how I do things I don't know how to do
(Originally published November 21, 2016)
Today, November 21st, 2016, marks the release of my 200th CritelliComedyComix strip! That milestone is noteworthy because I now have literally hundreds of pieces of evidence proving you don't need to know what you're doing to do it.
HOW IT BEGAN
CritelliComedyComix #1 was drawn June 2nd, 2015, the same day my girlfriend (now fiancée) Jill emailed me a link to an open call for professional cartoonists. I don’t know why she did - I didn’t draw comic strips back then - but because she did, I posted this:
13 people LIKED it, so I drew two more that week, including this one:
The following week I wanted to do more, but I didn’t have any ideas, so I borrowed a standup bit I’d never gotten to work...
...And it worked! 9 more LIKES and 2 comments: "Don't stop this effort" and "I LOVE these."
After three weeks, a friend of a friend, annoyed, asked my friend, point blank, “How does Mike just DO stuff?”
How do I do stuff? A magician never reveals his secrets.
But I'm no magician...
#1 - SEE SOMETHING AND SAY, “I COULD DO THAT.” THEN DO IT IMMEDIATELY
When I was a kid I read comic strip books. (Not “comic books,” books of daily newspaper strips. I hate “comic books,” which makes my other decision to work in film, after what the film industry has become, seem awfully stupid.) My favorites were Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side, Dilbert, and, later, Perry Bible Fellowship. Fun fact: PBF got me in trouble when I was interning at Late Show with David Letterman. As a “Research Intern,” part of my job was to put together morning packets of doodads for the main people to get inspired to be funny. I put my favorite PBF strips at the bottom of mine, until I got some complaints with this one:
Whatever. It's still funny.
I'd never in my life attempted to draw my own comic strip, but I’d read so many that when the "casting call" came, I felt comfortable enough to audition on the spot.
#2 - THE FIRST FEW TIMES, YOU WON'T BE GOOD, SO ENJOY BEING BAD
Rather than worry about embarrassing myself when I try something new, I always start by trying to do the worst thing I possibly can.
CritelliComedy.com is a web domain I’ve owned since my early 20s. Formerly an audio standup hosting site, a joke-a-day compilation, a short essay blog, and a video link dump, I kept my “brand” in the title and added “Comix” with an “X” because it suggested the corniest, popsicle-stick-in-a-Cracker-Jack-box style of humor. I was even tempted to do CritelliComedyComix with “K”s instead of “C”s, a la the classic strip “Krazy Kat"...
...But three "K"s is the least funny number of "K"s.
To make my strips "worse," I chose to underline random words vigorously and deliberately include excessive, senseless profanity. Behold my second strip (not posted to Facebook for obvious reasons):
#3 - YOU DON'T HAVE TO PLAN AHEAD. JUST FIX PROBLEMS AS THEY COME UP
If you post horizontal images on Facebook, they format small, and if you post horizontal images via Tumblr links to Facebook, it crops out part of the image. But if you post square images, it shows the whole thing. Once I figured that out, I went from stuff that looked like this...
Going square also allowed me to post on Instagram unedited, and it fit my unusual 2-panel format, so it became the new default overnight. Also, since people were now going to see my strips more easily, and I’d just accepted Facebook friend requests from both my mom and dad, I eliminated all the profanity.
Except for this last one:
You may be wondering, Where did the text on the sides come from? Well, the live variety show I’d been producing, Mike Critelli’s Cavern of Whimsy, featured pen-drawn posters by me, with hand-lettered text I was happy to steal and reuse:
Again, you may be wondering, You said you don't know what you're doing, but those poster portraits prove you're pretty good at drawing!
Yes and no.
As with the comic strips, I learned to draw posters by drawing posters. My friends Mike Trehy and Matt Noonan of "Clyde McFly"/"Well Done" performed at my last show on May 4th, 2016...
...But they also performed a year earlier, at my first:
#4 - YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE COMPETENT TO GET STARTED, OR EVEN TO KEEP GOING
When I drew CritelliComedyComix #1, I didn't know how to “cartoon”...
...And I still don’t. Any cartoonist worth her salt can draw a character from any angle with any expression required for the scene. Me? I type whatever I want to draw into Google (in this case, “people talking”)...
