Talking to Wayne White About Cartooning, ‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse,’ and Humor’s Role in the Art World
Prior to the release of the 2012 documentary Beauty Is Embarrassing, artist Wayne White‘s work had much more mainstream recognition than his name. A comedian of the art world and vice versa, White’s storied career has consistently eluded a singular identity; he’s made cartoons for The New York Times and The Village Voice, both acted in and fabricated puppets and sets for Pee-wee’s Playhouse, worked on a handful of children’s television series, made music videos and commercials, and created the world’s largest country star George Jones head. It wasn’t until White debuted his trademark “word paintings” inspired by both his Chattanooga upbringing and lifelong love for typography that the multi-talented creator began to gain steam in the more serious art world, an art world White’s paintings are fond of calling out through phrases like CHEAP BASTARD and YOUR LAMEASS THEORY. The majority of White’s paintings and other oddball work position him as the perfect person to ask about comedy’s long underappreciated role in art, and why humor can’t — and maybe shouldn’t — get the accolades and respect it so richly deserves.
Why did you initially want to be a cartoonist, and who/what were your influences?
Well I moved to New York to be a cartoonist. I chose cartoons because I’d just finished a four-year undergraduate art education. I was a painting major at a state university in Tennessee –I learned all about art and painting and the art world, but the minute I got out I realized I was in trouble, I wasn’t going to sell any paintings in Tennessee. I was definitely a long way off from making a living as a painter. I loved cartooning and I wanted to be a cartoonist when I was a little kid, and I gave it up to be a painter because I thought that was more “important.” But I went back to the idea of cartooning and illustrating because I was out in the real world and I needed to use my skills. I had also seen Raw magazine, the magazine Art Spiegelman put out in the 80s, in Nashville and realized it was the beginning of a new era in American comics, and I wanted to be a part of that. I could see it from the ground floor and everything – and I was right, it was the beginning of the new comics revolution we’re still in with all these great graphic novels, the beginning of taking comics more seriously as an art form. That’s why I moved up to New York to be around that scene and be a cartoonist. It took me about two years before I got good enough to be a freelancer.
How steep was competition for cartooning gigs?
Oh, extreme. It’s New York City, you know? It’s the best there is. I was surrounded by the best – Gary Panter, Charles Burns, Kaz, all these cartoonists who worked for Raw magazine that were also illustrators, so I got to be around them and learn from them. I always tell young artists “Go somewhere where everybody’s better than you.” It’s not the quickest, but it’s a very effective way of learning things in the real world; instead of being coddled, it’s do or die.
Was being a cartoonist a good foundation for your later work?
Absolutely. The craft alone is very demanding – you have to know typography and be a good letterer, you have to draw all these little drawings on a page and make them all work together and individually, and you have to be able to tell a story and make it work. So there’s all these demanding things you have to get right or the whole thing won’t work. With a painting you can fudge things, there’s a lot of ambiguity to fool around in, but with a cartoon it either works or it doesn’t. So it was a very precision kind of thing, and it definitely influenced what I’m doing now with my typography paintings, because I had to deal with a lot of lettering-type design. Plus I still tell stories too, which is an influence of cartooning.
How did you get your first big TV gig on Pee-wee’s Playhouse, and what did the job teach you about comedy?
Well I was lucky. I was at the right place at the right time and I was doing something that was part of this zeitgeist that Pee-wee was part of – for lack of a better word, it was kind of this post-modernist showbiz approach parodying and deconstructing stuff about children’s shows with weird puppets. Everything kind of came together. I was lucky that Pee-wee was such a big deal at the time and fit into my sensibility. And I did learn a lot – I became a professional performer. I thought I was just going to design puppets and the sets, I didn’t think I was good enough to be a performer… [laughs] …but I was, and so I learned about timing and working with other people and scenes on camera, which is really viable as far as learning about comedy. Comedy’s all about timing. So working with really funny professional comic actors and comedians is a real lesson in timing – what to say, what not to say, how to use inflection – all these subtle subtexts. And just being around a TV show and learning about communication and how to do it effectively.
It seems like you’ve worked with a lot of funny performers throughout your TV career.
Yeah, I worked with so many talented people on the Playhouse. Paul Reubens of course, Phil Hartman, Laurence Fishburne, Lynne Stewart, John Paragon – all the Playhouse gang were all super talented actors and comedians. And after that my next job was on Shining Time Station, a show I designed sets for Ringo Starr and Thomas the Tank Engine. I worked with Peter Gabriel on his video for “Big Time,” very nice guy. I did a show on CBS with this cowboy group called Riders in the Sky, which was an interesting failure. [laughs] I did four seasons of Beakman’s World with an artist Paul Zaloom, another really great talent and good comic actor. It goes on and on.
