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Cartoonists Profiles

INTERVIEW WITH JUD HURD: Cartoonist Profiles, 1987. (This article may not be reproduced without permission)

Hurd: Syd, did you draw in that instantly-recognizable heavy-line Hoff style purposely so that readers would be able to identify your cartoons anywhere?

Hoff: No— I just started out using a No. 3 or 4 brush — I don’t recall that I had used a No. 1 or 2 for many, many years. I used the brush because I don’t think they’d invented ‘Magic Markers’ back in the early 1930s when I started drawing for The New Yorker.

Hurd: Did you do your own gags?

Hoff: I did most of them myself but occasionally The New Yorker would buy an idea and farm it out to one of us. Nowadays, I’m working mostly on children’s book ideas and I just doodle along until some kind of an image appears out of all the lines that makes some sense. I usually don’t have a particular theme in mind but start out almost in a frenzy— worrying whether I’m ever going to get another idea.

Hurd: I’ve found over the years that that worry has been common to most cartoonists.

Hoff: Usually I do my thinking at night — I’m a compulsive insomniac and can’t sleep. This is one of the main problems I have — I get up and do this doodle bit I mentioned late at night. I might add that at this stage of my life I pop off during the day, once or twice. As my wife can tell you I take a nap during the day because at night I will fall asleep beautifully and then will be up in an hour or two, and that seems to be it for that night.

Hurd: What starts you on your doodling? Is it something you’ve seen in the paper, or what?

Hoff: I may start sketching faces, doodle an animal, anything and everything. These days I’m generally trying to come up with stories. I might add that the kind of doodling I’ve done in recent years, ever since ‘Danny and the Dinosaur’ children’s book became successful almost 30 years ago, is different from the kind of doodling in my earlier New Yorker days. In those days, I’d be doodling my ‘Father’ character, my ‘Mother’ character, the ‘Children’ characters and so on.

Hurd: Did you do a lot of sketching of your family at home?

Hoff: As far as sketching is concerned, I did that at the time I was going to art school. I was sketching in subways and where ever I went. I went to the National Academy of Design, which at that time was at Amsterdam Avenue and 109th Street in New York City. In those days I wanted to become a painter — nobody went to The National Academy of Design with the intention of becoming a cartoonist.

Hurd: Would you say something about the particular point of view which your New Yorker cartoons expressed.

Hoff: Harold Ross, who was the founding editor, sort of made me the Bronx correspondent for The New Yorker, as far as drawing was concerned. He thought my style was catching the image of the Jewish people, mostly in the city of New York. My cartoons expressed my natural feeling — the types of people I was drawing were the people I had always seen all my life. I felt that I was doing something that came naturally to me. After a few years of this it became apparent that I had been typed. So they were buying only this kind of drawing from me. I wasn’t really thinking of trying to emulate, for example, the kind of characters that Peter Arno was doing. From me they were buying cartoons about these low-income group people who lived in tenement houses and had problems with being able to hear what the people next door were saying, and so one This became my bailiwick, the environment for my drawing. Occasionally, for other magazines, I did cartoons involving Park Avenue types, but never for The New Yorker. Harold Ross was the only editor I really revered and the one who ‘discovered’ me, if I can use that expression.

I grew up in the Bronx and the nearest I ever got from it was when I met my wife who came from Brooklyn. It was an inter-city romance — we’ve been married 49 years but it seems like 19.

Eventually I also became the illustrator for Arthur Kober who was one of The New Yorker’s prize writers. He wrote a series of short stories for the magazine over a period of years about the Gross family…Pa and Ma Gross with their daughter who had the problems of finding husband. When some of Kober’s stories were collected into books, I became the illustrator. In fact, when Kober died about five years ago, the New York Times used one of my drawing for his books in their obituary.

Hurd: What you’ve said about your growing up in the atmosphere you portrayed in your cartoons reminds me of something The New Yorker cartoonist Frank Model told me some time ago. And that was that the magazine doesn’t want a cartoonist to ‘manufacture’ characters just to make them funny looking, but rather wants the characters in cartoonists’ drawing to be ‘real’ people.

