Joe Martin is sitting around his house in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, sipping a cool drink, looking out over his pool and his estate. He’s discussing a movie he wants to pitch in Hollywood and he’s browsing through a brochure that shows a picture of the private island he’s thinking of buying.
“I was interested in one in Florida in the Keys. They said it was ten acres,” says Martin. “When I finally got there, it turned out eight-and-a-half acres of it was underwater.”
He points to a picture of a small chunk of land surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean. “This one I’m afraid there’s something wrong with because you can only stay there six months out of the year. I’m going to fly down there and have a look. I figure everybody wants to have a private island. Since I can do it, I might as well.”
After years of hard work, Joe Martin has struck pay dirt. The syndicated cartoonist who draws Mister Boffo (Tribune), Willy ‘n Ethel (Sun-Times), and the business panel Porterfield (Sun-Times) is living a life of luxury in Lake Geneva in a hard-to-say-what. It used to be a huge stable and later was a monastery, and it looks as though it may be haunted.
Martin has transformed the place into a long, skinny mansion. He had the pool installed, refurbished the clock tower, hired live-in caretakers to take care of the lawns, and is working on a greenhouse. There are dozens of rooms, long corridors, several pianos, and even an auditorium that Martin built for working on shows. Outside the place, it’s just a short walk to the lake and Martin’s boat. Sometimes neighbors Adrian Belew and John R. Powers, the playwright, pop by to hang out.
“I don’t want anything more than this,” says Martin. “Right now, this is great. Anything else would be extra.”
Even so, a few minutes later Martin is talking about splitting the price of a cottage in France with a friend of his.
Says Martin, “The great thing about my job is I don’t really ever have to be anywhere.”
Joe Martin was born in 1945 on the south side of Chicago and “nothing happened until I was 15.” It sounds like he grew up pretty typically for the times. “I was president of a car club called the Impalas. We had turquoise jackets that our mothers wouldn’t let us put on. We had a little ’32 Ford that we never got the engine for.”
Martin says the turning point came when he was 15. He went to see The Great Imposter with Tony Curtis. It’s the story of a guy with no formal education who breezes from one profession to another. Martin stayed and watched the movie three times and came out convinced that it was time for him to strike out on his own.
“I went to school and I said I wanted to leave school and they said you can’t leave school until you’re 18 unless you’re married,” says Martin. “So I was going with this girl and I said ‘OK, let’s get married.'”
A husband at 16, Martin worked for a while as a draftsman and moonlighted by hawking aluminum siding from a phone room. When he was 19, he switched fields and became an employment counselor. He says he’d been named vice president of the agency he worked for by the time he turned 21.
“I had 15 people under me,” says Martin. “Half of them were college graduates. I had a brand-new Oldsmobile. We had a house with a maid and everything. I was having a great time taking people out to dinner. I was at the Pump Room every night really having a wonderful time.”
In 1969, his wife left him.
“She said, ‘I’ve had it with this. You’ve been having a great time and I’ve just spent the whole time having babies and cleaning house.'”
They got divorced.
Martin opened his own employment agency, and that’s where he met his second wife, Marie, who married him in 1974 and is now his all-purpose business manager. In his spare time, Martin doodled comics in their Oak Park home and sent them off to various underground publications. “Every month I’d submit something. I used to read Li’l Abner as a kid. When I was 15 I remember telling my fiancee that I would either be a cartoonist or a fine artist. There was no question in my mind that I wouldn’t be one.” Martin is one of those people who collect rejection slips and he says he has thousands of them.
His break came in 1978, when a friend who claimed to be well connected at the Sun-Times suggested that Martin develop a new comic strip. Martin came up with one about a guy who ran an employment agency. It turned out that the only person Martin’s friend knew at the Sun-Times was a free-lance photographer who did some work there, but Martin went ahead and sent off his strip, Mister Tucker, to the Field Newspaper Syndicate, which was lodged in the Sun-Times Building and also owned by Field Enterprises.
“Luck was with me,” says Martin. “I sent it in the same day a new guy was starting as a manager of the Field Syndicate’s comics section, and he didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to look at anything. If you get a new job as an editor, you want to find some new hero. But after a year of looking at garbage, you get sick of it. Luckily he was just starting and he saw my comic and thought it was hilarious. In 1978 there was tremendous unemployment so it was very topical, and since it was written by a guy who was in the business it made me an authority.”
