Jezebel interviews Mimi Pond for The Customer is Always Wrong

“A Chat With Mimi Pond on the Service Industry, Cocaine, and Writing the First Episode of The Simpsons” / Jezebel / Anna Fitzpatrick / August 8, 2017

In the early 1980s, Mimi Pond’s work was everywhere. The cartoonist and illustrator was regularly published in The National Lampoon, The Village Voice, The New York Times, and Seventeen magazines; this eventually led to television work the following decade, when she wrote for visually striking shows such as Pee Wee’s Playhouse, The Simpsons, and Designing Women.

In the 2000s, she seemed to adopt a relatively lower profile. Though she published less, she never stopped working. Instead, she spent those years crafting a sharp and ambitious graphic novel. Over Easy, published with Drawn & Quarterly in 2014, is a rambunctious story loosely based on Pond’s own life working as a waitress in 1970s Oakland. Madge is an aspiring artist, forced to drop out of school after she is unable to afford tuition. She takes a job at the Imperial Cafe after being hired by Lazlo, an acerbic and charismatic aging slacker who serves as both father figure and ringleader to the diner’s rambunctious staff. Madge gets caught up in a world of sex, drugs, rock & roll, and pancakes, as she first tries to keep up with the other waitresses, and then tries to break free from her coffee-pouring duties to make it as an artist. Over Easy’s luminous, seductive world introduced a new generation of readers to Pond’s work, and earned her a PEN USA award for graphic literature.

This month, Drawn & Quarterly is releasing Pond’s follow-up graphic novel, The Customer is Always Wrong, which picks up where Over Easy left off. It’s a natural progression, sophisticated and sprawling and significantly more mature. If Pond’s last book was a sitcom, The Customer is Always Wrong would be an HBO drama with a Sunday night time slot. Relationships end, drug deals go wrong, and Madge realizes she has to make some tough choices about her future.

Pond currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Wayne White. Last month, Jezebel spoke with her on the phone about her upcoming graphic novel, doing cocaine in the 1970s, and why she never wrote another episode of the Simpsons. This interview has been lightly condensed and edited.

JEZEBEL: How are you feeling about the new book coming out?

MIMI POND: I’m excited!

How long did it take you to work on this one?

This one actually only took about three years. The previous book, Over Easy, had taken on and off about—let’s see, I wrote it initially as a piece of conventional fiction, and my agent couldn’t sell it, and I finally had to break down and admit it wanted to be a graphic novel. Because really, that’s what I am. I’m a cartoonist. I started writing the manuscript in about 1999 or 2000 or so. I had two small children at home. I don’t think I finished that until 2007 and I think in late 2008, I started doing the drawings. I guess it was about five years, on and off drawing, to produce the first volume. But that was with two kids at home. It dragged all the way into both of them going off to college, so once they were both out of the house, I was able to finish a lot more quickly on a second one.

Did you always know you were going to do a follow-up?

It’s one story. We just broke it down into two volumes to make it more manageable.

So the whole thing was drafted and written at the same time?


Why did you decide to break it off where you did?

Well, it seemed to make the most sense to break it up there in terms of the story. It was difficult in the first place because it was such an unwieldy task to think about drawing it all, until finally Chris Oliveros at Drawn & Quarterly said let’s split it into two parts. And at that point it made it seem much more manageable.

The tone of The Customer is Always Wrong is much darker. It’s like Over Easy is one big party, and then this book is like the hangover. People have to deal with the consequences of all the drugs and everything else.

It is about the consequences. It’s one of those situations of things that happen when you’re young, and everything is really fun up until the point it’s suddenly not anymore. This is the consequence of drugs and drinking and bad decisions all the way down the line. You know. Shit happens, and you have to pay a price.

It’s fictional, but a lot of it is based on your own experiences. Do you keep in touch with people from that era of your life?

Yeah, I’m very close with some of them.

What do they think of this project?

Well they haven’t seen the new one yet, so I can’t say about that, but they loved the first one.

When was the last time you worked a non-creative day job?

Well it was probably that waitressing job, actually, because after that I moved to New York and became a cartoonist, and luckily had pursued that ever since. I did have a very brief stint of cater waitering in the early 2000s when money was tight in my house, and that was really depressing.

After you had written for a bunch of TV shows, you went back to service work?

To be clear, I didn’t work a bunch of TV shows. I wrote an episode of Pee Wee’s Playhouse, and I wrote one episode of the Simpsons, and I was briefly on staff for the last season of Designing Women. Besides that, I did some work for Disney but got shit-canned, and that was about it in terms of my quote-unquote Hollywood career. But my husband’s also a working artist and worked for years as a production designer for kid’s shows, and there were times our kids were little we were both scrambling for money and someone said, “I’m working this cater waitering job, you want some shifts?” And I said yes. Nothing could be like working at this restaurant in Oakland. I don’t think I could ever really work in another restaurant because the manager made it such a unique experience.

