'I'm Just Trying To Make Myself Laugh': 'New Yorker' Artist Shares His Cover Stories

Oct 20, 2017
Originally published on October 20, 2017 8:11 pm

Barry Blitt drew his first New Yorker cover back in 1992. Ever since, he has been skewering politicians of all stripes. In 2008, he drew Barack and Michelle Obama fist-bumping in the Oval Office, and in 2016, he drew Donald Trump in a tiara and a women's bathing suit.

"I have a sketchbook open and I'm just trying to make myself laugh," Blitt says.

His new book, simply titled Blitt, features some of the cartoonist's most memorable and merciless work.


Interview Highlights

On "Fistbump: The Politics of Fear," his 2008 New Yorker cover of the Obamas

We all remember the campaign of 2008. When Obama was running for president, there was a lot of stuff being said about him and Michelle. It was whispered and insinuated ... that he was a terrorist, that Michelle was some kind of Black Panther or something. There [were] rumors of a video of her saying, "Kill whitey."

I mean, I just scribbled in a sketchbook all of it in one picture, and I threw in a burning American flag and a portrait of Osama bin Laden on the wall of the Oval Office. ... I had Michelle dressed as, you know, she had a gun on her back and she was sort of like a, I don't know, a fictional Black Panther. It was a ridiculous picture and I hoped it would be seen as such. I thought it was obviously satire, but not everyone felt that way. I mean, the picture still makes me laugh. I don't regret it.

On the backlash to the Obama cover

One of the main criticisms of it was that people would say, "Oh, I get it, but what are those other people going to think?" which, you know, seems kind of condescending to me. Barack Obama was interviewed about it and was disgusted, and so was John McCain. You know, Rush Limbaugh.

Couple of days in, Jon Stewart on The Daily Show talked about it, about how ridiculous the reaction was. And it seemed to turn to love after that. I think people took a breath and realized this wasn't going to cost anybody the election and it was just a cartoon.

On "The Big Short," his 2016 New Yorker cover showing a palm chart of Trump's hand

Obviously that came from Spy magazine — they started calling him the "short-fingered vulgarian." It seemed like a nice way to not only taunt him, you know, and say he has short fingers, but I used a palm chart so I could write stuff about him onto the palm. So it's got stuff like, on his lifeline, "Gonna live a long time. LONG. Very, very healthy." And line of intellect: "Fantastic. Continues onto back of hand." And, of course, "Beautiful singing voice (you'd be surprised)." So it was sort of funny to write in his voice, so to speak. ... I mean I learned a whole bunch about palmistry by doing this.

On a cartoon of his that didn't make the cut

I tried something with a couple of would-be terrorists on an airplane, and one of them has a can of Diet Coke and the other one has some Mentos, and he's slipping the Mentos to the guy with the Diet Coke. And I guess not everyone gets that reference. ... It didn't run, but it got some laughs. And really, what more can we ask?

Melissa Gray and Jolie Myers produced and edited this interview for broadcast, and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Barry Blitt drew his first cover for The New Yorker back in 1992, and ever since, he's been skewering politicians of all stripes. Barack and Michelle Obama fist bumping - that was Blitt. Donald Trump prancing in a tiara and a lady's bathing suit - that was Blitt.

BARRY BLITT: I have a sketchbook open, and I'm just trying to make myself laugh.

KELLY: A new book simply titled "Blitt" features some of his most memorable and merciless work. I asked Barry Blitt if he's ever had regrets over any of his cartoons.

BLITT: I mean, I regret them all as soon as I send something in.

KELLY: (Laughter).

BLITT: I cringe, you know, wish I had drawn the jacket better or the background color was brighter or for whatever reason. But I'm not sure. I mean, I don't know if you're suggesting - if you're leading me towards the fist bump cover.

KELLY: I wasn't. But since you bring it up, tell me how that one came to be.

BLITT: (Laughter) We all remember the campaign of 2008 when Obama was running for president. There was a lot of stuff being said about him and Michelle. It was whispered and insinuated.

KELLY: That he was Muslim, that he wasn't born in the United States.

BLITT: Yeah, that he was a terrorist, that Michelle was a - some kind of Black Panther or something. There was rumors of a video of her saying kill whitey. I mean, I just scribbled in a sketchbook all of it in one picture, and it - I threw in a burning American flag and a portrait of Osama bin Laden on the wall of the Oval Office.

KELLY: And you show them dressed in what would be stereotypical Muslim garb.

