Skewed Skepticism: Bizarro Piraro
A Conversation with Dan Piraro
Award-winning cartoonist, fine artist, and stand-up comedian Dan Piraro is best known for his daily syndicated newspaper cartoon Bizarro. Appearing in over three hundred newspapers on six continents, Bizarro has won an unprecedented three consecutive “Best Cartoon Panel” awards from the National Cartoonists Society, and in 2011 Piraro won its highest honor, “Cartoonist of the Year.” Over his twenty-seven-year career, Piraro has published sixteen books of his cartoons as well as three books of prose. Piraro has appeared on NPR, CNN, and HBO and is currently negotiating a half-hour, animated comedy show for television. The Onion referred to him as “one of the best cartoonists that has ever played the game.” Piraro’s cartoons have appeared on the Skeptical Inquirer’s “Last Laugh” humor page for several years, and an issue about where skepticism meets art wouldn’t be complete without him. Piraro was kind enough to answer a few questions from SI Deputy Editor Benjamin Radford.
You sometimes have “mysterious” or “paranormal” subjects like Bigfoot, UFOs, Egypt’s pyramids, and psychics as themes in your cartoons—often with a clever angle deflating the mystery or pretension. Are you a skeptic at heart, questioning everything?
Yes, always have been. I loathe superstition and am horrified by the amount of suffering and death that has been caused throughout history because of mythology. Though we like to think those days are gone, it still goes on daily. The fact that same-sex marriage is not uniformly legal throughout the world is a perfect example of superstition over reason.
As someone with a refined sense of the absurd, do you simply find the topics are just irresistibly ripe for lampooning?
That, too. I know that belief in “the unseen” is an evolutionary quirk and not directly tied to intelligence, but I can’t help but feel that the sorts of wacky stuff people believe in are just ridiculous. So I lampoon them. God included.
Hypocrisy is a common theme in your work, using humor to highlight the disparity between what people say and what they do (or between obvious reality and what people think). Why is that such a rich vein for you?
I’m not sure, really. I’ve always been an observer, both visually and behaviorally, so I see a lot of hypocrisy everywhere, of course. Combine that with my affinity for using logic and reason to make sense of things, [and] these kinds of things just pop out.
Another source of your humor has been puns—sometimes truly awful ones. Are there any especially atrocious puns that have earned you threats of bodily harm, or ones you regret and would like to publicly apologize for?
I’ve always been a fan of puns, but for years I tried not to use them in cartoons because I thought they were too easy. But over the years I’ve learned that readers really love puns, too. Even the groaners. So I started using the puns submitted to me by readers in a feature called “Sunday Punnies,” and it’s been extremely popular. My guideline regarding puns is this: if it makes me smile, I use it. I don’t care if anyone thinks it is “bad”; I just do it. No threats yet, fingers crossed. . . .
Obviously the main goal of your work is entertaining people, but many of your cartoons indirectly encourage critical thinking by offering a skeptical perspective. What do you think about the role of art and satirical humor as vehicles for exposing truth and hypocrisy?
I think there is no better way to get people to think about issues like critical thinking and reason than humor. Traditionally, a good cartoon can have more political impact than a thirty-minute stump speech. I think that is often true in areas other than politics, too. There is no better way to disarm and diffuse than with humor. When you start making fun of a principle, person, or behavioral trait, it immediately makes it less powerful. I used to disarm bullies in this way in school. I was not big enough to beat them physically, but I realized if I could get other kids to laugh at them, they were no longer intimidated by them.
One of the many small hidden (and not-so-hidden) icons you sometimes use in your cartoons (along with a slice of pie and a lit firecracker) is a little alien in a UFO, a “Flying Saucer of Possibility.” Also, according to something I either made up or read on the Internet, it represents a UFO you saw as a young child from the porch of your filthy mobile home at the bottom of a strip-mining pit in downtown Tokyo. True or false?
If philosophy teaches us anything (and it doesn’t) it’s that all things are both true and false. If I say I lived in a filthy mobile home at the bottom of a strip-mining pit in downtown Tokyo, I probably did.