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Director Neill Blomkamp's "District 9" Now on DVD

Who would have thought that this quirky, controversial, though sometimes uneven film, District 9, could have knocked a tentpole picture like Paramount's G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra off the top of the charts after its first week. But besides being a classic science-fiction tale in the best sense of the term, it has two other charmed words behind it — Peter Jackson -- and as a result, it not only had huge success in theaters but it will most likely have successful sales now that the film is coming to DVD and Blu-Ray on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2009.

After complaining that there's a paucity of fresh ideas coming out of Hollywood, the Oscar-winning Lord of The Rings-leader put his imprimatur on District 9 as a producer. Nonetheless, this feature is thoroughly the creation of 29-year-old South Africa-born writer-director Neill Blomkamp, based on his 2005 short.

Twenty-eight years before the "now" of this near-future thriller, crustacean-like humanoids inhabit a vast galaxy-spanning spaceship that appears in Earth's atmosphere. Not there to make formal first contact, the "prawns" (as they become labeled) arrive here because of some unexplained (at least to humans) mishap that forces their ship to hover motionless above Johannesburg. After some debate, humans helicopter up to the ship and cut their way in to find thousands of aliens starving and stinking up their vessel.

Relocated to Earth, they are crowded into a small neighborhood called District 9 where, over the ensuing 20 years, it becomes a shunned slum (a clear reference to District 6, the Johannesburg slum created by the once-ruling Afrikaans as a ghetto for its Black population).

The obvious metaphor is there, made even more so, when the South African government of this near-future's present decides to re-locate the one million-plus "prawn" population to a decidedly smaller, more isolated camp — in tandem with MNU, a corporation running the alien ghetto while secretly trying to tap them for their technology and biology. Though humans and aliens can somehow communicate — humans can sort of decipher their gutteral clicks and snaps (it sounds a bit like the real Xhosa language) — there's a huge misapprehension and resistance by the aliens to their forced move.

Applying a range of extrapolative techniques to explain this alien society with its heirarchy of common citizens and elite technologists, the film shows how they survive, and hope to cope with a post-20th century South Africa. Blomkamp does a good job in delineating this complex alien culture as one of its scientists plots to get them off Earth. Thrown into the mix is the Nigerian criminal gang that exploits the perimeter of this ghetto and its denizens — much like it happens in South Africa today.

While the film challenges expectation and grapples with first contact, it humorously exposes human foibles in an oddly skewed mirror-like fashion. It also offers a cool spaceship, funky aliens and great weapons. Loaded with homages to tons of sci-fi movies and ideas, the film breezily makes its mark on this genre.

Q: Why did you chose this direction for your first feature film rather than make a more obvious, socio-political film about the same issues?

NB: I grew up in Johannesburg. The genesis for the idea came out of the fact that I just love science fiction and Johannesburg, so I wanted to see science fiction mixed with Johannesburg. It didn't come about like, "I want to talk about these issues that had an effect on me when I was growing up, like segregation and apartheid and everything else."

The second you put something in Johannesburg, you start raising these issues. Before [I thought of] District 9, I felt like half of my mind wanted to make some serious film about these topics and the other half wanted to make a bloody genre film. And then I thought maybe I'll be able to do both. So there's never been a second in my mind where it might have been set somewhere else, because Joburg came first.

Q: You focused on one character throughout the film — an MNU field operative, Wikus van der Merwe (
Sharlto Copley). Why did you identify with him; is some part of him, you, or someone you know or were taking the piss out of?

NB: I was definitely taking a piss [British slang for making fun of someone]. Afrikaaners don't occur that often in movies, but when they do, they're usually tough militaristic guys. They are the guys that created the apartheid and stuff. So there's an image of what the Afrikaans male is. The reality in Johannesburg is that lots of those kind of guys work for massive state-owned companies, and are much more bureaucratic, pencil-pushing dudes.

I loved the idea of having a guy who is comfortable in his life and with what his company was doing, who always says "yes" to whatever the company asks for, and genuinely believes it is in the best interest of everyone to do what the company wants. It was awesome to take someone like that, who is comfortable in their position, and have them turn into the thing they are oppressing. It's mostly a satirical take on that kind of character, which is what I like about District 9.

Q: Do you find it amazing how alien South Africa is to most people?

NB: I still don't have a good handle on how alien it is. Johannesburg is weird, because half of it is like Los Angeles. It feels like just wealthy parts of LA. But half of it is severe slummy, something like Rio De Janiero or something. So it's kind of weird, because it's both happening at the same time.

Americans will easily understand the company, the way it's being promoted, and most of the white parts of South African culture. But it's the real bad place, the stricken townships, that I didn't know how they would take. They may take that as being very alien, but in the best-case scenario, they'll be interested to see science fiction occurring in that setting.

Q: How much experience did you have with the townships? Where are you living now?

NB: I left just before I turned 18. I went to Canada in 1987 — Vancouver — so up until I moved at the end of grade 12, I had exposure to the townships but it was limited. Maybe once every six months to a year, I would be there for some reason. Then when I went to Canada, I started going back to Johannesburg every year. That's when I got seriously interested in it, and it was a very different type of thing.

I lived there when I was younger, and it was under apartheid; when I was coming back from Canada it wasn't. It was more the stuff you'd see on television, the way blacks were segregated, and you'd see the armored vehicles going in — this oppressive thing that's happening next door to me. It was almost society from a white kid's point of view when I lived there. From 1997 onwards it was like going in the townships, and then I became more and more interested in it.

I never viewed that interest as connected to science fiction. That was just one part of my mind that was interested in this topic, and the world of films was in another pocket of my mind and very separate.

Q: I see how alien your experiences are from even South Africa so I thought the Nigerians added resonance. And it seems you wanted to give a deeper mythology to all three cultures: the South African, the Alien, and then adding the Nigerian to bring in a sort of African point of view.

[continued, next page]

NB: The Nigerian thing is there because I wanted to take as many cues from South Africa as I could. I wanted South Africa to be the inspiration. If I try to keep South Africa as true to South Africa as I could, then, unfortunately, a massive part of the crime that happens in Johannesburg is by the Nigerians there. It's just the way it is. I wanted to have a crime group, and thought the most honest refraction of a crime group would be Nigerians, for one.

And then secondly, the Muti, the African witch doctor, is also a huge part of Africa and many African countries. So I wanted to incorporate that as well. At the time I was writing the movie, there was all these tribal witch doctor attacks on albinos, because Albino flesh were worth more than normal humans. That was the analogy to a different group or a different race, [with their] traditional medicine, or traditional Muti — even cannibalism, in some instances. I incorporated aliens into that.

