Stephan Pastis on the art of being funny

Credit: Apeksha Atal/ Credit: Apeksha Atal/

The hall was packed. Children were squirming with excitement, running up to the front of the auditorium to buy pre-signed editions of the newest book of the Timmy Failure series. In the audience was a mix of adults who had come with their children, and adults holding bags with a stack of their favorite Pearls Before Swine collections, ready to be signed later on. Those outside were scrambling for tickets, praying that they weren’t sold out. This was the bustling state of Carnegie Lecture Hall last Sunday, Feb. 21.

As the clock struck two, Stephanie Flom, the Executive Director of the Carnegie Library walked over to the podium, and hushed the hall to a lulled silence. With murmurs of excitement still resonating throughout the room, Flom began by speaking about the lecture series, the sponsors of the event, and finally about Stephan Pastis. “I’ve just spent the last few minutes backstage speaking to Stephan,” she chuckled, “and he’s a very funny guy.”

Pastis arrived at Carnegie Library’s Lecture Hall as the sixth installment of their children’s author lecture series. Pastis has been touring the world, talking about both his children’s book series, Timmy Failure, and his award-winning newspaper comic series Pearls Before Swine. Although he has been drawing from a very early age, Pastis was a lawyer for almost ten years, which he later explained was boring beyond comprehension. In 2003, he dropped it all to pursue his passion, and has been thriving ever since. He used the lecture as an opportunity to talk about how he got where he is today, the origins of his ideas, his thought processes, and what he believes good writing really is.

The highlight of the lecture was definitely the portion where Pastis described his writing technique. Aside from this lecture, I’ve also had the pleasure of sitting in on lectures given by Lois Lowry and Margaret Atwood. Both of these incredibly distinguished authors spoke about the roots of their ideas, how they wrote while building off of past experiences, and conducting thorough research. Pastis, in this sense, is a little unconventional. He spoke of a four-step thought process that he goes through, while brainstorming ideas for his comic strip.

“When you write for a newspaper, you have to make a lot of comic strips,” he sighed. “365, to be precise.” His technique consists of the following steps:
1. Listen to really loud music
2. Drink a lot of coffee
3. Draw all over the walls
4. Dance

“Listening to loud music distracts that part of your brain that wants to think logically,” Pastis said. “If you have to think too much about what you’re writing, it’s not going to be funny.” He complemented this explanation with some examples of strips that came out of it. He went on to say that working in this manner has made his work “unintentionally autobiographical.” He confessed that most of his ideas seemed very random to him when they first popped into his head, but when he’d go back to read some of his work, he’d see snippets of his life breathe through his work.

Pastis admitted, however, that not all of his ideas stem from this four-step plan. Rat, his cynical, and arguably most popular comic character, gets a lot of his thoughts and opinions from Pastis himself, and irritating encounters that he experiences on a day to day life. “I’d like people to know, that you if do something stupid near me, chances are that the whole world is going to know about it, because I will include it in a strip with Rat,” he joked, with the loudest laugh in response being from a squirming third grader in the front row.

Pastis continued his lecture with some interesting anecdotes about the controversies he’s been involved in and some legendary comic-artists that he has encountered. We learned that Pastis has been banned from entering Turkey after unintentionally insulting the revered first president of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

He also spoke of meeting the rarely seen, reclusive Bill Watterson (the creator of Calvin and Hobbes) and the legendary Charles M. Schulz, who not only created the Peanuts comics, but also was one of Pastis’ biggest inspirations. “I read in an article somewhere, that every Sunday morning he would go to this specific cafe and order an english muffin, so I decided to give it a shot and I went and sat there for hours.” Pastis joked that he must’ve looked very suspicious as he was the only one in the shop looking around nervously and not eating anything, but at long last, while taking a final scan of the room, there sat Schulz.

Pastis, who was a lawyer at the time, worked up the nerves to speak to his idol and greeted him with what he believes to be the worst way to introduce yourself to someone: “Hello Mr. Schulz, my name is Stephan Pastis, and I’m a lawyer.” Pastis said Schulz’s eyes widened with terror until he explained his passion for comics and Schulz offered to look through his work and give him some advice. “It was so amazing, we sat for a couple of hours just skimming through my work. I was so lucky to have had it with me in the car. It was the best day of my life.”

After speaking for around 20 minutes, Pastis left the rest of the hour for questions, which he took from children and adults alike. He concluded his session by drawing some of his characters on large pieces of paper which were given away to very lucky fans, and then walked over to the children’s library for book signing.

What I’m usually disappointed with when attending the lectures at the Carnegie Library, is the book signing segment. The lines are typically ridiculously long, and the time with the author is fleeting and impersonal. Pastis, however, insisted on taking the time to speak to each of his fans, signing their books as personally as possible with quick sketches of their favorite characters and even offered to take pictures.

Unfortunately, I had left all of my Pearls Before Swine collections back in India, but I did manage to pick up a record by the psychedelic folk band Pearls Before Swine from Caliban for Pastis to sign, much to his amusement. “I’ve seen this record online, and I’ve always wanted to hold it. I just want to draw all over it,” he laughed, and signed both the front and back of the vinyl cover. When I told Pastis I was from Bangalore, he excitedly informed me of his recent visit to India and how he’d love to go back and check out Bangalore in the near future. All in all, it was a great day.

If you’re interested in attending events like this, do check out the Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures website at http://pittsburghlectures.org.