag didn’t work out for one reason or another. I had way more than that two or three, because I had a secret that I had to keep from them. After my seventh day on the Daily, I was going to be leaving the continent for a week and a half, or eight cartoon days. I had already scheduled a family visit to see my brother in Guam during the kids’ spring break, with a stop in Hawaii where my wife had a conference. I couldn’t cancel the trip, and there was no way I was going to turn down this gig. I’d have to make it work.

MY FIRST WEEK WAS A RESPECTABLE INTRODUCTION. I got off a few solid gags, and the soft ones gave me a feel for how much I could expect from readers who were not spending every waking minute scrutinizing the news the way I was. This paid off on Day One of Week Two with a clean hit about Russian hacking. The next day brought a lucky break in the way of a snowstorm, which hit the Midwest a day before it would hit the East Coast. While I was shoveling snow, the sheer joy of distraction from current events set up the next day’s cartoon. I turned it in, slogged back out through the snow, and boarded the plane to sunny Hawaii feeling like I was ahead of the game. That feeling lasted
precisely one day.

Fact checking. Did you know that The New Yorker fact-checks cartoons? They do, and they did with the day after that cartoon. It’s really quite smart of them, when you think about it, in these days of #fakenews. Except I hadn’t thought about it. And I was caught off balance when they wouldn’t let a common phrase be attributed to someone unless he was on record saying it. I could have protested, “It’s just a joke!” but that would have sounded too Trumpy. So we dipped into the “evergreens” for the first time. My first failed cartoon. My confidence was shaken, but hopefully nothing else would go wrong while I was four thousand miles away from my studio.

LET’S TAKE A MOMENT to review some nuts and bolts: While Mankoff oversaw the process, he was not hands-on. A different set of editors manage online content, including the Daily. I had to email my cartoon to them, plus their production folks, maybe half a dozen people
overall, by sometime in the morning of the day it was supposed to run. I gave myself the personal deadline of sometime the night before, just in case. I had specific size and resolution constraints to meet for the image area minus the caption. And the caption was to be sent in the text of my email, rather than on the image file, so the editors could edit it (for instance, to add an umlaut to a word you never knew had an umlaut, which they did on two occasions) before the production crew set the type. And that’s about it. Now, back to our story.

HAWAII AND GUAM ARE IN DRASTICALLY different time zones from New York. But I had worked all that out with various alerts programmed into my phone. My only real concern would be finding a scanner on days when I couldn’t use a cartoon I had done before I left home. No big deal, right? Conference hotels have business centers. Right?

The hotel’s business center did not have a scanner. It had a table where some guy was getting a massage (awkward), but it had no scanner. Not panicking, I found a UPS Store nearby with a “scanner.” Except it was made for salesmen making electronic copies of contracts while on the road, not for high resolution graphics. Same with every other business center or copy shop in town.

When I finally found something approximating a decent scanner — at the drug store photo desk — I could only walk away with my image on a disk, which my laptop cannot take. So I had to go back to the UPS Store to have the DVD data transferred to a thumb drive. Unless I wanted to buy an external disk drive from the local Apple Store for $175, which I didn’t. Suffice it to say that I spent the rest of my days in these island paradises chasing down alternatives and stressing out about how to get a print-worthy scan.

SOMEHOW I MANAGED A LITTLE relaxation amid the madness and made it back home with a run that seemed to be going well. My ambition had been to last at least four weeks on the Daily,and I had three under my belt as I alit onto home soil.

The next week, the fourth week, brought me a viral success. The Boris and Natasha gag. Having been both a big fan of Rocky and Bullwinkle and a voiceover actor myself, I had always paid close attention to Boris’s fabulous accent. He would do sly little things like pronounce the “L” in would and should and could. And his broken English resounded with authenticity. So it wasn’t enough simply to draw a good Boris and Natasha. What he said had to capture his voice. I bounced the line back and forth with my old comedy writing partner at a bar the night before, and when we were both “laughink,” we knew it was right. It’s a good job that can let you judge your own progress that way.

I now had two days left to wrap up the four weeks I had hoped for. Yet I had not been informed of anyone else taking over after me. That’s how it was with the Daily: you were it until they told you someone else was. So I plunged into my fifth week. Then my sixth, seventh, eighth week. It was exhilarating, but—

REMEMBER THE PART ABOUT IT taking all my time? That was true. I would work all day, blowing through my phone’s data limit, combing the news, digesting everything, not only from the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, and the like, but also from Fox News and Breitbart. You know, to be fair and balanced. I would try to mix in gags that related to other things that were going on in the world, too, or something simply to cleanse the palette, but the stuff people wanted was Trump, Trump, Trump. Pie-in-the-face stuff. Relief from the nonstop insanity coming from the White House. So my pre-drawn evergreens were pretty much worthless. Every day demanded something new.

