Original short interviews with notable, rising or overlooked
figures from comics or the larger entertainment field by Bill Baker.
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BAKER'S DOZEN for 03/19/2008
Fun and Laughter on the Campaign Trail '08
Stan Lee on Election Daze
Stan Lee is widely known and well respected for many things, such as laying the groundwork and building the many wings of the House of Ideas alongside the likes of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, John Romita and a host of other legendary artists. He's also recognized for acting as the main face and voice of Marvel Comics for several generations of fans. And, of course, he's also been acknowledged for his consummate skill at plotting and scripting thrilling tales of heroic deeds which are punctuated by everyday dramas of the heart. All of this, and much more, can be said about Stan "The Man" without any hesitation or reservation.
But the one thing that is too often overlooked or even forgotten when his many abilities and accolades are listed, is the simple fact that Stan Lee is an incredibly accomplished writer of comedy. So, when I learned that his newest book, Election Daze, would tap this particular aspect of his talent, well, I just had to find out more about that project.
One result of pursuing this story is the interview that follows. Another, completely unexpected, result is that my face and stomach still ache a little bit.
After all, it's widely known that comedy isn't pretty. But who knew that extended bouts of smiling coupled with laughter could prove so physically demanding...or hurt so good?
Bill Baker: Hello, Stan. How are you doing today?
Stan Lee: Well, that depends on how you treat me! [General laughter]
BB: I'll do my best to treat you well, sir.
SL: Then I'm doing great! What are we talking about?
BB: Election Daze.
SL: Oh, yeah. My favorite book--at the moment.
BB: So, what is Election Daze? How would you describe it, and what makes it your favorite book of the moment?
SL: Well, I figure there's nothing funnier than celebrities, and everybody is interested in them. And, of course, these days political celebrities have the stage right up front. Everyone is talking about the election, and everybody is for either for [John] McCain, or [Barack] Obama, or Hillary [Clinton] or someone else.
Now, years ago I did a book for Marvel called You Don't Say, and we had pictures of, in those days, President Kennedy, and Richard Nixon and all of the people who were big then. And I took photos of them and I put dialogue balloons over their heads with things that it looked like they were saying, judging by the photo. But, of course, they were gags; they would never have been saying anything like that. And that book sold so well, we put out three issues of it. It was "real" magazine size; it wasn't the comic book [format].
The third one we [were going to] put out had Kennedy on the cover with a really good gag, and while it was at the printer, he was assassinated. And we were so heartsick about that whole thing that we gave up. We never even put that book out on sale. We just killed it at the printer.
But I was thinking--years later, now--that I think the public is ready for that type of thing again. And I've always loved that type of humor, photographs with funny captions or dialogue balloons above them. So, that's what I did. We took a lot of photos of people who are in the news today, political people, [added my captions and thought balloons to them,] and we called it Election Daze. It's a 96 page book, and if somebody doesn't get a laugh out of at least every other picture, then they're dead and they don't know it. [General laughter]
BB: So what aspects of the fumetti format appeals to you as a writer so much? Is the idea of putting words into other people's mouth?
SL: Well, you know, if you're writing comics, you're always putting dialogue balloons in characters' mouths, so that's what you always do. But the thing is, I love writing funny stuff, and I never have enough chance to do it in comics. It's funny, because the word "comic" means funny, but "comics" has now become a generic word, as you know. So, I try to inject a little humor into Spider-Man, and occasionally in other things I write, but those aren't primarily humorous strips. But a book like this gives me a chance to show that I can be as corny as anybody else.
BB: How involved were you in the whole process of seeing the book from the initial idea to final publication?
SL: It's my book. I wrote every page. It was my idea, and I wouldn't let anybody touch it. Every one of those 96 pages of photos with a dialogue balloon was written by me. So, if you don't like the book, you know who to hate. [General laughter]
BB: Did you choose the photos used in the book, as well?
SL: Yeah. My partner, Tom Filsinger of Filsinger Publishing, he did all the heavy work. He got the photos, and he would send them to me, and I'd pick the ones that I thought were best.
But, actually, I try to make a game out of it. I tried to write a gag for every photo he sent me--even if there was nothing you could think of. In fact, I think there was one photo which was just a picture of the White House, and I found a way to add a dialogue balloon over the White House, also. [Laughter]
BB: Did you get involved in the whole design aspect of the book, as well?
SL: More or less. I told them the size I wanted. It's like a half size, it's a horizontal book. It's sort of hard to describe. What a minute, I have a ruler here. [Very short pause]
It's about five inches high and eight inches long, if you can imagine that, with 96 fun-filled pages. A guffaw on every page! [General laughter]
BB: Given the heated nature of political debate these days, and just of politics in general, I've got to ask, and I'm playing Devil's Advocate here...
