The Independent Archive; `Every cartoon is like writing a story'

2 August 1989 - Being funny is a serious business. Three cartoonists give Michael Durham the secret of their success
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The Independent Culture
MICHAEL HEATH tore himself away from the scribbles on his drawing board. He looked as if he might have been suffering from nightmares. Or perhaps he just couldn't think of a joke. "Doing gags all the time is all very well," he muttered, "but it drives you round the bend."

Crazy or not, Heath is a success at one of the most peculiar jobs around. He is a cartoonist. Every day, he stands in front of a blank sheet of paper and thinks of five or six funny things. It is harder than it looks. Heath shook his head in despair. "I don't even find life funny - not even vaguely amusing."

What does it really take to be a good cartoonist? There are probably fewer than 30 fully professional freelance cartoonists in Britain - the kind of jokesters who make a living by selling gags to Punch and Private Eye. According to legend they are deeply insecure, prone to depression and fond of their drink.

They all, it seems, came up the hard way. Heath, 53, who cartoons for The Independent (and many other publications) is typical. Fresh from National Service, without any higher education, Heath cast around for a job. He remembered the American strip-cartoons he read at school. "I thought, `I could do that. It seems fun.' It's like wanting to go on stage." He began in time-honoured fashion by sending jokes to Punch and other magazines. They were funny, so they sold.

The secret is to be blessed with a certain cast of mind. Successful cartoonists have to be original, consistently funny, know their market, and stay in fashion. And you don't have to be able to draw. "The idea comes first. A good idea will sell a bad drawing, but a good drawing will never sell a bad idea," said one old hand.

"Every cartoon is like writing a story," said Heath. "The effort you put into it is huge compared with the reward. I'm terribly insecure. But I thrive on it."

Other cartoonists describe the job as like "controlled daydreaming". "The thing is to have a sideways view of life," said Tom Johnston, the originator of punk cartoons. "You have two ideas flying around in your mind, then suddenly they come together. It's a gift."

The Cartoonists' Club is an early port of call for would-be humorists. It has a membership of more than 200 and meets on the first Tuesday in the month in The Cartoonist pub, just off Fleet Street. Insiders like Heath betray a certain impatience with it. "Real cartoonists don't have anything to do with that lot. They give themselves names like Biffo and Bam. In the daytime they work in an office, but at night they chew a pencil and try to think of an idea," he said.

Les Lilley, the Cartoonists' Club chairman, is not pleased. "It's true that we let in too many people a few years ago, but now we are very strict." The club receives about six membership applications a week. Most are turned down.

One curiosity is the shortage of women cartoonists. Merrily Harpur, one of the select band and a regular Guardian cartoonist, says: "Perhaps the answer to that one is that most women have got better things to do than spend their day thinking up jokes. Being funny is quite a male activity. When was the last time you saw a bunch of women sitting round cracking jokes? If you want a man to like you, you laugh at what he says. But there are a few of us with big enough egos to sit down and think our own jokes are funny."

For those who make it, the rewards can be handsome. Tom Johnston, 36, draws about 32 cartoons a week, and reckons he earns about pounds 150,000 a year. He starts drawing a daily pocket cartoon at the London Evening Standard at 7.30am and is still on duty last thing at night when he watches Newsnight. Heath draws between 30 and 40 finished cartoons a week.

Merrily Harpur says: "It can be like an examination. You sit down with a blank sheet of paper in front of you and think of 15 funny things in the three hours. I like examinations - I suppose it's part of the job. But you do it for yourself as well. It's fun. Most cartoonists are good fun. That's because they're having a nice life, isn't it? Having a good time. It's like eating strawberries all day long."

From the Media page of `The Independent', Wednesday 2 August 1989. The Law Report resumes with the Law Term in October