Digging Jules

Jules Feiffer has long been known for the acerbic edge he brings to his theatrical and film writing and, especially, his widely revered syndicated cartoons. But when he's writing for kids, another Feiffer comes out -- one very few people outside of his immediate family knew existed.

"There's a whole other side of me that the line of work I've been in all my adult life doesn't give voice to," he says, "and that's simply having a good time and entertaining and using the innocence that is very much a part of me, but isn't part of the career that I've established with the reader. My satiric work has basically been there to agitate and, in a way, to strike a combative pose. But kids don't need any more combat. They get enough of that at home and at school. What they need is a support system, and that's what my books are intended to give them."

At the same time, Feiffer, who's in his early seventies but still has two daughters ages five and fifteen living at home, has no patience for the pedantry that runs rife through the genre: "The children's books I hate are the ones that try to teach good values, good morals, how to be good -- the ones where we're the adult who knows everything talking to the kid who's the great unwashed." There's no such finger-wagging in Bark, George, a Feiffer picture book released earlier this year. If there's a lesson in the tale, during which a dog named George meows, quacks, moos and says "hello" because he has apparently eaten a cat, a duck, a cow and, perhaps, a person, it's that laughter is a wonderful thing.

So, too, is change, although Feiffer took some convincing about that back in 1997, when the Village Voice, the New York weekly for which he'd drawn for four decades, unceremoniously sacked him in what was essentially a cost-cutting measure. Feiffer, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1986, admits that he was initially livid about the dismissal, "but the anger and bitterness that was there has softened mainly because it turned out to be a wonderful career move that was made for me." Indeed, Feiffer was promptly hired by the New York Times as the publication's first op-ed cartoonist, giving his work wider exposure than it ever got at the Voice. And recently, he was honored with the lead piece in the New Yorker's cartoon issue. As he puts it, "Everybody should be fired the way I was."

Feiffer's considerably more cynical about the other mediums in which he works. He won a 1961 Academy Award for the animated version of his story Munro, and his screenwriting credits include director Robert Altman's quizzical 1980 take on Popeye and 1971's Carnal Knowledge, a dark but brilliant relationship comedy directed by Mike Nichols and starring Jack Nicholson, Ann-Margret and Candice Bergen. Carnal Knowledge has grown far less dated than other pictures from the period, Feiffer believes, "because men and women are still treating each other the same way they were back then. I was hoping things would get better, but aside from certain uses of language, everything else is unfortunately very up-to-date." However, he hasn't had a screenplay produced since 1989's box-office disappointment I Want to Go Home, and he's lost interest in playing the movie game. According to him, "Screenplays pay you enormous amounts of money not to make the movie. I have scripts that I'm very proud of, but they'll never see the light of day, because if a script is any good, nobody's going to go near it." He adds, "To get a movie made, particularly if it's a different kind of script, you have to have enormous will and enormous energy and enormous devotion -- an obsession. But I'm an old guy, and I don't have that kind of focus and that kind of will, and even though I love movies, I'm certainly not obsessive about them."

In comparison, he's much more drawn to theater -- but while he's had numerous plays produced, most famously Little Murders, he finds the process frustrating. "In New York, what the critics say is the final word in almost all cases, and the critics have in most cases not been all that friendly to my plays. And I've got to make a living, so spending six months on something that winds up costing me thousands of dollars and doesn't bring in anything isn't the way to do it at my age." How does he explain, then, his current project, Jules' Blues, a collection of short theater pieces with music by Michael Wolff that he's trying to get produced? "Just one more sign of my latent masochism," he replies.

Meanwhile, Feiffer is busy on the lecture circuit, where he puts on a slide presentation that takes attendees through his multifaceted life in the arts. Although he does plenty of political cartooning these days, he doesn't talk much to audiences about the events of the day because "the Clinton administration has so disillusioned me that I'm rather sour on the whole topic." But he loves to discuss his children's books, which have allowed him to "return to my boyhood dreams and fantasies inspired by the comics," he says. "And that's thrilling, because, as in my writing, I love to find that something's taken me full circle when I didn't know in the beginning that it was going to go in that direction. That's more or less what my career has done, so I have no complaints."