A Life in Words and Doodles: 'New Yorker' Cartoonist and 'Girls' Writer Releases Memoir
Bruce Eric Kaplan has amassed millions of fans for his wry cartoons and his work on Lena Dunham's hit comedy. Now with 'I Was a Child,' his first book, he relives an unusual childhood.
To readers of The New Yorker, he's BEK — a gifted observer of modern human foibles, who signs his cartoons with three boxed initials, piled in the corner like alphabet blocks. To fans of Girls, he's Bruce Eric Kaplan (pictured below), a consulting producer on the hit HBO series and writer of memorable episodes like season four's "Cubbies," in which Lena Dunham's Hannah quits college after her poetry class gangs up on her.
And like Dunham, Kaplan, 50, now counts himself among the ranks of TV writers turned authors, with a new memoir, I Was a Child, set to come out on April 14.
Kaplan is a screenwriting veteran — in addition to Girls, he's also worked on Six Feet Under and Seinfeld — but anyone expecting a sordid tale of Hollywood excess, a la Jerry Stahl's Permanent Midnight, is barking up the wrong tree.
The 193-page volume, published by Blue Rider Press, is light on text and heavy on illustrations, offering readers something akin to a children's book for adults (or is it an adults' book for children?). This is a book you can finish in two subway rides to Brooklyn or a sunny day on Santa Monica Beach. If The Little Prince had crash-landed, instead of in the Sahara, into a middle-class Jewish home in Maplewood, N.J., in the late 1960s, it might feel something like I Was a Child.
You may not be able to finger a Kaplan one-liner on any given episode of Girls, but his New Yorker cartoons are instantly recognizable: He draws squat-bodied figures with alien-like features (oval eyes, no pupils), often seated on living room furniture or walking along a city street and saying things like, "You symbolize everything that's wrong with me."
The drawings in I Was a Child are ever simpler, its pages filled with sketch fragments and doodles of everyday objects (a homemade ashtray, a record player) that spark a formative memory in Kaplan. Flipping through the book can feel intimate at times, as if you're eavesdropping on a therapy session. That's not by accident.
"In many ways, cartooning is my therapy," Kaplan tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I’ve always said they’re like my diaries. It’s thoughts and feelings and things I’ve seen on any particular day.”
A series of squiggles embodies "Hampy," the pet hamster who traumatized Kaplan and his brothers by eating her newborn babies. The cover of the soundtrack to 1964's My Fair Lady, featuring Rex Harrison manipulating Julie Andrews as if she were a marionette, left Kaplan "transfixed and horrified," he recalls. He re-creates the image with a simple line drawing.
And the opening to 1970s Lucille Ball sitcom Here's Lucy, in which a puppet Lucy opens a tiny curtain to reveal the giant face of the real Lucy smiling behind, has also etched itself into Kaplan's consciousness. Why? Kaplan thinks it might offer a poignant metaphor for the human condition.
"We are all just little dolls of ourselves," he writes. "Who occasionally pull back the curtains to reveal the real us."