The Man From Boffo
Going through life as Mr. Boffo's alter ego would be a bit too bizarre for the average Joe -- but not for Joe Martin. He's been penning "Mr. Boffo," his comic strip about high flying, low living Earl C. Boffo since 1985. Maybe its Martin's other endeavors that keep him grounded. He does screenwriting -- he was one of the original writers on "ER" -- and another comic, "Willy and Ethel." In fact, "Mr. Boffo" began as an outlet for gags deemed too weird for "Willy and Ethel." Aside from being weird, "Mr. Boffo" is also perpetually in search of a job. Martin brings 14 years of experience running an employment agency to this aspect of "Mr. Boffo". Originally, this was fodder for another cartoon he drew, "Porterfield," now on hiatus. Although it's only in about 150 papers nationwide, "Mr. Boffo" appears in all the major ones. Strips with that reach are usually in 1,000 or more papers daily. In fact, the feature's so popular that there are now two versions of it -- a strip and a single panel that was launched last year to fill the "The Far Side" gap. Martin's also written a live action screenplay based on "Mr. Boffo" (he'd like to see super deadpan comedian Steven Wright in the starring role) and recently published a collection, "Mr. Boffo, the first Decade". I called on Martin, 52, at his Lake Geneva, Wis., retreat to clear up the concept of "Mr. Boffo."Paul Kilduff: "Mr. Boffo" is probably the quirkiest comic in the paper. Where do you get your ideas?Joe Martin: I take disjointed conversations from different people and put them together. A lot of people don't get all my jokes because they don't hear the whole conversation. People have suggested that I do a Rosetta stone joke decoder. PK: Where do you hang out to eavesdrop on these snippets of conversation?JM: Well, I'm originally from the suburbs of Chicago and I'd walk around there. But in big cities if you're walking around a residential district, the police will pick you up. They picked me up in Oak Park one time for robbing an appliance store. So we moved out to Lake Geneva. We have a lot of tourists and people running and jogging and that type of thing. So now I'm just a vacationer. But it's nice, I sit in McDonald's, they give me a special booth.PK: Every day?JM: The way you say everyday -- it's not very complimentary. If you interviewed Ted Danson would you say, 'You go to work every day?' That's nice.PK: Sounds like this booth at McDonald's is going to have a special place in the annals of American cartooning history.JM: Well, I think it'd have a bigger place if I did Dilbert. I'm a little concerned that I've been here ten years and Dilbert's passing me by.PK: But you're a pretty soft spoken guy. Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, has been on a sitcom, his strip's going to be a TV show, he has all this merchandise out. Yet, you do two daily cartoons, but keep a pretty low profile. Is that on purpose?JM: I don't go out of my way to do anything, maybe that's the problem. I should probably be more active, but I've got seven hours a day I've got to be at McDonald's. Where's the time? I'll tell you the truth. I think I spend more time writing jokes than most cartoonists. And it's not giving me the edge that I it expect to. Dilbert has got some opportunities to let people know about his stuff.PK: But he's also been kind of aggressive about pushing himself.JM: What are you telling me? You want me to call Letterman ... "Hey, Dave. Joe Martin here. You're still on at 11:30, right? I'm going to be in New York in about a week." PK: Do you think Mr. Boffo represents an all-purpose composite sketch of the American male?JM: I think it's an all-purpose composite sketch of everybody because it's taken from everybody. You know, Boffo is sometimes a girl. Recently, Boffo was my mother. And he was King Arthur. Probably one of the funniest comics that ever was done was Herman. And in a lot of ways, Boffo's kind of from that pool. I think Herman and Boffo are more like things that would come out of a warped version of a real life experience. PK: What is Weederman the dog's role?JM: Weederman somehow became the audience. I mean to me, Weederman's more sensible. It makes it come to life for me when I put little Weederman in there. He's saying, "well, this is a goofy thing to be happening." PK: So, Weederman's the peanut gallery?JM: Yeah, he gives the take like Jane Meadows in the Honeymooners. "This guy's an idiot."PK: Do you take any time off?JM: No. If I don't write a joke for a day, then the next day it's harder. It'll take me two to three hours before I start writing. If I don't write for two days, I could spend the whole day without any real jokes. I never have, but if I totally miss three days at work it's real frustrating. The only thing that saves me is that I'm writing all these jokes down and I think they're funny all day and when I get home and I go over them with my wife I find out they're garbage. See, I've never had writer's block because I think this junk is good. PK: When do you actually sit down and do the drawing? JM: That's the one thing that I understand better than anything because it's more of a craft type of