Shel Silverstein: The Aardvark Interview
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 who-knows-what else.

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 you.
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 Bruce?
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.

On to Part 2 ===>