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Pastis’ comic writing advice: Don’t try so hard

Pearls Before Swine creator Stephan Pastis is dishing out advice for would be comic creators. His first round of advice: “Don’t put effort into your work.

Here’s how you know when you’re funny: The ideas seem to flow from you naturally, almost without work. You’re more of a witness to it than a creator of it.

Another caveat: Sometimes the stuff that flows from you will be crap. And that voice inside your head will lie and tell you it’s good. That’s a risk you must bear.

But as a general idea, good jokes will pop out right before your eyes, like bunnies from a stream (I know what you’re saying – I’m good at analogies).

You know this is happening because your reaction will be, “Someone MUST have done this before.” (By the way, you’ll also get that feeling when your stealing ideas from The Far Side.)

Community Comments

#1 Mike Witmer
February/6/2009
@ 10:46 am

LOL! If Gary Larson shows up at your door and punches you in the kidneys, that’s a pretty good sign you’re ripping him off.

Thanks Stephan, it’s so obvious to me now… Like cheese on a cherry pie.

#2 Lucas Turnbloom
February/6/2009
@ 11:32 am

Pastis once told me not to put any time into my work. Perhaps he was trying to tell me something…

#3 Benita Epstein
February/6/2009
@ 12:11 pm

Stephan, I’m gonna try the ?Don?t put effort into your work.? right now!

#4 Mike Sieber
February/6/2009
@ 12:15 pm

Well, there you go.

For me, getting material is like mining for precious metals, except after the hard work, all I’m usually able to get is a wad of aluminum foil. That’s why Pastis is a millionaire and I’m a ten-dollar-aire.

#5 Wiley Miller
February/6/2009
@ 2:59 pm

I think what Stephan is getting at here, in his usual sarcastic manner, is that you can’t manufacture success. The creative process is one that needs to flow rather than be forced or analyzed.

#6 Lucas_Turnbloom
February/6/2009
@ 3:33 pm

I haven’t been putting effort into my work for years!

…That explains a lot…

#7 Abell Smith
February/6/2009
@ 5:35 pm

I also see what he’s getting at, but I think it’s a huge oversimplification… especially for editorial cartoonists. In terms of “jokes,” he’s probably right… going with a simple gut-feeling is best. But the trick for political satirists is combining the joke with issue analysis…

For editorial cartoonists, “don’t put effort into your work” is the LAST suggestion I would give someone…

#8 brian anderson
February/6/2009
@ 10:24 pm

Great, I spend years convincing my family and friends that cartooning is hard and Stephan just blurts out the truth. This is why cartoonists are never asked to be Masons.

#9 Garey Mckee
February/6/2009
@ 10:27 pm

Brian, all you have to do is ask.

#10 Clay Norton
February/7/2009
@ 12:14 am

This is awful advice. The remedy for contrived work isn’t “don’t put effort in your work”. Making it look easy, natural and effortless is what any artist, writer, performer, athlete etc.. would want, but you don’t get better by putting less effort into anything.

This is also lazy advice. In the same way telling someone to “practice” is lazy. Except the implications here are the opposite; forget trial and error, just wait for it to hit you!

Wiley, I think you’re mixing the process with the final product in regards to being ‘forced, manufactured, and analyzed’.
There are patterns, logic, and structure in the humor, art and writing. Creative works are manufactured whether you’re conscious of it or not. On the draft board, when something comes out contrived, its a matter of working out the kinks, not writing it off. Analyzing the idea, and analyzing the characters, the context/setting/atmosphere exposes the constraint and allows for proper adjustments.

The real issues for me in the article were ‘trying too hard to write funny’ and the “this can’t be original, can it?” feeling.

If you’re asking yourself whether somethings original or not, its probably because its explicitly derivative. Philosophically, if a cartoonist looks at himself as a chef instead of an inventor, were the world, culture, and people are his ingredients, the output would probably be drastically different and we could see the meduim evolve instead of flounder because of fear. Really, no one will accuse you of being “unoriginal” for serving your style of cheeseburger. Also, generally speaking, derivative jokes are mainly intolerable when they have only one point of interest.

Trying to hard to write funny can mean a million things. Young cartoonists should look to further establish there characters, direction, and motivation if its a daily chore to find ideas.

#11 Stacy Curtis
February/7/2009
@ 12:49 am

I’ve always said it looks like Stephan doesn’t put any effort into his work. ;-)

#12 Wiley Miller
February/7/2009
@ 7:48 am

“but I think it?s a huge oversimplification? ”

Well, yeah… he’s a cartoonist. It’s hard work to come up with such oversimplifications.

#13 Bearman
February/7/2009
@ 1:07 pm

What is it called when you put a lot of effort into your work but in the end it looks like you didn’t?

#14 Rich Diesslin
February/7/2009
@ 3:03 pm

Crap or Genius I guess! ;)

This quote found me today on one of my igoogle widgets … thought it somewhat relevant:

“Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time… The wait is simply too long.” – Leonard Bernstein

#15 Quint Nelson
February/7/2009
@ 9:17 pm

Mr Norton, the article was providing Mr Pastis’ own experience in order to aid other cartoonists. He didn’t have to write the article at all. The fact that you reject it doesn’t mean that other people should reject his advice. Some people might find his article helpful.

