How "BEK" Crafts A New Yorker Cartoon

Bruce Eric Kaplan, the longtime cartoonist and TV writer (Girls, Seinfeld) explains how he comes up with his culture-weary captions--and how his persistence paid off.

Bruce Eric Kaplan’s New Yorker cartoons, with their bluntly drawn humans and animals, have a way of expressing the bleak thoughts that are on our minds but we can’t quite articulate. So you’d figure that the man himself--a mild-mannered guy who is also a co-executive producer of the HBO series Girls--is someone who always says what he thinks. But that’s not quite the case: "If I went around saying all the things I was thinking, people would die." Though he might be exaggerating a bit, Kaplan does strive in his single-panel cartoons for a certain truth. "Well, I’m trying. Definitely that’s the goal."

If nothing else, Kaplan is famously persistent. As cartoonist lore has it, more than 20 years ago he decided he wanted to draw cartoons for The New Yorker. A form-letter rejection, returned in the self-addressed, stamped envelope with which he submitted them, fueled his resolve.

The struggling writer sent 10 to 15 cartoons every week. "I was in my twenties, and I was crazy. I was just so sure that they were going to buy it that I just kept doing it. I never missed a week." At first, his cover letters were polite and professional, but after a few years they degenerated. "I would write crazy, crazy cover letters. I started out I was like, 'Here are 10 cartoons.' Then at the end I was just like, 'Here are 10 cartoons any other fucking magazine in the fucking world will buy except for you assholes.'"

They weren’t always that aggressive, but sometimes Kaplan would write anything to get attention. "It really felt like no one was reading these things." But someone was. "The same month that I got my first writing job working on an awards show, I came home from work and instead of the self-addressed envelope I got a FedEx from the cartoon editor saying, 'I know you’re thinking I haven’t been looking at your stuff. But we have and we want to buy a few.'"

Even now, Kaplan finds the cartoons an outlet for his frustrations. Like this one:

"If I look back, they remind me of where I was that day. This one brings me back to the exact moment I thought of it. It was 4:00 in the afternoon and I was making myself tea and feeling very agitated. I didn’t kill anyone like the person in the cartoon."

Sometimes the agitation he feels is much more specific:

"Sometimes I’ll be reading something online and just get so frustrated because of what people are saying. It’s like, Who is the person that actually takes the time out to say this, and why do they feel we should know this? It just drives me insane."

Often his frustrations are directed inward:

"That was fairly recently and I was sort of frustrated by my lack of progress in my internal journey to be more content. You know what I mean? Therapy or any sort of analysis. I thought, I give up! Maybe I should just wear a hat from the outside in."

And then there are the cartoons with kids, often written as if they were adults.

"I’m clearly just using my own feelings and putting it in the kids’ world," he says of the fennel one. There is so much fodder for putting adult ideas in kids’ mouths:

"This one’s actually true: I’ve had to whine for everything I’ve ever really wanted." Now that he and his wife Kate Robin, also a TV writer, have two kids, Kaplan does more kids’ cartoons from their perspective.

But there are always plenty of adults to mock:



"A friend of mine was asking at dinner about this book," says Kaplan. "I could tell she’s asked everyone. Why do you need to have this conversation seven times? It’s like, do you care whether I liked or didn’t like Spider-Man, or how I feel about Mad Men?"

As Kaplan’s cartoons spring from his real life, you might think they come to him when he’s walking down the street or taking a shower. No, he says, "That almost never happens to me. Traditionally, the only way I come up with cartoons is by sitting at my desk and thinking." Even doing that can be a challenge, what with two kids and a time-consuming day job on Girls, which recently wrapped its second season. "When I’m on the set I’ll come up with ideas if I’m sort of just between responsibilities, because there’s a lot of sitting around on set. Invariably, though, the stuff I come up with on the set tends to be bad." Suddenly you can hear the source of his characters’ resignation. "I don’t know why that is. It’s like my psyche won’t let me somehow because it’s pulling too much focus and it’s sort of dropping it to one world and out of another."

Just then, the phone goes dead. “Bruce? Are you still there?" I ask. "Did I lose you?”

Silence.

“Sorry,” Kaplan said, suddenly returning. “I pressed mute by accident. I’m going to do a cartoon about it immediately. It’s going to be two women looking at a man who’s talking and they’re going to say, ‘How do I press mute?’”

He continued: "What I was saying when I pressed mute, ironically, was that it comes out of real life but not in the moment. It tends to come out in my brain when I’m thinking about things or when I’m thinking about where I went the night before or what I did last week or what I’m about to do or what I’m anxious about or angry about. It does actually come out of…I treat them like journals. I try and sort of think about what’s on my mind as of this point.”

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5 Comments

  • Jack Compere

    @Steve Wolf "Kaplan is one of the few New Yorker cartoonists who uses no tones of black, just pure black and white, which is harder to pull off." Yes! In that respect he reminds me of Gluyas Williams - I have to try this ('tooning in B/W) to see how it works...

  • Steve Wolf

    Yes! I'd say they're not always contrary but they're not always internally consistent — that is, there's no logic as to where the light source is. In the examples here it looks like he wants them out of the way when when logical placement would cast a shadow in front of a character or between two characters talking to each other. It seems like a clear stylistic decision. Would have been interesting to hear how that became a feature, too. Kaplan is one of the few New Yorker cartoonists who uses no tones of black, just pure black and white, which is harder to pull off.

  • Steve Wolf

    Wait--you interviewed him and DIDN'T EVEN ASK about the heavy black line he always draws on the right side?? One of the most obvious and consistent components of his style? Where does it come from? What does it mean?