IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Cartoonist Jim Davis Talks 'Garfield Holiday Collection,' Creating the Classic Character, and Its Impact

Wednesday, 19 November 2014 23:16 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Cartoonist Jim Davis Talks 'Garfield Holiday Collection,' Creating the Classic Character, and Its Impact

American cartoonist Jim Davis is responsible for creating one of the most beloved comic strip characters of all-time … Garfield!

After writing for such popular syndicated comic strips as Tumbleweeds and Gnorm Gnat, in 1978 Davis created the comic strip Garfield and has never looked back. Since then, the lovable orange cat has become the star of the world’s most widely syndicated comic strip, and has gone on to appear in 12 prime-time specials, an animated series (Garfield and Friends), a comic book, a musical, several video games, and two live-action films including Garfield: The Movie, and Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties. In addition to Garfield, Davis also created the fat cat’s cast of supporting characters including his owner Jon Arbuckle, and his dog Odie. 

Available exclusively at Walmart on November 4th and on iTunes on November 11th is Garfield Holiday Collection, which features five classic prime-time specials all on one DVD. The collection includes A Garfield Christmas, Garfield’s Thanksgiving, the Emmy-winning Garfield’s Halloween Adventure, the Emmy-winning Garfield On The Town, and Garfield In Paradise. The DVD also includes a documentary entitled The House that Garfield Built: A Visit with Jim Davis

I recently had the honor of speaking with the great Jim Davis about Garfield Holiday Collection. The legendary cartoonist discussed the new DVD, how he created the character, Garfield’s relationship with Odie, when Hollywood first approached him to make animated specials, casting Lorenzo Music (Rhoda) as the voice of Garfield, why Bill Murray was perfect to voice the character in the live-action films, originally making the animated holiday specials, and the legacy of the characters that he created. 

Here is what Jim Davis had to say about Garfield Holiday Collection, creating the classic character, and its impact. 

IAR: To begin with, it’s a great pleasure to speak with you today Mr. Davis. I have been a big fan of your work for what seems like my entire life.

Jim Davis: Wonderful. That is always good to hear. Honestly, I never get tired of hearing that. Thank you.

I am sure you have answered this question in previous interviews, but can you talk about how you created the character of Garfield?

Davis: In the early ‘70s I worked on the comic strip Tumbleweeds, a Western humor strip. I always tried a lot of my own ideas to get my own strips syndicated, just so I could open up a paper and see my comic strip in print. My incentive is the concept around a lot of newspaper syndicates, which is to try and get their strip syndicated. One editor one day said to me, “The gags were great, the art was good, but the dogs... nobody can relate to dogs.” I took a long hard look at the comics, and I thought, okay, if people don’t relate to dogs, maybe they would relate to a cat.” I grew up on a farm with about 25 cats. I wanted to work with animals because they have a lot more latitude with the humor. Animals tend to get picked on in the comics. So I decided to give a cat human’s feelings. I made him overweight, lazy and things like that because I think deep down everyone feels like that. I thought I’d give people a character that could resonate how they feel because I feel that the secret to creating an entertaining character is basically holding a mirror back to the viewer or the reader. More often than not when they laughed at my comics it is because they are saying isn’t that true. So as an exercise I created a cat with all of these personality traits and then I created a cast of characters who were very different because humor comes from contrast and conflict. So giving the other characters some conflict for the humor mill, and then let them write their own scenarios. It was kind of an organic start to creating the strip, so that worked out.

You mentioned the cast of supporting characters that you created, and I’ve always loved the unique relationship between Garfield and Odie. Can you talk about creating Odie and his unusual friendship with Garfield?

Davis: As far as contrasts, Garfield is very cunning. He knows his mind. He is very opinionated. On the other end of the spectrum, Odie is 100% trusting but he is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. He is kind of a free spirit. He is a glass is half full kind of a dog. Again, perfect contrast with Garfield. Garfield and Odie were at odds for several years, and I believe their relationship has grown into more of a sibling relationship. They are more like brothers today than they were in 1978. I mean Garfield kicks him off the table, but suffice to say if another character picked on Odie, I think Garfield would be there to defend him. Odie is tougher to write for because he does not speak, but some of the gags that are written for Odie are some of the best we have done.

Can you talk about when Hollywood first approached you to take Garfield from the comic strip to TV with the animated specials?

