BEK to the Drawing Board: An Interview with Bruce Eric Kaplan

BEK to the Drawing Board: An Interview with Bruce Eric Kaplan

By Tom Heintjes

(Note: This interview was originally published in Hogan's Alley #9, 2001.)

Who among us hasn’t at one time fashioned a snippet of dialogue so elegant, witty and incisive that it would exist perfectly as a New Yorker cartoon? The difference between Bruce Eric Kaplan and the rest of us is that he began committing his observations to paper and sending them to The New Yorker. His trickle of cartoons became a torrent of pen-and-ink anthropomorphs, barely adjusted children and adults who teeter on the edge of the social mainstream. When his submissions encountered the ignominy of a form rejection, his desire to become a cartoonist began to run amok, and he undertook a weekly ritual of drawing cartoons and sending them to The New Yorker (and to no other magazines; he would play in cartooning’s Carnegie Hall or nowhere at all). Week after week for two years Kaplan retrieved his rejection letter, but fortunately for cartoon fans, Kaplan, a New Jersey native residing in Los Angeles, never wavered in his belief that he quite simply belonged in The New Yorker. (A few things in life never quit, such as Strom Thurmond, Timex watches and aspiring cartoonists.) Now practically a New Yorker graybeard after a decade of regular appearances, Kaplan’s work has begun appearing in other magazines, and Simon & Schuster has released No One You Know, an anthology of his work.

An inimitable stylist, Kaplan’s work eschews any visual subtlety, a contrast with his more nuanced concepts. He favors a starkness that suggests the popping of a flashbulb that captures the perfect moment. Aesthetically, he cannot be placed easily on the New Yorker family tree; his is a branch apart from the gray-washed Arno-Addams-Saxon school that is for many readers synonymous with the magazine. The speakers of Kaplan’s cartooned wisdoms—be they young or old, animal or human—inhabit a stark world whose composition Kaplan has boiled down to its most essential elements. A self-taught artist, Kaplan recognizes that the successful delivery of his ideas relies not on technical virtuosity but on a minimalist approach.

Kaplan, 36, also maintains a career as a television writer. (Cartoon fans will be unsurprised to learn that Kaplan wrote “The Cartoon” episode of Seinfeld, which dealt with the inscrutable nature of what makes a cartoon amusing.) While he has amassed an extensive list of television credits, he maintains that cartooning affords him the greater creative satisfaction; in that medium, he is master of his domain.

 Tom Heintjes:When did you begin to develop an interest in cartoons?

Bruce Eric Kaplan: I remember seeing comic strips when I was a kid, but I never saw them in the newspaper. I grew up in New Jersey and my parents got The New York Times, which didn’t have a comics section. But my older brothers and I used to have little paperback collections of the daily comic strips, like The Wizard of Id and B.C. But I don’t know that I had more of an interest in cartoons than any other kids I knew.

Heintjes: Did your parents subscribe to The New Yorker when you were a child?

Kaplan: Oh, yeah. I seem to remember being interested in the movie reviews, but I’m sure I wasn’t when I was four years old [laughter]. I can’t remember not knowing who Charles Addams was. I remember going to the library and getting his collections out when I was at an early age.

Kaplan’s first cartoon collection

Kaplan’s first cartoon collection

Heintjes:When did you decide to start drawing cartoons?

Kaplan: I didn’t start trying to draw cartoons until I was an adult. I drew them when I was on the phone or when I was in class, but I didn’t try to become a cartoonist until I was in my 20s.

Heintjes:What prompted you to try then?

Kaplan: I was out here in Los Angeles trying to become a writer, and my day job was helping Carol Matthau write her memoirs. While I was helping her with her book, I was having a hard time with my own writing, because it was a consuming job. I needed some way other than writing to express myself, so I started doing cartoons.

Heintjes:Did you produce these cartoons with the specific intention of getting them published in The New Yorker?

