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Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, playwright, author, and screenwriter Jules Feiffer created satirical cartoons on a weekly basis for the Village Voice for more than forty years, beginning in 1956. His cartoon was entitled “Sick, Sick, Sick,” and like the so-called “sick” comedians, Feiffer brought into focus disturbing aspects of a sick society. Like Bob Hope, Feiffer often centered his satires on American presidents. Unlike Hope, Feiffer’s cartoons mercilessly ridiculed attitudes, decisions, and actions of leaders who, in his view, had caused the nation to lose its way. Feiffer, as he commented, “thought the country was coming unglued and that many of the values that we sentimentalized had this dark side that we chose not to reveal to ourselves.” Like other satirists of his time, Feiffer became politically active during the 1960s, and his cartoons from that period reflected his deepening concerns.

I began my cartoon with no intention of getting into politics. . . . I was more concerned with the social focus of the country, on relationships between men and women, people and their jobs, parents and children. After a time I discovered that even these interests involved politics. The Eisenhower sensibility affected every phase of our lives, as did the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon sensibilities later on.—Jules Feiffer, 1974


Jules Feiffer

Jules Feiffer (b. 1929) arrived on the national scene after his first collection of Village Voice cartoons, Sick, Sick, Sick: A Guide to Non-Confident Living, published in April 1958, became a best seller. "My definition of humor," he stated, "is that to be really funny a joke, a story, a comic routine must make an observation on an existing situation, not the myth that we've come to know the situation by." Feiffer's satires attracted the interest of like-minded show business innovators, including filmmaker Stanley Kubrick (1928–1999) and comedian Steve Allen (1921–2000).

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  • Dick DeMarsico, photographer. Jules Feiffer at work, 1958. New York World-Telegram and Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (036.00.00) [Digital ID# cph-3c26485]

  • Jules Feiffer, with handwritten comment by Steve Allen. Sick, Sick, Sick cartoon: "Used to go to the vaudeville house." May 10, 1959. Jules Feiffer Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (040.02.00) [Digital ID # bhp0040_02]

  • Letter from Stanley Kubrick to Jules Feiffer, December 16, 1958. Jules Feiffer Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (039.01.00) [Digital ID # bhp0039_01]

  • Letter from Stanley Kubrick to Jules Feiffer, January 2, 1959 [mistakenly dated January 2, 1958]. Typescript. Jules Feiffer Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (039.02.00) [Digital ID # bhp0039_02]

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The Satirist in American Society

Feiffer often reflected in speeches and interviews on his role as a political satirist. He characterized his cartoons as “warning signals . . . saying, ‘This is where we’re headed. This is not us. We can do something about it. We can change.’” His “satirical form” of cartooning allowed him “to alert and force attention to things that weren’t getting nearly enough attention . . . The differences between rich and poor, racism, education.”

Jules Feiffer. The Role of the Satirist in American Society. Program, December 8, 1965. Jules Feiffer Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (037.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0037]

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The "Radical Middle"

Feiffer devoted a number of cartoons to warning his readers about the tendency within American politics and the media to marginalize extreme views at either end of the political spectrum. This stifling of debate, he believed, narrowed the range of acceptable solutions to persistent societal problems. He stated that the "voice of the middle or Radical Middle . . . was in its guise of reasonableness exacerbating our problems while pretending to address them."

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Al Capp

Li’l Abner by Al Capp (1909–1979) satirized American life from the vantage point of the hillbilly community of Dogpatch. Acclaimed by the intelligentsia when he targeted conservatives, Capp lampooned liberalism in the 1960s and lost their favor. When Capp complimented Feiffer’s artistry in a Playboy interview, Feiffer responded that in light of Capp’s other opinions, “I must be considerably poorer as an artist than even I had dreamed.” Capp took umbrage at Feiffer’s comment, prompting this exchange of letters. Feiffer’s response was in the tone of Li’l Abner.

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  • Letter from Al Capp to Jules Feiffer, March 3, 1966. Jules Feiffer Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (039.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0039]

  • Draft of letter from Jules Feiffer to Al Capp, March 16, 1966. Jules Feiffer Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (040.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0040]

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The Sting of Satire

In January 1967, Capp created “Joanie Phoanie,” a hypocritical, money-hungry folksinger who visited Dogpatch with her slovenly cohorts. The folksinger Joan Baez (b. 1941) charged that the character was a caricature of herself and a “stupid, vulgar satire” of the anti-war movement. After she demanded a retraction, Capp criticized her “protests about others’ rights to protest.” Years later, Baez confessed that the satire stung especially because of her own "confusion about being rich and famous."

