by B. Kliban
Published by Workman Publishing Company, 1976
Found in Inquiring Mind Bookstore and Cafe in Saugerties, NY
I first encountered B. Kliban’s Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head & Other Drawings at my grandparent’s house in Poughkeepsie, New York. It was sitting there under a small stack of Reader’s Digest magazines. We were visiting for Easter, and I was bored and pouty after finishing dead last in the egg hunt. It was probably 1990, as I couldn’t have been much older than seven, but I distinctly remember flipping through pages of one-panel cartoons that featured grotesquely drawn humans, animals and food. I didn’t understand much of it, but still found the cartoons hilarious. They were comforting after such a humiliating loss.
That night, I took the book to bed with me and read it an additional two or three times, trying hard to stifle my laughter so as not to wake my sister and cousins in the beds beside me. There was something about the absurdity of the cartoons — like the one with the guy eating donuts out of his own head or the one with businessmen falling out of a giant horse’s ass — that connected with me and split my head wide open. I was laughing, but I had no idea what I was laughing at, and that feeling was so new and exhilarating.
Months later, on a return trip to Poughkeepsie, the book was gone. I asked my grandmother about it, but she tilted her head sideways and said she didn’t recall there being a book like that in her home — which, of course, would make sense. My grandmother would bristle at the word “fart” and refused to call urinating anything but “going piddle”; Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head, on the other hand, boasts cartoons like a naked man sitting on another man’s head, with the title “Dirty Fat Person Sits on President’s Face.” Not quite my dear grandmother’s sensibility. And so, either she threw it out to protect my impressionable mind or it had somehow vanished.
It’s 2010, and I’m in Saugerties, New York for a wedding. A few friends and I are downtown, killing time before the festivities begin, and we happen upon a used bookstore with a coffee shop in the back. I’m pretty broke, so I stick to perusing the 50-cent shelves outside. A small book juts out amidst the beat-up mass market paperbacks. I flip through it, and while it’s not immediately familiar, it’s triggering something. It finally hits me when I see this:
That’s the one that does it. The drawing that transports me back to the yellow-walled bedroom where I once sat next to a flickering night light and held my hand over my mouth.
I practically dance around the store and shove the book in my friends' faces. (They humor me; they are good people.) I slap two bucks on the counter for the book and a small coffee, and stand outside on the sidewalk flipping the pages. I start thinking about “People Humiliating a Salami.” What makes it so damn funny to me? I mean, sure, a salami is not something one normally humiliates since a salami doesn’t have feelings, so it’s funny, at least conceptually. But that doesn’t quite get at it; too clinical. Part of it could be that the word “salami” and a salami itself are just inherently funny (which is true, just admit it to yourself), but that still doesn’t describe the feeling. When I see those two people there, having such a great time harassing a defenseless salami, I simply lose it.
Part of why I loved (and still love) Kliban’s book, I think, is because these cartoons made me feel a little less lonely. I’ve always been attracted to the strange and silly, even from a young age — from Monty Python to the films of Don Hertzfeldt to Ren & Stimpy. These things resonated with me (and still do) because I was a bit of a weird, lonely kid. We moved around the East Coast, and I often found myself in a bedroom alone with a tape recorder, recording episodes of “Jaguar Radio,” a fake radio station I made up that broadcasted fake news, sports, on-the-street interviews and radio dramas that I voiced myself. A few times, I let friends join in but became self conscious, thinking they might not like my ideas, that my thoughts would be too strange.
Listening to the recordings now, I realize that it wasn’t all that funny, but it shows how deep an impact stuff like Never Eat Anything and Monty Python had on me. It’s present in stuff like a fake football broadcast in which I inform the listener that a giant tarantula had entered the field, devoured most of the players and coaches, then kicked the winning field goal.
Mulling it over now, at 30, I think the gut laughter that the absurd often induces has something to do with sheer brain potential. What I mean by this is the brain’s ability to conjure up strange images and connect disparate thoughts, all of which we sometimes have no control over. Just yesterday, I was sitting in my car at a stoplight when the image of a deer in a tuxedo singing at a nightclub popped into my head. I could probably make the connections as to how my brain got there — I’d seen a deer on the side of the road earlier, waiting to make a move and had briefly wondered what I might say to a deer if it could understand English, and then, for some reason, I thought about that deer dancing on the interstate shoulder, and so maybe this lounge singer deer was just an extension of that — but what I’m trying to get at is these sorts of thoughts and impulses happen seemingly without warning. Where do they come from, and what do we do with them?
I think Kliban was fascinated with this as well. His jokes are impulses coming to life on the page. I think if he found an image funny or moving or just intriguing in any way, he went for it. That sentiment is palpable throughout Never Eat Anything. Kliban never tries to shoehorn a narrative between the drawings. He celebrates his own weirdness and provides the reader with wonderful moments — these small snapshots of his brain. It’s almost as if he's speaking directly to you, saying, “Hey, those weird thoughts you have? I have ‘em too. Celebrate ‘em. Make something out of ‘em.” Of course, it’s not likely he’d say it like that. He’d probably draw a picture of me holding my own head with a caption like, “Jake Thinks His Head is a Basketball.”
Of course, this isn’t to say that Kliban’s jokes are completely without thought or that he just sits around waiting for ideas to come, then immediately splashes those onto a page and sends them out for publication. Indeed, Kliban tries satire on for size, like in the panel titled “Nixon Monument,” which is a huge hole in the Earth, or the aforementioned cartoon of men falling out of a horse’s ass, which is entitled: “The Birth of Advertising.” These pieces help balance the book’s overall tone, since the more absurd cartoons have little to no context.
There’s a part of me that wishes I knew exactly how Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head & Other Drawings ended up on my grandparent’s coffee table and how it disappeared. My guess is that maybe they picked it up at a garage sale thinking it was a cute children’s book, then later realized — possibly with horror — that it was very far from The Cat in the Hat. But Kliban clearly wasn’t too big on context or rationale, and so, after all these years, the mystery is somehow fitting.
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