At its peak, 80 papers carried Mister Tucker. When interest waned, the syndicate dropped the strip, and Martin distributed it himself for a time under the letterhead Neatly Chiseled Features. In ’81 Martin abandoned Mister Tucker and brought out Willy ‘n Ethel. Porterfield followed in ’85, Mister Boffo in ’86.
“To do comics like I do, you can’t have a regular life,” says Martin.
“Let’s see what I’ve got today. Let’s see if I’ve got any funny jokes,” Joe Martin is saying as he sits behind his office desk and flips through a spiral notebook filled with doodles.
“Ahh, this one’s stupid,” he says and he flips the page. He flips and flips and then he stops. “This one’s not bad,” he says and turns the notebook around, revealing unintelligible scribbles.
“This is one I do a lot in Boffo,” he says. “It’s called, ‘Making the Best of a Bad Situation.’ I try to think of a bad situation. OK, here we have people jumping out of a burning building. So I have a husband and a wife jumping out carrying out a line of clothing. They’re going to make the best out of a bad situation. They’re going to use the fire to dry their clothes.”
A long pause.
“You’re right. It’s not that good.” He scribbles some more on the piece of paper and presents it again. “Here,” he says. “Now it’s a little more upbeat. I still have the house on fire, but now I have Boffo jumping out the window and he’s carrying a kite. I like that better.”
He flips to another page and a sketch of two angels. “I was looking at a joke in the New Yorker the other day and they had some joke with a sign that said something like, Last Chance to Buy Gas. So I figure I’d have a guy going up to heaven. Here you have two angels bringing him up and there’s the sign that says, Last Chance to Swear.”
He flips through some more pages and shakes his head and laughs. “I don’t know what I was thinking here.” He pauses at the next page. “All right,” he says, “this one isn’t really a joke yet. It’s more in the concept stage. I’ve got a joke to go with it, but I don’t really like it yet. OK, you know how businessmen always say, ‘You have to look at the big picture’? Well, I want to do a joke about that, and right now I have two guys fishing for coins out of a drain and one says to the other, ‘The depressing thing is this is the big picture.’ Nah. That’s too obscure. No one’s going to be able to figure out what in the world they’re doing. I know! I’ll make them hot dog vendors. Yeah, that’ll work.”
He draws a sketch of a hot dog stand. “See,” he says, “that’s how it works. I just came up with a new joke right before your eyes.”
Martin wakes up at seven in the morning and picks up a spiral notebook. He walks three hours away from his home and walks three hours back, and if it’s been a good day he’s filled up the notebook with new jokes. He goes through three or four notebooks a week. He’s been doing this almost every day for about ten years and he has a cabinet filled with joke books. Now he’s in the process of cataloging all his jokes and putting them into a computer so he’ll be able to retrieve a joke on any subject at the touch of a button.
“You need these phony stimuli to get the work done,” says Martin. “Most of the time when the weather’s all right I’ll walk. If you walk for three hours, even if you don’t come up with a joke you know you have to walk for three hours coming back. That is the best trick I’ve ever had to get myself to write. Don’t take any money and just walk, because if you have money you’ll just take a bus or a cab.”
On Tuesday he mails out the week’s Porterfield strips, which he syndicates via Neatly Chiseled Features to 35 newspapers. On Wednesday he ships Willy ‘n Ethel to King Features (and on to 120 papers) and on Thursday Mister Boffo to Tribune Media Services (and to 170 papers). He works about six weeks in advance, nine weeks for the Sunday strips. He sends out as many as eight or ten of the Willy ‘n Ethel and Mister Boffo strips a week, and his editors at the syndicates choose the ones they like the best. All of which comes to about 1,500 new jokes a year.
“It never comes easy,” says Martin. “I’ve never written a joke when I was dreaming or after I’ve been drinking. You have to write every day, and if I miss a day it’s very hard to get back into the groove. If I miss two days of writing it takes me four or five hours to get back into the groove. When I take a vacation I write all the time. It’s scary to go four or five hours and not be able to write a joke. You get worried. I think it’s a mind-set type of thing. When I work for five or six hours my mind is still active and people will say something and that will trigger more jokes.
“Writing jokes is like being at a party where you’ve had a few drinks and you think everything you said was hilarious and you wake up the next morning and you’re sober and you realize you made a fool of yourself. A lot of times when I’m walking I come up with something that I think is a brilliant piece of wit and it turns out to be just cornball.