Two or three days a week, I might come up with two or three decent gags in a day, maybe even draw them up as roughs and poll my ersatz focus group of writer and cartoonist friends, then end up scrapping them all for something else after dinner, and not get to bed until after midnight from working on the finish. Nine o’clock on a good night. But I’d have to be up at six the next day, no matter what, to get the kids off to school. And then get back to work. Sure, I can go a day or two on six hours of sleep, but weeks of that schedule start to take a toll.

I was overwhelmingly thankful for my extended run, but I was also weary (not to mention worried about appearing greedy by hogging this plum, a manifestation of my Irish- Catholic guilt). Except I could never say that out loud without sounding like a colossal ingrate.

Then a neighbor smacked the self-pity violin out of my hands. Lamenting the chaos of this Administration and how it was stressing out regular folks and their families, he thanked me for the cartoons. People like him, he told me, needed the laughs to maintain their perspective. In other words, I needed to suck it up and keep cartooning.

IN MY SEVENTH WEEK, I WENT OUT to New York for the last day of drop-off with Bob Mankoff as cartoon editor. At the very least, I needed to thank him in person. I also wanted to witness such a historic day. It was a giddy madhouse scene featuring nearly every living New Yorker cartoonist. Some who are still living, but retired, showed up at the lunch afterward. My heroes! It was exactly what I needed to get my energy and enthusiasm back. I also learned that someone was in the pipeline to follow me. Soldier on, relief is on the way.

Days later, Emma Allen officially took over as cartoon editor. She spent her first week settling in and sifting through the gazillion weekly submissions for her first official picks. But in her second week, she looked toward the transition of the Daily Cartoon. She wanted a successful one, naturally, and picked Kim Warp, a tested veteran, to be next. It was welcome news, but it still left me with a week and a half to go, and my brain hurt.

Speaking of things that hurt the brain, how about a digression about social media. Facebook and Twitter comments on the cartoons were typically the supportive sort you’d expect from New Yorker readers. Or just funny. On two occasions, when the magazine’s punctilious editors inserted those umlauts I mentioned, lively debate ensued among fanatically grammarian readers.

On my more pointed cartoons, however, I encountered something even funnier. Russian trolls! I had read about troll farms, but I never imagined I’d get to see them in action — and trolling me. How cool is that? They revealed themselves by being the absolute first to comment, often within seconds of the tweets going live — who can type that fast? Their implausible, often hilarious name–photo combinations and spammish grammatical tics further outed them with the kind of “high confidence” levels the intelligence agencies talk about. Oh, I would also see common American trolls venting their bile on any given day, but nothing says you’ve touched a nerve like the instant abuse of paid Russian troll-farm trolls.

WEEK TEN, THE HOME STRETCH. I only had to tick off five more cartoons, and one would be a Mothers Day gag. Looking at it like that — one-two-three-four-Mom — it suddenly seemed manageable. I heaved a sigh of relief and my brain relaxed in that moment. And the ideas flooded in.

I suddenly had more good gags than I could use. (That’s the big lesson here. Staying relaxed is the key to good ideas.) One even had me giggling the whole time I was drawing it (the one with the alien), which is about as good as it gets for a cartoonist. I came off Wednesday’s and Thursday’s cartoons on a roll. One to go, and I felt I had nailed it with a Mothers Day sentiment, turning the very personal issue of parental dementia into a positive. And a dig at Trump, of course. Then something magical happened.

Twitter, which typically racked up the smallest but most consistent totals, inexplicably blew up. My wife said, “It’s a good cartoon, but something is wrong with the numbers here. Are these bots?” The likes and retweets were ten times what I might normally expect for a popular cartoon.

Then I noticed something else odd. A familiar name kept popping up in retweets. J.K. Rowling. She had retweeted the cartoon to her millions of followers, giving me a wonderful — or, as I said, magical — finale to my run. (Though what a nightmare it would have been if I had had to continue the following Monday, knowing I never could top that!)

As I began to decompress, Kim Warp leapt in and gave Emma the first-rate transition she was hoping for and ran the next four weeks, picking up the distinction of being the last solo Daily Cartoonist.

Then Emma ushered in a new era for the Daily Cartoon. Modeled on the headline submission process for The Onion, today a pool of cartoonists submit ideas by 9 a.m. each morning. One of those ideas is okayed by 10 a.m. and a finish is due by noon. This shifts most of the everyday pressure onto the editors; the cartoonists need only submit when they want to. It also spreads out the opportunity, and it is truly fun to see the excitement it brings a lot of cartoonists who might never have had their lucky shot at a solo Daily run.

As of this writing, I’ve only submitted one or two ideas for the new Daily. I’ve been too busy catching up on the work I had put off and thanking my lucky stars for that remarkable opportunity. Will I start submitting more and get back into the Daily fray? Probably. I still don’t think of myself as a normal political cartoonist, but these are not normal times.

See more of Pat’s work at patbyrnes.com, including cartoons for The New Yorker, books, fun facts and his inventions.