Last year, a piece in the Washington Post raised the question, “Is Jules Feiffer Our Greatest Living Cartoonist?” To which Pulitzer Prize-winning “Maus” creator Art Spiegelman replied, “He’s certainly near the very pinnacle, wherever that is.” All of which sounds rather complimentary if it weren’t a somewhat inadequate description of the 89-year-old social satirist extraordinaire’s myriad cultural accomplishments.
As well as creating decades of celebrated work as cartoonist for the Village Voice and Playboy, Feiffer also penned novels and works for stage and film, including screenplays for noted auteurs such as Robert Altman, Mike Nichols and Alain Resnais. More recently, Feiffer penned the screenplay for director Dan Mirvish’s acclaimed 2017 film, “Bernard and Huey.”
Plays derived from his work or written by Feiffer have garnered multiple Tony nominations, including one over a half-century ago for a young actor who’s getting the SAG Life Achievement Award this month: Alan Alda. Back in 1959, Variety first noted Feiffer for his graphic designs for the short-lived musical, “The Nervous Set.”
You did the poster for “The Nervous Set” in 1959, but you were already well-established by your work at the Village Voice.
My book “Sick Sick Sick” was out and my work in the Village Voice led to getting syndication into the London Observer, which was a bigger deal in terms of getting my name known than the Voice, and that led to getting into Playboy.
What lured you into working as a poster designer for “The Nervous Set?”
Robert Lantz asked me to do this and I think it might have been the only thing he ever produced. It only ran two or three weeks. But Lantz was a great guy and a major figure in the agency world. He represented everybody from Bette Davis to Leonard Bernstein.
Your script for “Bernard and Huey” was made into a film that got some very nice notices. When did those characters first appear?
Those were characters who appeared in early strips in the Voice back around that time.
Did Playboy represent a major advance in your career at that time?
I loved working for Playboy because it gave me more freedom to deal with the sexual situations which were so key to the kind of work I was doing, which was really all about what goes on between men and women.
Looking back from where we are now in the time of the #MeToo movement, how do you feel about what you were writing about then?
I think men of that era felt like they were members of a club and nobody would tell them what they were doing was wrong. My cartoons dealt with that kind of guy who wasn’t satisfied with just f–king women, but had to tell other men who they had f–ked and what they did to them. They saw themselves as decent, but they were reprehensible because women didn’t have power.
Your script for “Carnal Knowledge” holds up well because we don’t wind up envying Jack Nicholson’s character, or Art Garfunkel’s for that matter.
I was very influenced by a production of Strindberg’s “Dance of Death” starring Laurence Olivier and there was a lot of anger and rage in that, which I put in my weekly strips and into “Carnal Knowledge.” You know, we all need to find someone who gives us the permission to break through and tell the truth and for me that person was Lenny Bruce. I think there was more playfulness in my strips and they were more satiric, but more than anyone else Bruce sort of showed “I can do this now” and you got that permission for yourself when you saw it. I visited Bruce at his first obscenity trial and I was very affected by the freedom he took on for himself. I realized I wasn’t using all of my abilities. I think it was Lenny Bruce that gave Philip Roth permission to do “Portnoy’s Complaint.”
And the ’60s was just around the corner.
The “sexual revolution” was just about to start and when it did my work was a kind of representation of someone on the outside looking in trying to figure out what the f–k was going on.