“I envy people who have jobs where they know what they’re doing. When an accountant goes to audit people, he knows exactly how he’s going to audit them. A painter comes in with a gallon of paint and he knows he’s going to paint that wall. The wall’s not going to change its mind and walk out. If I really knew how to write a joke like I know how to paint a wall, imagine how much money I could make. I could write a thousand jokes a day.”
Martin’s best-known comic is Mister Boffo and it seems to be his favorite as well. It’s a one-panel strip about an everyman who finds himself in any number of strange situations. It’s reminiscent of the works of certain New Yorker cartoonists, of Jim Unger (who does Herman) and Gary Larson.
“The first year I brought in Boffo to the syndicate, they said it was too wild,” says Martin. “The second year I brought in Boffo, they said not only was it too wild but some guy in San Francisco was doing a comic that was just like mine and it had only been syndicated to 12 papers and it was going down the tubes. That was Gary Larson with The Far Side. For five years in a row I’d go up to the people at the Field Syndicate [later North America Syndicate, which is now a part of King Features] and I’d keep presenting Boffo and each year they had a different reason why they weren’t going to do it. Two years after, Gary Larson had all these best-selling books, and they said, ‘Well, he may have all these best-selling books but he’s still only in about 50 papers.’ So Gary Larson got with a different syndicate and immediately got into 500 papers. I said, ‘Every year you give me a different excuse. Why can’t I do Boffo?’ and they said, ‘Well there are too many features like it now.’ So I said, ‘You guys are crazy. I tried to do it with you guys, but I’m going to take it to somebody else.’ Immediately the Tribune syndicate took it.”
Although the Mister Boffo books don’t do the same kind of sales as The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes, the strip has become a hit. You can find it in a lot of college papers, and according to Martin it’s in every major city in America except, ironically, nearby Milwaukee.
Mister Boffo is not for everybody. Martin admits it’s an acquired taste that often befuddles even faithful readers. He frequently gets letters asking him to explain his jokes.
“Certain segments of the population will never get Boffo. I was teasing that I was going to have a 1-900 Boffo explanation line, and it’s probably not such a bad idea. One morning a talk radio show in Chicago spent their show trying to figure out a joke of mine. It was a picture of Pompeii, which was covered with what appeared to be some kind of sheet with fishes and big eyes. It covered the whole city. The joke was that this was supposed to be a tie that was offered as a gift to God and the tie was so ugly that God caused Mount Vesuvius to erupt. Nobody understood the joke and people would call up with all of these metaphysical explanations.
“I was going to call up and explain it to them, but I thought there might be a posse coming after me if they realized how corny the joke was. When I sent it to the syndicate, I told them it was a little obscure. It turns out that the syndicate ran it because the editor interpreted it to mean something totally different than I had intended. I was thinking of telling the radio station his idea instead of mine, because mine didn’t really make any sense.”
Martin plans to come out with a “Banned Boffo” book. It will include all the strips that didn’t see print because they were too obscure or too filthy, plus some of the more controversial ones that did.
“The biggest complaints I get are about my capital punishment jokes.” says Martin. “I put a guy in an electric chair with toast and it says, Making the Best of a Bad Situation. It happened the joke came out the day after somebody was electrocuted. I had no idea it was going to happen that way, but it looked like I was doing it to make a point, so I got a whole bunch of letters.
“The syndicate’ll run any joke if you insist as long as it doesn’t have a swear word,” he says. “My jokes are strictly for fun. Sometimes a syndicate will point out that someone might take this joke the wrong way, and in that case I won’t do it because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. I want them to laugh and have fun.
“The problem with humor is too many people take it seriously today. I did a joke one time where I stereotyped a Chinese person and I didn’t mean it as harmful but because I stereotyped him with the slanted eyes the editor said that would offend people. If you set it up where people get offended by something so silly, people can complain about anything. What if you do a joke about a garage mechanic with greasy hands? Are all the garage mechanics gonna get together and complain? Bottom line–people have to get the chip off their shoulders.”
Martin is standing in the kitchen with the sun streaming in through the windows as his wife prepares a pasta dish. He is looking through the Sun-Times and Tribune comics sections and circling certain strips with his finger. “Look at that,” he says. “There are over 60 comic strips in the city and over a third of them were in the paper when my father was a kid.”