Q: In a lot of literary science fiction, it doesn't operate according to obvious, clichéd premises about first contact. By sheer serendipity, a spaceship was damaged and ended up on Earth. I liked that about your premise.You made it feel realistic because you wanted us to accept the realness of it. It doesn't have to be a fantasy.

NB: I wanted to make the most real feeling portrayal of impossible elements that I could make. But it's still different from my actual belief as to how first contact with aliens would go down, because I wanted to make a movie, not a documentary.

Q: Why does first contact have to be in New York or Washington, especially given the circumstances of your film? It doesn't have to occur in obvious places such as Paris, or D.C. Why not come to Johannesburg? Why not stop there by accident? This was more realistic than what we intellectually envision in our head.

NB: Maybe it is more realistic then what we're used to in Hollywood. But still, in my opinion, it's opposed to reality. If some species were able to make some kind of serious interstellar travel like that, or intergalactic travel, they would be at a technological level where there'll be a merging between [them] and [their] technology. It's a lot like what humans will go through as well, provided we don't wipe ourselves out.

Whatever this race is, it would merge with their technology at some point on their planet, and it would be a biological, mechanical crossover, as scientist/writer Ray Kurzweil puts it in The Singularity Is Near — and their society would be altered after that point. There would be a new type of life.

Because they can exist in binary code, as an algorithm, or can download themselves into whatever physical presence they want or exist on computers, they can then determine how they want to travel through space. They could occupy micro-starships and travel just under the speed of light. They may have figured out beyond-speed-of-light travel and gotten around theory of relativity.

And they would come to our planet, for whatever reason, because they chose to come here. There's no way that they would be a destitute refugee group.

The concept of xenophobia and us not being able to accept them is also highly unrealistic, because we can only do that with something that mimics the human form at a similar intelligence level to us. It's difficult to apply racism and xenophobia to a supercomputer. So I think it would be a completely different thing.

Q: What were the greatest challenges you faced in making this film? Obviously the special effects resonates; that's got to be CGI. Was there any time you put people in outfits?

NB: No. It was always digital.

Q: With Peter Jackson on hand were you able to get the special effects more smoothly done?

NB: First of all, visual effects were done in Vancouver, Canada. WETA [Jackson's effects company] did the spaceships. But the aliens were all Canadian.

Q: You must have had fun sketching out what you wanted to the aliens to look like.

NB: It actually wasn't that fun. It was kind of grueling. I had a different design for about six months, and it was the one design that I just didn't feel 100%. Then one day I realized that the ride in reflected this insect hive, and we were really dealing with lots of the drone workers in the hive. So when I figured out that they should reflect this insect biology in a way that they're illustrated, then we went down the road of making them more insect-like.

Q: You got the texture right. That must have made you nervous. Did you test it, or when did you know it worked?

NB: There's two parts to how you pull that stuff off. One part of it is the way that it looks on a frame-by-frame basis, where, hopefully, the goal is that it looks like a photograph and the way it's going to tell what's real and what isn't. That's one part of it. 

The second part is, how does that creature interact with the humans? And how do the humans interact with it? That will be the thing that either will make it work or not. So I used an actor who played Christopher to play off Sharlto, and that meant I was filming those scenes a little different to how you film two normal actors. The process was that we would remove Jason Cope and replace him with Christopher, and his performance would be crossed over to the digital aliens, so both performance were organic and real.

Once I figured that process out, and we had this process where we would remove Jason but capture the essence of his performance, I then thought, "Okay, we're in a good place in terms of how these two people are going to interact with one another," and that felt good.

Then, once you go into postproduction, you work with the effects guys to get the most realistic results. I tried to set that up beforehand — like I tried to make sure that the way I photographed them a lot of the time would be in really harsh African sunlight. That would make them feel more real. Then we had the insect-like, hard-shell surfacing which would make it feel real as well.

Q: In writing the story, did you have some science fiction books or films as a reference?

All of the science fiction in the film, the fantasy part of the movie, is a distilled-down, melting pot of all the stuff that I like in these genre movies [we all know]. But [for] the story itself and the arc of Wikus' character and everything, I tried to use some of Africa and Johannesburg for inspiration for a lot of that. It's almost like reality provides the inspiration, so the science fiction, is, in a way, was almost meant to be familiar. [It's] the African setting that's unfamiliar.

Q: Hopefully, when a writer or producer makes a science fiction movie, they map out its internal logic so that things don't appear inconsistent with the storyline.

NB: I figured out their back-story and their way to the world: once they've arrived here, like 28 years later, how that would work, multi-national corporations getting involved, where they're getting segregated off to. How the humans see them, how they see the humans. That's all part of the set in the world, though, before you start writing the story itself.

Q: By locating the moment of first contact in a very specific place it makes the story more resonant. Will audiences grasp the alien-ness of the story and how the alien-ness of its location enhances it?

NB: That was the goal. Set it in an unusual place, and therefore make it feel more real. So time will tell.

For more by Brad Balfour:

Stargate Set Visit: Canines Reduce Stress

If you’re an actor or crew person and have a pooch for a pet, there’s no better place to work and relax with your four-legged friend than at Bridge Studios in Vancouver, Canada. That's where the hit SyFy series Stargate: Universe is filmed; also produced there are the best-selling Stargate and Stargate Atlantis direct to DVD movies, based on those successful series in the Stargate franchise.

The set “went to the dogs” 11 years ago when the first Stargate series began and continues to be the most dog friendly TV and movie set in the entire world, as actor Robert Picardo (of Star Trek: Voyager fame) found out when he joined Stargate: Atlantis for its fifth and final season as Atlantis’ new mission commander, Richard Woolsey.

“There are dogs everywhere at Vancouver’s Bridge Studios, where we shoot at,” marvels Picardo. “There are dogs up in the production office, in the production meetings, and in many of the actor’s trailers on different days.”

Both Picardo and his wife Linda were just thrilled to know that their Chihuahua “Buddy” and Chihuahua mix “Lola” would be welcomed on the Stargate lot at all times. Buddy and Lola’s introduction to the pooches of the Pegasus Galaxy (the universe in which Stargate: Atlantis is set), however, was quite the doggie drama.

“We went to the makeup trailer,” recalls Picardo, “and there’s Lucy, a squat mini pincher owned by Leah, the head of the makeup department. Lucy kind of holds sway over the makeup trailer. It’s her turf so she barked a blue streak until we took her outside to meet “Buddy” and “Lola” on neutral territory.” Then she was absolutely delightful.”

In fact, Lucy was a little too “delightful” with Buddy for Lola’s taste. “Lola, who considers herself “Buddy’s” mate if you will, was quite jealous. Whenever another female comes in to challenge her relationship with her live-in male, she does bark quite a bit. But I understand that’s common among many females. She was just protecting her man.”

