Editor’s Dispatch: A Conversation With Mike Peters

By Brendan Burford

Back in April, I sat down with MOTHER GOOSE & GRIMM cartoonist and celebrated editorial cartoonist, Mike Peters for a little chat. He was in New York, and we thought it might be fun to record a conversation between the two of us. Here’s a transcription of that conversation. Enjoy!

Brendan: So, I wanted to kick this off by acknowledging where we are. We are in Brooklyn, New York.

Mike: We’re in Brooklyn, New York.

Brendan: And the question is, why are we in Brooklyn, New York?

Mike: My daughter, who lives here just had a little baby named Maisy. She’s three weeks old now, and she’s adorable and she’s starting to have a personality. She has her eyes open and she’s making facing now, and it’s really cool. Maisy! Wait ‘til you meet Maisy!

Brendan: I can’t wait to meet Maisy! So you and your wife, Marian are here in Brooklyn for the month, helping out and visiting with grandchild and daughter and enjoying yourselves.

Mike: Yeah, our daughter Molly can’t believe it’s already been almost a month. She says, “no you can’t leave yet! I need you!”

Brendan: Well, this is her first baby, and she’s freaking out.

Mike: Yeah, she’s freaking out.

Brendan: So the thing that strikes me as amazing is that you are, first of all, a granddad at all. And this is your fifth grandchild.

Mike: Yes, fifth grandchild.

Brendan: Well, for anyone who’s ever met you or seen pictures of you or seen you behave in any sort of way that’s been captured on video are amazed to know that you are old enough to be the grandfather of five.

Mike: [Laughs]. Old enough by yards! You know, people always say, “how do you stay the way you are?” Well, it’s only because of Marian. She does all of the heavy lifting as far as stuff – she worries about stuff. I don’t know stuff. I just worry about trying to get the strip done and the editorial cartoons done. I just worry about that.

Brendan: In our business, the common saying is, “behind every great cartoonist is a great – or even greater, perhaps – spouse.” I know this is probably a common saying across most creative professions, but in our business, Marian is the preeminent version of that.

Mike: The smartest thing – the best thing – I ever did is marry Marian. I met her in front of the fraternity house at Washington University, and all I knew is that she had beautiful eyes, a great sense of humor, and she was smarter than I was. And, she would write my English papers for me! She’s been writing my English stuff ever since. People will call me and ask me to do an introduction to their book, and I say, “no problem! Marian, we need an introduction to a book!” And I tell her about them and their book, and she says, “okay!” She looks at all of my cartoons and all of my captions and tells me if they work or not, if it’s a funny idea or not. We’re really like a team. And I’ve been surrounded by great women all my life.

Brendan: That’s actually where I was going to go next. Between Marian and your three daughters. And you mother! Tell me about the women in your life – start with your mother.

Mike: When I was a little kid, my mom had a TV show in St. Louis. It was like 1949 and she was among the people who started the TV talk shows. There was only one other woman in the country at that time who had a talk show. My mom did more than a talk show – if you go to YouTube and put in Charlotte Peters, you can see an hour of her show. She sang, she danced, she entertained 250 audience members every day. It was a variety show, but also a talk show – she would have politicians and movie stars. And if anyone I wanted to see came on the show, I would skip school and go downtown with mom. I met Bob Hope and Martin and Lewis – who I idolized! It was an amazing thing for a kid.

Brendan: You were telling me once about the complexities of being your mother’s son. Specifically what it meant as far as dating girls…

Mike: [Laughs]. Truly, this is funny. My sister and I were like celebrities in town because of our mom. And during freshman year of high school, I would have girls who I didn’t even know call me and ask me to come with them to their junior or senior prom! If you’re a freshman or a sophomore, you never go to the prom, but these girls who were juniors and seniors would invite me to their prom! And of course, I would say yes. And I would go and rent a tuxedo and I would go to their house and meet the mother and father of these girls. Then they would take me in their car, and while they were driving us to the prom, the mother would say, “Mike, did you know that Gloria plays the violin?” And I would say, “really?” and she would say, “yes, would you like to hear her play some time?” And I’d say, “sure,” and she would pull a violin out from under the seat of the car and hand it to Gloria and Gloria would then proceed to play the violin for me all the way to the prom. And it happened again with a girl who played oboe! The mother pulled out the oboe and that girl, too, would play music for me all the way to the prom. And I was getting used to it! I would just sit there and enjoy the music! [Laughs]

