|Shel Silverstein is the world’s only writer-cartoonist-composer-lyricist-performer.
At 32, he has been on the staff of Playboy Magazine for six years and has
still found time to write many, many books, both for adults and for children,
and to record two records (Hairy Jazz, Inside Folk Songs), and perform
his own songs in nightclubs, and see most of the world. His “Uncle Shelby’s
ABZ Book” was published in 1961 and is still being bought and enjoyed by
people all over the country. His next two books will be “Lafcadio, the
Lion Who Shot Back,” a children’s book (Harper’s), and “The Giving Tree,”
a book about a child for adults (Harper’s). More books will be out early
next year, as well as more Playboy articles, more songs (many of which
are performed by the major folk groups and singers), more cartoons, and
AARDVARK: Does a satirist have an obligation to society?
SHEL SILVERSTEIN: He has the obligation to society that any human being
has. I don’t think a satirist has any greater obligation to society than
a bricklayer or anybody else.
AARDVARK: Do you think that satirical cartooning is as important as
satirical prose work?
SILVERSTEIN: It’s hard to say. The cartoon form will probably reach
more people, but probably won’t make as lasting an impression. The people
that thumb through a magazine will notice and digest a cartoon much quicker
than they’ll notice and digest a short story. By the same token, a story
that deeply involves the reader would naturally be more lasting and make
a deeper impression. A cartoon can seldom truly involve the reader. You
don’t have enough time or space to do it.
AARDVARK: Which is more important in satirical cartooning, getting
a laugh or making a point?
SILVERSTEIN: You’d better get your laugh while you’re making your point,
or you won’t be doing it very long. Just to be a deep cartoonist I don’t
think is enough. The humor hast to be there. And you can make a living
just being humorous, but I doubt that people would have too much use for
AARDVARK: You draw cartoons and you write. Do you say different things
through the different media?
SILVERSTEIN: Some things you can say through drawings, and some things
you need the extensiveness of writing. I don’t know if I’m saying different
things in the way that is most fitting. I say things through poetry, I
say them through song, I say them through drawing.
AARDVARK: Are there any particular trends in humor today?
SILVERSTEIN: Humor will follow the way of thinking of the times. Our
times now are very analytical, and cartoons are expressing some of this.
The workings of the human mind and psychoanalysis itself–people’s head
problems–are becoming more the subject of cartoons. We’re going a little
farther out now as far as imagination goes, than we were a few years back
when the only thing was situation comedy. This is true in your comics too.
Stand-up comics reflect less of a visual humor and more of a commentary.
Sahl’s not funny to watch, Shelley Berman doesn’t make you laugh, looking
at him. There were comics, though, that did this. They not only had a funny
line, but they were funny to watch. I wouldn’t judge one against the other
except that, ideally, of course, would be to say something and be amusing
to watch also. The same as in cartooning. The idea thing would be to tell
something fairly deep in a humorous way.
AARDVARK: Do you think we’re entering into an age of satire? Is there
more freedom today for the satirist to express himself?
SILVERSTEIN: Definitely. It’s very important to remember that, when
you look at someone’s work today, whether it be a comic or a cartoonist
or a writer, you’ll find him going much further out, delving much deeper
or cutting much more incisively, and you say to yourself, compared with
the guys of ten or twenty years ago, this guy really has guts, because
he’s saying things that were not said twenty years ago, the things that
nobody would dare say. But he has as his basis the work of the guy of one
year ago, and the guy of two years ago. It’s like carving steps into a
mountain so that some guy can reach forward. Without those steps, man doesn’t
often have the courage to go too far, and the people will not accept it
and nobody will print it. You have your people who are behind the times,
and they naturally fall away. Then you have your people who are right in
tune with the times, and they are the people who are accepted or followed
by the majority of people. Then you have your people who are just a little
bit ahead of the times. If you’re behind the times, they won’t notice you.
If you’re right in tune with them, you’re no better than they are, so they
won’t care much for you. Be just a little ahead of them. If you’re way
ahead of them, you might as well be twenty miles behind them, because they
don’t understand what you’re talking about.
AARDVARK: Do you think Lenny Bruce fits into this category?
SILVERSTEIN: Lenny, in some respects, is pretty well ahead of the social
acceptability of our times. Fifteen years from now, when people talk about
what Lenny said and did on stage, they’ll ask themselves, “What was the
big fuss all about?” Or they might say, “What the fuck was the big fuss
all about” on television, which would really–. And then they won’t be used
the next week because they’re not controversial enough. It’s just as disastrous,
just as fatal, to be way ahead of your time as it is to be way behind.
And yet, what can you do? You can only do the work that you think is right.
AARDVARK: Have you read the Realist’s article on the arrest of Lenny
SILVERSTEIN: No. I was there.
AARDVARK: Krassner came to the conclusion that Bruce was not arrested
for obscenity, but for blasphemy.
SILVERSTEIN: I don’t think that much about what Paul Krassner has to
say about it. He spends his whole life looking up Lenny’s asshole, anyway.
I can’t really be as concerned with the whole thing as he is. If you want
to know the whole story, you should really talk to Lenny.
AARDVARK: He won’t talk to us. We’ve tried. He only talks to God.
SILVERSTEIN: He talks to me. He’s as direct and honest about the whole
situation as a man could possibly be. It’s his followers that get a little
fanatical and start jumping all around, but Lenny’s very straight about
the whole thing. The day after he was arrested, he said, “They had a right
to bust me. They had a warrant.” So the guy comes onstage with a warrant
for Lenny and Lenny realizes the man has a warrant and he’s legally arrested,
so he said, “Fine,” and everybody else starts jumping up and down and protesting.
AARDVARK: Did he think he was guilty of obscenity?
SILVERSTEIN: I think he thinks he is guilty of obscenity as far as
our laws go, but he does it anyway because he believes he’s doing right.
I don’t think he’s against any law; he’s just for what he’s doing. I think
about what he does onstage rather than the overall thing. I don’t find
much of it objectionable.
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