thing. I do all the drawing on Wednesday and Thursday. I'll just draw for 15, 20 hours. I'll start Wednesday in the afternoon, and I'll draw until Thursday in the afternoon. I'll sleep for two or three hours. And there's not a day in my life in the last 20 years that I've been doing comics that I haven't said this is the day that I'm going to start doing these strips every day so I don't have to draw them all on Wednesday. But after dinner I sit around, watch television, go out somewhere. I can't believe I do this. PK: Did you originate the phrase 'unclear on the concept?'JM: Yeah. My proudest moment was when my agent called me up and said Steven Spielberg was a Boffo fan and everyday when he'd have his meetings he would say, "Alright, I don't want anybody unclear on the concept." My agent told me Spielberg wanted to see me next time I was in town. And so I immediately told my agent "I'm going to be in town Monday." So, I'm thinking Spielberg wants to see me about some movie project with Boffo. I was going to be the big star, this is it -- Boffo, forget about Star Wars, this is the next thing. I flew there and I had some hassle with my flight, so I forgot to shave. So, I got to the office, and I'm in the parking lot and I said to myself, I could probably shave with this brand new razor blade here without any water. So, I did. Obviously I'm completely crazy. So, I think it worked out real nice. And then I looked in my rear view mirror and there's about 30 cuts all over my over face. I get it down to two or three places and I figure my only hope is the washroom near the reception desk. I finally stopped everything but I'm holding one little piece of toilet paper on my lip and I say to the receptionist, "There's no way around this. If I smile you're going to see a lot of blood". Turns out Spielberg's not even there. He just wanted some T-shirts for his crew.PK: Sounds like a Boffo move. But hapless and dumpy as Boffo is, he's got a blonde bombshell of a wife. Is she Blondie to Boffo's Dagwood? JM: Well, when you get to draw the strip ... what would you draw? But you do see a lot of really beautiful women with goofy looking guys, just not vice versa. If Boffo can have this beautiful wife, anybody can, right? It's a dream. PK: Do you have any classical art training?JM: A little bit of your sarcastic humor coming out again? I think my two weeks at Bogan Junior College was enough to get me through. Actually, I was a draftsman for a couple of years and that's where I learned how to print. When I'm not in a hurry I print really nice. PK: What I like about your drawing style is that it's not the least bit uptight. It's very fluid.JM: That's what those people who didn't understand Picasso said. "I don't know what you're doing, but it's not uptight." PK: Are you a fan of Zippy the Pinhead?JM: I had a problem with underground comics when I was a kid. It was just too many words. And then if I read a comic and I don't get rewarded for the too many words ... it was like when I read Tropic of Cancer. Ever read that? It was supposed to be the dirtiest book of the time. And it had about 5,000 pages and there was nothing dirty in it.PK: No pay off. Did you see the documentary about the cartoonist R. Crumb?JM: I thought that was really something. Whatever genius is, you'd like to think that's that because it's like something you didn't think existed on the planet. Did you get that impression?PK: I did, but what a sour apple. He has every right to be that way I suppose, but it kind of left me with an empty feeling. What was your take on him?JM: I was just so happy to be me. I didn't have to go through that. Didn't you kind of feel like wow, am I in good shape? You want to hug your wife and say "thank you, thank you!"PK: What about the Joe Martin documentary? How would people walk away from that one? Craving a quarter pounder?JM: Yeah, because I don't take things serious. PK: Well, Joe I thought you would be just a normal guy and it's refreshing to find out that you are.JM: There's another one. A normal guy? What is this? Is this going to be like a Hard Copy thing? What do we got here? A normal guy that I can't believe works all the time who goes to McDonald's. PK: One of my favorite "Mr. Boffo" themes is the Land of the Truly Jumbo. JM: That is the only one that I ever get in trouble for, because there are people that are are overweight that feel bad about that, but I always write those jokes when I'm overweight.PK: Are you overweight now?JM: I definitely have giant love grips. It really looks terrible. You have to wear the T-shirt where you tuck it in just right so it looks like the T-shirt flapping over and not you. I do that really well.PK: There's an anonymity factor you enjoy as a cartoonist. Would you ever want to perform as a stand up comedian?JM: If I'm live in front of 10,000 people in a theater and they're all going "I don't get that" and I have to go "Okay, here's why you don't get it." That always makes them start rolling. I don't think so. PK: It doesn't sound like you're too concerned if people get "Mr. Boffo." Are you?JM: Well, "Jumble" is one of the biggest comics in America. It can't be that bad to be puzzling.