If you talk to Martin long enough, you find out that although he is a mellow, laid-back kind of guy he takes his work very seriously and has a genuine concern for the future of the comics industry. And he sees the business lazily recycling product that has been around since the 30s.
“It might be nostalgia, but it’s too much,” Martin says. “There are a lot of old boys in cartooning these days. Would you be going to a movie tomorrow if the show had Charlie Chaplin but it wasn’t really Charlie Chaplin? It was some guy dressed up to look like Charlie Chaplin and it was the ninth generation of Charlie Chaplin? Would you go to see that? That is what they’re doing in the newspapers. They’re going back 70 years. The Katzenjammer Kids are still in some papers. Like Pogo. It’s just not really Pogo. What other form of entertainment relies so heavily on the past?”
Martin blames the syndicates. “You know why it is? Let’s say I’m Dick Tracy. I’m in 2,000 papers. It takes 40 years to get into 2,000 papers, but once it happens nobody has to work at selling it. All they have to do is mail it out. They haven’t had to make a sale on Blondie in 20 years. They’re in 2,000 papers. They just print up the stuff and mail it to the newspapers. If they replace Blondie with something newer and funnier, they have to give up all that income, which is maybe $3 million a year. So, what the comic syndicates want to do is perpetuate these old sales. And the longer you keep something the harder it gets to get rid of it. Every year in the paper solidifies you and creates this habit. If you go to cancel an old feature, people will call up and say you can’t take that away, that’s my comic.
“The whole comics industry is only about a hundred years old. The first comic came out at the turn of the century. Why are we keeping all this old baggage? What’s it going to be like 500 years from now? Is it going to be the 25th generation of Garfield? Al Capp, nutty as he was, was one of the best people in the business. He said if somebody was good enough to continue Li’l Abner he was good enough to have his own comic. That’s the kind of thinking we should have in this business. If you’re going to keep the thing in the paper for 40 years at least get rid of it when the guy dies. Don’t perpetuate it. The only reason Boffo’s in the paper is because the guy who did Dondi retired.”
Martin thinks the syndicates should test-market comics by showing strips to random groups of people. The comics that get the most laughs would be the ones the syndicates run with. He plans to do this sort of testing to promote Porterfield.
“You have to make it appeal to today’s audience. You have to make it competitive,” he says. “If you put 500 people in a room and show them those 50-year-old comic strips, you’ll hear a silent room. If you start putting up Cathy, Herman, and my features you’ll start hearing chuckles. Something has to be done to make people work harder. A lot of people don’t even read the comics anymore.
Joe Martin on other comics:
On Johnny Hart’s B.C.: “I haven’t laughed at it in ten years. What’s he doing with this dictionary stuff? He does all these jokes where a guy sits on a rock and says a word and all the joke is is a pun on that word. I could do those all day long. But before, he was doing tremendous stuff. I’m talking bad about him and he’s the one who got me started. If it weren’t for the fact that he liked my stuff, I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. I think what happens is these guys get in a thousand papers and they’re not hungry anymore.
On Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes: “I liked the first six months of it. In the first year it made me laugh out loud. Now it doesn’t make me laugh out loud, but he’s got really great characters and I really like to read about them.”
On Cathy Guisewite’s Cathy: “I like Cathy. It’s a real nice example of giving a nice personality to a comic with a joke at the end. A lot of people just give you the character and no joke. Cathy gives you both.”
On Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury: “I think it is one of the most underrated humorous comics when he’s away from politics. When he’s writing about politics it clouds his humor. When his people are interacting, he’s the best. He’s hilarious. But he writes like a little kid when he gets on a political issue. When he gets mad at someone like Frank Sinatra, he practically does stuff like saying ‘Frank Sinatra’s a goon.’ This is clever wit? I can’t believe he does stuff like that when he writes such terrific dialogue under normal situations.”
On Gary Larson’s The Far Side: “I liked the first three years of The Far Side. I thought it was the best comic strip. But after the first three years it wasn’t the same.”
On Jim Davis’s Garfield: “I never thought Garfield was funny. It just didn’t have anything for me. It’s supposed to be the biggest cartoon in America. I don’t think the public wants any more of that cute stuff. I think they’re sick of it.”
On Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley: “I don’t even know what Gasoline Alley is. I read every comic strip every day and I can’t figure it out. I don’t know what they’re doing there. David Lynch should direct a movie of it. That I’d see.”
