Cartoonist Bill Griffith aims to bring pinhead wisdom to a television near you

By Mark K. Anderson

Published 01/06/00 in the New Haven Advocate (CT)


Kaczynski. Lewinsky. Lipinski. Lebowski. Put these four surnames inside foursuccessive talk balloons hovering over a gleeful pinhead sporting a polka-dot muu-muu, and you might laugh. Then again, you might not. The above scenario, which appeared in the syndicated daily comic strip "Zippy the Pinhead" in 1998, occasioned confused and irate e-mails to its creator, Bill Griffith, as well as a letter to the editor of the Boston Globe, which runs "Zippy," asking, "Exactly what was Griffith's point?"

Well?

"This person doesn't listen to jazz. That's my response. He doesn't understand the musicality of language," Griffith said in a recent interview, exercising his oft-summoned explanatory powers over the most unpredictable, creative and gloriously surreal strip in the mainstream comics world today. "A lot of times people writeangry letters saying ['Zippy'] is stupid. And that's why they don't get it: because it's stupid."

Since he first introduced his doughnut-loving pointy-headed fool in 1970, Griffith has created a career in plumbing the strange spaces between the subconscious and the droll, the hip and the silly, the Kandinsky and the Lewinsky. For readers who look to the funnies only for one-liners and rimshot humor, "Zippy" is a freakish aberration. For starters, the title character -- inspired, in part, by real-life circus sideshow characters of the past such as Zip and Pip and Slitzy the Pinhead -- is an ego-less simpleton with no knowledge of past or future. In short, he's the ideal consumer.

Zippy also speaks in a dada language of skewed slogans and shibboleths. His utterance "Are we having fun yet?" has even made it into Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. Other Zippy-isms, as the strip's Web site (at zippythepinhead.com) notes, include "Adopt my lifestyle or I'll have to press charges"; "All life is a blur of Republicans and meat"; "Frivolity is a stern taskmaster"; "Reality distorts my sense of television" and the gastronomic confession "I just accepted provolone into my life."

Lately, Griffith has been working overtime defining and refining hismuu-muu-sporting protagonist, alter-ego comic foil (a chatty curmudgeon named "Griffy") and the other regulars in Zippy's tiny part of the produce aisle. Later this year or early in 2001, "Zippy the Pinhead" will be befuddling, amusing and amazing TV viewers as well as comics readers. A major cable network -- Griffith is not currently at liberty to say which one -- has green-lighted three scripts for a pilot run of a "Zippy" animated
series. "It was an interesting thing for me to do to define the characters and create the world as if you were explaining it for the first time," Griffith said. "There was also a cringe factor. You're creating sound bites, you know, like, 'Zippy's the global town fool. He'll come into your life and upset the apple cart, and you'll never see reality the same way again.' You essentially have to explain why they should do it even if they don't get it, which is a horrible thing to do."

The project, now finalizing a contract with an animation production company, will be an entirely different experience for Griffith, who has been "Zippy"'s sole creative force since the pinhead first appeared in a spoof on teen romance fiction in the underground comic Real Pulp. (Griffith has been doing a daily "Zippy" strip since 1985.)

"It's not going to be an auteur experience," Griffith said. "But I do have a lot of controls written into it. I'm pleased with it so far, and I have good reason to be. For starters, the Emmy-winning former Seinfeld writer Bruce Kirschbaum is part of the team. And Griffith did note with relief that the show's home is a subscription network and thus does not manifest nearly as much obsession over ratings as do the broadcast and non-premium channels. Instead, the key factors the network uses in assessing the show's success are press notices and the Internet.

"I'm not afraid of critics and I'm not afraid of the Web site," he said. "I am afraid of Nielsen ratings. We did have interest from bigger networks -- non-pay cable and regular networks -- and I was hoping that those wouldn't work, because if Zippy competed with all the other sitcoms that September, we'd be buried. It wouldn't work. It's got to find its audience. But it could be a lot bigger than what it is now."

In October 1998, Griffith and his wife, cartoonist Diane Noomin, uprooted. They had lived in San Francisco for 28 years, from the town's waning years as a hippie mecca through to its boom as dot-com city. He says he misses the peninsula that's just outside its home country's cultural borders -- he still thinks San Francisco is the "most livable city in America." But after what he describes as "family tragedies of the normal variety," Griffith and Noomin decided to make the cross-country move they had talked about for years. Griffith, who grew up in Levittown, the postwar Long Island development now famous for popularizing cookie-cutter Cape Cod homes, was eager to return to familiar environs although not exactly a similar setting to his childhood days.

"I feel like I'm in a whole bunch of worlds out here, whereas in San Francisco I felt like I was in just the bubble of San Francisco," he observed about his new East Haddam, Conn., home. "Here I'm in genteel, rural world; I drive 10 miles in a certain direction, I'm in suburbia; I'm also in an old Yankee cliché of some sort; then there are the swamp Yankees -- the local hillbillies."

However, if you're expecting any expatriate bitterness, you'll find no acid remarks coming from Griffith's mouth about his former digs. At least no more than he would allot to any section of the country.

"Yes, the yuppies have taken over," Griffith noted about his old city by the bay. "And I don't understand how anybody who earns less than $50,000 a year can live there. But they apparently do. ... You can see them all over the Mission District. Twentysomethings are stacked like cord-wood in these $2,500-a-month apartments. But I certainly don't think a big disaster has struck San Francisco, as some people do." As in most regions of the country, as Griffith summarized the situation, in San Francisco, "Prosperity has brought Starbucks."

In the lanes and byways around his new shack -- a shingled Cape situated in a gorgeous woodsy tract of rolling New England hills -- brand-name identifiers of any kind are a rare sight, unless they're on the bumpers of the passing SUVs owned by the commuting corporate warrior portion of the local populace.

But open up the door to Griffith's backyard duplex studio, which he shares with his wife, and there are labels and logos aplenty, especially in his collection of American junk foodstuffs -- the sort of sugary, starchy, salty staples that Zippy would stash away first when preparing for the apocalypse.

These tidbits of extreme Americana are only a smattering of the cultural slag heap items that Griffith likes to isolate and comment on in his strips. In his travels, Griffith also hunts down and photographs roadside oddities and curios -- giant bowling pins or apes holding VW beetles aloft -- to incorporate into "Zippy."

However, he's also found that when he explains to an owner or proprietor that he's a cartoonist looking for scenery and backdrops and images to use in his work, the confusion ("Whaddya mean cartoonist? What kind of stuff you draw?...") inevitably leads to more trouble than the image is worth. Which is why Griffith's business card lists two bullet points by his name: "cartoons" and "location scouting." Somehow, he's found, when the words are embossed on a business card, nobody asks twice. "It works beautifully, because it flatters the owner," he said. "If they think it could bring some future glory, they gladly let you take pictures." Don't ask why it is. Just accept provolone into your life, treasure your spin cycle and see if the hyperactive pop Zen master inside you doesn't begin to open up too.

"That's a very common thing that people tell me they like about 'Zippy,'" Griffith said. "I get these e-mails that say, 'You know, I've read that damned thing for five years and today I got it!' Or, 'I got it a month ago and every day since then I've gotten it. What do I do now?'"

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