Garfield Creator Jim Davis Brings The Fat Cat Back This Holiday Season (INTERVIEW)

For all you Gen Xers and Millennials who love nostalgia, the Garfield Holiday Collection comes out this week. We chatted with Jim Davis to get the scoop on the fat cat and his longevity over all these years!
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Jim Davis Photo

(Photo: Courtesy of Jim Davis)

Garfield debuted in 41 U.S. newspapers on June 19, 1978. In its first iterations, the wry adventures of Garfield the Cat and Jon the Human were the cartooning humor of one man, Jim Davis. Today, Garfield is an empire. Davis founded Paws, Inc. in 1981 to handle all things Garfield, including strip illustration, product design, and business venturing. The company's 36,200 square-foot headquarters in Albany, IN houses 57 artists, writers, and licensing business executives who work to keep the fat cat machine running. On top of that suction cup plush doll that hangs in your mother's car, Paws Inc. touts that Garfield 's face adorns thousands of products created by 400 individual manufacturers. Not bad for a feline that can eat his own weight in lasagna and can't lift a finger on Mondays.

Garfield wouldn't be this omnipresent without Davis, whose storytelling and advertising instincts converged to form a undeniably sweet character. When Garfield started taking off in the late '70s, the character was beginning to be expanded beyond the confines of its boxy panels. Animation was a logical turn, and Davis was more than happy to help with the transition.

Throughout the 1980s, Davis penned and produced half-hour cartoon specials that mixed Garfield's sarcastic voice with the topical flexibility of Peanuts. It was a matter of where Garfield couldn't go. Though Garfield Halloween, Garfield Thanksgiving, and Garfield Christmas faded from airwaves in the past two decades, they made enough of a splash with Generation Xers and Millennials of the right age that Davis saw fit to reissue a collection of the shorts for 2014 holiday consumption. In anticipation of the Garfield Holiday Collection, I sat down with Davis to discuss how he put himself into the Garfield property over the years, the thin line between art and commerce, and his go-to recipe for lasagna (that he's shy in admitting isn't too fancy).

You wrote and produced each of these early Garfield holiday specials. Garfield Christmas, in particular, seems rooted in personal stories. Do you put a lot of yourself into these?

I wrote that special for me. That was my family’s Christmas every year. Because we’re here in Indiana, I thought if I wrote something for the Midwest, I’d probably reach a bigger segment of the market, something that would resonate more with the viewers. I wanted to capture the warmth of family interaction as they go through the Christmas holiday. 

We actually went back and re-animated before it went to video because we had worked at it so hard and CBS had committed to it so late, that there were a couple of parts of the special that were a little rough, so I went in with my own animators here at Paws [Inc.] before it went to video.

Jon's grandmother rocks the piano like she's Elton John. True to life?

My grandmother was sweet but not the personality of [voice actress] Pat Carroll. Pat Carroll was so great. Every now and then you get to work with an actor or actress that blows you away. That was Pat Carroll. Her Shakespeare, her one-woman show… after meeting her, we went back and wrote stuff just for Pat. She had so much energy. I wanted to use her to bring out the warmth and tradition of Christmas. I introduced the Grandma so that I could bring in the history of Christmas. It’s the memories and people you remember that help carry the holidays.

A lot of entertainment is born from “the coasts” since the industry is primarily in Los Angeles and New York. Do you think Garfield stands up for a part of American culture that's lost from those perspectives?

Well, he basically eats and he sleeps, so that has mass appeal right there. But you know what? In 1978, he was a bad boy. He hated Mondays! He loved coffee and overslept. Then long came The Simpsons. “Don’t have a cow, man” and all that stuff. That was really bad. Then along came Beavis & Butthead. They were really bad! Then cams South Park. Thirty-six years later, even though Garfield is doing the same stuff he was in 1978, he’s mainstream and Mom-approved. The audience shifted in front of him. Obviously he seems sweeter, even though he’s got that edge. At worst he’s naughty. He speaks his mind, but we all wish we could speak our minds like that.

Did you ever think of changing Garfield to keep up with that evolving audience?

Jim Davis Photo

(Photo: Courtesy Jim Davis)

Starting about three or four months ago, we gave Jon a flat screen TV. And a wireless telephone. He started texting a year ago.

Working with situational humor has become more difficult. It’s easy to get a laugh with bodily function or fart humor. I try to get the laughs without that. The situational humor is what I trade on. That’s not in politics or social commentary. All of that passes and changes. If I try to make him hip, he’s not going to be hip later. If he’s saying, “That’s a-OK, everyone!” that immediately dates him. Thirty years from now, I want people to enjoy the specials, the strips, the books, things like that.

You were in advertising in the '60s. Because I just finished binge-watching Mad Men I have certain ideas of what that was like. What was your experience and how did Garfield come out of it?

My ad experience wasn’t real ad experience. I wasn’t Leo Burnett back then. I was pay stub boy. It was 100 hours a week and I was on Tums. Everything is last minute. One thing it did do was [help me] be able to take a look at what motivates people, write the kind of copy and create an image that’ll get them to show up to the Muncie Mall, to make them look or buy a product. It gave me an appreciation of printing processes. 

It better prepared me for getting into licensing. If I got into licensing, I wanted to do it right. I wanted to create product geared to that product’s market and to craft a way for Garfield to entertain on that product in a way that you couldn’t entertain in the comic strip. I used the ad man mentality when it came to the licensing. I think that served me well.

It's widely known that Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson swore off merchandising because he felt it infringed on artistic integrity. How would you respond to the idea that they’re mutually exclusive?

[Merchandising] teaches me more about the character, frankly. Every time I do something with Garfield in 3D or do something where I’m commenting on something else, it polishes another facet of his personality. I see more of Garfield than I would if I was just seeing Garfield do his comic strip things. When I try to translate him for other cultures, I learn more about him. He physically exists in my head. I can hear him and I can see him. The experience across all the other industries over the year has helped me get a feel for the character.

Is there anything specific you learned?

He learned not to take himself so seriously. Look at these specials. At some point in all of them he turns to the character and goes, “Nice touch.” That’s not mentioned anywhere. I like to do something that impresses him. He’s knocked down that fourth wall. He talks to the viewer. I can’t think of a specific thing I’ve learned about him from a product, but putting him with a teddy bear, I think he’s more sentimental. I think I’m more sentimental after 36 years. Odie has gone from becoming an object kicked off a table — I created Odie to have that friction — to being a brother. He’ll stick kick him off the table, it’s part of their DNA. But there’s greater depth to him. More of a family relationship.

Are the comics still important now that newspapers are fading and Garfield is so pervasive in other realms?

That’s what I do. That’s what I really look forward to today. It provides the grist for the mill for everyone to work from. I love the comic strip. That’s part of me. The papers that went away were the over-leveraged papers that were bought and sold so many times. They had too big a debt load that could be supported by their advertising revenues. They’re regional papers, family owned papers, small chains and stuff like that are still profitable. They’ll be around for some time. Obviously they won’t be around in the kind of numbers or enjoy the kind of success that they did many years ago, but fortunately, the comics have translated very well to online. Kids online expect intellectual properties and content for free, so monetizing has been a bit of a challenge. When we started, there were only 300 to 350 syndicated cartoonists. Now there are 300,000 cartoonists. That’s great. We’re looking over our shoulders now because these kids are good.

Finally, how do you prefer your lasagna?

The more basic the better. It has to have meat in it. It has to have cheese in it. I didn’t say Good Housekeeping....

The Garfield Holiday Collection is available on DVD exclusively at Walmart stores on November 4th and on iTunes and other digital platforms on November 11th.