Stephan Pastis’ life was changed by a foul-mouthed rat, a sweet, stupid pig and a fraternity of numbskull crocodiles.
His daily comic strip, “Pearls Before Swine,” is known for silly puns, creating controversy and the outrageous antics of a cast of anthropomorphized animals. But before his life as a cartoonist, Pastis, 47, was an insurance attorney.
“I didn’t like it,” he said. “I would draw at night after work and on weekends in hopes of getting syndicated. … Everything I sent them got rejected multiple times.”
Eventually the “Pearls” characters broke through and the strip was published online in 2000. It became a daily newspaper comic in 2001 when Scott Adams, the creator of “Dilbert,” encouraged his fans to check out “Pearls.”
Pastis will tell his story Friday when he stops at the LSU Barnes & Noble for a book tour supporting his new collection, “Pearls Gets Sacrificed.”
Pastis spoke with The Advocate from California before his tour began:
“Pearls Before Swine” has a reputation for being controversial. Is “edginess” a part of your personality?
I think it’s just my age. I’m more in the “South Park” and “Family Guy” generation. I’m not “Marmaduke.” I’m usually surprised it’s considered edgy in 2015. You know, “Peanuts” was edgy for the ’50s. There were people who wanted that out of the newspaper because it was so different from everything else.
You say that all the characters in “Pearls” represent different facets of your personality. How is that possible?
That, I definitely get from Charles Schultz. I asked him, “Who are all the characters in ‘Peanuts’?” He said “They’re all aspects of me.” He said, “You can’t base a character on someone who’s not you, because you don’t know them well enough. They’re all aspects of me — Snoopy, Charlie Brown, Linus.”
He laid them all out. It’s the same. Goat is kind of my smart, reflective, mellow side, and Rat is the voice who comes out in traffic. Pig is my sweeter side. It’s all there.
The “Stephan Pastis” character in the “Pearls Before Swine” strip is separated from his wife, Staci. What does your wife — also named Staci — think of this?
She thinks I’m very strange, that is what she thinks. She normally doesn’t read (the comic strip), which is the funny part. When I did it, I had to tell her and tell her it was coming up. She got calls from family members, from a real estate agent, from our accountant, all offering help in the divorce. It’s funny how many people took it for real.
What are your most popular comic strips?
Anything with word play in general. It doesn’t have to be puns. It can be alliteration. The things that relate directly to somebody’s life — anything from problems we all share with the remote control to hotel service — anything that is right out of your life is something that’s going to be popular. … Think about the stuff you share on Facebook. It’s stuff that you’re saying to people, this happened to me, has this happened to you?
What are the most controversial ones?
I know there will be letters if I mention a religion; mention a physical disease in any way, just in passing; mention a physical disorder; mention suicide; mention a political party, even in passing, somebody will take it the wrong way.
If I mention guns, for or against; sex sometimes, not always; mention a specific drug, cocaine, methamphetamine; mention nationality or race in any way, even come close to it. If you make fun of polka, you’ll be accused of making fun of Polish people. If you make fun of Gypsies, then it’s apparently a slur against Romanian people. You learn all of this. Have a guy in a dark suit with sunglasses and give him an Italian name, and you’ll receive a letter from an Italian group. Even polka has a group! Everybody has a group!
Have you gotten used to that?
I tell people that going after me is like getting in a fight on your front lawn with a circus clown. It’s not going to end well. Either people are going to see you’re fighting someone who’s just a clown and they’re going to go, “Dude, that’s a clown. Don’t punch a clown.” Or the clown is going to kick your ass and they’re going to say, “You got your ass kicked by a clown.” It won’t even end well. If you go after a cartoonist, you’re fighting a clown. And I always get the last word.