Joel Pett is well known for his pointed pen, earning a Pulitzer Prize and international acclaim puncturing ripe targets with decidedly inelegant strokes.
But who knew the Lexington Herald-Leader’s editorial cartoonist is also something of a stand-up comedian whose tongue is just as sharp as his pen?
Pett brought a fat black marker, a slide show and his keen liberal wit to Danville’s Community Arts Center on Wednesday, leaving the lunchtime audience laughing throughout his hour-long presentation.
“He was very entertaining and very insightful at the same time,” said John Penick of Danville, who attended with his wife, Mary. “It was great.”
Pett began the session at the easel, sharing his tricks for capturing the essence of every president from Nixon to Obama. He quickly turned Bill Clinton into Saddam Hussein by adding Monica Lewinski’s black beret and a bushy mustache.
“Let’s see, after Clinton came President Gore ...um, yeah,” Pett joked.
Pett said he’s not got Vice President Joe Biden’s caricature down yet but promised to work on it before Biden and whoever plays second fiddle to Mitt Romney come to Centre College for a debate in October.
The son of an Indiana University professor, Pett got his first cartooning job at the Bloomington Herald-Times, which is owned by The Advocate-Messenger’s parent company, Schurz Communications. He decided to pursue the work despite “the worst career advice ever” from his mother, who told him, ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything.’”
“If somebody doesn’t hate it, it’s probably not worth drawing,” Pett said later of his penchant for ruffling feathers, no matter whose they are.
Pett recently returned from a State Department-sponsored diplomatic mission to China where he spoke mostly to students and journalists about freedom of speech and the role of press. Journalism remains an important function, he said, despite the widely held belief that the newspaper industry is in its death throes.
“Newspapers are not going out of business,” Pett said, noting that the Herald-Leader “makes good money” but the paper’s corporate owner, McClatchy News, is bleeding away its resources to satisfy stockholders.
TV stations, radio talkers and Internet bloggers all get “their information from newspaper reporters,” he added.
In Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, Pett said he’s lucky to have “the two best senators for a cartoonist.” But, despite repeated skewerings, Pett said his drawings have little impact on such powerful people, who seem to enjoy even negative attention.
Of McConnell, Pett said, “His entire office is covered with editorial cartoons, half of them mine. Mitch McConnell doesn’t care what I say. Nobody does, really.”
When an audience member asked what it’s like to be “a progressive in such a red state,” Pett offered no apologies for regularly targeting conservatives, Republicans, religious zealots and even local sacred cows like the horse racing industry and Kentucky coach John Calipari with his pen.
“I don’t know what people want, something they agree with all the time?” he said. “I wish we were more liberal. Our little editorial page is all there is.”
Penick, who said he is a fan of Pett’s work, asked the cartoonist, “How do you fertilize your creativity.” The answer was surprisingly straight forward.
“A lot of people think it’s magic, but I read,” Pett responded, “I read. I sleep. I exercise. I concentrate.”