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Senators Malarkey and MacCarony

In May 1953, Walt Kelly (1913–1973) introduced into the Okefenokee Swamp of his popular Pogo comic strip the bobcat Simple J. Malarkey and Mole MacCarony in a satirical smack at crusading anticommunist senators Joseph McCarthy (1908–1957) and Pat McCarran (1876–1954). Jules Feiffer, noting the rage Kelly expressed in his "brilliant swipes," later wrote, "I thrived on his satire in those early cold war years." In this strip, Malarkey and MacCarony, members of a group investigating the swamp's inhabitants, turn on each other.

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Proposed Course in Humor

In 1971 Feiffer proposed to teach a course at Hampshire College that sought to relate representative American cartoonists, writers, playwrights, and comics—including Bob Hope—to the times in which they worked. Hampshire had opened the previous year as an experimental school boasting no grades and an unorthodox curriculum to encourage students’ self-directed explorations. Although the course never took place, Feiffer, who never attended college, later taught writing at Yale Drama School and Southampton College.

Letter from Jules Feiffer to Francis D. Smith, December 22, 1971. Jules Feiffer Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (043.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0043]

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“Social Critics Do Not Change Votes”

In speeches and interviews, Feiffer often reflected on the place of satire in American life. He characterized his cartoons as “warning signals . . . saying, ‘This is where we’re headed. This is not us. We can do something about it. We can change.’” As he indicated in these notes from a 1962 talk, however, Feiffer believed that with the Kennedy administration’s embrace of its critics, satire had surrendered its power to sound an alert.

Jules Feiffer. Notes for speech, ca. 1962. Jules Feiffer Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (037.02.00) [Digital ID # bhp0037_02]

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White House Murder Case

Feiffer felt an affinity with the work of improvisational theater groups, such as Second City, that created satirical sketches from topical matters. As a playwright, he often collaborated with directors and actors having roots in improvisational theater as he did with The White House Murder Case. The play satirized a future administration’s attempts to cover up a war crime. When the Nixon administration invaded Cambodia, the play “seemed too close to reality,” Feiffer later wrote, “Overnight, audiences shunned us.”

The White House Murder Case. Program for West Coast premiere, March 1971. Jules Feiffer Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (037.01.00) [Digital ID # bhp0037_01]

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Head for the DMZ

In 1968, two Columbia University professors, Isaiah Sheffer (b. 1935) and Eric Bentley (b. 1916), opened a political satire cabaret “DMZ,” a venue rooted in European urban culture, but rare in the United States. Bentley noted, “Our idea for radical satire wasn’t acceptable everywhere.” He surmised that club owners “didn’t mind being outspoken on sex, but wanted to be polite on politics.” Jules Feiffer contributed a poster and satiric sketches for the cabaret, which survived off and on for four years.

Head for the DMZ. Poster, 1968. Jules Feiffer Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (040.01.00) [Digital ID # bhp0040_01]

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Feiffer on President Johnson

Of the presidents he satirized, Feiffer felt most betrayed by Lyndon Johnson (1908–1973). Early on, Feiffer's admiration for Johnson's domestic achievements interfered with his caricatures. "As a political satirist," he acknowledged, "my pen only works where it can hurt." With the escalation of the Vietnam War, Feiffer's image of Johnson coalesced. Following the July 1967 civil disorders in Newark and Detroit, Feiffer drew this cartoon, for which the White House requested an autographed original. Feiffer refused.

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  • Jules Feiffer. "First the Negroes revolted." Published in New York Post, August 23, 1967. Copyprint. Jules Feiffer Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (047.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0047]

  • Letter from Willie Day Taylor to Jules Feiffer, August 25, 1967. Jules Feiffer Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (045.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0045]

  • Draft of letter from Jules Feiffer to Willie Day Taylor, September 12, 1967. Jules Feiffer Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (046.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0046]

  • Letter from Willie Day Taylor to Jules Feiffer, November 20, 1968. Jules Feiffer Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (045.01.00) [Digital ID # bhp0045_01]

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Feiffer on President Nixon

Feiffer needed time to develop “some sort of psychological take” on presidents, he wrote, before he could create a “decent caricature.” Anger at their policies improved his art. He stated, “Political cartoons are more likely to be good when the attitude is hostile, to be even better when the attitude is rage, and when you reach hate, you can really get going.” In this regard, he thought of Richard Nixon (1913–1994) as “Father Christmas.”

Jules Feiffer. Christmas card, 1972. Jules Feiffer Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (044.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0044]

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