Kaplan: Yes. I knew that was what I most related to. I could look at a New Yorker cartoon and really respond to it. I would think, “I don’t know if I can do it, but that’s the type of thing I really like,” whereas I don’t really feel an affinity to the stuff in the papers.

Heintjes: What did you respond to in a New Yorker cartoon that you didn’t respond to elsewhere?

Kaplan: That’s interesting . . . I have no idea. What would you say the difference is between a New Yorker cartoon and a newspaper cartoon?

Heintjes: In general, the humor is more sophisticated and requires perhaps a greater degree of literacy. New Yorker humor is generally drier and subtler than most newspaper cartoons, but the readerships are different.

Kaplan: The targets of the humor are subtler.

Heintjes: There’s also a timelessness to the humor. You can look at New Yorker humor from the ’20s and ’30s and it’s still funny, and not all humor ages so well.

Kaplan: It’s commentary on human nature, and that’s always funny.

An example of the  New Yorker ’s rejection letters that Kaplan accumulated.

An example of the New Yorker’s rejection letters that Kaplan accumulated.

Heintjes: What was your experience of submitting cartoons to The New Yorker like?

Kaplan: I went to the library and got out a how-to book on cartooning. It showed where the markets were. It said The New Yorker had a meeting once a week when they considered cartoon submissions, and that you should send in 10 ideas. So I did 10 cartoons and sent them in. This was in 1987 or 1988. The book said to include a self-addressed stamped envelope for the cartoons to be sent back in, so I did. And while I was waiting to hear from them, I started to work on my next group of cartoons for the following week’s meeting. I was excited by the whole thing, fully expecting them to have bought many from the first group I sent in [laughter].

Heintjes: Hope springs eternal.

Kaplan: It wasn’t even hope. I really thought the cartoons I had done were the best things anyone had ever done. I just felt very confident. I was like that about everything when I was younger. I always thought anything I scribbled was brilliant, and it was inconceivable how anyone couldn’t want this. But then the world beats you down, and . . . so anyhow, by the time I got the rejection of the first batch, I’d already sent off the second batch, and I had started working on a third set of drawings. I got a form letter from the first batch, and I thought, “Well, if they didn’t buy anything from the first group, surely they’ll buy something from the second.” And of course they didn’t, and it continued on for years like that.

Heintjes: Years?

Kaplan: I sent them cartoons every week for years.

Heintjes: Did you ever submit them to another market?

Kaplan: No. I read this book, and it had a guide to cartoon markets. That book was probably 10 years old when I read it, but it was the only one I knew about. There’s New Yorker, there’s Playboy, and then there’s a severe drop-off. There’s Golf Digest and there’s the American Heart Association newsletter. Actually, the market for single-panel gag cartoons is bigger now than when I started submitting. There are all these business magazines that want cartoons. When I started out, I’d say it was the lowest point of single-panel cartoons. It’s not that much better now, but it’s a little bit better.

I would have sent my cartoons to Playboy if I felt they were right for it, but my cartoons just weren’t Playboy-esque in content or in images. After that, there were a bunch of niche magazines. I just wasn’t thinking in those terms. It just seemed like The New Yorker was the only game in town.

Heintjes: Is it accurate to say that ideas came fairly easily to you?

Kaplan: Yes and no. I enjoyed doing it, but ideas never come easily to me. I don’t just sit down and they flow out of me like a fountain. My personal process always involves agony. But I just remember very vividly—even when I sat down to do that first group of cartoons, feeling like, “Oh yeah, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.” So even on days when the ideas weren’t coming easily and I wasn’t selling them, it was something I needed to do. Regardless of the fact that no one was buying them, it was very satisfying on a personal level.

Heintjes: During this time, did you receive any constructive criticism or feedback?

Kaplan: Believe me, they don’t feel any need to explain why they’re not accepting something. They’re dying not to accept something! [laughter] All they do is not accept something.

