Not everyone you see working in entertainment was born with a silver spoon in their mouth. In fact, Guy Gilchrist had quite the opposite upbringing. But when you have a parental unit who has more love in their heart than they know what to do with, you never really see yourself as the broke kid. See, Guy’s late mother made sure they were rich in other ways and that in turn led him down an artistic path.
When other kids were flocking to the theater to see Peter Pan, Guy’s mother couldn’t afford the tickets. Instead, she created a far fonder memory for him to hold onto. “She made me feel like I was the luckiest kid in the world. She would tell me that even after we saw the movie if we had the money, we would want to have that $.19 Peter Pan Golden Book so that we could have the movie forever and not just the hour or so in the theater! So we would read and draw them together!”
When she wasn’t encouraging him to read and draw, she was working hard at a diner that sat a couple of blocks down from an appliance store. One Guy would frequent often when his favorite, The Woody Woodpecker Show, was on. He’d sit and watch the world of Walter Lantz’s characters through the window and one day decided to write his animation hero.
“I sent him a bunch of my best artwork when I was 10-years-old and he wrote me back! He told me that I had a lot of talent for a 10-year-old boy and that if I never quit and just kept trying as hard as I was that someday I was going to be a famous cartoonist! It meant the world to me! I was a nothing and the most famous cartoonist on TV believed in me.”
Guy noted to me that he could write a novel about just those two influences alone, and one day we should be so lucky as Guy Gilchrist is one of the best as his story not only includes working with the Jim Henson but having a long-running comic strip, and so much more that we’ll just get into it now.
Kendra: Today it’s so easy for people to “get noticed” thanks to the internet. One viral moment and their life can change in an instant. But back in the early ’80s, you had to put in the work! What were you doing up until you were 24 to put your talents ahead of the rest and land in Jim Henson’s universe?
Guy Gilchrist: Really, the advice that Walter Lantz gave me and the advice that I give everyone is to keep on trying and never give up! Keep on getting better and better and better, promote yourself, try never to think you’re great and plateau wherever you are, and just keep on going and going and going! No one except you knows the fire in your heart! I was working for weekly reader books, doing a funny animal comic, and the great Mort Walker saw my work and suggested my name to King Features to try out for The Muppets! When I got my shot, I did my very best and then with encouragement from Bill Yates, the editor in chief of King, I just kept on going for almost a year drawing drawing drawing for free until Jim hired me!
Kendra: I’ve been freelance writing for a decade and I’m like, am I ready for something else? So I can’t imagine spending over two decades with something but I mean, your thing was creating a comic strip – which is awesome. Did you feel like you were losing a loved one when you decided to hang it up and retire from doing Nancy? Did you go through a period of mourning at all for her and the other characters?
Guy Gilchrist: No, not at all. I have worked on so many different projects throughout the years and learned how to focus on those particular characters and those stories for the time that I am creating them. Each and every character that I have worked on or created has a very special place in my heart and I can go back there whenever I want to in my mind.
But, you must also always look forward. Always look to tomorrow! Look at those blank pieces of paper in front of you and start making something of them! I worked on Nancy for almost 23 years and I had just about said all of the things that I wanted to say! And then, it was on to other things!
Kendra: Growing up, the Sunday paper was my world. Circling toys I wanted and would never get, reading the youth section, and of course taking in the colorful comics. What I’ve always loved about those were how comedically simple they were. In just a few frames, such hilarity was created. Sometimes even without words. Do you feel as if comic strip artists and writers are next level when it comes to comedy because of the way they can own humor with such ease?
Guy Gilchrist: I think that it takes a special sort of person to have a deadline every single day for many many years and to fill up that spot with something of substance. It’s like the story that never ends. As far as pantomime comedy, Bill Yates my very first editor at King Features, and Mort Walker instilled in me the idea that the absolute best gag had no words at all! So they said take it from there. I’m a big fan of Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Laurel and Hardy. I used to give myself a test every once in a while through all of those years of drawing comics, to write full weeks where the characters said nothing. I think it’s a good test for us! It also very much helps the worldwide popularity of the characters! Those sorts of jokes don’t need any translation! And it’s always nice to bring the world together in a smile
Kendra: Your career spans across three, four decades. So you’ve gotten to see firsthand the animation evolution that’s taken us from pen and paper to digital. Do you feel like any of the charm of old school animation has been lost to technology or are you in favor of always looking forward?
Guy Gilchrist: Yes, but then again, I am so old school! But there will never be the beauty of Pinocchio, those very early Mickey Mouse cartoons, or Woody Woodpecker ever again…you know of course he is my favorite!
Also, I think CGI has taken out a lot of the humanity of animating in live-action! I was just having a chat with some special effects guys talking about Son of Kong and how incredibly beautiful Ray Harryhausen’s work was on all of those incredible movies that he made. Jim Henson and all of the team felt the same way. CGI is a really cool thing and you can do amazing things with it but you have to be careful to not lose the humanity.
Kendra: Again, you’ve been at this for some time and are a legend when it comes to animation. I mean…Muppet Babies, Looney Tunes, TMNT, even Minnie Mouse. Those are all iconic cartoon characters, icons in their own right. So for you, which current character, other than Spongebob because he’s newish but still 20 years old, do you feel will one day sit alongside all those characters you’ve worked with?
Guy Gilchrist: SpongeBob is great! I think that every generation has certain characters that as they are growing up touch their hearts. I don’t know if it’s up to me to say! You are probably in a better place at your age to comment on that!
Kendra: On top of cartoons, you also have worked on children’s books, have your Guy’s Pops business, and are even a musician. Busy? Yes. But on the musical side of things, do you see any correlation between crafting a song and say a comic strip?
Guy Gilchrist: Absolutely, they are entwined! It all comes down to a story that will connect with someone! That’s what storytelling is all about! They aren’t my characters or my songs after I release them to the public! They are yours! That is my hope always.
Kendra: Lastly, can you let the people know what you have going on as we close out 2019 and head into 2020? New music, new animation, conventions – let them know!
Guy Gilchrist: At present, I am working on three different books; one has to do with teaching children about health, one is a really fun story about dragons and griffins and all sorts of crazy fantasy characters, and the other is about a superhero who helps children with problems of bullying, shyness, fitting in, and all of the things that we go through, all of our insecurities of our childhood.
Last year, I created a brand new universe for a company called Backpack Buddha with a wonderful character named Buddha Bear! The books are meditation guides and also adventures and there is even a plush! For every product that is sold a child in the impoverished region of Nepal gets pencils and paper so that they can go to school! I urge everyone to visit Backpack Buddha to check that out! I am also touring doing comic cons and doing a lot of screenings and motivational speaking as I have always done when time permitted.
After almost 40 years of comic strips and television and daily deadlines, I am embracing the time that I have to spend with all of the kids who grew up with my stuff and their children and even their children’s children! It is the best time of my life!