Frank and Earnest with
Frank & Earnest®

Copyright The HUMOR Project, Inc 1994 -- All rights reserved
This first appeared in Laughing Matters Volume 9, Number 4

I am being frank and earnest when I tell you that it was a real pleasure to meet the wonderfully warm Bob Thaves and his wife, Katie, at their home in California. I rendezvoused with them on a day that the Manhattan Friends of the Arts were visiting at their house as well-- Bob and Katie certainly had a full house that day!

Since 1972, Bob's innovative single-panel comic strip has featured Frank and Ernest, characters with the ability to appear as any person, place or thing in any time period, past, present or future-- plants, bugs, angels, planets, Roman gladiators, Medieval knights, clowns, robots; the list is as long as Bob's imagination. The consistent element to the comic is the pair's "frank and earnest" iconoclastic attitude. These popular sidewalk philosophers are as comfortable offering whimsical comments on the creation of the universe as they are about taxes or software. "Opportunity knocked at my door once, but just to ask directions," Frank explains to Ernest.

Frank and Ernest® is a favorite of more than 25 million comics fans who read the strip in more than 1200 newspapers in 30 countries. A master of the twisted phrase and skewed outlook, Bob has received the prestigious Reuben Award on three occasions-- it is the National Cartoonist Society's "Oscar". Frank and Ernest has also been honored with the Free Press Association's Mencken Award for Best Cartoon and was selected as one of America's top five comics by Editor and Publisher. Bob's groan-up style of humor has shown the world that the pun is mightier than the sword.

Thanks to Bob and Newspaper Enterprise Association, Inc. for permission to include the Frank and Ernest cartoons (copyrighted by NEA, Inc.) with this frank and earnest interview. Special thanks also go to Mary Anne Grimes at United Media for her assistance.

Joel Goodman: You and I share the dubious honor of being selected as International Punster of the Year by the Save the Pun Foundation. For me, playing with words is a metaphor for playing with stressful situations and playing with reality. For some people, puns are the lowest form of humor. For other people, puns are the lowest form of humor-- they are the building blocks for humor. Puns are their own jest rewords!

Bob Thaves: It's fun. Words are wonderful things to play with. Lewis Carroll had a lot of fun. It happens without my thinking about it. It sure drives Katie and my kids to distraction. Recently Katie and I were in New York where my syndicate is located, and we went to the Museum of Modern Art to see a show called "High and Low Art." It had early comics such as Krazy Kat side by side with Picasso. They were portraying the relationships. The thing is that the program I bought there didn't say which was the high art and which was the low art. Maybe today will help clarify that.

JG: How do you approach your art?

BT: I draw the strip six dailies at a time. I start out with a rough. The thing I do that is different from other cartoonists is that I don't like to start over and erase. I draw and toss and draw and toss and draw and toss until I get a figure that I like. Then I tape it down and draw the strip in that way.

I'm supposed to be six weeks ahead on the dailies; I'm usually four to five weeks ahead, which I'm sure gives the editor nightmares. The Sunday page I'm supposed to be three months ahead; I'm usually about two months ahead. It is relentless. The deadlines are always there and totally unforgiving. You can't call in and say I'm not going to have this week's strips because I don't feel well. In fact, someone once said that having a daily syndicated feature is what it must be like to be married to a nymphomaniac, because it's a lot of fun, but just when you think you're finished you have to start all over again. That's kind of the way this business is. I'm always thinking, "Now what's the next strip going to be?"

JG: Since you work so far ahead, how do you handle fast-breaking news?

I try to stay away from anything that is time-sensitive. For example, I had a cartoon in which I played off Malcolm Forbes. It was scheduled to run, and then he died. The syndicate managed to get to the newspapers in time, and we changed the name to Donald Trump. It worked just as well-- it just had to be some rich guy.

With the new world of electronic transmissions, it may be that I can even get further behind. Right now, the airport post office has an overnight mail counter that is open literally every hour of the year-- even on Christmas Day, I've discovered. I'm one of their best customers.

JG: How did you discover your interest in cartooning?

BT: I always was a cartoonist. I have drawn as long as I can remember. My family lived in Burt, Iowa, a small agricultural town where my father published the local newspaper. He brought home lots of scrap paper, and it just seemed natural to take a pencil and draw. Why waste all that blank paper?

JG: What was life like before Frank and Ernest?

BT: I got my bachelor's and master's degree from the University of Minnesota in industrial psychology. Then I came out here to UCLA to get my Ph.D. I went to work for a consulting firm. As time went on, the consulting work got busier and busier, and I got everything done except the thesis.

I was having a reasonably successful consulting career... and then the free-lance cartooning got going really well. I did magazine cartooning before Frank and Ernest. I used to sell to the Saturday Evening Post. The New Yorker used to buy from me and then give it to Charles Addams to draw.

