A question that usually pops up after someone has looked at a few of my cartoons is, “How did you come up with these?” I have to admit that I’m still kind of baffled by the whole creative process. One thing I know for sure is that you have to be looking for them, and by that I mean that you have to be looking for the humor in any given situation. Back in the early ’80’s when I began my interest in humor, I would come up with ideas on a somewhat regular basis because I was looking for them. For roughly 20 years when I had put aside my desire to write humor, I really never thought of anything funny because I had shoved that notion out of my mind. It wasn’t until 2007 when I renewed my interest in comedy that the ideas began coming to me again. That was the difference – I was looking for the them.
I know for me, the cartoon starts with the idea which is not true for all cartoonists. According to a post on the New Yorker blog, there are cartoonists who start with a drawing. In other words, they will start with a blank sheet of paper, doodle and draw for awhile, and then come up with an idea attached to their drawing. I am the opposite – I don’t even think about starting to draw until I have a well formed idea in my head. So the next question has to be – where did you get the idea? My most creative time is in the morning, so for a specified time, I will close my eyes and simply let my mind wander. It’s during this time that images will pop into my mind, or words and phrases, and then I simply let my mind play around with them. I will take an image, for example, and then turn it upside down, inside out, twist it around, add or subtract something until somehow it turns into a funny idea. A good example of this was when I came up with Alphabet Soup for the Blind. It actually began with me picturing a bowl of soup, and then adding the words alphabet soup. At some point shortly thereafter the idea of braille lettering entered the picture, and the idea was born. And I must say, it happened very quickly. I don’t know why, but it seems like the really good ideas happen that way – one second there’s nothing, and then, here’s your idea, thank you very much.
As you can see from that example, coming up with ideas is really about how well your mind can make connections . One of my favorite humor writers is S.J. Perelman, and his definition of humor speaks to that – “Humor is the disruption of thought followed by the conjoining of two unlikely elements.” I really like that definition because it sums up so well how one arrives at the end product, whether it’s a humorous essay or a cartoon. The key is to match things together that don’t normally go together for humorous effect. Of course, just putting diverse things together doesn’t automatically mean it’s going to be funny – there has to be that connection. But typically, it’s your mind taking a left turn down an unexpected path that leads to a new cartoon idea. What’s really great are those times when you’re not consciously trying to come up with an idea, and one just seems to fall from the sky – a little gift that lands right in your brain. I might be out and about and see something that sets my mind in motion, and it happens so quickly, it seems like it came out of nowhere, but, actually, it’s your mind looking for ideas when you don’t even realize it’s doing it.
Ah, if only that happened more often. Truth is, the really good ideas don’t happen nearly as often as I’d like. I wish that I could come up with one really good idea a day, but that’s just not the case. There are no formulas, no way of saying, “Well, if you do this and this, it will result in an idea. There are days when ideas just don’t come to me. It’s at times like that that I have to remind myself of the Steven Wright quote -“There’s a joke in everything, you just have to uncover it. I really do believe that. And when an idea I like does come along … that’s the best! To come up with a really good idea is so exciting and satisfying. The only thing better is to show the finished cartoon to someone, and by their laughter you can tell that they really like it, too. That makes it all worthwhile.