The Greatest Projects I Never Made (Part 2 of 2)

Image result for 9/11 philadelphia city paper

Two weeks ago I discussed some of the projects and jobs that, for whatever reason, I never got to do during my career as a cartoonist and writer. The stuff we don’t do, I wrote, defines as much as what we do. This week: my weird stuff that never came together.

            Hugh Hefner died in 2017. I was un-sad.

Un-sad is not happiness. It’s feeling neutral when you’re supposed to be unhappy. Hef, who as a young man wanted to be a cartoonist, had bad taste in cartoons and architecture but superb taste in art directors. In the 1990s his charismatic cartoon editor Michelle Urry recruited me to help modernize Playboy’s graphics, whose content and aesthetics were stuck in the 1960s the way The New Yorker looks like it’s still the 1920s. Under Urry’s tutelage I drew scores of sex-themed cartoons with a left-wing social and political bent. I think they were some of the funniest stuff I’ve ever done.

“I love them but Hef hates them,” Michelle told me. “He wants to leave everything the same.” So no commie sex comix. Sadly for real, Urry died prematurely.

One of my oddest aborted projects was a comic strip in which I partnered with another cartoonist to whom I will grant anonymity. Conceived over planter’s punches at a defunct Village bar called the Dew Drop Inn and marketed to alternative and underground newspapers under a pseudonym, “Lil’ Adolf and His Friend Eva” featured the antics of two kids in an American high school facing situations à la Archie and Jughead (drawn a bit like that) with a twist: neither knows they’re clones of a certain German Chancellor and his girlfriend Eva Braun. Faced with a dilemma—homework, bullying, getting picked last in gym class—the pair inevitably resorts to violence. I often decry newspaper editors as a band of boring middlebrow risk-averse Babbitts but in this case I applaud their discretion. Not one paper expressed interest in “Lil’ Adolf.” I am grateful.

My UPN fiasco left a few scars. In 1998 or 1999 Dean Valentine, head of the now-forgotten TV network that aired the “Dilbert” TV show, asked me to develop an animated series to follow “Dilbert” at 8:30 pm. Valentine had seen my cartoons in the Los Angeles Times. While the lawyers hashed out the deal I toiled over plots and character designs. The result would be a show called “Boomerang.”

Whereas “The Simpsons” is about a nuclear family in the suburbs, “Boomerang” would concern a postmodern extended tangled yarnball of relationships between half/stepsiblings and their LGBTQA partners and adopted children and pets living in a sprawling dilapidated Victorian hulk in Newark reflective of America’s splintering socioeconomic infrastructure. Very Gen X.

Six months or so into it, the deal was finalized. I signed a stack of contracts. My lawyer shoved them into a FedEx. And we never heard from UPN again. We called and called…no reply.

Ghosted by a corporation! Now it’s standard business practice. Twenty years ago, though, neither me nor my attorney had ever heard of such a thing. We could have sued for breach of (half-signed?) contract and perhaps won. But I wanted to do another show someday and didn’t want to get blackballed by Hollywood companies.

Two of my TV show pitches attracted high-level interest in Tinseltown, though not as close to those execution copies of contacts at UPN. Aside from the glory, I would have wanted to watch them. That’s my test for cartoons, books, podcasts, whatever I make. If I were a fan, would I want to consume it myself?

“Green”’s premise was simple: if the planet is in danger, if ecocidal maniacs are causing climate change, mass extinctions and possibly the end of the human race, isn’t the right thing to do to murder the bastards? “Green” the series would have been about a “deep green” terrorist organization—think Earth First! meets the Weather Underground if WU had had more members—and a FBI counterterrorist taskforce assigned to find and stop them. I saw it as a political, existential HBO-type show starring brilliant, troubled lead characters.

I scored repeat pitch meetings with Hollywood production companies and a few networks. But interest waned. Calls were no longer returned.