The manager portrayed as Lazlo in the book?

Yeah. He catered to the whims and egos of a lot of artists that he hired to be waiters and waitresses and dishwashers and fry cooks.

How did working such a job inform you creatively?

I think I learned a lot about human nature. I think anyone who has ever worked a restaurant job learns a lot about human nature. You kind of learn how to suss out people pretty quickly, and you learn that you have to give them some kind of immediate gratification because people when they’re hungry are like small children. [laughs] You kind of have to like feel out every table individually and feel out very quickly what it is they want from you besides just their food, and tailor your behaviour accordingly, you know? Also it was a great opportunity just to study people and their behaviour.

In my teens and early 20s I worked so many service industry jobs, and I’ve been writing full time for the last couple of years but I find it really isolates you. And the pay’s inconsistent. I just went back to a food service job on weekends. You were working this exhausting job, but you still made time for your creative work—

I was able to work a lot more when I cut back to part time, that made an enormous difference. When I was doing it full time it was kind of all-absorbing. It was exhausting, and it made you hate people and hate the world. Which is really bad. [Laughs] It’s a bad way to see the world. When I was able to cut back my schedule to full time, I had more time for myself and my work, and it made a tremendous difference. Having had the experience of working full time, it gave me more motivation to try to get out and pursue my dream of going to New York.

With customers, you can always tell which ones have themselves worked service industry jobs. It’s frustrating dealing with really condescending customers, especially when you have these ambitious aspirations.

There’s that thing where you kind of have to have this mindset that you’re just playing a waitress. That’s not really who you are. And you just put yourself in this role, and so it doesn’t matter. They think you’re just a waitress, but you know better. This is just a part you’re playing temporarily.

I think that’s true for every service worker, whether or not they’re also trying to become artists. Just the title of the second book, The Customer is Always Wrong, feels like such a tribute to everyone who has ever had to work in a restaurant.

Right. It’s not so much a suggestion that you treat people badly. It’s just a reminder that you are holding on to your authentic self.

Do you ever miss parts of it?

No. [laughs] I miss the camaraderie of those times. I miss the people and I miss the exchanges in a way, and I miss the way life sort of seemed wide open. But I also remember how I had a lot of anxiety about how I was going to get out of that situation. I was terrified of getting stuck working there for years and years. Some people did, and some people do, and for some people that’s not a terrible choice depending on their circumstances or their ambitions, but for me it was something that was a means to an end.

Do you miss anything about that era, though? California in the 1970s?

I do miss certain things about it, yeah. I miss the fact that you could live on nothing and still have a lot of fun and a lot of freedom. I miss that for my children’s sake because now they’re in their early 20s, and it’s so much more difficult for them to get by than it was for me at that age. I miss the aspects of the sexual revolution which was then raging in that you didn’t have to answer to anyone about your choices, you know? You weren’t like, slut shamed. There was no such thing as a walk of shame. People just slept with each other and that was that. Nobody cared. Everyone was doing it. [laughs] Everyone was doing it, mom.

It’s a huge part of the book! Staff sleeping with customers, and sleeping with each other.

Oh yeah.

I guess that’s what people did before they had Netflix.

And I mean, this was just before AIDS. The consequences of that as well, which is tragic and horrible and everything, but it was like... I don’t miss the fact that drugs were such a big part of it. That was a really horrible thing. People were genuinely naive about the consequences of hard drug use in a way that was staggering to me because heroin, it’s like, hello? But cocaine, not so much. Cocaine was one of those thing that came along and just seemed like this groovy novelty. Like, jazz musicians in the ‘30s had done cocaine and that was cool, so why shouldn’t we? It just hit and it hit really big, and it hit for a really long time. People disappeared through heroin and cocaine, just disappeared through these rabbit holes for years and years, and lost years of their lives. The fallout from that was enormous. Some of them never emerged. A lot of them died. Some of them came back and are living full lives, but some of them came back, lived full lives, and then fell back into it and died. It’s awful.

Your book kind of covers a lot of that. Not the coming back to it, but the unforeseen consequences. What do you personally wish you knew back then?

I wish I’d been a lot smarter about my choices of sexual partners. I wish I hadn’t given myself away as readily as I did. Part of it was I was just bored, and that’s what you did. It was like a shortcut to finding out about people. A lazy way of finding out about people and their characters in a way, rather than taking the time to get to know them and then deciding that maybe sleeping with them wasn’t the best option. A part of it too is trying to figure out your own identity and your own worth and wondering how desirable you are, you know? And taking a measure of that.

I want to go back. You said you wrote one episode for the Simpsons, but it wasn’t just “one episode.” You wrote the very first full-length episode [“Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire.”]. How did that happen?

My husband and I had been introduced to Matt Groening by Gary Panter. My husband Wayne and Gary had worked together on PeeWee’s Playhouse. We met Matt before the Simpsons happened, when he was doing his syndicated comic strip, Life in Hell . When the series came along, he was asking his cartoonist friends if they wanted to write episodes, and apparently I was the only one who said yes. When I wrote an episode, I wrote it and it just happened to air as the first one because they were behind schedule.