SL: Go ahead.
BB: Is there any partisanship going on in the book?
SL: I really tried not to [do that]. I'll give you examples of a couple gags, all right?
Here's a picture of Hillary and General Petraeus, the guy who's in charge in Iraq now. She's talking to him, and I have her saying, "That's all the military advice I can give you now." And he's saying, "Thanks, I really appreciate it." Which I thought was kind of funny. [General laughter]
SL: And then I have one of McCain talking to the crowd. He's holding a microphone, and he's got a big smile on his face, and he says, "Hold on, I've got more! How many Democrats does it take to change a light bulb?" [More general laughter]
Then I've got one of Obama looking very thoughtful, and he's thinking, "Please, let Hillary get pregnant again." [More general laughter]
So, it's that type of thing. I have something to say about everybody. And, as I say, I love writing these. I even have one of Vice President [Dick] Cheney. He's standing up, holding a newspaper in front of his trousers, and it looks like he's spilled something and he's trying to cover the stain. He's talking to a man next to him, and he says, "Someone spilled ketchup on my pants." And the man next to him says, "Damn liberals!" [More general laughter] You know, how can you not like these?
Then there's one of Hillary, with her hand outstretched, her mouth opened wide, and I have a dialogue balloon from out of the panel saying, "My god, she sings, too!" because it looks as if she's singing. [Still more general laughter]
I can't tell you any more--if I do you'll have the whole book.
SL: And those are the weakest gags. But, it's not at all partisan; I just try to poke fun at everybody. I hope it's considered to be good natured fun, you know? I'm hoping there's nothing there that would offend anybody.
BB: Right. I was going to bring that up because, while you're not necessarily pulling any punches, you aren't crossing the line, so to speak, which happens so much these days.
SL: Yeah. Yeah, I think there is nothing here that I think the people who are photographed wouldn't enjoy looking at if they were reading the book.
BB: Unless they have no sense of humor...
SL: In which case, they wouldn't be reading the book, because it's not the kind of book they'd read. [General laughter]
BB: Were there any topics that you felt you couldn't touch on?
SL: No. No, because I always think I can always find a way to take any topic and do it so that it's inoffensive. But I didn't touch on things like sexuality, or homosexuality. I didn't do anything that had to do with race, being black or anything [similar]. I just kept them funny; just ordinary things that anybody might think.
BB: "Working clean" as they used to say in the business.
SL: Yeah. Well, I've always tried to do that. I don't feel...
I have never wanted to offend anybody in the stuff I wrote. I like to feel that anybody, any type of person, can pick up anything that I write and, hopefully, enjoy it. Or, if they don't enjoy it, at least not be offended by it.
BB: Yeah. It does help to keep them coming back, among other things.
BB: What do you get from doing this kind of project?
SL: A lot of money, I hope! [General laughter]
Basically, a lot of satisfaction. I find sitting down with a bunch of photos and trying to write gags about them, is the most relaxing [thing]. I'll give you an example...
I do it just for fun. I have a photo of myself that was taken in China. I made a speech, believe it or not, in the Great Hall of China. I understand I'm one of the few Western people to make a speech there--this was about, I don't know, eight or ten years ago. And I'm standing holding a piece of paper, which is my speech, and I'm reading it. I've got one arm outstretched, and there are a lot of Chinese people all around me. And I've had the photo here in my office, and I wrote a balloon over my head, as if I was saying something, and what I said was, "I'll have one from column A..." [General laughter] And it looks real funny.
Then I have another photo. I was at a dinner once with President Regan. And somebody took a photo of me, bending over to talk to him. He was sitting at the table, I was standing next to him, and I bent down a little to talk with him. And then there's another photo, immediately following, where he looks up at me and he's talking to me. So I put a dialogue balloon over his head for the first photo saying, "Stan, would you do me a favor?" And in the second photo, where he's looking up at me as if he's asking something, I have him saying, "Would you pose for a picture with me?" [General laughter] Well, you have to see it. It absolutely looks like that's what he's saying.
Oh, and then I have one more here, that I keep in the office. When I was in Japan I met their top Sumo wrestler, and I sat down and talked to him. And he's sitting on a bench, all 650 pounds of him, and I'm sitting next to him, and I put a dialogue balloon over my head as I'm talking to him, saying something like, "I think if you laid off between meal snacks..." [More general laughter]
So, I do that, not to sell them, but I just do those for fun, for myself. So here was a chance to do a whole lot of them with politicians. How could I resist doing it?
BB: Is this a sign of things to come? Is there any possibility that we'll be seeing more of these written by you?
