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'Fresh Air' Conversations With The Late Cartoonist John Callahan

Jul 13, 2018
Originally published on July 19, 2018 9:30 am
Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. "Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot," the new movie directed by Gus Van Sant, stars Joaquin Phoenix. He plays John Callahan, a quadriplegic who managed to build a successful career as a cartoonist. He died in 2010 at the age of 59. Callahan's drawings, published in such magazines as Penthouse and The National Lampoon, often focused on and found humor in the disabled. Here's a clip from the film, in which Callahan is called into the offices by the editors of a college newspaper that has published some of his early work.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DON'T WORRY, HE WON'T GET FAR ON FOOT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) John, as the editors of The Portland State Vanguard, some of us really enjoy your humor, but some of us are worried that things might have gone too far.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) We have 55 letters here from the student body complaining about your cartoons.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, reading) Mr. Callahan, I am appalled by your simplistic scribbling, your misinformed ideas about humor and the audacity to think the public enjoys your work.

JOAQUIN PHOENIX: (As John Callahan) That's real?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) That's from Woodburn, Ore. We have many of them.

PHOENIX: (As John Callahan) All right. Look. Guys, I know that people have come by the editorial offices to register complaints about me - Christians, queers, teachers, foreign nationals, janitors, lab rats all find me offensive, which, you know - it's a good - is it a good thing?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) We have a small pile of threats.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) There's one here from the Willamette Week. John, this is frankly shocking.

PHOENIX: (As John Callahan) What, the paper that Gary Larson draws cartoons for?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Yes. And they would like to give you your own series. We think that's going too far.

PHOENIX: (As John Callahan) Are you serious?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) They're publishing your cartoons.

PHOENIX: (As John Callahan) I thought you guys were playing with me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) No, no.

BIANCULLI: John Callahan's autobiography begins like this. "On the last day I walked, I woke up without a hangover. I was still loaded from the previous night," unquote. Callahan continued drinking throughout that day. His equally-inebriated friend was driving him home from a bar when they smashed into a utility pole at 90 miles an hour. Callahan was left paralyzed from the chest down. That was in 1972. As part of his rehab, John Callahan began to draw. When Terry interviewed him in 1989, she asked him to describe some of his more famous or infamous cartoons.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JOHN CALLAHAN: I have this cartoon with two cut-off heads on the street corner, just disembodied heads with - on little cards with tin cups. And one of them is blind. And the sighted cut-off head is saying to the blinded cut-off head, people like you are a real inspiration to me. Then I - the title of the book - the cartoon for the title of the book is a bunch of horsemen, a posse in the desert. They've come upon a abandoned wheelchair, a broken down and abandoned wheelchair that they've been tracking. And one of the horsemen is saying to the other, don't worry, he won't get far on foot.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: These cartoons are really very funny. I wonder if people are ever afraid to laugh at some of them, especially the ones about amputees and, you know, people in wheelchairs and stuff like that because they might be afraid that the laughter would be perceived as laughing at people with disabilities.

CALLAHAN: Yes. I think people have that ambivalent feeling. I get stopped by people all the time that say that they would like to laugh or they do laugh, and then they feel guilty. And then they go back to laughing. And then they feel guilty, you know. So it creates a kind of a strain in people.

GROSS: Does it make a difference to people who are seeing your cartoons if they know that you are paraplegic yourself?

CALLAHAN: Yes, it seems to make a difference. People are very condemning of me until they find out or read that I'm that paralyzed. And then they suddenly agree that I have a license to kill or something.

GROSS: (Laughter) What have your most controversial cartoons been?

CALLAHAN: In the book, I have my first angry letter, which is - I have framed at the house with many to follow. But it's a picture of a guy in a bar with no hands. And he has hooks for hands on both hands. And the bartender's turning him down, saying, sorry, Mike, you just can't hold your liquor. And - but when I drew that, many people with the disability of having, you know, you know, amputated hands or something have come up to me on the street in different cities and said how much they've enjoyed my work, and in particular, the hook jokes.

GROSS: Have stupid questions that you're asked about being handicapped led to cartoons?

CALLAHAN: Sometimes, yes. As a matter of fact, that first cartoon I described of the two cut-off heads talking because many people come to me and say, you know, people like you are a real inspiration to me. Which is a really strange feeling to have when you've only been in their presence for 30 seconds or something.

GROSS: (Laughter) Right. Can you take the same liberties with other people, or does it come off as sexist or racist?

CALLAHAN: Well, I guess people are touchy about the special interest groups like that. I mean, I've drawn - I have, for instance, a cartoon which is very popular. It's a picture of a cafe - in the window of the cafe it says, The Anorexia Cafe. And there's a small sign on the door that says, now closed 24 hours a day. And it's extremely popular. But, you know, it gets me in a little trouble sometimes. You know, people do write in. Usually almost always, people who write the angry letters are not a member of that group that I'm featuring in the cartoon.