Brendan: [Laughs] So, did it strike you that the only reason these girls would play music for you was because of who your mother was? That they were auditioning for a chance to be recognized for their talent so you could get them on your mom’s show?

Mike: [Laughs]. No! Not until I was 30-years-old did I realize that they were auditioning for my mom’s show! And I thought any girl, while being driven to the prom, would play music for you. And so when I invited the first girl to come to the prom with me, and she didn’t play a musical instrument, I thought I was being dissed! I thought, “what is this?! Aren’t you supposed to be playing music for me?!”

Brendan: [Laughs]. So this was like a minor rejection to you.

Mike: A minor rejection! Yes. [Laughs].

Brendan: [Laughs]. Wow, that’s hysterical. Now, you’ve told me about Marian and your mother, and you also have three daughters. Tell me about them.

Mike: When the girls were growing up, we lived in Dayton, Ohio. And I was hot stuff in Dayton because I was in the paper five days a week with my editorial cartoons, and I had the strip. And the editorial cartoons would sometimes make people mad when I commented on sensitive local issues. Well the girls would tell their friends that I was a plumber, because they didn’t want to be associated with me! Then they started realizing that they could make some money if they would help me with my strip, well then it became, “oh, I write MOTHER GOOSE & GRIMM,” to their friends!

Brendan: [Laughs]. Of course!

Mike: It’s been a great thing, though. My mom would love to see my life now.

Brendan: You mentioned earlier, Washington University, which is where you went to school and where you met Marian. Now, I understand that you are to deliver the commencement speech to the graduating class next month. This is a high honor!

Mike: A huge honor! Last year it was the president of Israel! Some people have written in to say I’m not the right kind of person for this – they want a high government person, not a cartoonist. But I’m going to tell some of my stories. I’m going to tell the prom story with the girls auditioning their musical talents! It’ll be fun.

Brendan: Now, you’ve also told me that you nearly failed out of school at Washington University.

Mike: Yes. But I found my way – and cartooning had a great deal to do with my not flunking out of school. I started doing cartoons for all of my art school assignments, and I wound up getting all A’s and B’s!

Brendan: The amazing thing to me is that you nearly fail out of school. But you find your way, you become the cartoonist on campus. And now they’re asking you to deliver the commencement speech. So a lot has had to have happened between then and now. You’ve been a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist, you’ve won multiple awards for your editorial cartoon work and your work on your comic strip, MOTHER GOOSE & GRIMM. I want to talk about these awards – and by the way GRIMMY is up for best comic strip at the Reuben Awards this May. Again.

Mike: Yes, I’m amazed.

Brendan: Do you ever sit there and take stock of all of the accolades. Does this validate your career, having been recognized by your peers and by judges? There are baseball players that say that the numbers are great and all, but they would rather reflect on them one day when they retire. But cartoonists never retire, so you can’t give me that answer. Besides, you’re in your prime now – are you able to reflect on your achievements.

Mike: [Laughs]. I only feel I’m as good as the cartoon I’m working on that day. And sometimes I’ll have one I like and one I don’t like in the same day – it’s to-and-fro. Winning awards is amazing to me, but even more amazing is making a living doing what I love. And this is what I’m going to be talking about to the graduates. I’ve been blessed to be living my dream. They pay me money for this, and I’m amazed at that. And every cartoonist I know feels the same way – that we’re doing what we would do, regardless of where we are. It’s a true blessing.

Brendan: You are a charmed individual, Mike. Thank you for sitting down and doing this with me.

Mike: It’s a joy! Thank you, sweet boy.