Picardo really knew he was on the most dog friendly lot in the world when he saw “the pooch scoop stations,” located conveniently around the studios, in which the cast and crew deposit their dog’s doings.

“It’s basically a trash can with bags attached, but it says ‘Pooch Scoop Station.’ I have never seen one at another studio and that says to me that not only are dogs tolerated – they are more than welcome and there are enough of them to warrant their own special places.”

“Enough” is putting it mildly. Stargate: Atlantis Executive Producer John Smith says there can be as many as 20 dogs or more on the lot on any given day. Smith is the man responsible for Stargate going to the dogs: “The whole dog thing started out since I’ve been here—since the beginning of Stargate 13 years ago.” In fact Smith always has his permission to take his dogs to work written into his contracts.

“I’ve had probably eight black Labradors in my career that have come into work with me every day,” says Smith, whose luscious black Lab, Haida, has the run of the lot and even her own chair in the boardroom where she attends production meetings daily.

“Haida comes into the office and sits right up at the boardroom table,” says Smith. “She’s always done it since she was a puppy. She’s been coming into the office since she was six weeks old.” That gives Haida seniority at Bridge Studios. “She’s been here a lot longer than a lot of the people on the show,” agrees Smith.

Having Haida and the other dogs around “makes for a relaxing atmosphere in the office,” says Smith. And that canine induced calmness translates into everyone’s performance on the lot from the office workers to the actors.

“100%,” agrees Smith.  “I would absolutely say that.” “David Hewlett (who plays Dr. Rodney McKay on Stargate: Atlantis) brings his dog in everyday. If an actor has his dog in his trailer, he goes back and sits there learning his lines while scratching the dog’s ear. It does bring calmness to you. In this particular line of work, you’re away from home at least 12 or 13 hours a day sometimes, maybe more. This is a way to bring part of your life with you and takes the stress off of being away from all the other things you love at home.”

Picardo immediately noticed the difference in stress levels between the Voyager and Stargate sets: “Certainly some of the requirements that were much more strictly enforced on Voyager are a little looser here. I like the fact that in the Pegasus Galaxy you can in fact, eat on the sets.”

To be fair, the bridge of the starship Voyager was an immaculate carpeted set compared to the more resilient sets of Stargate: Atlantis. “If you’re going to have an actor drop half a tuna melt or a dog pee on the floor,” points out Picardo, “it might as well be on hard wood or concrete rather than carpet.”

Which brings up the question Stargate fans are surely dying to know the answer to by now: In all this time, has a dog ever gone wee-wee or worse on the Stargate — the portal that makes intergalactic travel possible in the series?

“I have not noticed a dog drop a load on the stage,” Picardo replies, “It may or may not have happened. But I am a newcomer, so I would not be the best one to ask.  But as I said, we have far less carpeting in the Pegasus Galaxy, so it would be far less of a tragedy.”  

Actually, according to Smith, in all the years that characters have traveled to other worlds through the Stargate, it has to this day remained unstained. But should that ever happen, Smith assures fans that the Stargate sets are “very durable.”

A "Precious" Golden Globe Nominee

For a newcomer like Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe to find a starring role in any film was beyond comprehension. But to find one where her ultra plus-sized frame proved to be an asset was more than extraordinary. Nonetheless, this daughter of R&B/gospel singer Alice Tan Ridley and Senegalese father Ibnou Sidibe got the lead role in Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire and is now being touted as an Oscar contender.

In director Lee Daniels' devastating yet ultimately hopeful film, the adult Sidibe plays the 300+ pound, 16 year-old Claireece Precious Jones, who has been abused and raped by both her mother and father. Though she has two children by her father and is near-illiterate, several adults throughout this saga recognize her potential, and through hard work and a survivor's determination, Precious rises above her miserable situation to look towards the future.

Besides the uncanny find of Sidibe, Daniels also got remarkable performances out of other cast members such as Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz and Mo'Nique. And he has managed this before; Mo'Nique starred in his hard-hitting directorial debut Shadowboxer; Carey was in Tennessee, a film Daniels produced. Daniels has tackled controversial projects that sit outside the box; the first film he produced, Monster's Ball, dealt with an interracial relationship (and won an Oscar for lead Halle Berry) and the second, The Woodsman offered a sympathetic portrayal of a pedophile (played by Kevin Bacon).

Harlem resident Sidibe never expected to pursue acting let alone be in such a bright spotlight, first as the audience award winner at 2009's Sundance Film Festival then the winner at The Toronto International Film Festival. But now, a myriad of festivals later — including a big premiere night as the New York Film Festival centerpiece and as the Denver Film Fest's opener  — the accolades, including a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress, and intense reactions are still rolling in.

Q: How did you connect with your character Precious?

GS: I felt like she was in my family, she was my friend and was with people that I didn't want her to be friends with. I realized that I had judged this girl and had stopped being friends with this girl over and over again. I actually felt a lot of guilt behind it. So I think in reading the novel it gave me more compassion and it opened my heart to more cases like Precious.

When it came time to film, and to actually take on the role of Precious, I felt an immense responsibility to do it justice, to do justice for the girls who have gone through it, to do justice for the men who have gone through things like that [as well].

I felt a responsibility to these people as well as to Sapphire the writer, and to Lee Daniels, the director. He plucked me from obscurity and put me basically in the same room with Helen Mirren, with Halle Berry, with all these people that I idolize, and I didn't want him to be wrong in choosing me.

Q: What gives you such a sense of confidence and composure?

GS: I'm 26 years old. I'm a grownup. So when I got the role I was 24-years old. It wasn't very hard for me to play a 16 year old. I only operate at about a 19-year old level anyway. So my sense of self comes from being a grownup.

I know who I am because I've lived with myself for 26 years. That's really where it comes from. In turn, I know Precious because I know who I am. Does that make sense?

The lines don't blur because I know exactly who I am and I knew who I was before I started.

Q: Since she is so thoroughly depicted in Sapphire's book, how did you bring this character to life so distinctly? What was it in you that you homed in on to bring her to the screen?

GS: As I said, I had a lot of guilt because I'd walked past this character. I had walked past Precious and a lot of different people before in my life, and I felt like I owed it to the people out there who hold this kind of pain, who live this kind of life. And, I felt a lot of responsibility to the writer, to Sapphire.

Q: You've talked about the pomp and circumstance around the movie, but what about the negative things that have surrounded this project for you?

GS: Some of the negative stuff — things that have hurt my feelings, which I stopped reading — are when people comment on clothes that I've worn or whatever. That's weird, because it's my own style and I've been dressing myself for a very long time and I wear clothes that fit me, things that I like.