GROSS: Did you have the same kind of sense of humor before your accident?

CALLAHAN: Yes, I did. I had it as a kid. I remember doing kind of cynical, you know, humor for my parents, kind of stand-up in the days I could - when I could stand up, you know. As a 5 or 6-year-old kid, I would try to entertain the family around the kitchen table.

GROSS: Was it hard for you to find your sense of humor after your accident?

CALLAHAN: Well, it took - I think it was always there. But, you know, the overwhelming, you know, depressions and stuff and disorientation for the first months and years are quite something to contend with. But my humor did get me through it. And I was drawing cartoons in physical therapy. I didn't so much enjoy what they had to give me in occupational therapy, like they wanted me to strengthen my hands and arms by sanding a piece of wood. And I didn't relate to it, so I just picked up a pen with two hands and drew cartoons and started drawing cartoons.

GROSS: Now, you write in your book that it's a fact of paralyzed life that people want to come up to you and cure you by delivering you to Jesus.

CALLAHAN: Yeah, I find that's true. I cite a couple of examples in the book. I mean, someone recently came up and told me - asked me if he could cure me, if I would be willing to be cured by Christ to be able to walk. And I just told him, I said, I just paid five grand for this new wheelchair. Do you mind if I get a couple of months' worth out of it before? You know, I think they're nice and everything.

But, I mean, sometimes, I just describe or open the book - my autobiography to page whatever it is. And I show the picture I have. And I'm respectful of the Christians, but I just - I happen to have a cartoon which I think is respectful toward Christianity. It's a picture of Jesus on the cross crucified and he's thinking warily to himself, TGIF. And that's enough to get rid of any - the most resolved Christian curer on the street.

GROSS: Does it ever make you angry that people would approach you and say, well, I've got the cure if you follow my way?

CALLAHAN: This seems funny, but, I mean, just yesterday, my friend Kevin (ph) and I were sitting somewhere in front of a restaurant. And a guy was standing by there waiting for a cab. And he said - he looked down at me, he says, well, you know, you know, a guy in your condition, you know, I mean, how do you - I said, you mean a red-haired person? He goes, no, no. And he starts pointing at the wheelchair. I said, oh, you mean a person with blue jeans? He goes, no, no, no, a guy like you who's - he just couldn't get it out, you know. So I like to tease people a little bit. But I have a chapter in the book called How To Relate To Handicapped People, and it's done all in cartoon style. I just encourage people to read that.

GROSS: You say that prostitutes hit on you also because they assume you're going to be sexually needy.

CALLAHAN: Yeah. Well, I think that's something that a lot of guys in wheelchairs have commiserated with me about it. It's - so, you know, I have drawn this cartoon - I show a picture of myself lying down in the street in a wheelchair. And a prostitute is sitting on the corner seductively. And she has the handicap access symbol sewn onto the front of her jeans.

GROSS: You know, I'm thinking it's what you do to get people to laugh. And one of the many subjects you get people laugh about is handicaps. Do you ever feel like saying to someone, hey, it's not funny?

CALLAHAN: Yeah. Well, I never - not because - I never really find too many things I don't think are funny to cartoon - to draw cartoons about. But many people come to me and say, hey, that's not funny. You shouldn't draw about that - draw like that. I mean, that's something you shouldn't touch, you know.

BIANCULLI: John Callahan speaking to Terry Gross in 1989. After a break, we'll listen to a later conversation from 1991. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID NEWMAN'S "YOU CAN'T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. In 1991, Terry Gross spoke with John Callahan again about his collection of drawings called "Digesting The Child Within: And Other Cartoons To Live By." They talked frankly about his battle with alcoholism and his life as a quadriplegic. Terry described a few of the cartoons in this collection.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: In one cartoon, a couple is eating in a cafe. A sign on the wall says thank you for not talking about your relationship. Here's another good one. A mother admonishes her children at the dinner table, finish your vegetables. There are children in Beverly Hills with eating disorders. And then there's the low self-esteem engine trying to get up the hill, chugging, I don't deserve to. I don't deserve to. There's even a Callahan cartoon about co-dependency.

CALLAHAN: Yeah, well, so much about it that my reaction to it was to draw a picture of a guy just walking down the street thinking to himself, I think. Therefore, I'm co-dependent.

GROSS: Yeah. That's good.

CALLAHAN: Yeah.

GROSS: Do you know the language of therapy and self-help from the inside? Have you've been in a lot of groups yourself?