BLITT: Barack, yeah. I had Michelle dressed as - you know, she had a gun on her back, and she was sort of, like, a - I don't know - a fictional Black Panther. It was a ridiculous picture, and I hoped it would be seen as such. I thought it was obviously satire. But not everyone felt that way. I mean, the picture still makes me laugh. I don't regret it.

KELLY: What kind of backlash did you get? Who called and said they were mad?

BLITT: Well, just about everybody of every political stripe. I mean, one of the main criticisms of it was that people would say, oh, I get it, but what are those other people going to think, which, you know, seems kind of condescending to me. Barack Obama was interviewed about it and was disgusted, and so was John McCain, you know, Rush Limbaugh. Couple of days in, Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show" talked about it, about how ridiculous the reaction was. And it just seemed to - it seemed to turn to love after that. I think people took a breath and realized this wasn't going to cost anybody the election and was just a cartoon.

KELLY: One other president I'm curious if you've gotten any feedback from is our current president. You've got a cartoon called "The Big Short." And just to describe it for people, the entire cover is a hand with very, very short fingers, which alert listeners will get is a reference to President Trump. And I saw that and thought, I wonder if he called up and yelled at you over that one.

BLITT: Oh, certainly not. No, we've had almost no communication. I think he did mention the cover on one of the shows. But obviously that came from Spy magazine. They started calling him short-fingered vulgarian. This seemed like a nice way to not only taunt him, you know, and say he has short fingers. But I used a palm chart so I could write stuff about him onto the palm. So it's got stuff like - on his life line - going to live a long time - long, very, very healthy. And line of intellect - fantastic, continues onto back of hand.

KELLY: (Laughter).

BLITT: And of course, beautiful singing voice - you'd be surprised.

KELLY: This is - to describe for people who can't see it, these are words running across this very short-fingered hand kind of like a palm reader would be reading.

BLITT: Right. There's life line. There's a heart line. I mean, I learned a whole bunch about palmistry by doing this.

KELLY: You do as you leaf through this collection see the references to, you know, classic photographs like the World War II sailor kissing the nurse in Times Square, that picture we've all seen. You changed it up back in 1996 with a cover that features two male sailors kissing. And it was titled "Don't Ask."

BLITT: That was around the time of don't ask, don't tell, the policy I guess implemented under Bill Clinton. And that was the first controversial cover. But you're asking me about how I came up with that idea. Is that what you were asking me, or...

KELLY: Yeah.

BLITT: I mean, that's what you're using basically. Those are the tools you're - as a cartoonist, you're playing on cliches and images that are in people's minds, iconic images. So you have a starting point, a reference to depart from and make your little joke.

KELLY: And then you trust that they'll get the reference.

BLITT: Yeah, ideally. I mean, I tried something with a couple of would-be terrorists on an airplane. And one of them has a can of Diet Coke, and the other one has some Mentos. And he's slipping the Mentos to the guy with the Diet Coke.

KELLY: (Laughter).

BLITT: And I guess not everyone gets that reference.

KELLY: I have two young sons who would get right away that you were suggesting an imminent explosion. How did that one go down? What kind of reaction did you get?

BLITT: It didn't run, but it got some laughs. And really, what more could we ask?

KELLY: There is one that you feature in the book which I gather New Yorker editors decided to kill at the very last minute. It is a sketch of Anthony Weiner, the disgraced politician. Do you want to describe it?

BLITT: I have him standing on a chair, contemplating ending it all. And instead of throwing a rope around his neck, he's got a string of wieners basically.

KELLY: A noose of wieners. Let's just say it.

BLITT: A noose of wieners.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITT: That would be a good prank gift.

KELLY: Did you think The New Yorker would - should have run this? Did you push back hard?

BLITT: Should have?

KELLY: Yeah.

BLITT: No, no. I never push back, you know? I've - or I haven't yet, you know? I usually have enough doubts about any of the drawings that I feel sort of relieved if something gets killed.

KELLY: Well, can you give us a sneak preview? Any ideas for next week's cover?

BLITT: I mean, I've got loads of Trump drawings around. Harvey Weinstein - it would be fun to draw him, like Trump. I mean, what a face.

KELLY: And can you share, like, the seeds of the idea of what you would draw?

BLITT: I - no, (laughter) no. I mean, I've drawn some horrible things in my sketchbook and none of which we should talk about.

KELLY: (Laughter).

BLITT: Thanks for asking, though.

KELLY: Barry Blitt, thank you.

BLITT: It was very nice to be here, Mary Louise.

KELLY: That is Barry Blitt, the man behind more than a hundred New Yorker covers. They are collected in his new book, "Blitt." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.