But people expect more because they think I'm rich or think that someone else is pulling strings around me. No.

It's always weird, when someone [says], "Someone needs to get that girl a stylist." It's like, "No." I tell me what to wear. That's the negative part, when people expect something different from me.

Also, people expect to me be a role model, which is cool. But I am a role model because I have 13-year old sisters and I have a 20-year old brother, because I have siblings and cousins, that's why I'm a role model. Not because I'm in a movie. My first responsibility is to my family and to myself.

It's so weird to turn on a switch and be the role model for all women, for all African-Americans. That doesn't happen that easily. It does not. So I don't act up in public and don't do anything weird, because my sisters are watching me. Not because the world is watching me.

Q: There are so many positive African-American stories out there. Why do you think this story needs to be told?

GS: I think this story needed to be told because no one has told it and it's reality. When I actually did research — these numbers change from month to month — but when I [looked], seven out of 10 children were physically abused, sexually abused. And out of those seven, one in three were victims of incest. That's too many people.

Think about how many people you walk by, how many people you know, and you don't know what their story is because no one is saying anything and because it eats at them inside. That type of secret eats away and destroys a human.

This story needed to be told because it starts a dialogue. It says that it's okay, that you're not the only one that's been hurt, that you can get past it, you can talk about it, and that it can possibly save another life.

Q: Your mother, Alice Tan Ridley, once said she was offered Mo'Nique's role but that it was too hard for her to do because of the reality behind the story itself. Did that makes it too difficult for her?

GS: My mom found it to be really, really hard and heartbreaking. But another reason why she didn't want to do it is because she's not an actress and she's not famous worldwide the way that Mo'Nique is. She was afraid that strangers wouldn't be able to differentiate between her and the role.

Also, my mom has been a teacher since she was 12 years old. That's crazy in itself, but my mom loves children and she's like, "There's no way I can do that. I can't even act like I'm going to harm a child." She just couldn't do it.

Q: You didn't have that fear that when you took on the role that people would liken that portrayal of what you're doing to your reality?

GS: No. I've been in a million situations since filming where people have seen it and seen the trailer and they think that I'm that girl, but all it takes is for me to say hello because I'm so very different. The difference between her and me is so distinct that, in a word, that I'm [very] different.

Q: After working with Mo'Nique, you two had to bond in such an emotionally charged project. What was your relationship with her like as you worked together and what is your relationship with her now?

GS: Mo'Nique is so full of love. I've been describing her all day as being like the tree in Pocahontas. She's really wise and she's so loving and she is everything.

Mary [the mother] is not. Mary is there to degrade Precious. Mo'Nique is there to uplift. Precious and Mary are enemies. They're in a constant fight and they've always been in a constant fight. So when the director says action, we're fighting because we're Precious and we're Mary.

When he says cut, I certainly go back to being Gabby and she goes back to being Mo'Nique; we hug each other and we love each other. We really do have to love each other so much more, because while the tape is rolling we hate each other.

Q: How are you dealing with all the attention you're getting now from this role? Have you gotten any advice from executive producer Oprah in terms of dealing with a possible Oscar nomination and how is that affecting you and what you want to do next?

GS: I don't know — [I take it] one day at a time. It's a new life, certainly, but it's still a life. It's all so weird. It's an office job in a way, and my office happens to be a red carpet or a room full of interviewers. So I take it like it's life. It's fun. It's more exciting, but I still take it as something that I have to do.

As far as the advice that Oprah has given me, unfortunately Oprah is so awesome that I can't hear when she talks to me. My brain shuts down. I met her and all I remember is her saying my name over and over and over again.

I talked to her maybe twice, for two days in Toronto, and we had a bunch of conversations. But all I can remember is that her favorite color is not purple. It's green.

Q: How was it talking to the other executive producer, Tyler Perry? What was it like getting to know and hanging out with him?

GS: Oh my gosh! He's really tall and so handsome [laughs]. It's so weird when you meet all these celebrities and you meet people you admire. It's one thing to meet them, but then to hang around them for a while, they dissolve from being superstars to just being a dude.

Tyler is just a dude now. Tyler is really, really awesome. He's really, really funny and he's handsome. Weirdly enough, Mariah [Carey] is just a chick, she's just a girl.

Q: This job has taken you to such heights. Has it been hard to go back to your life, your neighborhood, to Lehman? What's keeping you grounded at this point?

GS: I don't know. I never actually went to Lehman College. It's not my school. It's my best friend's school and I had done a lot of plays there, but I was never enrolled in Lehman. I go back every now and then should there be a party going on, something like that, or to visit friends. But I'm certainly not hindered by this life at all.

At this point, I still go where I want to go and I do what I want to do. While I do get recognized a lot, it's not like I'm getting recognized every second of the day. Not every second of the day is a red carpet or these type of things where everyone knows who I am. For the most part, I pretty much live my life in pajama pants and hoodies.

Q: Where did you go to college?

I went to City College, BMCC, and Mercy.

Q: What experiences on set were fun and will they end up on the DVD?

GS: We certainly had our documentary boys — we called them docu-boys — that filmed everything. One thing, it was Paula Patton's birthday and her husband, [singer] Robin Thicke, came to the set. It was a big surprise. She didn't know he was coming. Mr. Daniels had hired a mariachi band and they got cupcakes from Magnolia and there was apple cider. It was a really, really big surprise party that she didn't know was happening.

So we all started singing happy birthday to her and she was all flummoxed and embarrassed. Tthen this mariachi band comes in and then Robin has flowers in his hand and he's all jazzed up. It was amazing.

The whole company was in this one tiny classroom celebrating Paula's birthday. We danced and sang; we ate cupcakes and drank fake champagne. That was the best. I know it's on the docu-cameras because I've since seen the footage. That should totally be on the DVD extras.

Q: How do you feel about the Oscar possibilities?

I have not followed the Oscars because I wasn't an actress and wasn't interested. It wasn't my field. So I don't know what makes an Oscar film and I don't know what makes an Oscar winning actress. I just don't know.

While it's all very nice, I don't understand any of it, to be honest. I don't know what I did that's different from what any other actress has done in order to receive an Oscar.

Q: What are you going to do next?

GS: I would certainly love to continue acting.

Q: Do you want to do a comedy? Some people might send you scripts that are similar to this. Are you open to that or do you want to do something completely different?

GS: So far, so good. The thing about this film is there probably isn't going to be another role like this, another Precious role or film, for a while at least.

Fortunately, no one has yet pigeonholed me to this character. I've received scripts that are all different kinds of characters.

So I would love to do a comedy. I'd love to do a romance. I'd love to do a lot of really different films. I must do other stuff. How else will I prove that I'm an actress, if not to take on different kinds of characters?