SL: I want to tell you, if this book really sells well--and I hope it will, and I sort of expect it will; I think it's the right book for the right time--I would love to make a series of these. Because you could do them with any subject, it doesn't have to be just politicians. It could be sports, it could be anything--movies, for instance.
In fact, I did one for Marvel called Monsters to Laugh With, I remember now. Again, it was magazine size. They weren't comic books, they were magazines. And what we did, we went to Universal Studios and bought a million photographs from all of their monster movies, and I would take these still photos of Frankenstein and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and I wrote funny captions, funny dialogue balloons above them. I don't remember any of them at the moment, but those books sold well, too.
So, I guess I've always loved doing that.
You know the best thing about it: It's the easiest thing you could do. If you're writing a story, you have to sit down, and you have to think of the story. And you've got to write an outline, and you've got to create your characters, and you've got to write descriptions of who the characters are, and what they're like, and how they relate to each other. And then you've got to write the entire story. Then you've got to edit the story.
But here, you look at a photograph, you write a funny balloon, and you're on to the next photo. I mean, it's the easiest form of writing there is.
I shouldn't be saying this; somebody else may read it, and decide, "Oh, I'll do this, too!" And I don't need the competition. [General laughter]
BB: I was wondering, what made Tom's company the perfect company to put this book out?
SL: Well, I have known Tom for a while, and when I decided to do the book, I said, "Y'know, I don't have the time to publish this!" And I remembered him. He puts out those little games, and calendar books and things, and they're really good. And I called him and I said, "Would you be interested?" And I told him, I said, "The toughest thing is just to get the photos. That's the big problem, where do you get the photos from?"
So he knew somebody named Lauren Victoria Burke, who I understand is an award-winning photographer, and she supplied the photos. And they're wonderful photos. She's good at it. And so, that was my biggest problem off of my back, because he was able to do this.
So he's handling everything that has to do with the actual publishing of the book, and all I've to do is write the stuff.
BB: Which you'd likely be doing, anyway, from the sound of it.
SL: Yeah, I do it for fun, anyway. Don't tell him that, or he'll see to it that I don't get paid. He'll say, "Your having too much fun!" [General laughter]
BB: I've got to ask another question which might sound silly, but I was wondering if this is only about entertaining other people as well as yourself, or might there be something else you hope to accomplish with it?
SL: You know, I would love to sound very profound, and very dedicated, and I would love to say, "Well, besides the laughter, and the cheering, there's also so much to be gained philosophically. And it's such a great social treatise on the world we live in today." But, no, actually I just hope people find it funny.
BB: And they certainly could use a laugh these days, it seems.
SL: I think people can always use a laugh.
You know, I've got to tell you something: While I'm talking to you, I'm sitting at my desk and I'm looking out our office window. There's a building across the way where I think they're starting to paint it. It's the Museum of Radio and Television on Beverly Drive, here in Los Angeles. Anyway, the roof is about level with my window, and there are two workmen leaning over the roof, trying to grab some big cloth that's hanging down to shield the windows of that building from the paint, I guess.
They are leaning over so much that I'm afraid they're going to fall right off the building! [Laughter] I'm so nervous while I'm sitting here talking to you, and I'm watching those idiots workmen. They're practically hanging by their toes off the roof of that building. So, if at any moment during this interview you hear me yell, you'll know one of them dropped. [General laughter] It's scary, watching these guys.
You know what I'm going to do? I'm going to face the other way. OK, now I can talk.
BB: It could be worse Stan. At least it's the front view, and not one from behind them, with low riding pants.
SL: I ought to have a photo of that, and write a caption.
BB: That's a great idea.
SL: Well, to me, all life is photo captions. Whatever I see, I can think of something funny about it.
BB: What else is on the horizon for you?
SL: Well, I'm doing the usual. I have this company called POW! Entertainment. The purpose of the exclamation point is so that it doesn't read as "Prisoner of War." And I'm sure that you've already figured out that POW stands for "Purveyors of Wonder." And we're doing movies, television shows, we're doing things for the Internet, we're doing little bits of entertainment that you'll be able to get on your telephone and computer. Whatever there is in the field of entertainment, we're trying to be involved in.
BB: It sounds like you're in no way resting on your laurels, and that you're constantly keeping yourself busy.
SL: Oh, well, what else is there to do in this world? [General laughter]
I love working, because it isn't work. I mean, doing things in the field of entertainment, it just isn't work. It's the most fun you can have.
You can learn more about Election Daze at www.FilsingerPublishing.com. You can also buy copies of this very irreverent and funny book at that same website, from any number of bookstores across these United States or online here.
<< 02/27/2008 | 03/19/2008 | 04/09/2008 >>
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