Shortly after the 2000 election I shopped a treatment for “The Bushies,” an animated series about the then-First Family in which all the characters were secretly different than their public personas. In “The Bushies” George W. Bush was a brilliant, soulful intellectual. Cheney was a mushy crybaby. The Bush twins were nefarious serial killers. Like many other L.A. dreams, “The Bushies” died in a major network’s “business affairs” department because some idiot lawyer worried about libel suits.

The Bushies were public figures, as public as could be. This was classic political satire, immune from litigation assuming a Bush was dumb enough to sue. Most countries (France, Germany, England, Russia) had similar comedies mocking their leaders. As usual, the in-house attorney won. Trey Parker and Matt Stone moved quickly with their “That’s My Bush!” for Comedy Central. It was not one of their finer resume entries.

Later in the decade I tried to jumpstart a political animation career with five-minute shorts. I drew and wrote; David Essman animated. We did 35 of them in all. Some still hold up, all are worth watching (the Tea Party one is great), but despite my aggressive marketing campaign I couldn’t sell them to anyone. It’s sad: static political cartooning is dead, Internet companies are obsessed with video but no one wants animated cartoons. My political cartoonist colleagues have had similar lousy results.

One of my most ambitious projects got killed by 9/11.

Less than an hour before the first plane hit the World Trade Center, my train left New York’s Penn Station for Philadelphia. By the time me and my business partner, now a magazine editor, arrived in Philly the Parks Police were shutting down the Liberty Bell. (My first post-9/11 joke: “don’t worry, it’s already broken.”)

We were in Philly to close a $1.5 million deal with a Pennsylvania media investor in Brooklyn Weekly, the alt weekly newspaper we wanted to launch in the borough. At the time Brooklyn still being hipsterized. The 19 hijackers messed it up. As we watched the events on TV the moneyman leaned back into his seat. “Deal’s off,” he announced as he wrote off the nation’s biggest city. “No one will ever do business in New York again.”

“With all due respect,” I replied with nothing-to-lose bravado, “that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. They still do business in Hiroshima.”

Osama bin Laden may have done me a favor. Craigslist destroyed the classified ads business that were the basis of the alt-weekly profit model. The dot-com crash pushed the economy into a slump that lasted the rest of the decade. Brooklyn Weekly might have been doomed.

Or maybe not. Brooklyn is different. I could easily see a weekly with a strong political and cultural point of view succeeding now.

(Ted Rall, the cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

 

5 thoughts on “The Greatest Projects I Never Made (Part 2 of 2)

  1. So, completely unrelated to the content of the article, but hey Ted, The Dew Drop Inn, wow! Before it was the Dew Drop Inn, it was my grandfathers bar/restaurant, going back to the 50’s. Used to be a musicians hangout, lots of jazz players, and Bob Dylan hung out there before he was famous. Somewhere I have a copy of his first album autographed to my grandfather. My grandparents used to feed him for free when he was broke.

  2. Ted,

    The “Green” series? I had the same idea about 10 years ago. Not as a series, but as an inescapable thing-to-come. Had journalism not collapsed, I would have tried to write about it in long form. But all that’s gone now. We’ve got a couple of Plymouth Plantation-style holdouts but the whole farming system for producing journalists is gone. Shit, look at what the LATimes has become and tell me with a straight face that journalism has a future. (Click here for the six weird tricks the government doesn’t want you to find out about to control your belly fat.) When the colleges finally stop subsidizing sports teams, it’ll be the same thing for baseball, football, basketball, etc.
    The relevant organizations are out there, even now, doing small-scale border wars. As the environmental damage gets worse, it will come to pass that some very fed-up people will finally start going all the way to 11 and in ways that the media [sic] can no longer look the other way. The same media that’s pretending Bernie Sanders isn’t there will try like hell to pretend that some eco-terrorists are not out there.
    I suspect a small-scale example of this “Green” phenomenon will come to pass with a school shooting aimed at the children/accessories of the powerful. I suspect some of the powerful will actually even emote as though they loved those children (a remarkable piece of acting). We’ve all see what happens when the 99% are the victims: nothing. All those kids from Margery Stoneman Douglas High School? I’m impressed with their anger and their zeal, but they’re still doing all this from a “change from within” mindset. It won’t work that way. It never does. So we’ll continue to have violence until the violence finally inconveniences the powerful sufficiently to cause change.
    It was the same with the Civil Rights Movement (remember, economic boycotts, to a corporation, are the most violent thing imaginable), the Gay Rights Movement, etc. The Occupy Wall Street movement did a lot of polite performance pieces and ran by group consensus without a plan to actually do anything. And they nearly screwed us all out of everything.
    Now we’ve literally bet everything on Bernie Sanders. And assuming the CIA doesn’t have the election early by executing Sanders before he takes the oath of office, or that the DNC doesn’t rig yet another primary, we might actually have a chance.
    But you read it here first. I think a lot of people are waiting for that election. And I think that if the election doesn’t go to Sanders, we’re going to see a lot more violence against the state.