For more by Brad Balfour:

Mad Magazine's Al Jaffee

Is Al Jaffee, creator of Mad magazine's "Fold-In" and "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions," one of America's most beloved cartoonists? No, he's actually one of America's most beloved car tuner-uppers. No, he's actually one of America's most beloved guys who writes and draws funny pictures. No, you're confusing him with that Middle Eastern cartoonist, Al-Jaffee.

Danny Fingeroth and Al JaffeeAh, my. He has only himself to blame. Until his "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions" started its decades-long run in Mad and in eight original paperbacks, with Jaffee winning a National Cartoonists Society award for the feature in 1975, sarcasm may as well have never been invented. And inevitably, these and other such accomplishments have taken the 88-year-old humorist down the sordid road of talks, book signings and lectures at such seedy venues as Columbia University's Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies. There, at the college's Schermerhorn Hall on Dec. 9, 2009, he appeared with host/moderator Danny Fingeroth – himself an author, comics historian, comic-book writer and a former editor of Marvel Comics' Spider-Man line – in an interview and Q&A to coincide with the release of Tall Tales (Abrams Books), a collection of 120 examples of Jaffee's 1957-1963, vertically printed comic strip syndicated out of the New York Herald Tribune.

Jaffee was born March 13, 1921, and after a peripatetic childhood wound up in the first graduating class of New York City's High School of Music & Art. Breaking into comic books in the early 1940s, he soon found himself working under editor Stan Lee at Timely Comics and Atlas Comics, the '40s and '50s precursors, respectively, of Marvel Comics. There he created the funny-animal feature "Ziggy Pig," which he soon paired with his "Silly Seal" to form the Abbott & Costello of anthropomorphic duos. Leafing through the Summer 1946 issue of All Surprise Comics one audience-member has brought, he supplies a little-known bit of comics history: "See that 'SL-166'?" he notes of a tiny inventory number attached to the first panel of a "Silly and Ziggy" story he hadn't done himself. "That means Stan Lee wrote it" during a time when creator credits weren't routinely given in comics. (The respected comics historian Michael J. Vassallo, without the benefit of having been at Timely, says the SL prefix appears in the inventory number of some of Timely's "Hey Look" one-pagers that were written and drawn by future legend Harvey Kurtzman. But the SL prefix appears on only 15 of Kurtzman's 130 pieces for Timely, and editor-in-chief Lee would have had the prerogative, if he had chosen, to write some material for freelancer Kurtzman to illustrate.)  

Jaffee debuted in the satirical Mad in 1955, soon after it had transitioned from color comic book to black-and-white magazine. When founding editor Kurtzman left to start-up the short-lived humor glossy Trump, Jaffee went with him. After a second, similar venture, Humbug, failed, Jaffee again approached Mad, where eventually, in addition to his many other contributions, he created the Fold-In in 1964. That venerable feature of the inside back cover continues to appear to this day.

Jaffee's connection to the late Kurtzman also continues to this day: At the Columbia event, Charles Kochman, executive editor of the Abrams imprint Abrams ComicArts, presented Jaffee with comicdom's Harvey Awards. Jaffee had been unable to attend the October ceremony, in which he was honored in absentia as 2009's Best Cartoonist, and was also bestowed a Special Award for Humor in Comics.

Pretty snappy, that. No question.

* * *

Danny Fingeroth: You were born in 1921 and raised in Savannah, Ga., Lithuania, and The Bronx. How'd you end up spending the first two years of your life in Savannah?

Al Jaffee: Well, it started by being born there. (audience laughs) I only spent six years there when my mother became nostalgic for the small-town Europe where she grew up and she decided to take us – me and my three younger brothers – on a trip to visit her family. I think it was supposed to be a short visit but it turned out to be something like six years. So I became a reverse immigrant when I came back to America, and that's how I inflicted myself on the rest of you.

You spend six years in Lithuania. What did you do there?

Well, it was an education in its own right. It was a very, very crowded village, and I just learned all the things you learn in a small town: how to make things, how to fish, how to make your own fishing pole and your own fishing line. It was really an exciting way of life, but I yearned to come back to America. Savannah was my home from the time I was born until I was six, and I really loved Savannah. I did the best I could in Lithuania, but in 1933, when Hitler became chancellor of Germany, my father came and sort of forcibly took most of us back; my mother did not come back.

How'd you end up coming to the Bronx instead of back to Georgia?

My father was a manager of a department store in Savannah, but he lost his job because of the family problems he was having; he was preoccupied with rescuing [the remaining family] from Europe. So the only thing he could do was come back to New York, where he had once worked in the Post Office, and he managed to get a job in the Post Office.

Did you have trouble catching up in school?

I did. I was 12 years old when I returned and I was put in the third grade. …After six years in Europe and with no one speaking English except my family I started to pick up local [Lithuanian-Jewish] accents. I tried to emulate the children of the Bronx but I don't know how successful I was. The only way I could integrate myself into their good graces was by drawing pictures on the sidewalk with chalk – Mickey Mouse and Little Orphan Annie and stuff like that. That did save me, being able to draw, because the bullies stopped being bullies when they started to admire what I was doing.

Al Jaffee and his 2009 Harvey AwardsWere you at school with Will Elder at that point?

Yeah; when I got into middle school, I met him there. … The two of us, we were brought up into an art class and we were told to draw something, and … we each drew a picture …  and then they informed us that Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia had created a new High School of Music & Art, and that we were chosen because of this slipshod contest that we were involved in. (audience laughs) But it was a turning point. We were sent down to the principal's office – we were usually there for other reasons (audience laughs) – I guess we thought it had some connection to what we had just gone through with the drawing and everything, but I still had no idea. And Willie turned to me with a thick Bronx accent and said, "I tink dere gonna send us to AHT school." (audience laughs). And sure enough he guessed right. And they told us about the mayor's new school and it was really a turning point in our lives, because our other choices were academic, at which we were absolutely total failures, or industrial, which we didn't care about, or a trade school…. These things were so unappealing to us that when the principal said it was an art school we were just blown away.

You went to Music & Art with a bunch of other [future EC and Mad artists].

Harvey Kurtzman was there. Al Feldstein, who later replaced Harvey Kurtzman as editor of Mad. John Severin and a lot of younger ones. Because I was in the first class I was a senior, but there were lots of freshman and juniors whom I didn't get to know who later went on to become very well known in the comic book field and other fine arts.

Did you know the other guys in high school as well? Did you know Kurtzman there?

Yes, I knew him. He was a freshman when I was a senior, so I knew him a little bit, mainly because people pointed him out to me … because of the work this kid was doing. And he was brilliant.

