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Comedian Steve Martin Partners With Cartoonist Harry Bliss For New Book

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The comedian Steve Martin loves a good comic strip. So he partnered with The New Yorker's cartoonist, Harry Bliss.

STEVE MARTIN: When I was a kid, comics, you know, like little pamphlets that we got in the mail, they were my only communication with the outside world. And they were, you know, the only thing that arrived for me. In fact, it was the only literature I read.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRY BLISS: That's some deep stuff.

S MARTIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: That's Bliss and Martin, who have just created a new book of cartoons. It is called "A Wealth Of Pigeons." They brainstormed ideas together over email. Steve Martin writes in the introduction that, for him, comics are the last frontier.

S MARTIN: It's kind of an admiration that I had for people who could write cartoons because I would look at them in amazement. It was like, how did they come up with this? How can you have a drawing of two people in a room and then get a funny line out of it? And it wasn't like - I don't think I needed to prove it to myself. It was just like, gee, I wonder if I could do that. And also it's so invigorating to start something completely new that's kind of in your wheelhouse, but it's more the outhouse of your wheelhouse.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Harry, do you want to take issue with that?

S MARTIN: No because it's not under the same roof is what I mean. It's not under the same roof. It's - you know, it's something for it. I should have said toolshed outside. Yeah.

MARTIN: Right. Yeah. Keep talking. Keep saying more.

BLISS: It's out now, buddy. Yeah, keep going. You're doing fine. That's really funny, actually.

MARTIN: Well, let's get into some of these in more specifics. "The Myth Of Sisyphus Fact-Checked" is just brilliant just to absorb on its own. And it's radio, so you can't see this illustration. It's a beautiful illustration, Harry. But Steve, can you just explain this?

BLISS: I have to correct you, though.

MARTIN: Oh, please.

BLISS: I'm sorry. I have to interject. It's not an illustration, though. Just so you know.

MARTIN: Did I say illustration?

BLISS: Yeah.

MARTIN: Oh, I'm sorry. What should I call it?

BLISS: That's OK.

MARTIN: A drawing?

BLISS: It's a drawing. It's a drawing.

MARTIN: I'm so sorry. Tell me...

BLISS: That's OK. No, it's a...

S MARTIN: Calm down, Harry. Calm down. She's sorry. She's sorry. She apologized.

BLISS: (Laughter) All right. OK. Carry on.

S MARTIN: Well, my wife used to be a fact-checker at The New Yorker, among other things. And so I love the world of fact-checking. I just - I think it's so crucial to so many things. And I love it. And so back to "The Myth Of Sisyphus." So one day, it just occurred to me, "The Myth Of Sisyphus Fact-Checked" and his - you know, the jokes were like his real name was Manny. And the slope was not as high as they said. It was actually just a 10% grade and the rock was papier-mache. And, you know...

MARTIN: He didn't work weekends.

S MARTIN: And he had to work - he doesn't work weekends and he had a work week of 40 hours.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Harry, was it OK to tell Steve Martin that it just wasn't working, like, if he made a pitch that just wasn't - it wasn't funny?

BLISS: That was - it was hard. It was difficult. And I'll tell you, you know, in most cases, drawing cartoons is something I know and I'm pretty good at. So I have a certain amount of confidence there. But I'm also open to this, you know, the idea that I'm wrong and he's right. So I had to, you know, go back and say, God, you know, maybe he's right. And then I would then draw them up, which I normally would not do. So I had to - I was very aware that these ideas were coming from a really funny person and...

S MARTIN: Well, you know...

BLISS: ...That certainly factored into it.

S MARTIN: And I'll interrupt it. Like, not all my ideas are great. And often Harry will conceive of the idea first and then send it to me. But I have a little guilt that I have to confess because I know if I'm lying awake at 4 a.m. and an idea pops into my head and I send it to Harry, that I worked on it for five seconds and now he's got to work on it for three hours.

(LAUGHTER)

S MARTIN: But when I - I answer myself by saying, well, sometimes I lie there for two hours and don't get anything, and then something will pop into my head that, you know...

BLISS: It all evens out.

S MARTIN: Yeah. And I'm actually working on stuff sometimes for two hours, just going - you know, like the drawing in the book where I'm going eggplants, juggling balls, you know, things just passing through your mind.

MARTIN: Obviously, in stand-up, you know, timing is everything, right? And you're pacing and you're storytelling and you're waiting for it and you're sitting in pauses for a long, uncomfortable moment. And I didn't think timing would be an element to these kind of static cartoons. But actually, I mean, it is.

S MARTIN: I completely agree that there is timing involved in this, and it's strange. It's nanosecond timing.

MARTIN: Right.

S MARTIN: You know, it's just where everything sort of comes together in a pinpoint. I'm being too grand because it's really a cartoon. But, you know, this is the way I look at it.

(LAUGHTER)

BLISS: It's true in the case of many of these. But if you look at - I'm going to have to go back and claim this one as maybe my favorite in the book. And it's - a lot of it has to do with timing. It's the baby being born. And...

S MARTIN: I love that one.

BLISS: Yeah. And Steve, when he sent me that one, again, I - a lot of times when Steve sends me the cartoons, emails them to me, I see them in my mind as I'm reading the caption. So he sets them up, but I'm also seeing them...

S MARTIN: Let me just jump in for the listener because they have to visualize this cartoon. It's a baby just having been born in the hospital room. The doctors are there. And the little infant says to the doctor, this is my best birthday ever.

MARTIN: Oh, right.

(LAUGHTER)

BLISS: And it just seems like - I laughed...

S MARTIN: So go ahead, Harry.

BLISS: I just laughed so hard because, of course, it's the best birthday ever. It's like...

(LAUGHTER)

BLISS: Oh, and the getting the - I'm sorry. There's a - well, I can go on but...

S MARTIN: There's another infant one I like. And it has these tricks of cartooning, which I love. It's a - it's, like, a 3-year-old on a unicycle and he's riding around his living room, he or she, and he's juggling and riding a unicycle at the same time. And the parents say encourage or discourage. But what I like about it is the little - the tracks of the unicycle are indicated by little dots, and he's done a circle. And you don't even think twice about it. You know those dots indicate his path.

S MARTIN: And, you know, if you - yeah.

BLISS: There's a - it's part of the comic language and a comic...

S MARTIN: Right.

BLISS: Yeah. And there's a lot of it in there.

S MARTIN: I love the gestures, how a dog wags his tail. I love the the gestures of motion, these little vibes that come off an object when it's in motion.

BLISS: It's super fun to do.

MARTIN: It has been such a pleasure to talk with both of you, Harry Bliss and Steve Martin. The book is called "A Wealth Of Pigeons: A Cartoon Collection." Thanks to both of you.

BLISS: Thank you.

S MARTIN: Thank you very much, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.