Hoff: I feel that I’ve been rather lucky in this business of ours — my first drawing appeared in The New Yorker in 1930, when I was just a kid, and then I sold ‘Danny and the Dinosaur’ in 1958. So, at 46, I suddenly had a new career. I became a children’s author, which was a wonderful thing for me. Since I wrote ‘Danny,’ I’ve done almost 92 books, about 20 books for Harper alone.

Hurd: Would you say something about the advice you give young people who want to get into cartooning. I know you’ve got lots of ideas along this line since I remember your ‘Learning to Cartoon’ book which had advice on how to create and sell cartoons.

Hoff: I emphasize the importance of studying fine art. A beginner may think that it was simple for a cartoonist just to put a big nose on a character, but basically cartoonists know how to draw…to get action in their characters’ bodies, to portray subtle expressions, and they’re aware of the right composition to bring out the gag in the best way. If you study fine art, you have more of a chance of developing an individual style. If you do have a humorous feeling in your work, a style will develop out of your academic training. Whereas if you just confine yourself to studying the way, let’s say, that Mell Lazarus draws, you won’t develop a real individual style.

Hurd: Do you recommend that aspiring cartoonists do a lot of sketching as you did in art school?

Hoff: Kids today have an advantage over those of us who did that way back when. They can simply watch their TV sets and see all kinds of actin going on right on the screen. It’s no longer necessary to sit in a subway train or in the bus to copy someone across the way. With the coming of the VCR you can also stop any action you want to. Aside from cartoonists, those studying other branches of art can see all the scenery, the landscapes, seascapes, and exotic locations that anyone would want. We never had the opportunity to see all these things in the old days.

Hurd: Who decided on the cartoons that would be bought at The New Yorker in the early days?

Hoff: When I started there, they had what was known as the ‘Art Meeting.’ We knew that a group of four or five people, presided over by Harold Ross, looked over the drawings. The group included Wolcott Gibbs, the Drama Editor, E.B. White and his wife Katherine. I was scared to death — we knew that the drawings were brought in and placed on an easel in front of them, and the group decided which of our cartoons belonged in the magazine. We dropped our drawings off on a Tuesday and Thursday we returned. On Thursday we stepped up to the window, gave our names, and if a manila envelope was handed to us, we knew that we had failed. The first time I went up, they bought one and this was the most sensational event of my life.This was my turning point — I had been intending to remain a painter.

Hurd: When you were in art school, did you do any humorous drawings?

Hoff: Yes — I was a caricaturist, doing everybody in school. I hadn’t done any of this before art school but something suddenly gave me the urge to try to become a caricaturist. Trekking around New York, going from newspaper office to newspaper office, I found that just a couple of people dominated that field, so I never sold any of them.

Hurd: What propelled you into children’s books in the late 50s?

Hoff: I was always triggered by something that was creative. I envy good playwrights, good musicians and so on. I read a couple of very good children’s books that appeared in the 30s and 40s and doing one was always in the back of my mind. I was always a writer, in addition to being a cartoonist, and I’ve written a number of short stories — mysteries that appeared in the Hitchcock and Ellery Queen magazines. Along the way I also wrote a juvenile novel, ‘Irving and Me’ for Harper, which was selected by the New York Times as one of the ten best of the years. So I’m proud of that.

Hurd: Are the characters in your children’s books ones that you’ve known in real life?

Hoff: I think everything a writer does is based on experience — on something he actually saw happen, or something that he thinks could have happened.

Hurd: Do you have any feelings about the comic strips you see in the newspapers these days?

Hoff: I’m absolutely exasperated and puzzled by many of them. I don’t want to be specific about a particular strip but I see so many of them copying one that I might call the ringleader, who thinks that he’s writing editorials. I’m at an age now where I’m very sentimental and I like to think that the world was a lot better when I was young. What we had in the days of Harry Hershfield, Rube Goldberg, Cliff Sterrett, Segar, Tad, and Bud Fisher were the greatest cartoonists in the world. And when I look today and see some of the stuff that’s appearing, and the way they’re trying to get little 5-year-old kids to worry about current politics, I don’t know why newspapers are putting these kinds of strips on what used to be called the comic pages. When a guy comes along like Dik Brown and creates ‘Hagar,’ I take my hat off to him — it’s just great!