I was never invited to be on staff, and I never knew why for the longest time. No one ever called me or explained to me or apologized or anything. And it wasn’t until years later that I found out that Sam Simon, who was the showrunner, didn’t want any women around because he was going through a divorce. It had remained a boys’ club for a good long time. I feel like I was just as qualified as anyone else who came along and got hired on the show, and it was just because I was a woman that I was, you know, not allowed entry into that club. I always wind up being the turd in the punchbowl because the show is so beloved and everything, and I’m sorry to burst bubbles but [laughs]. It wasn’t a pleasant experience for me.

I know you said the ordering of the episode was arbitrary but you were still largely responsible for bringing that family to the masses.

Like every TV script ever, every script is rewritten in the writer’s room. So I can’t claim that responsibility. It’s always a group effort. Just in terms of being denied the opportunity to participate in something that became that big is kind of a drag. And then having to explain this over and over is the biggest drag of all.

For what it’s worth, I do love The Simpsons, but I love love love your books. I’m glad you had that opportunity to share your work in these other ways.

Well, thank you.

Who were your biggest creative inspirations?

Growing up I loved the New Yorker cartoons, like Charles Addams and Sam Gross. I was a big Peanuts fan from the get-go because that was my whole childhood. I loved the National Lampoon, I loved Mary K. Brown, who was one of my big inspirations. Shary Flenniken, who was the cartoon editor at the National Lampoon, who brought me to New York in the first place, was a very important mentor to me. And lots of old New Yorker cartoonists whose work I just adored.

What about, and I’m sure you’ve gotten this before, but some of your aesthetic reminds me of Phoebe Gloeckner?

Uh-huh. Yeah, she really nailed that whole ‘70s thing too. And I thought the movie was really fantastic as well.

I feel like your books can kind of be read as a spiritual successor to the Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Yeah, I—[a huge amount of feedback happens on the phone] Woah, woah, hang on. I’m at the dentist office, waiting for my daughter to get her teeth filled. [laughs] 

Just in the waiting room? Are there other people around?

Just the people at the reception desk who are probably enjoying this.

Do you pay attention to younger cartoonists today?

Oh sure, yeah. I love Lauren Weinstein, Vanessa Davis, Emily Flake... Drawn & Quarterly have been really wonderful in this whole process of just leaving me alone and letting me get through this without any necessary editing. Drawn & Quarterly just re-issued Vanessa Davis’s Spaniel Rage, which I’ve been revisiting, and loved that as well. And then of course My Favorite Thing is Monsters is just a tour de force. Emil Ferris. It came with out with Fantagraphics earlier this year. It’s amazing.

Do you think the boys’ club of comics and publishing is getting better for women?

Absolutely in comics, for sure. There are so many really strong female voices right now. I think things have improved in film and television for women but it’s still kind of ridiculously bad and the pay scale is completely unequal. Whether it’s actors or writers or producers or directors or anything, women are still paid less. Stories that get made into movies are still dominated by men and choices that men make about what people want to see, which is always about men between the ages of 13 and 34. Women are still relegated to roles in movies of being the supportive helpmate, or the sexy helpful girlfriend. It’s so tiresome. It’s beyond being sexist, it’s just so boring.

If they were to ever make a movie of your books, who should play Madge?

I think if a movie ever got cast, everyone has to be extremely young. Because it really has to emphasize the extreme youth and naivety of all the players. Actually, you know, I saw that movie, Rules Don’t Apply about Howard Hughes with Warren Beatty. Which was not a terribly good movie. But the actress that plays the young woman looks a lot like I did at that age. Lily Collins. Right now she’s my top choice.

What advice would you give to young women who are trying to make it as cartoonists or writers?

God. You know, find a way to make it work. I’m not making any money any more. I used to make a good living doing this back in the ‘80s, and into the mid-’90s, but things have changed so dramatically. No one gets paid anymore! No one wants to pay for, quote-unquote, content. I’m at a loss to tell anyone how to get paid. I think if you want to do it badly enough you have to find a way to make it work. Find some kind of job that allows you to pursue this. This has to be a complete obsession for anyone to make a graphic novel, because it’s so much work. I can’t stress it enough. It’s so. Much. Work. It’s not the kind of thing that anyone should go into lightly. You really have to want it badly. You have to really want to make something happen, to do it. It’s also important to find people in your life to support it, people who will support your vision and your goals and avoid people who try to rain on your parade and tell you it can’t be done.

Thank you so much. I’ll let you go back to the dentist waiting room.

Oh boy, People Magazine! I don’t know who any of these people in People Magazine are anymore.

Who’s on the cover this week?

Let’s see. Reality show stars. George and Amal Clooney. Life with their twins. Who cares?

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