Way back when he was Editor of the Saturday Review, I used to sell cartoons to Norman Cousins. He has always been one of my heroes with respect to most important things in life. At that time, he was very very young when he took on the editorship. He was incredibly busy... he would take the time when I sent cartoons-- he would write and ask, "Would you mind if we change this word to that?" He loved cartoons. What I appreciated is that a guy as busy as he was found the time to give that much attention to it... and to have the courtesy to say, "Do you mind if we change this word?" I really do believe that moods affect body chemistry. There's a lot of research evidence for that... on the molecular level.

For a publication called True Magazine, the editor liked a couple characters I drew that were like Frank and Ernest, and he asked for more. That's when I decided to do a strip.

I was really really lucky. I drew up 25 strips or so and put them in the mail to a dozen syndicates simultaneously. Some of the syndicates rejected it, but I did get some nibbles. NEA was the first syndicate to call and say they wanted to give me a contract. Frank and Ernest is now in over 1200 papers both here and internationally.

JG: So did you stop your consulting career cold-turkey?

BT: No, because for one thing I wasn't sure how the strip would do. The odds are very much against a strip being successful. So I continued my consulting and shared my time with the cartooning. I was lucky-- the strip did well in the beginning. Finally, after a few years, I just quit the consulting completely.

JG: How did you come up with the characters Frank and Ernest? Were they based on people you knew?

BT: There was an old vaudeville bit-- "You be frank, and I'll be earnest." There also used to be a religious radio program called Frank and Earnest that I listened to on Sunday mornings. People would write letters that would be answered on the show frankly and earnestly. I thought the "Frank and Earnest thing" was so funny that I said if I ever do a strip, I'll call it Frank and Ernest.

JG: And now Frank and Ernest reside in bookstores everywhere!

BT: In bookstores, they always shelve books by the author's last name. Mine are always way down on the bottom shelf... but the upside of it is that I'm between Schulz and Trudeau. So the people who are looking for them might stumble across Frank and Ernest. But the downside is that it is the bottom shelf, not on eye level... so I go into bookstores and keep moving my books up to the top shelf... and the bookstores keep moving them back. Whenever I go into bookstores, I'm always re-doing their shelves.

JG: When you're not out re-doing shelves, do you have a best working time? Do you draw at the same time every day?

BT: I have a kind of a schedule as some of the neighbors know. It is somewhat affected by the fact that New York is three hours away. So, when I get up in the morning I leave-- in case the editors in New York try to call me. Katie and I go out for breakfast and pick up the mail. Katie does a lot of the work answering the mail. Then I come back and do some work at the desk and drawing. By 2:00, I'm pretty well home free... I feel pretty safe because by then it's 5:00 in New York.

JG: Do you ever have writer's block? Do you have a trick for working your way out of that?

BT: If I have time, I go and do something else totally different. Otherwise, it's just brute force. I used to suffer with that kind of thing and then it gradually dawned on me that not everyone is good every day... and that I do the best I can. If it's got to go in the mail, it's got to go in the mail.

I draw the strip in black and white. My wife, Katie, actually does the coloring for the Sunday strips. She has a lot better color sense than I do. If she stays inside the lines, I take her out to dinner.

JG: Do you read the newspaper for ideas?

BT: I read everything. Reading is the basic resource for my cartoons.

JG: What kind of mail do you get?

BT: I get some criticism... actually, criticism is too mild a word. I've been called a lot of things. There are certain topics like "religion" that I know will generate a response. I've been educated by people writing in. Most of the mail is happily very positive.

JG: Do you ever get any interesting ideas from your mail?

BT: Yes, all the time as a matter of fact. And I'm grateful for that. In fact, if you have any ideas, please jot them down before you leave. Cartooning is different from any other art form in that it combines writing and graphic art in a single fabric. The writing and the art go together. It's like producing a television program, I suppose. As cartoonist, you do the writing, you're also the director, the production manager-- you play all of these roles.

JG: Do you have an all-time favorite cartoon?

BT: Probably the last one I did, because then I could mail the batch. I'm through for another week. Actually, one of my favorites is the cartoon on Judgment Day. Frank and Ernest are among the multitudes and there's God. And Frank is saying, "The secret is avoid eye contact."

It's a gag-a-day here... and somebody said that "gag" is the appropriate word.

JG:: We just had our annual international conference on The Positive Power of Humor & Creativity. As part of the conference, we had a large bookstore at which several of your books were available. How do you perceive the humor-creativity connection?

BT: I just completed a project with DuPont Corporation where they used Frank and Ernest as in-house spokesmen for creativity. DuPont has a defined function where a person is hired to stimulate creativity in DuPont employees. They solicited from their employees examples of creative behavior and productivity in the corporation, and they assembled some written material with my cartoons to illustrate each creativity principle. Just the fact that the corporation shows that much interest in creativity... I don't care what you do... if you just tell people we're interested in this... I have contended that if you allow creativity to be expressed, it will be expressed. The first thing is to allow it to be expressed. And that means getting the bureaucracy to allow it, because usually the bureaucracy is what stands between creativity and its expression.