I draw and talk in many classrooms and they’re no question that the kids today are more sophisticated than they were when I was young. In my day no child had ever seen an elephant fetus dropped out of a womb in deepest Africa. Today every child knows how it lands, what the mother elephant does, etc. But in spite of this sophistication, get them away from the White House.

Hurd: How many chalk-talking and lecture trips do you make in a year?

Hoff: I go out about three times a year nowadays. For example, my wife and I will be leaving at the beginning of February to spend a week visiting schools in Mesa, Arizona. From there I’ll be going down to Tucson which is just a hop, skip and jump away from Phoenix. These trips result from invitations I get through the publishers of my books. I go into individual classes or I address groups from 500 to 700 children at assemblies in elementary schools. The kids know my books, and my characters, and when I arrive they’re screaming my name because they’ve been reading them.

When I’m finished in Tucson, my wife will go back to our home in Miami Beach and I will be going up to Oregon City and from there to Kent, Washington. After that to Bakersfield, California and then over to a town near my former boss’ old hangout — San Simeon. Which reminds me — I did a comic strip for Hearst for about 10 years — it was called ‘Tuffy.’ He signed me up shortly after I was married, around 1939. After ‘Tuffy’ was finished, for another 10 or 15 years I did a one-panel cartoon for King Features called ‘Laugh It Off.’ Unfortunately, it was confined to a one-colum width. Tuffy was a little girl character created by me, together with the former president of King, J.V. Connolly.

Hurd: I’ve heard also that you occasionally give talks aboard various cruise ships.

Hoff: Yes — from time to time my wife and I do get a cruise on a ship. I teach what I call a ‘No-talent Art Course’ for the passengers. After a couple of days at sea, almost everybody becomes bored with ship life and they come running in to the course. I give them a pad and pencil, they follow along with me and they find that they can draw — because everybody at one time in his or her life did draw. I even show them how to draw a Picasso or a Chagall and many of the masters. And they find it’s quite easy. I’m sure that many of these people have gone home and bought art materials. I guess that’s why I’m speaking here at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York today — they’re trying to sell art materials.

Hurd: I know that your ability to draw and to talk humorously at the same time on the platform has broadened your cartoon activities and made the business a lot more fun for you.

Hoff: At several times in my life I became quite frantic trying to make a living because every once in awhile the so-called ‘comic’ market would seem to dry up on me. I guess there were too many other people submitting to editors at Collier’s, the Post, or even The New Yorker, so I looked around for other things to do. For example, in 1947 I was hired by CBS to do a TV show. So for 18 weeks I did a show in which I had two kids appearing with me. It started out being called ‘Tales of Hoff.’ After that it became ‘The Shorty Show,’ a story of a little boy with his family — his father, his mother, his big sister. I had these two children in the act and as I would draw and tell them a story, they would ask questions and I’d ad-lib. At one point, referring to my character, I’d say “And then Shorty smiled,” at which time an announcer would shout, “Yes — Shorty smiled the Ipana smile of beauty!”

Hurd: What is your latest book, Syd?

Hoff: Harper & Row published it about three months ago — it’s called ‘Syd Hoff’s Animal Jokes,’ in which I combine my experience as a gag cartoonist with my children’s book experience. It’s a collection of jokes in which the animals are having jokes with each other.

Hurd: I know you’ve done several books over the years on how to become a cartoonist.

Hoff: Yes— The Stravon Educational Press in New York City published several — one of them was ‘Learning to Cartoon’ with the subtitle ‘How to Create and Sell Cartoons, including a survey of the most famous artist in the field.’ I think you mentioned that one early in our conversation.

Hurd: Well, I guess it’s time for you to get downstairs to do your chalk-talk schedule for 2 o’clock. Thanks for talking about tour business, Syd.


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