    • A mixed bag, but WTF …

      Journalism is dead, long live journalism. Yeah, our current model is dying, but the need remains. We’ve seen some of the disasters that come from the current internet rumor model. That doesn’t work, but the need remains. Let’s see what springs from the journalistic vacuum nature supposedly abhors.

      > come to pass with a school shooting aimed at the children/accessories of the powerful.

      My evil twin thinks that’d be great fun, but my good twin keeps saying “but they’re KIDS!” So, no, not fun. The good news is we needn’t worry, those kids are much better protected than the rabble who attend public schools.

      > we might actually have a chance.

      I share your hope, Alex. Stuff could happen this time around. If it does, we have Trump to thank for it. Campaign strategy: drag the impeachment hearings out for about a year so the public doesn’t forget by election day.

      • Absolutely, the need remains. But as Ted has shown us, when it’s a fire fight between one person with the truth on his side and a corporation owned by a billionaire, the fight is emotionally/financially/physically devastating.

        What will spring from the vacuum? In the 1980s, Reagan’s owners started emptying out the mental hospitals. Let’s put these people in halfway houses so that they can re-enter society. Talk to someone who works with the mentally unwell. Things you or I take as duh-givens, things like doing the laundry, microwaving dinner, taking a pill every day? Some of those people literally can’t do it. Taking meds every day? Even if you put it in a little packet that has the date and time to take the pill on it? Won’t work. So the former hospital patient ends up on the street acting weirdly. Then he gets arrested. Put in jail. Loses his housing. Becomes homeless. Why? No one was there to help him.

        So let’s put the hospitals back together!

        Can’t be done. The institutional memory is gone. Just like with journalism. And the people who used to work there? The ones with all the skills, contacts, etc.? They’ve gone to new careers because they’ve got to survive. They can’t just go back.

        Nothing will spring from the vacuum. It will just be shittier and shittier until it becomes something no one takes seriously. Except for maybe four or five sources, and god help them, where do they think they’ve going to find talent? There used to be thousands of journalists. Real journalists. Now it’s hypercaffeinated 20-somethings who have no real training, net-surfing and “repurposing” content.

        Journalism and publishing in general will continue morphing into an industry for the idle rich. Bored trustfunders who like writing and who think Bret Easton Ellis, David Foster Wallace and all the other wunderkinder that the New York Times keeps vomiting praise onto are actually as good as their carefully worded press releases make them out to be.

      • And here I though *I* was a pessimist. 😉

        Oh, yeah, I share your belief that it’s all gonna come crumbling down in the very near future (historically near – might take another hundred years dying a slow, painful death, might just spontaneously collapse at any moment.) Call it a half-life of fifty years, luckily my own half-life is considerably less than that.

        Until then, I’ll do whatever I can to ease the pain. No, not Jack Daniels (well, maybe…) but trying to keep the government from going full metal fascist, and Mother Earth from dying.

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