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Garry Trudeau on Charlie Hebdo, Doonesbury and the Future of Satire

In an interview with Chuck Todd, the Pulitzer Prize Winning Creator of "Doonesbury" talks about the backlash over comments he made about the Charlie Hebdo shootings.
/ Source: NBC News

Cartoonist Garry Trudeau responded to critics of a speech he gave earlier this month who alleged he blamed the victims - his fellow cartoonists - for the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris.

In an interview with Chuck Todd airing on Sunday's Meet the Press, Trudeau said he was "not at all" blaming the victims and that he "should have made it a little clearer that I was as outraged as the rest of the world at the time. I mourn them deeply."

Trudeau said it's "not really for us to decide," whether or not the Prophet Muhammad can be satirized. "I mean, we, as societies, collectively decide what's untouchable. But I don't have the right to decide what is sacred and holy and profane for someone else. All societies come to a consensus about that."

But religion is not a red line for the "Doonesbury" creator. "I certainly wouldn't draw pictures of the prophet [Muhammad]. However, I've done many cartoons satirizing in the specific: terrorists, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, the P.L.O... and have never received any blow-back from the Muslim community. They understand that I'm separating out the two.

"Doonesbury” is one of America’s most well-known comic strips – but Trudeau insists he never thought he’d become a professional artist.

“My career was not my idea,” he told Chuck Todd in an interview for NBC’s “Meet The Press.” He was recruited to become a professional cartoonist during his junior year of college.

Trudeau became gutsier as his career blossomed, notoriously drawing ire from nearly 50 newspapers which pulled from their pages a series of his cartoons about anti-abortion laws in 2012.

Trudeau still contributes original Doonesbury cartoons, but he’s also expanded his career into television comedy. The second season of his political satire show, “Alpha House,” dropped on last fall.

The show features a group of Republican lawmakers who share a D.C. home – reminiscent of the real-world townhouse that Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and former Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) lived in together on Capitol Hill for decades.

“I thought ‘Wow, that’s a good idea for a sitcom,’” Trudeau said after hearing about the three lawmakers sharing a house. “They knew that. They were just waiting for it to happen.”

But Trudeau, known for his progressive leanings, chose Republicans instead of Democrats as the subject of the show because he’s fascinated by the internal strife the GOP has faced since the rise of the Tea Party.

“That to me is just great story-telling stuff,” he said. “There’s nothing comparable on the Democratic side.”

He’s mostly stayed away from depicting President Barack Obama in his cartoons, though he’s famously made previous presidents into caricatures: He drew Bill Clinton as a waffle, and George W. Bush as a Roman military helmet.

“It wasn’t so much that Obama himself resisted, you know, iconification,” he said. “It was more that I just got tired of it, as, you know, as a way of depicting political figures.”

Joe Toohey / NBC News

On why those who'd like to follow in his footsteps should consider another path:

“I generally point ‘em in other directions of cartoon narrative. You know, go to Pixar, go to Cal Arts, or, you know, one of the schools that might prepare you for a future in animation,” he said. “A lot of cartoonists have second jobs and so I'm not sure it's the brightest future.”

On similarities between Trudeau and Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart:

“I gladly will occupy the same sentence if you wanna put me there.” he said. “I’m devastated that they’re both [Stewart and Stephen Colbert] moving offstage, at least temporarily.”

On keeping cartoons funny in the social media age:

“I have so much more competition, if you will-- for people's attention. And I welcome it all.”

On why Obama is tough to satirize:

“He is so sort of relentlessly moderate and disciplined, both in temperament and in policy. I mean, he is militantly centrist. Or he’s been forced to be,” he said. “And so, he gets shots from both the left and the right. But if you're on the left and you exaggerate him as being kind of in the pocket of Wall Street, or if you're on the right and you exaggerate him as being an old school leftie liberal, it doesn't really resonate with anyone. So even conservative cartoonists have a hard time with him.”

On how he’ll depict 2016’s presidential candidates:

Some of his first cartoons depicted Jeb Bush’s father, former president George H.W. Bush.” I have a long history of unpacking baggage of the Bush family,” he said. And while he’s also made cartoons out of Bill Clinton, drawing his wife won’t be easy. “Without the competition [for Hillary Clinton], that makes it so much harder because-- we're just left with waiting for her to make mistakes.”

-Justin Peligri