Heintjes: Did you always receive form letters?

Kaplan: I have thousands of them, and I still carry one around with me to remind me of the same form letter I got every week for years. It’s this tiny little thing, not even a full sheet of paper, and it says, “We regret that we are unable to use the enclosed material. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider it.”

Heintjes: Why do you keep it so close at hand?

Kaplan: [pause] I don’t know. It’s a . . . I don’t know. Getting that rejection letter was a very big part of my life. Although the letter never had anything new, it was always potent. No matter how many times it happened, getting that letter was always a big part of the week.

Heintjes: How badly did you want some constructive criticism?

Kaplan: I don’t remember thinking about it. Very quickly, it became apparent what the situation was. I would send in a submission, get my form rejection letter, send it in, get my form rejection letter and that was the system. I didn’t think about how much I would like to get feedback because I knew it wasn’t coming.

Heintjes: Were your parents supportive of your aspirations?

Kaplan: I don’t remember that they were supportive or unsupportive. In general, they were always more worried about how I was supporting myself or whether I had health insurance. The one thing I remember about our weekly conversations during that time was that they would always say, “What’s new?” and I would always say, “The New Yorker rejected me,” as if this was some fresh piece of news. I said it week after week, as if it was always a new wound, which I suppose it was. The funny part is, at first my mother would offer explanations for their behavior, like, “I’m sure they get many submissions,” or that type of thing. But very quickly I said to her, “No, Mom, all I need you to say is, ‘I hate them.’ ” So the following week she said, “What’s new?” I said, “The New Yorker rejected me,” and she said, “I hate them.” It was very satisfying [laughter].

Heintjes: When The New Yorker first accepted one of your cartoons in 1991, what was your reaction?

Kaplan: I had just gotten my first writing job in television, the 1991 Emmy Awards, the one where Kirstie Alley thanked her husband for giving her “the big one” [laughter]. Not that I wrote that, of course.

Heintjes: You were the Bruce Vilanch of the Emmys.

Kaplan’s riugh, with cartoon editor Lee Lorenz’s query about the doorknob…

Kaplan’s riugh, with cartoon editor Lee Lorenz’s query about the doorknob…

Kaplan: Very Bruce Vilanch, yes.

…and Lorenz’s note about the placement of the doorknob

…and Lorenz’s note about the placement of the doorknob

So I came home from working on the show, and there was a Federal Express envelope from The New Yorker. I’d never gotten a Federal Express envelope from them; I’d always gotten back my own self-addressed, stamped envelope. There were three of the cartoons from a group I’d sent them, with a note from the cartoon editor, Lee Lorenz, saying, “I know you think we haven’t been reading them, but we have.” By that time, I was sending cartoons with cover letters that said stuff like, “Here are 10 cartoons that anyone else would publish.” I didn’t even think anyone was reading the cover letters. Since I always got the same form rejection letter back, it was like sending the cartoons into a void. Anyway, Lee said he wanted to buy three of them, but he had some questions about them, something about the visuals. My stuff was very primitive, very Thurberesque. I never went to art school, and I hadn’t taken that many classes. I hadn’t really drawn that much before I started submitting, except for when I was drawing while talking on the phone, and then it was always the same four things. You know how when you doodle you always have the same things? You always gravitate toward the same things. So even though I had really slaved over these images, never thinking that they were “roughs,” Lee of course assumed that they were and asked for revisions. But basically, the gist was I had sold three cartoons to The New Yorker. I read the letter over and over again. I think I actually cried. It was a huge moment.

Heintjes: You’re in practically every issue of The New Yorker now. How regular were you after you first got accepted?

Kaplan: The first year was fairly regular, like one out of every two or three issues. I don’t really gauge it that much, but it seems like for the last couple of years I’ve been in every week.

Heintjes: Have you noticed a change in the frequency of your appearances since Bob Mankoff became cartoon editor?

