#125. A Conversation with Kali Fontecchio

Jason Anders: So where does your cartoon love stem from?

Kali Fontecchio: As a child, my father would bring home Laserdiscs of all the Disney classics, some Looney Tunes, and even some early work by Pixar- I would watch these for hours on end, which I think was a tactic my mother used to keep me quiet. From watching early Mickey Mouse cartoons I learned invaluable lessons such as: boys wear pants with buttons and fedoras, whereas girls wear pillbox hats with a slightly limp daisy perched on top. This is how one can tell the gender of a cartoon character. I held that notion to heart for many years.

As the years went by I realized it was my only choice for succeeding in life, so I chose it as my permanent profession at age six or so (I did not live up to the whole deal I made with myself, cartoonist/rock star). But the real reason it is a passion comes from an indescribable feeling that is like a gut reaction to something. If someone swung their arm at you, you would duck, and if someone gives me a pen and paper, I draw.
JA: Did attending art school change your perception of what it meant to be a professional cartoonist?

KF: My attitude has definitely changed. I came into Otis pretty cocksure. Growing up in a small town where no one, for the most part, could draw, let alone cartoon-type stuff, I always got a lot of encouragement and compliments as being some sort of amazing creative talent. I usually clung to those statements- for the rest of the time I was the outcast. At Otis I discovered that there are so many talented people in the world, on all different levels in their respective fields. At this point I think I had an identity crisis and slacked off the whole first year at college. It wasn't until the second year I gained speed.
I learned to have discipline, which I most definitely did not possess before. Deadlines and critiques help you understand the real world, and the camaraderie among your fellow students help you understand how our business (the art world, more specifically the animation world) works. Networking is the key. I learned that from the teachers at Otis, and experience as well. Programs come and go, but the ability to work hard and expand your talent by exercising it everyday is essential.

JA: How did you end up in the company of John Kricfalusi and the Spumco gang?

KF: I'll take this opportunity to make a short story long. My friend from high school worked as a DJ at KXLU 88.9 FM Los Angeles. While visiting him there I met another fellow DJ, Maki Tamura, who happened to be friends with the band Deerhoof. After going to one of their shows I ate ice cream with them, and much fun was had. Excited to tell someone that I got to do so, I told the only person I knew at the time who would be jealous, a UCLA student I briefly talked to sometimes online. She recommended a web comic, QuestionableContent.net, that would occasionally mention random obscure bands. She linked me to a specific one about Deerhoof. Out of sheer boredom I returned there every weekday to read and see if he'd mention more bands I had seen or met. Over the years it eventually became a habit, as I had moved on from that sort of music and back to my roots, oldies.
While working (as in surfing the internet) in the Digital Media office at Otis in April 2006, I visited the web comic and clicked on the artist's blog. I actually wasn't very familiar with the whole "blog" world, surprisingly. The post at the top just so happened to be about John K. and Katie Rice, and how he was addicted to their blogs. Once I saw them it was like a revelation! I remember waiting for hours for it to load on my shitty 56k dial-up connection. I got more and more excited as I read through all John's posts, and then when I saw Katie's site I suddenly felt like I had wasted the past two years in college. She was so amazing!  I was in shock and awe, that's the only way I can describe it. Well, May comes, John and Katie put up posts saying that they will be appearing in Santa Monica at the Aero Theater. I bought tickets online immediately. I coaxed my boyfriend at the time to take me there, even though he had never seen or heard of The Ren & Stimpy Show.
I was so nervous because I knew I would get a chance to meet John if I brought a poster for him to sign.  I was beyond nervous- this was my childhood hero. I even had a picture of him from Spin Magazine circa 1998 where he was hiding behind a lamppost with his body missing on the other side of the post, just like a cartoon. It was taped onto the wall next to Bob Dylan and Laurel and Hardy, I think. Well, after the show I dragged my date into the gallery across the street, tons of people were crowded in there like sardines- just as smelly, too. John came in like everyone else and said hi to people as he squished between them to get to the end of the room where his signing table was located. I waited in line with all the other eager nerds, and when it was my turn, I had all these things I was going to say like, "would you come talk at my school?" and such, but I think I just kind of stuttered my name when he asked for whom he should sign the poster for. He remembered my name from the blog, and wrote something on a sheet of paper, I was so out of it. I just grabbed the stuff and got out of there as fast as I could.
Once outside I read the paper, it was an invite to the after-party at his house! I asked my boyfriend if we could go, and he said he doesn't really like parties, and didn't feel like it. I was crushed, utterly dejected. At that point on the way home, I called every number on my cell phone to find someone to go with. Either people were busy, or thought I was crazy, or didn't even remember who I was. I pretty much sulked until falling asleep.

