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Asher Perlman On Obsessive Ruminating, Getting Personal, And Drawing Hands

by Brendan Dowling on June 18, 2024

Emmy Award nominee Asher Perlman has been writing for late-night television for nearly a decade, first with The Opposition With Jordan Klepper and more recently with Late Night With Stephen Colbert. Yet since 2020, he’s emerged as a wildly popular cartoonist, both with his cartoons that regularly get published in The New Yorker as well as his Instagram account. With Well, This Is Me, Perlman has released his first compilation, not only full of fan favorites but also packed with never-before-seen cartoons. Early reaction has been ecstatic. Ben Stiller said “Asher Perlman’s cartoons are the kind of funny that makes you question what it is to be a person, but in a good way” and Judd Apatow called the collection “insightful, human, hilarious.” Perlman spoke with us about cartooning, getting personal with his compilation, and the perils of drawing hands. Author photo courtesy of Mindy Tucker.

Your background is in improv and sketch comedy and also late-night television. How did you get into cartoons?

I’ve always loved cartooning. I’ve always drawn cartoons in some fashion, but my earnest entry into cartooning for The New Yorker really started with the pandemic. I was performing frequently at night, and then all of a sudden all of the performance venues shut down. I didn’t really have a creative outlet at night anymore and I had a lot of free time. I decided to start submitting weekly to The New Yorker, literally, like, March 2020, right when the shutdown happened. And then I submitted every week since.

What’s the relationship between your background in improv and sketch with cartooning? Does one feed into the other?

I do think it’s really all the same muscle—or it might not be the exact same muscle, but it’s the same cluster of muscles. Like if your comedy is the arm, maybe sketch writing is the bicep, and joke writing is the tricep. I think it’s all sort of the same thing, it’s just sort of executing it in a slightly different way.

I really think that all comedy writing is effectively the same. It’s all set up-punchline, and the difference is just what form it takes in the end. In stand up, for example, you might have a real thing that happened to you as the setup, and then your commentary on it is the punchline. But in cartooning, the setup is basically the image and the caption is the punchline. It’s still that same basic structure, set-up punchline, but it’s just a slightly different way of getting to the same place.

Was there something appealing to you about working in a more visual medium?

I think the challenge is drawing stuff that you’ve never drawn before. For example, I will very rarely draw a cartoon that takes place outside of a car, because I can’t draw cars. And there’s really no joke that’s worth it to me to try to figure out how to draw a car. (laughs) And there are other things that I won’t draw. If it’s a crowd scene, I have to really like the joke to make it worth it, because it just takes so long to draw those people. But I think the benefit of the image is that it increases your efficiency, because you can say so much with just the image than if it were just a straight verbal joke. It would take you a much longer time to establish that, so I like the efficiency that that an image packs.

Woven throughout the book is this long conversation that you’re having with a person where you’re kind of investigating your relationship with comedy and why you’re a cartoonist. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I was just curious about how that made its way into the book?

When I set out to write a book, I was very deliberate about making it not feel like I had just printed out my Instagram and told people to buy it. I really wanted it to be a complete thing itself, and that’s kind of hard to accomplish when what you make is a bunch of discrete jokes. And you know, in the end, it really is a cartoon compilation. You can find throughlines, of course, because I have similar themes that I play with a lot, but I wanted to give some sort of throughline that made it feel more like a book, not just a series of images. I came up with the introduction first, and that really was born out of a sincere exploration of why I do what I do and am who I am. The others sort of flowed naturally through that. So without spoiling the content, I’ll just say that those really are earnest explorations of things I spend a lot of time thinking about. I wanted to include something thoughtful and interesting that wasn’t necessarily just a single panel gag cartoon.

I really loved it too because it was a level of self-introspection that isn’t often present in a compilation like this.

I’m really glad you said that. I was honestly a little self-conscious about including it, because one of the things I really like about cartooning is that it’s not me, that I can hide behind these characters. Putting myself in the book was a difficult decision. That’s the truth. But I also felt like I named the book, Well, This Is Me, and I wanted to fulfill that promise and actually put a little bit more of myself in there. And even though I know that, in a sense, my body of work is representative of me in its own way, I also wanted to have a little bit more of a literal interpretation in there.