Kaplan: No . . . if anything, I started appearing more when Tina Brown became editor. But I wouldn’t necessarily connect that with Gottlieb leaving and Tina coming. I think that around the time Tina started, I was also starting to get more in touch with what I was interested in saying in the cartoons. I guess I was finding my voice, whatever that is.

Heintjes: What is the relationship of a New Yorker cartoonist to The Cartoon Bank?

Kaplan: The Cartoon Bank handles reprints and sales of originals. It does the work that used to be handled by a department of the magazine.

Heintjes: How have your submissions to the magazine evolved over time? Do you still send in the same number and have the same ratio of acceptance to rejection?

Kaplan: I used to send a lot more, especially when I first started doing it. Then I started to send in a little less, but for a while I was sending in about 18 a week. I’m sure there were a lot of bad ones in there. Then I started getting more jobs writing on TV shows. And sometimes the hours would be horrible. So I would go through periods of sending in smaller groups of drawings. Then, between TV jobs, I would send in really thick batches. But the sales always seem to remain the same, regardless of how many I send in. There should be a lesson in there somewhere, but I have no idea what it is.

Heintjes: Do they accept more of your cartoons than they publish? Is there a backlog of accepted cartoons?

Kaplan: There’s always a bank of unpublished stuff, a cushion. But they don’t buy a vast amount of stuff they don’t use.

Heintjes: Do you ever revisit your pile of rejected cartoons to see if you can refashion any of the ideas, or do they remain in cold storage?

Kaplan: They remain in cold storage. But at the same time, you’re always grappling with the same kinds of things in your head. For example, I’ve begun doing cartoons for Fast Company, so I was going over all my rejected New Yorker cartoons from the last year to see if there were any business-oriented ones that would be appropriate. In going over all the stuff, I saw so many images and captions that were so close to each other, but it was unconscious. That part of my brain knew that I was dealing with something, but it hadn’t been purchased, it hadn’t been expressed, so it kept going back to it to tinker with it.

Heintjes: How did you develop your signature, which consists of your initials in blocks?

Kaplan: That was something Lee wrote about. He said, “Are you sure you want to do this?”

Heintjes: So your cartoons were always signed like that?

Kaplan: Every one I sent to the magazine was signed like that. But I had never signed anything like that prior to submitting cartoons to the magazine.

Heintjes: It was always exactly the same way, with the “E” slightly larger?

Kaplan:  Well, not that, but it was always the blocks. And I completely don’t have an explanation for it. I don’t remember deciding to do that.

Heintjes: Why are the right-hand borders of your cartoons thicker than the other three borders?

Kaplan: That’s just something that evolved over time. I have absolutely no idea why it’s thicker. For some reason, it appealed to me visually.

Heintjes: How long does it take you to do a cartoon?

Kaplan: Well, I send them roughs and then later, if they buy one, I do a finished version of it. Doing a rough takes anywhere from a few minutes to hours. I’ve sat here and not had anything happen for hours. I’ll just draw little things and crumple it up. The finishing process can be anywhere from a half-hour to four hours, depending on my state of mind. If it’s a couple in a living room, chances are it’s not going to take me long to do it. If it’s anything else, I’m in trouble [laughter]. And sometimes, even if it is something simple, I’ll get fixated on it not being exactly how I want it to be, and I’ll do four versions of it.

Heintjes: Describe the writing process for a New Yorker cartoon. Do you hear or read a phrase that strikes you as possible cartoon material?

Kaplan: If you’re asking how I get my ideas, the answer is I never, ever get ideas. I mean, nothing ever simply strikes me as a possible cartoon. I have to sit at my desk and dredge up every memory, thought or thing that’s ever happened to me and see if anything at all strikes me as being interesting. Usually it doesn’t. More often than not, I randomly start drawing something and hope that might lead to a thought. Again, it usually doesn’t.  But if I log in a lot of hours at the drawing table, by some miracle I end up with a few ideas that might be worthwhile in some way.

