A conversation with an interesting Portlander
You have to look at the world a little bit sideways to draw and write New Yorker cartoons. Southeast Portland resident Shannon Wheeler, whose work has also appeared in The Onion, is practically standing on his head. And he insists talent has nothing to do with his success.
Portland Tribune: You grew up in Berkeley during the '60s. How was that?
Shannon Wheeler: I thought it was normal at the time. As I got older, I started telling stories about things that had happened and people would say, 'That is very, very odd.'
Tribune: For instance?
Wheeler: When I was a kid my mom took me to a placenta party.
Tribune: Aha. Now we're getting an idea where that sense of humor comes from.
Wheeler: I must have been 4 or 5. A woman who recently had a baby had her placenta there and served it up.
Tribune: Served it up?
Wheeler: With little crackers, and everybody had a little taste of placenta.
Tribune: You, too?
Wheeler: I think it tasted like liver.
Tribune: And was the baby there? Someone to say, 'Mom, you're serving me!'
Wheeler: The baby did not eat any of the placenta.
Tribune: You've got twin 12-year-old boys of your own. Do you worry about passing on too much cynicism when they see your work?
Wheeler: I do worry about that. I feel that people in this culture a lot of times are broken down into consumers and producers. I want them to be producers.
There's this one (cartoon) where there's a woman who obviously has been making out with a clown and out of his pants has sprung a jack in the box, a little head with a spring. And she's looking annoyed as she says to the clown, 'I suppose you think that's funny.'
I was scanning that and it's on the screen and suddenly from behind, I hear one of my kids saying, 'Actually, that's pretty funny.' That was not a cartoon I would have shown him.
Tribune: Did you talk to him about it?
Wheeler: No. He got it. He understands the context, that they were making out and the clown had played a joke on her and she didn't like it.
But one day the teacher calls me in and shows me a drawing my son had done where there's a kid who is lifting up the dress of a woman and saying, 'What's under there?'
(The teacher) is saying this is not an appropriate drawing. And I had to go along with her and say, 'I'll talk to him.' But I'm thinking, she has no idea of the cartoons that he's read and the drawings he's seen.
Tribune: Did you talk to him?
Wheeler: Yes. I said, 'You got the anatomy pretty right.'
Tribune: Do you really clean your whole room just before you write?
Wheeler: Yeah. It's like a meditative thing. And it's a way to procrastinate. There was a recent cartoon, 'Writing is 90 percent procrastination and 30 percent panic.'
Tribune: That doesn't leave any percent for talent or inspiration.
Wheeler: Nope. It's all panic.
Tribune: Your worst panic?
Wheeler: Every week with the New Yorker cartoons. They're due Tuesday evening.
COURTESY OF SHANNON WHEELER
Tribune: And when do you start them?
Wheeler: Tuesday morning. I work on them all week, but come Tuesday I have to narrow down all these thoughts and ideas and pick the wheat from the chaff. Or the cream from the milk.
Tribune: What's going on here? Are you hungry? Can I get you something to eat?
Wheeler: No, just seeing how far I can throw a mixed metaphor.
Tribune: Great title for your new book, 'I Thought You Would Be Funnier.' Did someone really say that to you?
Wheeler: I was imagining a clown in bed with a woman. And I thought, 'What are they talking about? Is he trying to seduce her? Why did she sleep with him? What relationship did they have?'
It's free association. And then it hit me. It's her saying that line, 'I thought you would be funnier.' And I have to admit, I had just had a breakup where I had been dating a very critical woman.
Tribune: Enough with the clowns. I've got a teenage daughter who asks me if The Onion is completely made up, or a real newspaper. What do I tell her?
Wheeler: It's both made up and it is real. Through the humor they come closer to the truth than a lot of newspapers.
Tribune: Wait a minute. Think of who you're talking to.
Wheeler: Shortly after the (presidential) election, The Onion ran the headline, 'Worst Job In America Given To Black Man.' It nails something that everybody knows implicitly about how much we abuse our presidents.
Tribune: Just about done. Anything else you'd like to say?
Wheeler: Let's see, who have I pissed off so far? Teachers, parents, child services, ex-girlfriends. Who are we leaving out?
Tribune: Well, you haven't picked on any particular ethnic group yet. Would you like to?
Wheeler: No, that's a Berkeley sacred cow.
View Wheeler's work online at www.tmcm.com.