On Tribune cartoonist Jeff MacNelly: “I laugh more at his background stuff than I do at his jokes. He’ll have a plaque or something in the background which will be hilarious. But the joke is usually the same cynical thing like a senator stuffing his pockets with money. Editorial cartoons don’t always have to be so negative.”
On Jerry Scott’s Nancy: “Actually, Nancy has really improved. Now he’s trying to get a little humor in it and sometimes it’s all right. Still, I think it’s probably gone about as far as it can go.”
On Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts: “I think it’s a really good comic strip. It has a lot of character. Often Peanuts is 90 percent character and 10 percent joke. When it’s 50-50 it’s really good. It doesn’t come off on television though. There it’s the same droll, boring thing. Those characters are real nice even today, but when they do it on television it’s just corny. It was cute 20 years ago with the jazz and the kids bouncing around, but you get tired of that.”
On Fred Lasswell’s Barney Google and Snuffy Smith: Do you laugh out loud at Snuffy Smith? Honestly, do you?”
And finally, on Mister Boffo: “I know I do more jokes for a person that’s going to laugh out loud because I have more weapons to use. It’s not even bragging, because Boffo has such a broad format that I have a tremendous library to draw from. Maybe it won’t be every day, but every couple of days I should be able to get you to laugh out loud because that’s all I’m trying to do. I’m not trying for cuteness. I’m not trying for anything but an out-loud laugh. I’ve made Boffo an animal, a devil, a piece of fruit. He isn’t just everyman; he’s everything. Boffo’s such a weird comic that you can’t get someone to laugh every time.
In addition to his comic strips, Martin keeps busy with a number of other projects. Last year he and John R. Powers wrote a musical based on Willy ‘n Ethel that was cast with friends and performed for charity in his auditorium. Now he’s working on a musical of Mister Boffo. This one he hopes he can bring to Chicago.
He plans to host a cable TV show called Johnny Knucklebuster. He’ll dress up in a captain’s uniform a la Captain Kangaroo. “It’s the exact same format as a kids’ show, but it’s a very adult show,” says Martin. “I’ll have an audience of kids and mothers so when we do an off-color joke or something that’s a little blue, we’ll cut to a preset shot of mothers and kids laughing.”
Martin was a writer a few years ago for the ill-fated TV show E/R. He’s coauthored a book that showed how to hang 20 spoons on your face. “We had spoon-hanging parties. We set up NOSE, the National Organization of Spoon Enthusiasts. We never expected that it would sell 50,000 copies. But it did.”
Another of Martin’s projects is something he refers to as the “Boffo fine-art coffee table book.” It’ll look like a fancy art tome–but inside . . . Some of these collected oils and acrylics were on exhibit recently at a Bucktown art gallery. They showed off Martin’s skill as both painter and wiseass.
There were the flying women out of Rubens labeled “The Dance of the Fatso Pigs.” The Gauguinesque South Sea islanders called “The Tit People.” The drawing room scene where a butler looks out at somebody mowing a large F into the lawn, and the caption says, “I Think Carlos Is Quitting.”
The coffee table book will also contain a painting of Mister Boffo in an electric chair holding a piece of toast.
Oh, and then there’s that Hollywood thing . . .
Joe Martin is waiting for a phone call. He says it’s a phone call that could make him the happiest man in the world. He just got back from California, where he met with some studio executives who are interested in a Mister Boffo movie. Apparently Steven Spielberg likes Mister Boffo.
“It was a lot of fun,” says Martin. “All of his people are big Boffo fans. They all brought jokes that they wanted me to explain to them. I didn’t get to meet Spielberg though, because it was the Jewish holidays.”
Martin also met with people at Disney and Twentieth Century Fox. Fox, he says, has the idea of turning Mister Boffo into a TV series.
“I’ve been through this a lot, but I think something really might happen this time,” he says. “It doesn’t take a lot for somebody out there to take out an option, and I think they might do it. If they don’t, I’ll be very disappointed.
“I never wanted to do an animation series until I saw The Simpsons. Whenever I talked to somebody about doing animation, they wanted to do stuff like Dagwood and Blondie, real corny stuff. But now, with The Simpsons breaking the ground, Boffo could be even more outrageous, and I think I have as good a sense of humor.”
During his week in California, Martin began to pen his Mister Boffo screenplay, and now it’s almost finished. He says it’s about a cartoon character who falls in love with a real woman. “It’s more realistic than The Flash or Field of Dreams.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.