You’ve become more recently recognized for your word paintings. What inspired you to start them?
Typography attracted me even before I could read – I remember drawing letters as characters. The lettering thing as a visual was always instinctive with me. Then I wanted to tell stories too – I wanted to inject a text into a painting and tell what I call “the world’s shortest short stories.” I think of them as poems too in a way. I operate like a writer, I have a notebook with lots of writing in it, which is what I use to inspire the paintings after I edit it down like a writer does – try to find the essence of it and trap it into a perfect four words or whatever. So that process is a lot like writing. I’m sort of a frustrated writer – I’ve always wanted to write but never quite took the time to develop that discipline. I’m surrounded by writers – I’ve been around as many writers as artists and I love to read, so it was the pull of that literary thing, plus the years of cartooning – that’s writing. I’ve always wanted to tell a story along with making a picture, and [the word paintings] are a way of doing both at the same time: Tell the story, design the typography as abstract forms, use the light, color, shapes, lines, and all the formal elements of painting yet at the same time look straightforward, effective, hopefully funny or sad. It’s a way of synthesizing it all into one thing. I always say everything you try as an artist sticks with you and you can’t get rid of it. It’s all gonna be in there whether you like it or not.
Have you noticed a difference between the paintings that get the biggest reaction versus the ones you personally like the most?
Sometimes there’s a discrepancy. Having worked as a performer — I still see myself as a performer, I get up on stage all the time — I kind of know what works and what doesn’t work. I’m always using that to decide what goes into the paintings. So I’m not surprised when certain ones work, but other times I get tired of playing that and want to try to do something more hermitic or more mysterious to others but might have a secret meaning for me. I’m constantly balancing the populist side of me with the more esoteric, hermitic, studio side. But I never trust either one — I kind of blend the two. A lot of people argue that art is not about communication but I don’t quite buy that altogether. I think all artists want to communicate deep down — or why are you doing it, why are you putting it in a room where people can see it if you don’t want to communicate? Just keep it to yourself if you really believe that. I think most artists are frustrated entertainers in a way. They’d never admit that because it’s so, so uncool — the artist is the ultimate cool mysterious thing — and that’s just so much bullshit. Most artists are very insecure and they want as many people to like them as possible, that’s why they’re doing it. Artists are full of shit. They’re supported by intellectuals that egg them on. Artists are not intellectuals either. They’re nerve endings. They’re responding to the world around them and they’re trying to communicate, and then an intellectual critic comes along and gets ahold of them and tells them how great they are and how deep they are, and they start believing it.
You’ve been quoted saying “Humor is sacred” multiple times. What exactly does that mean to you?
Well, paradoxically it’s sacred but it can’t be held sacred or it’s not funny, you know? The minute you put something on a pedestal it’s not funny; the minute you knock it off, it is funny. So it is sort of a conundrum to say humor is sacred. I guess what I mean by that is it’s valuable because it’s a survival tool we all need, so anything that keeps us alive – and humor really does – is sacred. It’s also a very effective way of getting at the truth, and that seems to be the sacred thing too. And it’s the opposite of what we think is sacred, which makes it sacred, you know? All this pious seriousness – “Oh holy holy seriousness!” – what are you so serious about? Shouldn’t we all be here for joy, isn’t that what everyone wants? It’s a form of salvation that lifts us up out of this constant dread we all have, the dread of being alive, this existential realization that this is finite. That’s crushing! And humor saves us from that, so in the sense that it’s a salvation it’s a sacred thing. But the minute you start talking about it like that, it kind of dissolves, the fun dissolves.
Whether it’s in film, television, or the art world, why do you think humor is still seen as a less serious work of art?
Well, laughter is seen as light now, it’s seen as release. And for some reason people don’t trust that. They feel like you have to really hunker down and suffer for something to have merit, and I don’t know why that is. I guess people see being relieved as just a break from the horrible slog of seriousness that we’re all supposed to be involved in as far as artistically. And when something makes you laugh it’s like “That’s a nice diversion – now back to the grim reality.” It’s just seen as a diversion rather than a craft and an art, but of course it isn’t. It’s hard to make somebody laugh. Comedy is very hard. It’s very hard to craft, it’s very hard to create. So I don’t know – it’s human nature, because most of life is not funny, and so we tend to trust the not-funny stuff and we don’t trust what’s funny, we just think of it as clever. Maybe it should be kept like that. That’s what keeps it fresh and keeps it stuck in this outsider kind of state. The trickster will always be on the outside.