Catholicism is theme for cartoonist
Patbyrnes draws on faith but realizes humor comes with limits
Cartoonist Pat Byrnes realizes he can’t take a joke too far — his wife is Lisa Madigan, the attorney general of Illinois, and his brother is an auxiliary bishop in Detroit.
Byrnes, 52, has been drawing cartoons for The New Yorker for many years, and his work has also appeared in Reader’s Digest, the Wall Street Journal and America Magazine.
Since graduating from Notre Dame with a degree in aerospace engineering, he has dabbled in advertising, comedy and voice- over acting. More recently he has been writing musicals, blogging and developing the Smurks’ iphone application. Also known as Captain Dad, Byrnes is a stay-at-home father of two.
Byrnes, who attends St. Clement Church in Lincoln Park, recently spoke about his faith and how it has shaped his life.
How did religion play into your life when you were growing up?
“It was so thoroughly integrated into my life that the question seems foreign to me. We lived in Detroit and went to our parish St. Mary’s of Redford, and that was our extended family. We would have the priest over for dinner, and we’d hang out in the backyard in the summer. That was our life. We didn’t know there was another way to be. My folks still hang out with people from St. Mary’s, even though wemoved out of there some 30 years ago. It becomes your community and then it stays.” Did you go to Catholic schools? “Yep, for 16 years. Grade school, high school and college. I went to Notre Dame— it’s just part of the fabric there. I think it gave me a really good sense of discipline and an appreciation of valuesbased education. When you are in an environment where it is allowable to talk about right and wrong in a way that no one is judgmental, I think that is advantageous.”
Some people have that “ah-ha” moment— have you experienced that with your faith?
“It’s been pretty continuous. There have been times when I certainly appreciate it more and there will be times when I say, wait a minute. . . . There was never an epiphany that drove me back because I never got that far away, not seriously. It’s not that I don’t have wrestling matches with faith. I talk to folks sometimes and when they talk about religion, it becomes clear their understanding of it stops right around the time they learn long division. I was fortunate enough to have had the exposure and influences to get a deeper understanding. I’ve had a continuing education — one that prodded me to go along on my own and continue thinking. That has been very useful. Modern physics, for example. That can enrich my spirituality as much as reading something about monks out theremeditating. It’s of part the same soup.”
In what ways does faith in general — or your faith personally — tie into your work?
“That goes into a dangerous territory. I hate to define my next joke because once you define it, you lose the funny. There does always seem to be a moral substrate in my work when taken as a body of work. When I had an opportunity to put together a book, I was advised to find a theme. I looked through my work, and there were various things, but I realized that my cartoons have to do with right, wrong and very, very wrong.
“What Would Satan Do? — that was often the unspoken strategy of a lot of the cartoons where you embrace a point of view that is just so obviously wrong but you can see someone doing that, so with the right spin, it can be funny.
“It’s not something I set out to do; it is just part ofmy voice. . . . You will find thatwhatever is part of you comes out in your work. If you are an accountant, you will have an accountant’s view of things. Everyone has something different to bring and what they have to bring is just part of their life. It’s one of those things that is just part of me so it’s going to come out in my work, even unconsciously — actually, preferably unconsciously. Because when you are in the business of going for the laughs you don’t want to be too conscious about what you are pushing. You have to have the freedom of following — otherwise everyone will see it coming.”
Is it OK to combine humor and religion? Is there a place for comedy there?
“There are people that do it and make a decent living. There’s room for every message. Some people may use it as an evangelizing tool, others use it as a way of keeping their materials fit for their audience. Even Larry the Cable Guy, he won’t take the Lord’s name in vain. He’ll go just about everywhere else, though.
“I’ve got a wife who is a public official, a brother who is a bishop and two young daughters. I think there are constraints on me. Having those constraints means that you have to work harder; you can’t be lazy. It makes me dig deeper and find something that is better. . . . When you are totally free and chaotic, well, nothing happens. A ball can’t bounce if you don’t have a wall to hit it off of.”
Have you ever gotten any negative reactions to your cartoons that deal with religion?
“I had a cartoon in America Magazine, a Jesuit magazine, and it’s a nun reading a letter and the caption says, ‘It’s from one of my old students saying she’s forgiven me for ruining my life.’ My editor called me saying we just got a letter from a woman canceling her subscription. And then he said, ‘Keep up the good work.’ ”
Anything else you would like to add?
“I guess I don’t have a prefab approach. I do like to find irony in a lot of people’s religious professions. . . .
A buddy of mine runs what I jokingly call an atheist church, but he still has catechisms and all that. We enjoy a good rousing argument into the night. Anyone that is searching for truth, though, you gotta respect that.
“I remember a fragment of a line that was attributed to Pope John Paul II. He was counseling a couple who were getting married, and he said anyone who loves is closer to God than they think.”