The ‘Bizarro’ Mind of Dan Piraro

Ed Oser
News Reporter
Oregon Daily Emerald
University of Oregon, Eugene

“The Bizarro Baloney Show” hit the university Monday, bombarding audience members with obscene puppetry, songs, cartoons and videos, sending the audience in Columbia Hall into frequent fits of raucous laughter and ending in a standing ovation.

Dan Piraro, the author of the “Bizarro” comic, was at the center of it.

But in an interview with the Emerald, soft-spoken yet sharp-tongued Piraro drove around campus and described his life. In an ultimately futile 30-minute trip to find wireless Internet to upload his most recent cartoons for printing on the world’s funny pages, Piraro alternated between the absurd and the poignant, reflecting on art, advertising, selling out and redemption.

The Eugene Veg Education Network and the Survival Center invited Piraro to perform in Eugene as part of an eight-show, 12-day West Coast tour. Piraro called the show “21st century vaudeville – 90 minutes of things I thought would be fun to do in front of strangers.”

Aside from drawing “Bizarro,” an award-winning cartoon that Piraro said appears daily in more than 250 publications worldwide, he also performs the show throughout the nation and promotes his new book “Bizarro and Other Strange Manifestations of the Art of Dan Piraro,” a retrospective of his career.

Much of the show was dedicated to promoting veganism. Piraro, a strict vegan, donated all profits from the show to the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, a shelter in New York that Piraro said rescues animals from abuse in the food service industry and allows them to live as they would in nature.

With his daughter Killian, who is in her 20s, playing violin in the background, Piraro said, “I was raised as a guiltless, blissful meat-eater. I thought vegans were hippies with too much time on their hands.”

Piraro said after visiting an animal shelter, he saw animals as sentient, emotional beings and began researching the meat industry’s harm to the environment. A cartoon video he showed argued that humans did not evolve to eat meat, citing humans’ teeth structures, digestive processes and inability to catch prey as evidence. After the cartoon, Piraro argued that although doctors say meat is healthy, they’ve also said in the past that smoking cigarettes is healthy.

Also during the show, Piraro read some of the hate mail he has received over the years. One asked: “Does freedom of the press mean freedom to attack our most sacred beliefs?” to which Piraro shouted “Yes!”

Hate mailers argued in favor of Fox News’ impartiality and against Darwinian evolution and global warming. One simply told Piraro to keep his “fag-loving, vegan, pussy cartoon out of papers in America’s heartland.”

During one part of the show, Piraro affixed a puppet’s body around his neck, showing his head with a small body to portray Humpty Dumpty. He then sang a song about falling in love with a plate of eggs benedict and wanting to die from guilt after devouring it.

“I just think life is absurd – I just feel like a documentarian half the time,” Piraro said.

Piraro’s journey from childhood in Tulsa, Okla., to singing on stage in Eugene dressed as surrealist artist Frida Kahlo has been unusual. A self-described “recovering Catholic,” Piraro grew up in a religious household and, he said in an interview, rebelled by singing in a punk band. After high school, Piraro went to Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., on a scholarship to study fine art but dropped out after one semester. During the show, he said he doesn’t recommend that everyone drop out, but it helped him realize that he had much to learn.

He married in the late 1970s at age 21 and moved to Dallas. When he had his first daughter at age 23, he needed money, he said, so he took a job drawing print advertisements. Piraro drew advertisements for, among other companies, Frito Lay, Taco Bell and American Airlines from the early 1980s until 1993.

“I would never recommend anyone get into advertising,” Piraro said. “It’s the classic artistic prostitution.”

Piraro called the advertising business a fast-moving, dog-eat-dog world, where “you can hit home runs your entire career, but if you strike out once you get fired.”

“You’re so f****** miserable; it’s completely not worth it,” Piraro said. “Ninety-nine percent of everything you sell is either garbage or poison.”

During this period, he began drawing cartoons, and after years of rejection letters, Bizarro was first syndicated in 1986. While Bizarro picked up in newspapers, Piraro’s marriage crumbled. In the early 1990s, he said, when his daughters were 10 and 15 years old, his wife and he divorced. He moved from their duplex into an artist’s loft in Dallas and threw himself into the cartoon. By 1993, he could finally support himself, his ex-wife and his daughters through cartooning alone, and he quit the advertising business.

“I’d much rather be a poor artist than a wealthy attorney or accountant,” Piraro said. “You spend so many hours at your career, and if you don’t like it you’re f*****. No amount of money is worth loathing getting out of bed in the morning.”

After his marriage ended, Piraro said he traveled and lived the way he wanted to live for the first time in his life. As the cartoon grew, he moved to Manhattan, NY, but he maintained a healthy relationship with his children, he said. He married again, and now tours with his wife, Ashley Smith, and his daughter Killian Piraro.

Killian was the only other person on stage during the show Monday.

“We’re good friends,” said Killian, who is studying for a master’s degree in graphic novels. “We’d probably kill each other if we weren’t.”