Raymond Lesser: People always ask me, “Oh, how did you start the Funny Times?” It’s just a throwaway question for most people. A little conversation starter while we’re having a drink at a party. But I always think, “It could easily take all night to answer that question.” I’ll make some sort of reasonably brief explanation or, more likely, try to change the subject. Then 10 minutes later somebody else will ask the same question! I thought maybe we could use this interview to answer that question once and for all.
Susan Wolpert: I had a dream last night. I dreamt that we were going to do this interview and I should ask you what the Funny Times has to do with eating a gumball?
Ray: (laughter) That’s one I’ve never been asked before.
Sue: Well, you have to crack it to get it soft and chewy and release its sweetness, then you chew it a while and you use it up.
Ray: And if you drop it on the floor it gets lint all over it and … (laughter) … it makes people happy. For some reason gumballs and gumball machines delight small children. There’s something about seeing the colorful cover of the Funny Times that may give a similar kind of feeling to grown-ups … it’s cheap and colorful and just for fun and you have all kinds of positive expectations about what it might mean and it’s a break and it’s gonna be sweet and chewy. It’s something to chew on.
Sue: It was a good question, right?
Ray: Yeah … (laughter).
Sue: Sometimes things come to you in the night. How many nights have I been up worrying about the Funny Times? I used to have really bad insomnia. For many years our office was in the house. The layout room for the paper was in the other bedroom. So I would just get up in the middle of the night and go in there and work for an hour or two doing layout. I used to get a lot done. Now when I’m up for a couple hours I don’t get anything done.
Ray: It was good having work right in the next room, because then instead of saying, “I’m wasting my time. I’ll be so tired tomorrow. I won’t be able to get my work done,” you could say “I’m going to get my work done now, so I can play tomorrow.”
Sue: It’d be interesting to go back and look at some of the “creative” solutions that I’d find in the middle of the night. Where would you begin the story of how we started the Funny Times?
Ray: It starts with losing Rose … who is Rose, right?
Sue: Rose was our first child who was stillborn. She would have been 21 in January … we started the paper less than a year after she died. At the time Ray and I were living in Athens, Ohio. We lived in a trailer on a 114-acre farm for five years. We’d gone there to do the “Going Back To The Land Thing.” We had giant gardens, and chickens and drove our tractor around mowing everything all the time. We canned food and thought we were going to build a house and live there happily ever after.
Ray: We did build a couple trial structures … we built a chicken coop.
Sue: Since we didn’t know what we were doing, we first built a practice house … a small house waaaay out on the property where there was no power.
Ray: We wired it for solar power, but there was never any power out there. We never finished it. After Rose died we didn’t know what we were going to do, we were so brokenhearted. We decided to take a trip across the country to try to figure out what to do next in life.
Sue: Before that nothing really bad had ever happened to us. At the time we were into the “create your own reality” philosophy. This is the belief that whatever you think kind of happens and anything that happens to you, you made happen with your thoughts. So when the baby died it was absolutely devastating to us because not only did we lose this child and all of our dreams, we also lost our belief system. It was the first time we truly experienced grief. Also right then, my father got diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, that was very painful too.
Anyway, we decided to take a long car trip out west to recuperate, and re-evaluate our lives, and our first stop was in Dayton to visit our psychic, Amal.
Ray: It makes perfect sense that people who run a cartoon newspaper have their own psychic, doesn’t it? Where else would something like this come from?
Sue: One of the things Amal discussed then was the business we’d be starting in the fall – this was in April – and Ray said, “Do you mean the fall of our lives?” because we had no business idea or plan. Amal said, “No, spring, summer, fall!” Then we headed across country and camped every night and worked our grief out. When we got to Santa Cruz, where we used to live, we went into this old neighborhood bar called Positively Front Street. It was sentimental for us because it had been the place we had first decided to live in Santa Cruz, and was also the place where we suddenly decided to leave to go back to the land. Ray found a paper on the cigarette machine called The Santa Cruz Comic News. It had just been started a couple of months before by Tom Zajak. It was a cartoon newspaper, with all editorial cartoons that he would string together with little comments.
Ray: I said, “This is such a great idea. This would probably be a fun thing to do.” It had ads in it but I couldn’t believe he was making any money doing it. I thought, “This must be somebody’s little hobby, because nobody can possibly make a living publishing a cartoon newspaper.” As it happened, we had a mutual friend who introduced us. We went to Tom’s house. We were very taken with the whole idea. He showed us how he handled the cartoons, they were all syndicated, and how he did the ads and layout.
Sue: You have to understand that Ray and I knew NOTHING about publishing, even though my father had been a publisher. In college, Ray had majored in General Studies.
Ray: I studied to be a General. Unfor-tunately there weren’t any job openings for Generals when I got out of college, so I ran around doing odd jobs instead.
Sue: Having reached the end of our journey out west we headed back home. I remember driving “over the hill” and coming up with the name.
Ray: Yeah, we were saying … the Funny Paper, the Funny Pages, and then you said the Funny Times.
Sue: This was a turning point in our lives. We went out west aimless: now we had a name for this thing and all the way back to Ohio we were daydreaming and imagining this newspaper, and what it would be. At some point, we decided we would leave Athens and do this in Cleveland, because that would be a much bigger market, and we could be near my father. When we returned to Athens we volunteered for two nights at the local alternative paper. It was there that in four hours we learned everything you need to know to foolishly begin publishing. We learned important secrets like, how do you get print onto a page (layout); and how do you get a box around an ad (border tape) …
Ray: How to type …
Sue: (laughter) But that’s all we learned.
Ray: It takes chutzpah to start a business. Chutzpah can be loosely translated as “blind stupidity.” We moved to Cleveland at the end of October 1985. During the summer in Athens we had researched all the different syndicated features, and picked out the ones we liked best. We had also researched printers. We had a friend in Cleveland that did typesetting. We got going really fast.
Sue: Our idea was different than The Santa Cruz Comic News. We wanted to be a political paper, but we wanted to have cartoons that made us laugh about what it is to be a human being in the modern world. We also wanted to feature some of the bigger strips like Lynda Barry, Life in Hell … we had the Real Puzzle, which I had liked in the alternative papers. I remember being out to eat one morning at a diner in Athens and seeing everybody reading the funnies. We were so sure our idea would work.
Ray: The comics were the first thing everybody turned to in the paper, people like to read the funnies better than almost anything.
Sue: Here is a secret; I was not a person who read the funnies. I never really cared for cartoons; I’m not even a person who likes funny movies. It takes a lot to make me laugh.
Ray: That’s why you make such a good editor.