Davis: That was a huge move because I had never heard Garfield speak before. Frankly, I did not know if he would translate to TV. I did not know what would happen if he moved. Would people like him? On TV they called it animated because they really moved around and made loud noises, but Garfield did not. He would just lie there. He would be a 26-minute freeze frame. I was afraid it would be too slow for TV. But anyway, we went through the process of casting a voice. We saw over 50 voice actors in one day. We even saw Rich Little, the great impressionist, but he had nobody to impersonate because Garfield never had a voice before. At the end of the day Lorenzo Music came in. He had this rare ability to throw a line away so casually as if he did not care, but he did it with great humor in a way that made you laugh, which is very hard to do. It just killed me. Plus I was a fan of Lorenzo anyway from being Carlton Your Doorman on Rhoda. I always thought he played great characters. That really defined the show and the cast of characters. We animated it and wrote to that kind of timing and style. We found that people enjoyed it. Doing more adult asides with the physical humor that the kids liked, actually drew in an audience of 42% adults. 

I’m glad you mentioned Lorenzo Music. As a kid, I actually knew him first as the voice of Garfield, then when I got older and watched reruns of Rhoda I recognized him. Can you talk about working with Lorenzo? 

Davis: His voice as Garfield was very close to Carlton. The only direction I really ever had to give Lorenzo was every time he would slide over and do Carlton, I would say, a little less drunk, Lorenzo. He would say, “Okay. Got it.” Then he had that Garfield voice. I only had to say that a couple of times because he was always all over it. He was a funny man.

How did you feel about Academy Award-nominee Bill Murray taking over for Lorenzo Music as the voice of Garfield in the live-action films Garfield: The Movie, and Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties?

Davis: I think Bill played a critical role in that he has the attitude that I have always wanted to be associated with Garfield. Just hearing Bill Murray’s voice, people know it is Bill Murray, but they also know he has attitude. Therefore my character has attitude. Using Bill Murray’s voice, he validated the character as far as I am concerned. Obviously Lorenzo Music was not a choice since he passed away years before, so I was delighted to get to work with Bill. He leant a lot to the script, to the story, and to the energy of the movie as well. We had a good time.

Can you talk about the new Garfield Holiday Collection? What did these specials mean to you when you originally made them, and how does it feel to now have them all on one DVD compilation?

Davis: In those days, doing a half hour animated special, they were all done on film and they were very time intense. It would take nine months to do a special in those days. Plus the fact that they were prime time specials meant that I only got one crack at them. For the Christmas special, I was only going to be able to write one, but it had to be the best I could possibly write. We worked very hard on them. When I say eight to nine months, we were working every day to craft these specials. The Christmas special was my Christmas. It was autobiographical. That was my Christmas at home with my brother Doc, my mom, and my dad. I did make up Grandma because I wanted to bring in a sentimental element to point out the memories of Christmas and the people that are remembered at Christmas. I wanted her to carry that storyline. I probably did a family thing with the rest of the characters. The Thanksgiving special was fun because we put Garfield on a diet. He is out after food most of the special, and it is all about food. I enjoyed that very much. Plus, it is another family themed special. The Halloween special was a real challenge in that I honestly wanted to scare somebody, even if it was just the little kids. I did not care. I wanted to scare someone with that special. We worked very hard at crafting the sound effects, the music, the lighting, and even the voice pallets to build up to a big scary scene where the pirates return to get the treasure on the island. Also, we recorded the voices for all of the specials in one small room. We left all the microphones open and had the actors actually relate to one another as they delivered those lines. There was no re-editing of the voice sessions. We would put out five pages of dialogue at a time and just read straight through. So I think that flow helped and added a little bit of realism to the shows as well.

Finally, the characters that you created over 35 years ago have touched countless lives in several different generations and have gone on to really become national treasures. Looking back, how do you feel about what you created and knowing how many lives your characters have touched?

Davis: It is something that I have never really gotten used to quite frankly. Garfield still resonates with young people today just like he did with people that are now their grandparents in 1978. Having worked with the themes of eating and sleeping that people identify with, we are all still basically the same. We are motivated the same. We are out after three things: food, shelter and love. Garfield deals with such basic issues. I think that has helped him persevere over the years with his style of humor and the kind of things he has to share. He is more about pointing out the little everyday things that we have all experienced and telling us that we should not be taking life so seriously.

It was an honor speaking to you today Mr. Davis. Thank you so much for your time.

Davis: Thank you, Jami. It was good talking to you too. I appreciate it.

Garfield Holiday Collection will be available exclusively at Walmart on November 4th and on iTunes on November 11th.

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