After high school you went to work for Will Eisner, who created The Spirit.

I briefly worked for Eisner. Most of us didn't know what to do with ourselves, because getting into an advertising agency as an artist was very difficult. For one thing, there was a certain amount of prejudice; people with Jewish names or African Americans would have difficulty getting into lily-white ad agencies. And there were certain class distinctions as well. So most of us gave up trying for that. Some of it had to do with the fact that we weren't good enough. But then came the comic book industry which was created to a large extent by Jews, and the feeling was that there wouldn't be any anti-Semitic problems, so that was an opening for many. Not having a lot of original ideas I decided to do Inferior Man, which was a real rip-off of Superman. So I took Inferior Man to Will Eisner and expected him to kick me out of there, but he said, "I think this is a very funny idea," and he hired me to do it as a filler in his comic books; a one- or two-page filler, which I did for a while. And then I went on to glory. (audience laughs) I went on to be out of work I think.

Stan Lee gave you work.

AJ: Yes, Stan Lee was my big break. I took these few things that I had done for Will Eisner up to Stan Lee; someone tipped me off that he had replaced [Joe] Simon and [Jack] Kirby. Stan Lee was a year younger than I was – I was about 19 and he was 18 – and I showed him Inferior Man and he pulled out a script and threw it at me and said, "If you can do this, I'll give you more work," and it was a feature title 'Squat Car Squad', and it was about two bumbling policeman. So I did it and then he said, "Alright, you did a funny job, now start writing scripts and illustrating them." And he never even edited the stuff; I just brought it in and it got published. And we had a very good relationship. (audience laughs)

Then you did "Ziggy Pig & Silly Seal."

The thing that an editor likes more then anything else is for people to take away problems. So if he could say to me, "Write this feature and draw it," and not have to edit it, that was one comic feature that he didn't have a problem with. So he figured he could get another one. He said, "Why don't you create an animal strip?" So I tried to think of an animal that no one had used, and Silly Seal was the one I came up with; no one was doing a seal. Of course the whole thing was ridiculous, because all the characters were fighting the Nazis, and the notion of a seal fighting the Nazis (audience laughs), there was something ludicrous about it. There was a rumor that submarines were in our waters so Silly Seal made a boat out of ice with an ice cannon that shoots snowballs. I mean, how can you live with yourself? (audience laughs) But for some reason it not only caught on …  [but Stan] then said, "Create another one," which was Ziggy Pig and the whole thing was getting crazy. But it came time for me to go into the service, and I noticed that once I was in the Air Force the PX was flooded with comic books. Apparently, there weren't that many soldiers who had gone through college and who were that literate, and … when I saw how they were churning out Silly Seal and Ziggy Pig by the millions, I felt somewhat cheated because I was having to learn to fly an airplane while these guys were making all that money. Even after I returned from service they were still publishing these creatures.

I enjoyed doing [Timely's] "Super Rabbit." I did not create "Super Rabbit"; Stan gave it to me and I enjoyed doing it because I had free rein to write stories with more realistic plots where Super Rabbit had problems that ordinary people have, such as his uniform didn't come back from the cleaners in time to fight crime. Stan Lee did a lot of that stuff later on, with superheroes.

And you also did [Timely/Atlas' teen-humor franchise] "Patsy Walker."

"Patsy Walker" was the yoke around my neck. Y'know, I enjoyed writing "Patsy Walker" but writing for  teenage girls just wasn't my métier. I did it for about five years and it was pretty popular.

Then you got involved with publisher William Gaines and the Mad crew. How did you end up going to Mad?

Kurtzman tried to recruit me to work on Mad when he first started Mad, but despite the fact that "Patsy Walker" wasn't really the kind of work I would prefer to do, I was making pretty good money at it. I did two comic books a month, writing and drawing, and it paid pretty good. But I really envied Kurtzman and my old friend Willie Elder and all the guys who were working for Mad because that stuff would have been more comfortable for me. However, I got into a little contretemps with Stan Lee and we kind of parted ways. Nothing serious; I think we had both reached a point where it was time to change. I called Harvey up and said, "Harvey, I quit ‘Patsy Walker' I'm coming to work for you," and he said, "I just quit Mad.' And that's how he informed me he was going to work for [Hugh] Hefner, and produce Trump which lasted only two issues. And then we did Humbug.

Why did Trump only last two issues?

Hefner was an admirer of Kurtzman's Mad, the comic books, and he kept after Harvey and said, "If you ever want to do a real classy magazine like ‘Mad' but with full-color and all the production, just let me know." So Harvey got into a bit of a conflict with Bill Gaines, the details of which I'm not that familiar with, except that I think Harvey wanted more money and he wanted to operate the magazine, and either Bill didn't want to pay more money or he was satisfied with the magazine he had, and so Harvey I guess, having a commitment from Hefner in his pocket, he decided to leave. But Hefner had to discontinue Trump because the magazine business went into a tailspin at that time. A number of big American magazines like Colliers and a few were  in very big trouble and the banks aren't advancing money. Of course Hefner was working with nothing but bank money; he would put all the profit he made from Playboy right back into the magazine to make it even better, so he was overextended. The banks called in his loans, so Trump fell by the wayside and we were out of work. That's when Harvey talked us into investing our own money into Humbug and we went broke. And this is a success story. (audience laughs)

You were never out of work.

I was never out of work but I was out of income.

How'd you end up back at Humbug?

When Humbug folded, and with having borrowed on my life insurance policy and every penny I had in the bank to put into Humbug and we worked on 11 issues without a single penny of payment, so all of us – a couple of people did get a little bit of money because otherwise they wouldn't have been able to work at all – but most of us borrowed. So when it got to the end of it, we had to go out of business. What do you do at that point? You sit down at your drawing table and  say, "What am I going to do now?" and I had on me a whole batch of scripts I had written and I decided to bite the bullet and call our competitor, Mad, Al Feldstein, and I said, "Al, please don't hang up on me because I went with Harvey," they were at loggerheads, and he said, "I'm not going to hang up on you," and I said, "I wrote a lot of scripts for Humbug  that we couldn't use. Would you be interested?" And he said, "Come on down." The minute I came down there he bought every script; 11 scripts, he bought them all on the spot and then ushered me into Bill Gaines' office and Bill sat me down and went through every issue of Humbug and wanted me to point out the ones that I had written ... and when we finished he walked into Al Feldstein's office and said, "Hire this guy."

"Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions": How did you come up with that concept?

