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Meet the Artist: Barbara Smaller

October 29, 2009
Smaller, January 13, 2003

The New Yorker, January 13, 2003, by Barbara Smaller

Smaller and Sipress

Barbara Smaller (left), with fellow cartoonist David Sipress and TCB licensing sales associate Tricia Gesner

(A reprint from the May 2009 Cartoon Bank licensing newsletter.)

Barbara Smaller knows all about finding the funny. The Chicago native grew up in a family of six kids, dabbled in stand-up comedy after quitting nursing school, and now draws (pun intended) much of her cartoon inspiration from the endless font of humor that is life on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where her husband is a building superintendent. Barbara met up with our sales team at a downtown restaurant, where she shared some of the “checkered past” that led her to cartooning, as well as some delectable ginger cake.

TCB: Was there anything in your background that predicted you’d grow up to be a cartoonist?

BS: I always liked cartoons, but would never have considered cartooning as a job. I did draw when I was little, and joke. I always made jokes, but it wasn’t anything anyone appreciated. Mostly the reaction I got was, “You’re too smart for your own good”!

TCB: What did you start out doing as a career, if not cartooning?

BS: I was in nursing school for about 30 seconds. I left it because, you know, that was a ridiculous idea. But I worked in hospitals, clinics, halfway houses – I was trying to avoid being a secretary, basically. And I did learn some really important things, like, “Never die between shifts.”

But I decided I wanted to get back to art. I got interested in cartooning again when I was at Barbara’s Bookstore, and I saw a book, How to Draw Cartoons. I’m a big believer in books, so I decided that was how to do it. I came up with a bunch of jokes and drew all these cartoons, and it was so obvious that that’s what I should do.

TCB: When were you first published in The New Yorker?

BS: The New Yorker bought a cartoon from me for the first time in 1996, and I’ve sold regularly to them since then. I was very excited at the time. It seemed amazing! This is one of the things a cartoonist fantasizes about – being in The New Yorker.

Smaller, December 19, 2005

The New Yorker, December 19, 2005

TCB: You’ve done a number of cartoons satirizing the headaches of health care and the need for universal health insurance. How did this issue come to be so close to you?

BS: When I got pregnant, my husband had insurance, but they told me the pregnancy was a “preexisting condition,” so I wasn’t covered! So many people are in that situation, especially anyone over 40. Your whole life is a preexisting condition! I decided that health care would be what I work on until I die. The New Yorker is a platform for this issue, and if I don’t address it through that, then what am I doing?

Smaller, December 21, 1998

The New Yorker, December 21, 1998

TCB: Do you get a lot of cartoon ideas just from observing the Upper West Side lifestyle?

BS: Yes, it’s like living in a cartoon! I mostly do my work in coffee shops all over the Upper West Side, and I get a lot of captions verbatim from people, which I love. There have probably been at least ten jokes I’ve gotten that way that have been published.

TCB: What are some New Yorker cartoons or artists that are favorites of yours?

BS: I like so many artists. It’d be easier to name cartoonists I don’t like. The only cartoon on my refrigerator is this one by Jack Ziegler. Talk about your low expectations!

Smaller, July 25, 2005

The New Yorker, July 25, 2005

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