JG: So, if it's not an oxymoron... the key is to have bureaucracy- approved creativity. My friend, Jim Boren, started a wonderful spoof organization, the International Association of Professional Bureaucrats. Jim has a great quote: "Bureaucracy is the epoxy which greases the wheels of progress." With our work linking humor and creativity, we have always thought that they are intimately related.

BT: With DuPont, you get their attention with a cartoon that's funny, you get them to read it... and then management has to really mean it-- they have to be genuine about seeking creativity-- and tell employees that they will have the space, freedom, and permission to be creative.

JG: I'm curious-- in retrospect, would you have any career advice for executives.

BT: My experience in industry is that most executives are humorless. Now I hate to say that... because I believe that humor is absolutely essential to get through life. I honestly believe that. Robert Frost said that God was the greatest practical joker-- He gave us life and He takes it away, and that's the big practical joke. There is a further truth to that. You have to be able to look at yourself in your own life and be able to laugh about it, because life is ridiculous.

JG: You seem to have the ability to laugh at life and at the same time to have a sensitivity about the impact of humor. One of the issues we work with is helping people to explore the difference between laughing with others and laughing at others.

BT: There is a fine funny line between the two of them. From the very beginning it has been a conscious, deliberate choice by me that most of the humor in Frank and Ernest does not make fun of other people-- rather they make fun of themselves. I'm not a Don Rickles fan-- I'm not a fan of the kind of humor that makes somebody else the butt of a joke. Why draw it in cartoons-- it's spiteful, it's not healthy. From the very beginning, I decided I'm not going to do the daily insult. I want to do something where fun is poked at human foibles by having Frank make fun of himself.

JG: That's one of the foundations of what we do-- how humor can be used so that it's not at somebody else's expense and how at the same time we can laugh at ourselves... because there's the gap between the excellence we seek and the imperfection with which we need to live as human beings.

BT: Humor is a salve, an oil that greases the wheels of life. When my daughter was little, my wife was in the hospital for surgery. I was fixing breakfast, I had all this work to do, and I was short-tempered... my kids did something that displeased me and I flew off the handle. Later that day, my kids came back to the house with a "Get Well" card... for me! And I really had to laugh at myself. That was the perfect thing to give me because I needed somebody to tell me, "Hey, get well!" Humor can really bridge situations. But you would certainly know that better than I.

JG: I think we're kindred spirits on this one. We've had Victor Borge at our annual conference-- and we've employed his quote since 1977: "A smile is the shortest distance between two people."

BT: I like humor with some wit to it... not as a blunt instrument to insult. I watch some of the new comedians on cable TV, and am appalled at some of the things they do. They make fun of people with disabilities, they make fun of old people... I think, My God, that's not wit, that's not humor, that's just attacking a defenseless part of the population.

JG: We're strong in our work that humor should not be used as an instrument of oppression. I came across some interesting studies a number of years ago which suggest that kids as young as 3 or 4 years of age have very strongly entrenched racial stereotypes. I did some experiments in programs in the early 80's where I would do some instant-word-association tests. I would ask, "What's the first word you think of when you hear the word "Polish"? 99.9% of the people responded with either the word "dumb" or "stupid"... as the immediate adjective on the Family Feud. I don't think it's an accident-- humor is such a powerful teacher on a cultural level, on a consciousness level... people make that association.

BT: That's an example of humor that is a cheap way to make yourself feel superior at somebody else's expense.

JG: In your process, what comes first-- the gag or the art?

BT: The gag really comes first. The cartoon is a single fabric-- it's an idea and it's a graphic. The two of them have to support each other. But the idea comes first... even if there's no caption... otherwise I wouldn't know what to draw. I can't doodle my way into a cartoon. Now it does happen that I sit down with an idea in mind and I start drawing, and then I start making changes so that I end up with something that's pretty far-removed from the first idea.I have done some idea-generation where you take two things at random that you normally wouldn't associate together. Then you combine them in a new and different way. For instance, a waste basket and a man's head would lead you to ask how you could come up with a gag for a man with a waste basket on his head. Maybe you would put him in his boss' office.

JG: In essence, what you have is a matrix of creative permutations and combinations. It reminds me of the morphological grid, which is a wonderful creativity tool. Basically what you do is you ask what are the basic ingredients of a story or a cartoon. Every story or cartoon has a setting, characters, characters' goals, characters' obstacles, and outcomes. When we introduce this tool in our programs, we'll have participants brainstorm examples (some serious, some playful) for each of these "ingredients". In the space of four minutes, we can brainstorm 20 examples in each of the five categories. This leads us to the incredible number of 3,200,000-- there are that many ways of combining the ingredients in each of the five categories. The juxtaposition, the surprise, and the force fit inevitably explodes in laughter.