Why do people have to be such selfish jerks these days? Hey, everythings NOT about you.

#16 RS Davis
February/7/2009
@ 10:01 pm

“Pastis? advice: Don?t try so hard”

This is baloney.

I tried the same exact method in High School and College.

It was such a disaster I almost had to go into teaching.

#17 Mike Peterson
February/7/2009
@ 10:55 pm

Almost a lawyer beats almost a teacher.

#18 Clay Norton
February/8/2009
@ 6:26 am

Hi Quint.

Rejecting something because it’s rejectable doesn’t make sense to me either! Rejecting advice because its bad advice would make sense though. Perhaps if you feel it’s not bad advice you’ll explain why and maybe even address some specifics already written.

Anything can be perceived as ‘helpful’. My elephant insurance, daily horoscope, and Sherpa account are so helpful!

Feel free to elaborate on the quality and merits of his advice if you can.

#19 Wiley Miller
February/8/2009
@ 8:12 am

I think you may be reading more into his words (and mine) than was intended, Clay. All he’s saying is to relax and open your mind in order to allow the creativity to flow out rather than trying to force it out in a formulaic, analytical manner. Writing humor isn’t like writing a thesis on economics.

Producing a daily syndicated comic strip is very hard work, far more difficult than one can imagine until they’re actually doing it. It’s not a profession for lazy people. The trick is, to make it look easy. You know the old saying… if it was easy, everyone would be doing it.

#20 Josh McDonald
February/8/2009
@ 8:39 am

Overanalysis makes for comic gold every time. Just look at Alan Greenspan’s successful stand-up career.

This Pastis guy, whoever he is, obviously doesn’t know comedy.

#21 Garey Mckee
February/8/2009
@ 11:37 am

I don’t know Wiley, a thesis on economics might be rather funny these days. You gotta laugh, because otherwise you’d cry.

#22 Rick Stromoski
February/8/2009
@ 12:11 pm

>>.Anything can be perceived as ?helpful?. My elephant insurance, daily horoscope, and Sherpa account are so helpful!

The last person you should be taking cartooning advice from is anyone with a Sherpa account.

And Stephan Pastis eats worms.

#23 Wiley Miller
February/8/2009
@ 1:17 pm

“And Stephan Pastis eats worms.”

Yeah, but it’s hard work to dig them up first.

#24 Rich Diesslin
February/8/2009
@ 7:20 pm

Actually, just lay on a side walk in the rain and they practically crawl into your mouth … er … or so I’m told anyway.

#25 Joe Rank
February/8/2009
@ 9:32 pm

Worms!
Yum! Roly-poly worms. Squirrely-twirrely worms! Eat em up YUM!

NAH! Won’t work.

DRAT!

Will have to continue with research on canibobble cartoonistacrats.
A rare species.

#26 RS Davis
February/9/2009
@ 5:30 pm

“Almost a lawyer beats almost a teacher.”

What does ‘almost a cartoonist beat’? Crabgrass and warts?

#27 Karyl Miller
February/9/2009
@ 6:07 pm

After writing sitcoms for 30 years, I’m always asked this question. If you’re writing every day then your brain is tuned in to doing this and you can just do it. If you’re writing less often, then it'[s harder. You cannot punish yourself into writing, so I just say step away from that keyboard or drawing board and just go to the beach.

#28 Joe Rank
February/9/2009
@ 9:26 pm

Karyl M.-“so I just say step away from that keyboard or drawing board and just go to the beach.”
Always a good plan, especially if there is a beach nearby…one that’s warm. An ice plated Wisconsin beach does not have the same allure as a California one…even in winter.

Taking a respite by walking on the beach, or pier, always results in new ideas or new material for caricatures.
Some times, observing is better than thinking.

KRANKY

#29 Alan Jones
February/9/2009
@ 10:38 pm

As an aspiring toonista, I find what Stephan has to say actually pretty interesting. I “work” at coming up with good ideas, and they are often not so great. Later when I am doing something else (like my day job for instance) and just doodling/daydreaming, stuff seems to”happen” – fairly good stuff IMHO. After that the real work of implementing the idea takes place.

#30 Shane Gorner
March/9/2010
@ 6:05 pm

HAHAHAHA….I would say that it is NOT a huge oversimplification….I’m sorry to say, but for some people it really is a NO EFFORT scenario, and for some people the ideas just jump out at them from something somebody says. You can take any joke and make it into a comic, the real skill comes in seeing those jokes. For some people (e.g. Stephan Pasis) it IS that easy, and if the ideas don’t FLOW for you, or you have trouble coming up with material, well that’s your problem. Some are just more talented than others. Favourite cartoonists: Bill Watterson, Gary Larson, Stephan Pastis. I have always thought that my one frame comics ‘were’ a Gary Larson rip off. But hey, I didn’t know that he thought of it first, so technically I thought of it first HAHA

Also, Stephan Pastis DOES know comedy. Some people just have funnier material than others…Josh McDonald, I’m sorry to say, but some people find writing this stuff and making it funny easy.

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