You’ve divided the book into sections. How did that come about?

It’s broken into four sections, “Life,” “Love,” “Work,” and “Play.” In my first draft, it actually had something like twelve sections, and they were a little bit more granular. It would be something like, “Well, This Is Healthcare,” “Well, This Is Teaching,” etcetera. So they were more specific. When I read through it that way, I felt like it hurt all the individual jokes to have them butted up against other similar ones. I wanted to spread them out a little bit more, so I picked those four chapters. I deliberately picked them because most cartoons could fall into most of them, and you sort of could pick what’s the category that fits the most that would also serve the general flow of the book. I treated [organizing the cartoons] a little bit like putting together a running order for a sketch show, where you want to keep similar scenes away from one another. You want to have a big group scene and then a two-person relationship scene and a couple of blackouts. I wanted to just keep that variety, and I felt like those chapters allowed me the most freedom to do that.

You already mentioned this, but a lot of the cartoons in the compilation are ones that people wouldn’t have previously seen before, either online or in The New Yorker. What went into deciding what would go into the book and what would stay out?

It was mostly a lot of obsessive ruminating. (laughs) I also crowdsourced a good amount. I relentlessly abused my friends and sent them things and said, “Hey, do you think this is good or is this bad? Do you think this should be in the book?” Or, if I was picking between two, I would ask, “Should it be this or should it be that?” Especially because this was my first book, I felt anxious about what I should include, and so I leaned on my friends to help me with those decisions.

Was were there any feedback that surprised you?

Yeah, yeah. I’m actually pretty consistently surprised by the cartoons that people like a lot, and also the cartoons that they don’t really respond to. I think that my favorites almost are never my audience’s favorites, and vice versa. I don’t think I’ve really developed a strong ability to predict what people are going to like, but I also have no problem deferring to my audience. If two people tell me a cartoon works, even if I don’t feel great about it, I’m like, “Great.” I believe them. If I love a cartoon and a couple of people tell me it doesn’t work, I also believe them. Not to wax poetic about the nature of comedy, but the audience is right. If they laugh, they laugh, and if they don’t, they don’t. My intention going into it matters, but I tend to defer to the audience.

Since you started cartooning in earnest, is there anything you’ve noticed that’s evolved in your style or have you been aware of how you’ve developed as a cartoonist over that time?

I would say my style has evolved from absolutely horrible art drawn by someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing to slightly less horrible art drawn by someone who has four years of experience. (laughs) The big thing that I needed to unlock first was what my faces were going to look like. I sort of landed on these dot eyes and pendulous noses. Once I had that, I built everything else around it. I recently started using a thicker marker, which I like. I used to draw these really thin lines. And I draw hands now! I used to just put all the hands in the pockets, and now I’ll draw hands half the time. (laughs)

Looking back on your cartooning experience, is there a cartoon that you’ve surprised yourself by, or something that you’ve worked on that maybe 2020 Asher would not have thought he was capable of?

I think I drew a mouse successfully for the first time a couple weeks ago. I feel like most animals when I draw them for the first time look nothing like the animal, and then eventually I can get them to sort of look like the animal, but they don’t really look like my style. And then the twentieth time is when they look both like the animal and my style. That’s kind of true of all things. I remember the first couple of times I drew a dentist’s office, I eventually got it to look like a dentist’s office, but it didn’t look like my style. It looked like I was drawing a dentist’s office using a photo reference of a dentist’s office, because that’s what I was doing. (laughs) And then eventually, I was able to draw a dentist’s office in my style that looked like it belonged in my world. And so I feel like that every individual thing sort of takes about ten iterations before it feels both like the thing and my style instead of just one or the other.

And finally, what role has the library played in your life?

Honestly, the library has played an enormous role in my life. Growing up, we used to go to the library all the time. I don’t even know how many books I owned, but there were books that I would check out at the library twenty, thirty times over the years. All the Calvin and Hobbes books, Bob Kane’s Batman, Lil’ Abner, Bloom County. I used to just sit in the library and read cartoon books for hours. As a kid, they played a huge role, and then into my adult life as well. In college, I spent maybe 90% of my time in libraries. Even now, one of my favorite places to go is the Brooklyn Public Library. So yeah, I love libraries. I think they’re the best.


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