Heintjes: Have you ever written a gag that involves something like a car, and you’ll think, “Oh, why did I write this—I hate drawing cars!”?

Kaplan: No, but I do hate drawing cars. I’ve done some cartoons with cars, but not many [laughter]. You’re right—it can be a hindrance, but nothing like that has ever stopped me from doing a good cartoon. Sometimes I’ll think of a good caption, but I can’t crystallize it into a single-panel cartoon.

Heintjes: I’d seen your New Yorker cartoons, and I’d seen your name on Seinfeld, but I never connected one to the other. I think that if I were published in The New Yorker, I’d want people to know my name.

Kaplan: That’s what Lee said in his letter: “Are you sure you want to use something other than your name? It’s something you’re going to have to live with.” Not that it’s like having a hunchback or anything. It’s a decision that will have an impact. I just remember that, visually, it was what I wanted.

Heintjes: You drew the cover to last November’s New Yorker cartoon issue. Was this your first cover?

Kaplan: Yes. I actually submitted some cover ideas a long, long time ago; 1992, to be exact. And later I found out one very narrowly missed being accepted. But when Tina took over the magazine—around that time or soon after—the cartoonists stopped doing covers. I’m not sure if that was an “official” decision or not. Anyway, now the only time a cartoonist does a cover seems to be for the annual cartoon issue in November.

How this cover came about was I received a call from an editor a few months ago asking if I had any cover ideas. I of course didn’t, but I worked a few weeks and came up with several possibilities. David Remnick liked one in particular and bought it. He wanted to keep it in black and white, almost as if a regular cartoon had just been expanded and put on the cover.

Heintjes: I wanted to ask you about your association with Seinfeld. How did you break into the ranks of the show’s writers?

Kaplan: Oh, it was a miracle. I had been working on The Naked Truth, and I sort of half-quit and got half-fired. I was home working on cartoons and doing my own stuff. My agent knew I was sort of picky, so she said to me, “Where would you like to work?” I couldn’t come up with more than four names of shows that I would be willing to work on. Later, I told Mark and Jennifer, two of my best friends, about it. Mark said, “Did you say you’d be willing to write for Seinfeld?” I said, “No I didn’t say I would work on Seinfeld, but she has to know that I would be willing to.” But I called my agent back and left a message for her saying, “I’d also be willing to write for Seinfeld.” Later that day, Ann, my agent, called me back and said, “Oh, Bruce, I just want to thank you—I’ve had the best afternoon!” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “I’ve been walking around all afternoon with this little piece of paper that says, ‘Bruce Kaplan would be willing to write for Seinfeld!’ ” [laughter]

Anyway, I ended up going to work on Cybill for a couple of seasons. Again I quit and I was home working on cartoons when my agent called and told me a couple of writers from Seinfeld had called her and they were interested in me. Obviously, it had nothing to do with that little piece of white paper. It was just that someone I had worked with on Cybill had recommended me. They wanted to see some ideas. I said “no,” because you never do that for TV shows. I had worked on several TV shows, and you go in for a meeting, but you don’t submit story ideas. It’s uncommon. My agent told me to take a few hours and think about it.

Heintjes: Was that her polite way of saying, “Don’t be an idiot”?

Kaplan: Exactly. No one is getting calls from Seinfeld. So I called her back and said, “What do I need to do?” [laughter] So I came up with 10 ideas for each character. Ten Kramer ideas, 10 Elaine ideas, 10 for everyone.

Heintjes: But they weren’t intertwining plot lines?

Kaplan: At that point in the show, you focused on each character when you came up with story lines, and once you settled on stories you liked, then you tried to figure out how they would complement each other.