You don't sit down and say, "Today I'm going to come up with a blockbuster idea." That gets you nowhere. I was working in the creative trades, so I was aware all the time of any idea floating out there. In my case with "Snappy Answers," I lived on Long Island and we had periodic storms which knocked down our TV antenna…. First you look at the television set and you see jagged lines, and then you go outside and wonder why, and there's this antenna hanging over the chimney. So I borrowed an extension ladder, I'm terrified of heights, I get up there, two stories, and I'm juggling this thing and trying to straighten it up, and I've got pliers, and I hear the thump of footsteps on the ladder. And finally, I can feel someone's hot breath right behind me and it says, "Where's Mom?"

"I have killed her and I'm stuffing her down the chimney." (audience laughs) My son didn't speak to me for the rest of the week.

And I thought about this. I came up with this under duress. I began to think about things that people ask where either there's no possibility in the world that you will have the answer to that question under the circumstances, or the answer is so obvious that the question is superfluous. You know, like you're standing, there's a line of people and a big sign that says "bus stop" and someone comes over and says, "Does the bus stop here?" We all go through this. So I did sit down at that point and try to think of things like that that were more common than someone fixing an antenna. Other things, like, "Are you asleep?" (audience laughs) I just did samples of it and Feldstein loved it immediately and assigned me to do a bunch more, and that was where it started. And then I milked it.

Where did the Fold-In come from?

 The first one actually was so simplistic that I'm almost embarrassed. It was supposed to be a gag commentary not so much on the subject matter, but on the ridiculous fold-outs. The most popular one at the time was the Playboy fold-out of naked ladies, but then other magazines, like National Geographic, Life magazine, even Sports Illustrated – I subscribed to all these magazines and I noticed that one by one they were starting to do this fancy, colorful fold-outs. Today "colorful" doesn't mean much to you because you can get color on your computer, but way back then in 1964, color in a magazine was such an expensive process. Mad didn't have any color. So it automatically got me to thinking in reverse again, the way I did with Inferior Man, which is the reverse of Superman, so I said to myself, "They're all doing this fancy color fold-outs that involve three pages of a magazine. Why doesn't Mad do a cheap, black and white fold?" And I did a sample and the sample was, as I said, very simple; it had Richard Burton, who at that time was rumored to have an affair with Elizabeth Taylor, it had Richard Burton on the left and Elizabeth Taylor on the right and you think it's going to fold in to Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor…oh the question was something about who's going to be the next love interest for Elizabeth Taylor? Because she'd had so many. And it turned out to be some young man in the crowd. I mean that was the whole simple idea. It was one gag making fun of Mad itself trying to emulate the expensive trends that were in other magazines. I never expected another one. Suddenly, I get a call from Bill Gaines: "How would you like to do another one?" So I said, "Well, I don't know if I can come up with anything else; that was the only one I could think of." And I came up with [the second one, "Who Wants to be President More than Anything?"]

That was 1964, so you came up with a few more ideas since.

I've gotten one in every issue except three issues, and the reason for [those exclusions] was that they needed the inside back cover for something else. Oh, and one other reason was that I did a Fold-In front cover and they wouldn't pay me to do two.

How long does it take you to do one of these?

I usually came up with an idea – in recent years, they supply the idea, because they have a conference where they wanted to deal with subject matter that was hot, and I might come up with something bout the stock market. I used to have to come up with an idea and then make a sketch and try to sell them on the idea and the sketch, and then get to it, and that would take a total of about two weeks. Now the actual artwork takes me about a week to 10 days, depending on how complicated it is.

Your Mad paperback books are new material, not collected material.

All my paperback books are new material. I have to tell you why I had to write my own material: because I couldn't sell my artwork. (audience laughs) I'm not kidding; when I first started out I would come and peddle my funny cartoons and I thought, "Gee, funny drawings, everybody's gonna love them. All they have to do is give me a script and I'll draw funny cartoons." Nobody was interested. When I sat down and wrote my own script, then they would say, "Oh, well, go ahead and draw it," and that's how I was able to break in. The only [time otherwise] was when Stan Lee gave me that Squat-Car Squad story and said, "See what you can do with it." But he had me write them from then on; he only gave me one.

[DF shows photos of Jaffee receiving the Reuben Award, flanked by fellow Mad artists, including Jack Davis]

AJ: Jack Davis … is a phenomenal artist, and also the fastest artist I've ever seen in my life. I was on a "Mad" trip with Jack – he was my roommate, I think – and he was late for breakfast or something, and what had happened was that he had been drawing a "Time" magazine cover on the bus, and when the bus stopped he went into the post office to mail it to "Time" magazine. He was such a phenomenal artist.

How did the comic strip Tall Tales come about?

Again, the life of a freelance is really quite insecure, especially when you have the whole catastrophe of a wife and children and a mortgage and all that. You cast about all the time for ideas, and in my early years the road to security was a newspaper feature. There you got contracts and if they sent the stuff out and it was successful you got more and more papers, you made more and more money. Sparky [Charles] Schultz, who did Peanuts, he started that way, and his feature, Peanuts, was almost dropped because they had a meeting and found out they only had about six newspapers after about a year and they felt they were not going to go anywhere with this thing. But one of the salesmen told me a couple of people had said, "It's such a delightful feature, let's hang it another six months and see what happens," and of course, as they say, the rest is history and it started to become popular. And at one point he was making more money than Oprah, which is an achievement.

So security was in newspaper work, so I tried to figure out how I could get in. And someone told me that you could only get into newspapers by pushing out another comic strip, and that's not that easy to do. The other information I got at that time – this is in the 1950s – was that newspaper space was condensing, and it was becoming more and more difficult to sell comic strips because of shrinking newspapers. So I tried to figure out what kind of space can I get into that isn't being used, like the want-ads and other undesirable spots, and a one-column thing would do it. And the Herald Tribune took it on immediately and they did sell it to a lot of these dead-end spaces. Then we started to pick up a lot of foreign papers because [the strip] didn't have any words, it was all pantomime, and I had a bigger list abroad than I had in America. And then the manager of the syndicate, whose name I will not say, came to me and said, "You know, Americans don't like comic strips without words. You have to put words in them." So I forced words in and immediately lost 35 foreign papers and I didn't pick up any American papers. But it did last about six years, so it paid the bills.

Audience question: Can you talk a little bit about the [1950s] comic-book bans and hearings that resulted in lots of popular titles disappearing or being "cleaned up," and how that affected your career?

