reviews – Utah and All That Jazz

Utah and All That JazzOgden Standard Examiner, Vanessa Zimmer

Think of Robin Williams on Valium, Woody Allen with a drawing pencil. Think of angst and a raging, wandering right brain. Envision that and you’ll have some basis for beginning to understand this bearded fellow sitting at the end of a pencil, his mind aswirl with images of the angel Moroni whispering into the ear of the State Legislature, of armored men taking names and kicking butt down at the ice cream parlor because of the ice cream with the rum in it, of pug-nosed waifs in diapers and clean-shaven Mormon men with spectacles but no eyes.

The name is Cal Grondahl, if it isn’t already obvious, that cartoonist with the voice that is singularly—and, often, peculiarly—Utah. His newest examination of life in the Beehive State, Utah and All That Jazz, came out last week. His fifth book and the first that is not on strictly a Mormon theme, it takes his trademark jab at that part of the country where the waiters are named Levi—where an alternative lifestyle means having no children—where liquor is as naughty as sex—where they shoot Democrats, don’t they?

But don’t take it personally, Grondahl only jabs the things he loves (sort of) and Utah is one of the few decent places left to live, if you thrive on the raw poetry of the desert and the canyons and the mountains, and New York and Los Angeles are fine to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.

“Woody Allen’s vision if New York City,” Grondahl says. “Mine is Moab.” Utah is actually his adopted home; he was born several states away, in a frigid town in North Dakota called Grand Forks—which perhaps explains why he has reported to is job as editorial cartoonist at the Standard-Examiner during the winter months bundled in parka and sweatshirt and overpants and rubber boots and cap and those wool gloves with the missing fingertips.

He grew up not far from an Air Force base—which also perhaps explains why he feels to content now living in Layton suburbia near the end of the runway at Hill Air Force Base. “I’m the guy who calls the base and complains when the planes don’t fly,” he says. “What I like about Utah—it’s got solitude and supersonic entertainment.”

Always doodling the tanks and planes of the military as a boy, he toyed with the idea of becoming a jet pilot—a lost dream for which he is now grateful. His mind wanders too much, he admits, to have kept him safely aloft for long. As near as he can recall, the flair for cartooning dates back to his school days when he drew caricatures of the Beatles. “All the girls liked them,” he says, “and that’s the only way I could get them to speak to me.”

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to Grondahl’s dark place, that “well of pain” every artist is said to have and from which he draws his genius.

“My well of pain? What is my well of pain?” he deadpans, only half kidding. “I think where I pull from is the fact that when I was in school I was always the last one in the race and the one with the lowest grade-point average. I was the last one picked for the team.”

And he remains a nerd, he claims, except his pens are scattered in a mess across his drawing table instead of lined up in a pocket protector in his breast pocket. The beauty of cartooning is that cartoonists can be messy, Grondahl says. They can be slobs and buffoons. They can be buffoons drawing buffoons. They don’t have to go to cocktail parties and make intellectual small talk. While the doctors and lawyers are “playing in the bird bath of life,” the cartoonists are “down in the deep well,” he says.

Grondahl prides himself on being a blue-collar cartoonist. He pokes fun at the everyday guy struggling to control the “yard form hell,” at rabid Jazz fans, at rowdy deer hunters with beer guts and driving monster-tire trucks.

“I put those people in my cartoons more than urban intellectuals because I like them. That’s the part of Utah I feel comfortable with,” he says. Although his deer hunting cartoons may come off as anti-hunting, Grondahl says that doesn’t reflect his philosophy. He hunted for five years or so, he says.

“I finally quit . . . because I realized I might have to shoot something.” He is a contradictory man, Cal Grondahl is. He grew up “sort of anti-war” and stayed in school to avoid going to Vietnam, but he admires “pro-war birds” and often wars fatigues and other military garb. He is an environmentalist who refuses to buy a real Christmas tree, but his drawing style is admittedly “violent.” He doesn’t enjoy conceiving and drawing his cartoons. “But I enjoy it when the pain stops.”

The contradictions shouldn’t be so surprising, taking into consideration what Grondahl does for a living. His job is to make people laugh—and everyone knows of that fine line between comedy and tragedy. Humor hits hardest when it hits where the hurt is.

And make no mistake: Grondahl stirs Utah. As the editorial cartoonist for the Standard-Examiner, he has ruffled more than a few feathers. The Mormon Church-owned Deseret Book store refused to stock his last cartoon book, Marketing Precedes the Miracle. When he previewed some samples of Utah and All That Jazz before a group of Utah booksellers, Signature sales and promotions manager Ron Priddis says, a cartoon about AIDS and condoms met with dead silence.

“He tends to be, you know, right on the edge,” says Priddis. Grondahl seemingly takes controversy and criticism in stride—responding with one of his incomparable metaphors. “You play football,” he shrugs it off, “you’re going to get knocked down, you’re going to see stars, you’re going to lie there with your wind knocked out.”

Grondahl describes himself as a “middle-of-the road confused Mormon.” (His Lutheran parents converted when he was still a boy in North Dakota.) His family moved to Utah during the time he was serving his Mormon mission in New Zealand, and he came here when he returned in 1971.

The Mormon population in North Dakota had been a minority one, so he wasn’t prepared for its influence in Utah. “It’s like living in a monastery in the wilderness and then going to live in the Vatican,” he says. Since Utah is the “base camp” for the Mormon Church, Grondahl sees as part of his role to keep Mormons “humble.” They’re like the Indians against Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, he says. “It’s hard to be humble when you outnumber them.”

If there is an ugly side to Utah, Grondahl says it is in its intolerance. “Utahns are not comfortable with variety . . . in the human experience,” he says. Many don’t value different interpretations of morality, for example, or different ideas of entertainment, he says.

In his nearly 40 years, Grondahl has learned to appreciate variety—it makes great material for a cartoonist—and a few lessons about faith and tolerance. “I sit up on the top of a mountain and I cry because a sunset is so beautiful. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to . . . drag people up there and make them enjoy it too.”