In early June, I stumbled across the fact that Rick Detorie, creator of “One Big Happy,” what I feel is the most life-affirming of America’s funnies, was a product of Loyola Blakefield and, before that, St. Thomas Aquinas School in Hampden. One quick email exchange later, Rick agreed to a profile, and asked for some preliminary questions. What followed was a 2,200-word response that reflects the wellspring of material that goes into his work.
Some verbatim responses from that Q and A follow.
Q. How much of the comic strip is based on your early life?
A. A lot. I lived with my dad and mom and two younger sisters, Terry and Sandy, right next door (coincidentally) to my father’s parents, Nick and Theresa.
In the strip the grandparents are named Nick and Rose because they’re both short names, which take up less space in a caption. ROSE may have fewer letters than THERESA, but I really screwed up when I introduced characters like PLAYGROUND LADY and HOMEWORK HOTLINE LADY. A lot of hand-crippling lettering goes into those two names.
Q. Who was the inspiration for Grandpa?
A. Well, Grandpa Nick may have the same name as my own grandfather, “Pop,” who was bald, wore glasses and baggy pants, and every Saturday would slip me a few bucks when he returned from the track, (a two-dollar bill if he lost and a fiver if he won), but that’s where the similarity ends.
Whereas Grandpa Nick is good-natured, courteous and witty, Pop was grumpy, rude, and a profligate cusser. He would annoy the neighbors, including us, by burning trash in his incinerator (usually when the wash had just been hung on the line to dry), and by pounding garbage can lids with a hammer at sunset to scare roosting birds out of the many trees on the property.
He also slept with a loaded .38 under his pillow – something I’m pretty sure Grandpa Nick doesn’t do.
Q. Who was the inspiration for Ruthie?
A. Initially, but not intentionally, Ruthie looked like my sister Sandy, and behaved like my sister Terry. Terry was very inquisitive, liked dogs, and didn’t take a lot of crap from anybody – especially me. Eventually, Ruthie morphed into her own unique character.
Q. How do you come up with your ideas?
A. Morey Amsterdam was a comedian who played Buddy Sorrell on the original Dick Van Dyke Show. I once heard him on a talk show say that he could come up with a joke for anything. Then he asked the audience to shout out a word, any word. Someone yelled, “Diet!” Without pausing, Morey Amsterdam said, “I’m on a whiskey diet. I’ve lost three days already.” Then he proceeded to come up with a joke for every word they threw at him.
Well, I’ve convinced myself that I can come up with a cartoon based on any phrase or situation among the hundreds I’ve collected and saved on a printout that’s now eight pages long. Samples: Talk Radio, Prune Danish, Trophy Wife, Heimlich Maneuver, Stunt Driver, “So this is what it’s come to?” etc. When I’m trying to come up with ideas, I go over the list and hope something sparks an idea that I can use in the strip. And, of course, I always tailor the gag to fit the character.
Q. Where does your wordplay originate?
A. A lot of my ideas come from personal experiences and observations. Ever since I was a kid I’ve been a nonlinear thinker. My mind regularly veers down some off-ramp, often taking me far from the main highway.
For example, I met a woman who was wearing an odd-looking thing on her head that resembled a giant Muppet. “Interesting turban,” I said.
“Yes,” she agreed. “It says who I am as a person.”
“Oh,” I wanted to say, “so it talks, too?”
But, of course, I didn’t, because that’s not how a mature adult would respond. However, coming from a small child like Ruthie, it’s innocent and not terribly offensive.
I remember as a kid seeing the movie “Bambi.” Yeah, I was traumatized. But unlike the other kids, who were upset that Bambi’s mother got shot, I got worked up at the realization that Bambi was a guy’s name. That’s right. Bambi was a male fawn who grew up to be a buck, yet that big hulking buck was named Bambi.
And speaking of movies, during the eight years I spent at St. Thomas Aquinas, I remember going on two field trips. One was to see A Nun’s Story starring Audrey Hepburn. It was about a young woman who joins a convent, takes her vows, and works in Africa. Except for a scene in which she encountered a spider in her room, nothing exciting happened. I do recall the scene where they cut her hair, she puts on the habit, and, voila, she still looked pretty. And I got to thinking, if only the nuns at St. Thomas would dab on a little makeup, get rid of their granny glasses and Herman Munster shoes, they’d be as good-looking as Audrey Hepburn.
I’m pretty sure that’s not the message that the good sisters of St. Thomas expected me to take away from the film, but I did.
In many ways I still think like a kid, which is a good place to be if you’re doing a comic strip like “One Big Happy.”
Q. What else do you remember about your time at St. Thomas?
A. I remember every nun and our one lay teacher. Grades 1 through 8: Sister Angela Mary, Sister Maretta, Sister Xavier, Miss Holzinger, Sister Fernando, Sister Emedia, Sister Hubert, and Sister Henrida.