...And then I copy it as well as I can, which is very poorly, so no one will notice:
If you’re wondering why a lot of my comic strip characters wear business suits...
...It’s because most digital stock photography features people wearing business suits:
And if you’re wondering why I use a lot of patterns, it’s because I sometimes forget to make people’s faces look different, but you still need to be able to tell them apart:
#5 - DON'T FORCE IT. MAKE WHAT YOU’RE DOING FIT INTO YOUR LIFE AS-IS
For many months I couldn’t do standup comedy because I was driving for Lyft full-time, and most comedy open mics happen during rush hour when fares and demand are high. But Comix were something I could draw between rides, by myself. I even learned how to measure my panel box height and width using only my pen as a reference, because I kept forgetting to bring a ruler.
(Vertically, my panels run from the base of the pen to the “i” in BiC. Horizontally, from the base of the pen to near where the ink stops.)
My early strips tended to be more visually inventive because I'd have to wait up to 45 minutes between rides, stuck in some random district of Los Angeles with nothing to do but draw:
Later, when I stopped driving for Lyft and Uber, the strips got simpler because I didn't have as much time to kill:
My drawings and text are both sloppy because I do them as quickly as possible, but they’re even sloppier than you probably realize.
Here’s a raw, unedited scan of a comic strip from my notebook:
See how I misspell words while thinking of the next word to write, leave smudges on the page, and make people’s eyes the wrong size? And for real proof I truly cannot cartoon, here are three different versions of me attempting to draw myself...
...Whereas, in real life, I tend to look exactly the same most days.
#6 - KEEP DOING WHATEVER YOU’RE DOING UNTIL BOTH OF YOU TRANSFORM
There’s value in consistency. Pure, raw endurance makes the highs and lows blend together over time. I draw three days a week, every week. I’ve only taken one extended break, after this one:
After posting that, I left for a 3-day weekend and couldn’t get a third comic out by end of day Friday. At the time, I was releasing them at random times, but 3-per-week was always the rule. OCD-style, I broke my rule, so I quit.
Fortunately, in the interim, enough people told me they missed my Comix - people who didn’t LIKE them on social media but had apparently been lurking and enjoying them "on the DL” - that I decided to start again:
The break helped. I did fewer jokey-jokes and more social commentary. I also committed to a firm Monday/Wednesday/Friday schedule - not just 3x weekly, whenever I came up with an idea - and never quit again.
I’ve wanted to, though. Many times.
Whether by my Facebook friends’ Comix Fatigue or the sour taste of several downer entries in a row, I’d sometimes get 1 LIKE on Facebook (from my fiancée Jill) and feel depressed all afternoon, sometimes for five or six Comix straight, up to two full weeks.
Enough non-responses, though, and you stop caring, which is good. You also stop trying to chase the highs of your best ones, to imitate what seems to have been popular before. That’s good too. If you do something every other day for a full year (as I now have since my hiatus last December), it's like a diary. Your work grows with you. That’s how I went from simple misdirection jokes with lots of profanity...
...To small, human-scale tragedies...
...To philosophical musings...
...To reflections on personal milestones:
#7 - THE RIGHT THING FOR YOU IS THE THING YOU DON'T THINK ABOUT
When I started CritelliComedyComix, I didn’t plan to draw 200. I didn’t think about what I was doing at all until I’d been drawing them for about three weeks (the shortest length of time required to develop a habit, by the way.) After the fact, the markers were obvious:
1. I could come up with lots of simple jokes easily, as my standup and Twitter proved, but...
2. A lot of my jokes were situational, descriptions of brief scenes or interactions, because...
3. I prefer to write dialogue and characters, having started as a playwright and then a screenwriter. Also...
4. I’d been drawing people's faces for Mike Critelli's Cavern of Whimsy for a full year, and loving it. Also...
5. I grew up enjoying newspaper comic strips, which must've stuck with me even though I hadn’t paid attention to one in 10 years.
That’s why I draw Comix. 99% of the big plans, projects, and collaborations I’ve meticulously planned in advance have gone nowhere, and yet I keep drawing Comix.
SHOULD YOU DRAW COMIX TOO?
Fortunately, these tips also work for just about anything else.