CALLAHAN: Well, really, I haven't been that many groups - just a good, old AA experience more than anything. I have gone to, you know, counsellors and stuff over the years. And so, I mean, one of the first cartoons I did years ago was a picture of a psychiatric scene, you know, with a shrink and his patient. And the psychiatric couch is tipped over - over on the patient. The patient's pinned underneath the couch trying to get out. And the psychiatrist is kind of oblivious with his back turned. The psychiatrist is saying, what I seem to be hearing you say, Mr. Wilson, is, help.

GROSS: (Laughter) Have you found in self-help groups that you've been in that your brand of cynicism is not really welcomed within the group?

CALLAHAN: Yeah. I've had that happen a lot of times, when people think I have a bad attitude. And, you know, I think there's room for this kind of humor. It's refreshing. People - I think most people have the ability to realize that what they're doing has got a lot of humor. It's pretty funny, pretty ironic. And, you know, but there are some really sticks in the mud about it, you know? Like, I have some more intense kind of cartoons. And I don't know if this one's in this particular book. The one with the facilitator of the group is - something like on the wall, it says welcome to the Wednesday night double-arm amputee group. You know, the woman is standing there. She has arms. And all the other people surrounding her have no arms. And she's saying, I need a hug.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CALLAHAN: You know, that's a little more on the edge. But, you know...

GROSS: You know, sometimes, when you're really cynical or skeptical, you're accused of using it as a defense mechanism, which, in fact, sometimes, it is. But sometimes, it's just a function of your sensibility. Do you find people get confused about that with you?

CALLAHAN: Yeah. I get confused myself about it, really. I mean, I think it's a function of both those things in me, really. But I was sort of born genetically, I think, with a sense of humor. But then I have developed to the point where I can just about numb myself to any awful fact in the world, you know? With the humor, I surround myself.

GROSS: Well, in the new book, the little, like, novella...

CALLAHAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...The short story series of cartoons is about how you became and stopped being an alcoholic.

CALLAHAN: Yeah. Well, that's my way of telling something. I mean, I can tell the truth. And - but it's easier for me doing it through humor. I mean, it comes out. The truth is very plain, and it's almost shocking to some people. But the humor will make it go down the throat a little sweeter, you know? So I've done a couple of those. So, I mean, that's an example - like that piece in my new book "I Think I Was An Alcoholic." It's about the last third of the book - that whole story about my alcoholism is - and my recovery - we'll probably animate that as my next film to animate.

GROSS: Well the humor in it is really odd. Let me tell you about the image that really stands out in my mind from it.

CALLAHAN: Yeah.

GROSS: You're talking about how, after the accident, you know, when you were in a wheelchair, a friend was wheeling you down the street. And he was really drunk, and you were really drunk. And you didn't realize that your foot was dragging beneath the chair because you have no feeling in the foot.

CALLAHAN: Yeah.

GROSS: And then you got back to, I guess, the nursing home. And there was like - you just kind of scraped all the skin off your feet...

CALLAHAN: Yeah

GROSS: ...Or your foot.

CALLAHAN: Yeah.

GROSS: I mean, that was just really horrifying to me.

CALLAHAN: It's grotesque. But actually, in the cartoon a bit of it made light and set up - if anybody could believe that they could be lightened up, like, with a - there's just this flume of blood flowing out of the foot. The nuns are standing around perplexed in the nursing home. It was - it just goes to show that just about anything can be turned into humor, I guess. Just about anything.

GROSS: So what was the nuns' reaction when you came back with this skin off of your foot? It sounds like - in the comic, it sounds like they were angry at you, and they throw you out of the nursing home.

CALLAHAN: Well, they were angry because I was so much younger then. I was just 23 or 24. But I was drunk all the time, and the nuns didn't like it. And they were like - they didn't want to abide my, you know, alcoholism. And they just - I think it was after that that I just - like, they threw me out of the nursing home. And I had to drift through Portland and go down the scale of alcoholism further and further. You know, then I bottomed out, like, a year or two later. I guess I have the nuns to thank for that.

GROSS: You describe the bottoming-out moment in the cartoon. Would you describe what really happened for us?

CALLAHAN: Well, I was at home alone one day in my wheelchair. And everyone was gone in my apartment. I was just alone. I was drinking a bottle of wine. I was about half-drunk And I dropped the bottle, and I couldn't reach it. It rolled down the stairs out of my reach. I couldn't get at it. And, I mean, anybody who's an alcoholic in those late stages and who feels really awful and sick and needs a drink - you know, more to drink. You know, when you get only half-drunk, you're sort of halfway there. It's very frustrating. And I couldn't reach the bottle. I mean, you know, and I knocked the phone off the hook to get somebody to come help me and knocked the phone on the ground.