The people who really suffered that were the people who were, well, Bill Gaines, who was doing horror comics: Tales from the Crypt and [others]. Bill Gaines went out of business; Mad saved his neck. But a lot of other outfits that were doing, not specifically horror, but [comics that] had a lot of violence in them, whether it was Westerns with lots of shooting and killing, after the psychologist Dr. [Frderic] Wertham came out with a book, Seduction of the Innocent, and the [U.S. Senate's] Kefauver Committee investigated and connected juvenile delinquency with comic books, the comic business could only save itself by creating a censorship board – the Comics Code. … I wasn't affected because at first I was doing "Super Rabbit" and, y'know, little animal things, although (jokes) there were rumors about Ziggy Pig and Silly Seal (audience laughs). And then, of course, I did the teenage stuff like "Patsy Walker," which basically was a rip-off of Archie Comics, just another aspect of it. So I was working all the time; I didn't have a problem. And Mad was alright – although the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, had a complete file on Mad and everyone in it. But I wasn't there at the time. I would have been proud to have a file. (audience laughs)

Audience question: Did all you guys working at Mad in the ‘60s realize how cool you were?

How cool? Or how cruel? (audience laughs) I thank you for the compliment, because I certainly thought it was cool, personally, but as to how other people felt, you never know. I heard from a lot of grown-ups that they wouldn't let their children read it because it was attacking our institutions, among them advertising. It took a long time for people to grow up and realize that making fun of things that deserve it, or that are really begging for it, that that's legitimate comments. But there were a lot of grown-ups who were very uptight about it and I was very proud to be in league with the children; I thought more along their lines than I ever did with adults, and I think it goes for today too. I mean, I think the kids are way ahead of the adults in knowing what's funny.

Audience question: A lot of the comics creators in the ‘50s or even the ‘60s wouldn't want to say they were in comics when they were socializing. What did you say when you were out socializing with your family and your wife and people said, "What do you do for a living?"

AJ: You're absolutely right. A lot of my friends would refer to themselves as illustrators instead of cartoonists. It's fine to be an illustrator, and everybody would like to be Norman Rockwell, but Rube Goldberg was just fine, too. I would get into arguments [when] some people said they wouldn't allow their kids to read comics; they would prefer for them to read fine literature. I said, "Your first job is to worry about your kid learning to read. [audience laughs] And your kid will learn to read a lot faster by letting him read what he enjoys reading. And then he'll move on to literature." Children aren't idiots. I mean everybody's read comics and then they go to classics. I was never ashamed to admit that I did this stuff.

[Audience question about why Trump folded after two issues]

AJ: I think Trump had problems which surpassed just the problem of the funding. Harvey Kurtzman, bless his soul, was a good friend of mine, he was just a smart guy and had a brilliant career at Mad magazine. But I think he just wanted to move up and become America's Punch magazine or an illustrated New Yorker magazine, and it was the wrong time with the wrong product. The reason Mad was successful right from the beginning was that it stirred the rebelliousness that was inchoate in a lot of people at that time. There were wars going on, there was a draft going on; colleges were decimated by the draft, or potentially decimated. There was McCarthyism. We were going through some really bad times in the ‘50s. And here comes this cheap little, rebellious rag on cheap paper and it's making fun of our institutions: It's making fun of politics, it's making fun of advertising, it's making fun of itself. It's making fun of radio shows, it's making fun of movies, and it's making fun of comic books, of Superman, of Batman. It was rebellious through and through, all just for the fun of it. And it was 25 cents – it was 10 cents to begin with, then it was 25 cents. I think this had great appeal. And Hefner decided we were going to do this for the upper class – put out a 50-cent magazine, all slick with fancy color like Playboy. But it wasn't going to fly, I think, even if he didn't get into trouble financially; it just wasn't going to have the rebellious feel that it needed at that time. And he also interfered by telling us that the funny stuff Kurtzman was doing at Mad, he would ask for that to be toned down or taken out because it was a little too kiddish; he wanted it to be a bit more for the grown-ups. In my view, that's the whole story.

[Audience request for a story about Mad's famous vacation trips]

Well, I think the funniest one was really Mad's first trip. How that came about, I don't know. I suspect it was because a man by the name of Lyle Stuart was a publisher – he put out sex books and stuff like that – [who] was a good friend of Bill Gaines, and he took his people on an all-paid vacation once a year, and somebody said to Bill, "Why don't you do that with your group? They'll get to know each other and become friendly and all that." So our first trip was to Haiti. (audience titters) Well, it's kind of funny now to think of going to Haiti – that would be a typical Mad kind of thought: Lyle Stuart's taking them to Paris –we'll go to Haiti. (audience laughs) But I have to be honest with you, that wasn't the reason. Haiti was peaceful and really quite beautiful at that time; 1963, I believe. It was run with an iron hand by [dictator] Papa Doc [Duvalier], so it was peaceful – peaceful because there was a Nazi at every corner. But the hotel was well-guarded and everything was beautiful. And Bill hired four jeeps for us to take – one driver and three other people – and go drive around. And one of the things that was suggested, that Bill had in mind, he said, "We had one subscriber in Haiti, and he didn't renew." (audience roars) So four jeeps pull up to [his house], Bill walks up and says [to him], "You had a subscription. Why didn't you renew?" (audience roars) "All right, I'll give you a year's free subscription!"

I went on a total of 30 trips. I was on every one of them; I and one other guy were the only two on every one. It sort of made a family out of freelance people. You know, they had a small staff and the bulk of the staff was freelance; we would never get to know each other because you're coming to deliver your work and no one else is there, just the staff. But going on these trips coalesced the whole group and we all became distant friends from then on and we had some wonderful, wonderful trips. And for that I am very grateful to Bill. I enjoyed those trips.

One of the things we did when we came back from a trip is we gave a party for Bill Gaines. And it was in a funky little place down in the Bowery, a very nice little restaurant, a seafood restaurant And we would go there and we were supposed to bring all the photographs we took on the trip. And then we started the policy of creating an album where everyone who was on the trip did something in the album: If you were a writer you wrote something, like a little funny essay; if you were an artist, you did a cartoon, whatever you wanted. Even photographers, too. Then we had a trip to Russia and I can only tell you what I did. Bill Gaines was a notorious slob; I think he travelled on these trips with one set of clothing, the one he was wearing. … When we were in Russia, what was happening to all of us was that people on the street, it was still the Soviet Union, people on the street were coming up and one guy sidled up to me and told me he would give me 50 rubles for my shoes, which happened to be Pierre Cardin, because it was going out of business and I bought them for about a tenth of what they cost. But still, these Russians knew, they knew the stuff. So he comes up to me and he says, "I'll give you 50 rubles for your shoes," and then he said, "60 rubles for your jacket." And everybody experienced this. So when it came to drawing a picture for the album, I had one guy with a Russian who comes up and says, "I'll give you 50 rubles for your shoes." A second [Russian] comes up and says, "I'll give you 60 rubles for your jacket." And a third [Russian] comes up to Bill Gaines and says, "You give me 50 dollars and I'll give you my clothes!" (audience laughter)


Interview transcription by Allie Finkel.

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