BT: That's a wonderful notion... and I could actually see how it might work! If I were to sit down with my good finish paper and start to pencil, I would clutch up, because I wouldn't want to make a mistake. So, I am very non-critical at the early idea-generation stage. Most cartoonists are overly critical of their work. We can always looking at our work and saying, "It would have been better if...."

JG: A little Monday-morning cartoonbacking... In looking at Frank and Ernest, it appears that you employ the techniques of reversal and exaggeration where Frank and Ernest can demonstrate the how-not-to do things. I've noticed in our programs that when people can laugh at the how-not-to's, they simultaneously gain insights on the how-to's.

BT: They often poke fun at a human foible... or a bureaucratic foible. That comes pretty close to what I think Frank and Ernest is all about. At the same time, I would be reluctant to make the case that they are profound. I see my work as doing a gag a day... hopefully that will be funny. I'm really not trying to change the world, partly because I'm not interested in trying to change the behavior of other people to make them conform to some way I think the world should be. I think that's arrogance.

JG: The best humor is that which is in reality. You don't have to make it up. Will Rogers used to say that he had the entire government working for him as a speechwriter.

BT: Yeah, in fact, sometimes I feel that way-- how can I compete with the comedians in the government?

JG: In your strip, it seems as if you have an innocent, childlike straight man and the comic.

BT: That was deliberate. When I first thought of the strip, I knew I had to have two characters who could play off each other. Frank is a big, blustery, yet harmless type. He also makes a lot of fun of himself. I try to avoid having him make fun of Ernie, because Ernie is more lovable and defenseless. What I try to do often in the strip is have Ernie's humor make fun of Frank-- not in a malicious way. He says something in an innocent way, but it turns to be a funny remark because of what Frank has said.

JG: I just talked with Chris Costello, who is the daughter of Lou Costello. It got me thinking about the parallels between that comedy duo and your characters.

BT: I am more than willing to acknowledge my debt to all of the comedy teams in films. Frank and Ernest are really the stepchildren of Abbott and Costello and Laurel and Hardy.

JG: You've got quite a comedic family tree. That would be a fun cartoon in and of itself. I'm curious to know how you decide when to put Frank and Ernest in as themselves, and when you decide to put them into the strips as planets, plants or bugs.

BT: The thread that holds the strip together is their kind of humor rather than the particular persona. I want to have them be rich one day and poor the next, or animals or trees. It makes it a lot more fun, and also opens up a universe of humor.

JG: Our readers are interested in how they can explore the universe of humor both personally and professionally. Do you have two rules or principles on how to grow one's sense of humor?

BT: To generate humor, you have to abandon the ordinary way of thinking. We tend to place things in categories and classifications so our brains/percepts are all little boxes with walls in between them. We need to forget all of this, so that we'll be able to associate things in entirely new and different ways. That means you have to, in a sense, relax. Not being judgmental is a big part of it. You have to abandon ordinary ways of thinking.

JG: Charles Schulz had a wonderful strip in which Charlie Brown was lamenting: "In the book of life, the answers are not in the back."

BT: That's true! To me, the whole world is ambiguous. I just read that "everything you know today will be wrong 100 years from now." You just have to accept that-- you know, it's probably right!

JG: So, one principle is get out of your boxes and loosen up on your categories. Would Frank or Ernest have anything to add on this subject-- a second guiding principle for humor?

BT: I once had a letter from a reader who said, "You know what I love about those guys is that they are simultaneously both above and beneath coming to grips with any real issue." Part of it is not taking things too seriously. You have to really be above things in order to get perspective.

JG: You have to surround reality. If Frank and Ernest were to say anything else about you that I might not know...

BT: They better not. I made 'em... and I can break 'em. They would probably make a lot of fun of me... because in spite of what I just said, I'm as guilty of all of those things as most people.

JG: Welcome to the human race!

BT: I long ago learned I'm not that much different from all other people.

JG: I think that's one of the things that is powerful about your strip: people identify with, empathize with, relate to, and connect with your characters.

BT: I feel lucky that people can identify. At the same time, I believe that the comics need a new direction... an Einsteinian change. Comics have been locked into a format and a concept that really hasn't changed since the beginning. There's been no really big change on how to do comics. For their own good, the people who produce comics should be thinking about new ways of doing it. The newspaper business is in major transition and comics need to change, too.

JG: Well, it's now after 5:00, so I guess you are safe for another day! Actually, your editor sent me here to check up on you since he couldn't get through to you on the phone. I'm glad I was able to get through to thank you for the years of fun and pun you've provided! I'm being frank and earnest when I say that I'm looking forward to enjoying your Frank-Ernesteinian cartoon in the future!

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