Catholi­cism is theme for car­toon­ist

Pat­byrnes draws on faith but re­al­izes hu­mor comes with lim­its

Chicago Sun-Times - - Front Page -

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.”

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