Trudeau Tells ‘E&P’ Why He Did Koppel Interview

By: Dave Astor

Garry Trudeau, in an extremely rare TV interview, appeared Dec. 3 and Dec. 4 on ABC’s UpClose with Ted Koppel.

“The last, and only other, sit-down TV interview I did was on a local Boston station in 1971,” the “Doonesbury” creator told E&P. “I discovered early that it wasn’t necessary to have a public profile to succeed in my business, so I decided to spare myself the aggravation.”

Why UpClose? “I’m usually up at the hour the show airs [12:05 to 12:35 a.m. EST], and I found myself immediately drawn to it when it debuted last summer,” Trudeau replied. “The conversations have this intimate, coffeehouse feel to them, and I concluded that if I was ever going to do an interview, this was probably as good as it was going to get. Of course, I made no news, Ted didn’t make me cry, and I didn’t make him cry, so technically it wasn’t good television. But I had fun.”

Trudeau did make some interesting comments to Koppel in his soft-spoken manner, which differs greatly from the biting approach he takes periodically in his strip. For instance, Trudeau said a satirist is “not paid to be fair,” noting that if he didn’t stretch the truth, he’d be “just another boring reporter” — repeating a phrase Koppel had used.

The Universal Press Syndicate cartoonist also said “a low tolerance for hypocrisy is part of my job description” and that the last two years have been a “feast” for satirists.

Meanwhile, E&P used the occasion of Trudeau’s rare tube time to ask a few insiders about the 32-year-old “Doonesbury.” Some feel the comic is as good or better than it was during its purported 1970s and ’80s heyday. Others see the strip as “guilty, guilty, guilty” of slippage at a time when “The Boondocks” by Aaron McGruder of Universal is perceived to offer more-pointed commentary.

Scott Stantis, former president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, praised Trudeau for tackling once-taboo topics and making the comic art form “fuller and deeper,” but said the strip has declined to some degree. “When ‘Doonesbury’ was at its zenith, it could be harsh, yet still seem playful. Lately, instead of a deft hand, it has a mallet,” said Stantis, who works for The Birmingham (Ala.) News and Copley News Service, and also creates “The Buckets” comic for United Feature Syndicate. “Trudeau has been doing the strip forever. Any creative process cannot remain at such a high level.”

But Trudeau’s newspaper list has stayed at the 1,400 level, according to Kathie Kerr, Universal’s director of communications.

Brian Walker, author of The Comics: Since 1945, said: “‘Doonesbury’ continues to entertain me and challenge me,” even though it might not be “as shocking and controversial as people used to think it was.” He noted that the strip remains absorbing chiefly because it features characters readers care about. “It’s richly rewarding to see how the characters develop over time,” said Walker, who works on “Hi & Lois” and “Beetle Bailey” for King Features Syndicate.

“Trudeau achieves his satire through the personalities of his characters,” said cartooning critic-historian R.C. Harvey, which, he added, gives “Doonesbury” more depth than other topical comics.

Harvey and Walker also said Trudeau’s drawing is much stronger now. In the 1970s, Trudeau joked with Koppel last week, “I made the profession safe for bad art.” Now, said Walker, “‘Doonesbury’ is one of the most ambitiously designed strips on the comics page.”

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