And, you know, it just gets more and more intense. And I guess I was just having such a bad time of it in my life at that point with the frustration of, you know, the late stages of the drinking and the alcoholism, I was just generally completely just pushed to the point of insanity by it. I just started snapping out, just screaming and crying out against God and everything else. And I just had a real breakthrough at that moment I guess some alcoholics have where you completely just broke through this big epiphany. All of a sudden, sort of this calming feeling just came over me and this sort of gentle kind of presence or something was around me. And, you know, I picked up the phone and, you know, called for a pizza - no - help, you know?

GROSS: What kind of help did you call for?

CALLAHAN: I guess I called, you know, Alcoholics Anonymous.

GROSS: So once you gave up alcohol, how did you get into cartooning, and how did you realize that you actually could still draw? I know that's something you did when you were a kid.

CALLAHAN: It was kind of a natural sequence of things. Once I became sober and had a few years of sobriety, I became creative again and in touch with my creative drive. And once that happens, then I - wild horses can't hold me back. But it had been blocked in a really agonizing and torturous way during the years of alcoholism so that I was, like, living the "Night Of The Living Dead." I mean, it's bad enough to be living a half-life because you're an alcoholic, but if you're creative and that creative process is blocked off by - you know, you're just cut off from yourself with the alcohol. So once I, you know, stopped, then I was able to realize - and, of course, that drawing - I never had to learn how to draw. I just naturally know how, so - I have a real simple drawing style, thank God.

GROSS: How much use do you have of your hands?

CALLAHAN: Oh, completely, almost. My arms are normal. My - some of my fingers are just a little stiff. So I draw kind of - I have a goofy - it looks kind of dippy the way I draw, but...

GROSS: Oh, I should ask you to describe - this is a favorite in the FRESH AIR office - the - was it called the schizophrenic choir?

CALLAHAN: Oh, yeah. Schizophrenic choir - that's the Christmas tree one? Or is that...

GROSS: Yeah.

CALLAHAN: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

CALLAHAN: Let's see. There's, like, a crazy choir or something in Christmastime. I wish I could remember. Schizophrenic Christmas choir - they're standing on the bleachers with their Christmas outfits on. They look very crazy. And the leader's, you know, conducting them to sing, and they're all singing together "Do You Hear What I Hear?"

GROSS: (Laughter) That's really good (laughter). So what kind of setup do you have in your house now for physical therapy and stuff?

CALLAHAN: I just have the regular kind of, like, S and M-looking bed...

GROSS: (Laughter).

CALLAHAN: ...You know, with all these straps hanging down and stuff. And my - just my housekeepers do the physical therapy. I'm - in the morning, they stretch my legs and, you know, put on - it's just the usual thing - the handcuffs, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

CALLAHAN: I mean, I just do maintenance therapy now - physical therapy, really.

GROSS: Do you get a lot of offers from disability rights groups who want you to do work for them and...

CALLAHAN: Yeah, I do.

GROSS: And, if so - do you do it or not?

CALLAHAN: I do some. I mean, I don't know. I don't relate to as much as - I mean, the disability thing - I mean, I do a lot of cartoons about it. I don't relate to it as just, like, a strict political thing or something. The thing that kills me most are the politically correct - if I'm doing any political kind of cartoons, it's usually about the PC or the politically correct. I think they're geeks, so I draw cartoons about them.

GROSS: Is it hard to say no, though, to people?

CALLAHAN: Oh, yeah. I did one recently for something called the Spinal Network of - you know, I love a magazine that comes right out and tells what it's about - the Spinal Network magazine. It's a good magazine. And I did a cartoon of just this, you know, group of paraplegics or quadriplegics in this aerobics class. They're all paralyzed from the neck down, and they're all in their wheelchairs. And the leader of the exercise group is saying, OK, let's get those eyeballs moving.

GROSS: (Laughter) Very sick (laughter).

BIANCULLI: John Callahan speaking to Terry Gross in 1991. He died in 2010. A movie version of his life, directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Joaquin Phoenix as John Callahan, opens today. It's called "Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ISOLATION")

JOHN LENNON: (Singing) People say we've got it made. Don't they know we're so afraid? Isolation.

BIANCULLI: After a break, we'll remember Tab Hunter - the matinee idol who died Sunday at age 86. And film critic Justin Chang will review the new movie "Eighth Grade." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ISOLATION")

LENNON: (Singing) Just a boy and a little girl trying to change the whole, wide world. Isolation. The world is just a little town, everybody trying to pull us down. Isolation. I don't expect you to understand after you've caused so much pain. But, then again, you're not to blame. You're just a human victim of the insane. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.