After I faxed my story lines in, I was in such a good mood. I had faxed them in right before I went to my therapist, and when I went into his office, I felt great. I remember that moment very vividly, because I had been seeing him for about six months, and this was far and away the best mood I ever had when I walked into his office. It was like submitting cartoons to The New Yorker—as soon as I faxed the stories in, I didn’t care if I was going to be hired for the job or not. I just felt so creatively satisfied by the process, especially after working on shows where I’d been somewhat unfulfilled creatively. Even if nothing came of it, I knew I was getting closer to what I wanted to be.

I had a meeting with the Seinfeld writers after that and it went well, but no job offer came. Then later they asked for more ideas, and I came up with 20 more ideas, and then I had a meeting with Jerry and the other writers, and I ended up getting a job on the show.

Heintjes: Your first episode was “The Merv Griffin Show,” and you had Jim Fowler appear on that show. When you write someone well known into a script, how do you know if they’re available and willing to appear?

Kaplan: On sitcoms, you write a part of Elizabeth Taylor, and it ends up being, “Oh my God, look! It’s Sally Kellerman!” We knew there was going to be a scene with a hawk and an animal expert, but I didn’t know who Jim Fowler was.

From “The Cartoon”, Kaplan’s  Seinfeld  episode about Elaine’s attempt to draw a  New Yorker  cartoon…

From “The Cartoon”, Kaplan’s Seinfeld episode about Elaine’s attempt to draw a New Yorker cartoon…

Heintjes: You also wrote “The Cartoon,” an episode that included Elaine selling a cartoon to The New Yorker.

Kaplan: To me, the most interesting part of that story was the idea of not understanding a cartoon: “Why does someone else understand it and I don’t?” Just because I’m a New Yorker cartoonist, that story actually wasn’t as personal as it may appear.

…and the resulting cartoon, which 14 years later, became part of the  New Yorke r’s cartoon caption contest.

…and the resulting cartoon, which 14 years later, became part of the New Yorker’s cartoon caption contest.

Heintjes: Mr. Elinoff, who was The New Yorker cartoon editor in the episode, had a great piece of dialogue: “Cartoons are like gossamer, and one doesn’t dissect gossamer.”

Kaplan: That was actually from the first draft of that story.

Heintjes: You were also involved in writing “The Puerto Rican Day” episode, which lists 10 writers. Why so many?

Kaplan: It was planned that way. Jerry knew that Larry David would write the ultimate episode, so he wanted the penultimate episode to be by all the writers. It was just a nice gesture.

Heintjes: Were you surprised by the controversy the episode generated?

Kaplan: It was all about the flag-burning thing, right? Kramer burned it by accident! I mean, there are certain things I think are offensive, but only when it’s a correct reading of what is intended. But here, a character accidentally set a flag on fire—he wasn’t making a statement.

Heintjes: Were you surprised by NBC’s decision not to allow the episode to be rerun?

Kaplan: Honestly, I didn’t think one way or another about it. It didn’t interest me. When someone gets mad about something on TV, it doesn’t capture my interest.

Heintjes:When an episode that you’ve written is rerun, do you get money from the rebroadcast?

Kaplan: Yeah.

Heintjes:So it becomes an economic issue for you.

Kaplan: Yeah, but I can’t worry about that. What can I do about it? It’s like reading your stocks every day—you can’t do anything about what people do.

Heintjes:What are you doing in television now?

Kaplan: I’m writing for an HBO show called Six Feet Under, about a family who owns a funeral home. It’s created by Alan Ball, who won an Academy Award for writing American Beauty.

Heintjes: What sort of work gives you the most creative satisfaction?

Kaplan: Probably cartooning. One thing about cartooning, it’s not collaborative. It’s just me. While I like collaboration, I think that ultimately the most satisfying thing is to be alone and to have something come out of you that’s not had anyone else’s involvement. I’ve had that feeling when I’ve written for TV, but when it comes to shooting, there are revisions and someone reads it not quite the way I heard it in my head. But when I get a cartoon just right and it’s just what I had in my head, there’s nothing else like that feeling.



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