The next morning, I scoured John's blog looking for an email, and eventually I found one he put up a long time ago for people to request caricatures and such. I emailed him and apologized profusely for not attending his soirée. He replied some time later and apologized for being late on returning the message, he was in Canada or something, but he'd like to meet me and see my sketchbook and such. We've been meeting ever since.

The first time we hung out, I remember this pretty vividly, he said "how would you like to meet world famous Uncle Eddie?" I, of course, yelped a nervous, "yes!" I had never previously heard Eddie's voice, having only read his blog, and it was quite the shocker. We met in a very spacious Thai restaurant, kind of swanky, very echoey. John and I sat down, and I could see out the window a very funny man walking with an odd bounce carrying a book. It was Eddie! We were introduced, and Eddie started to laugh, and it echoed and echoed. I had never heard such a loud laugh! I was almost frightened, actually. But then after talking, and much sweating, I had made new friends.
It was not until much later that I met Katie Rice, and I happened to be inebriated for that event, there is photographic evidence of this on Eddie's blog, where Katie and I are lauding Eddie in Mike Fontanelli's cartoon museum/humble abode.

That turned out to be more verbose than I had originally intended, but oh well. It was a turning point in my life, thus it is very important to me.

JA: Many of your influences come from outside of animation- one that stands out is Buster Keaton.

KF: Buster Keaton is one of my heroes. He, to me, sums up what entertainment means; something not everyone can do, something that is funny and inventive, something that affects you and has an impact. Buster does all this to me and I think there is an audience out there that would agree. With much fortune, I grew up in a town with a silent film theater equipped with an original Wurlitzer.
I have seen many silent films, yet Buster stays true in my heart as the most endearing genius. To those who have not heard of him, or have yet to see a film of his, I would recommend starting off with a short, perhaps Hard Luck or The Scarecrow. Those are two of the first shorts I saw, and they turned my world upside down. I have never been able to look at modern films the same way. At age 18 I had become a curmudgeon.

The Scarecrow gave me everything I could ever want from a short film piece. Funny gags and gadgets, funny men, funny animals, a love story, and a happy ending. There is no filler, which I define as the "leftovers" that most films use to get from point A to point B. Instead, Buster gives you something to chew on the whole way through, and so do The Three Stooges. I probably laugh harder at Moe, Larry, and Curly; but Buster inspires and shocks me far more. Hard Luck I could relate to on a personal level, and really feel for Buster.

JAIs anyone doing that kind of comedy today?

KF: Jackie Chan comes to mind, and so does Stephen Chow, in terms of Buster's "spirit of innovation." Hong Kong cinema seems to still understand what the viewer wants. I have seen many good Hong Kong films. There will never be another Buster Keaton, ever again.
 JA:  Which are your favorite Three Stooges shorts?

KF:  I love them!  They Stooge to Conga, maybe?  I'm one of those people who are okay with Shemp, I think he's really good.  Curly is a genius but Shemp is the one who started it all as the older brother.  My favorite Stooges shorts are the ones that have super cartoony gags.  There's one where they're tree doctors and they go to Africa to find a tree to mate with a male tree, and Larry gets his foot caught in an alligator.  In the same short they are trying to cover their tracks so that the Natives don't follow them, so they literally pick their footprints up off the ground and collect them.  I'm a sucker for those visual gags.  1938-1945 are the best shorts they created.

 JA: Your work seems to reflect everything from Harvey Comics to Mary Blair. Does either serve as a source of inspiration for your art?
KF: Yes, they both do, among hundreds of others. Random order of some: E.C. Segar, Harvey Kurtzman, R. Crumb, Mel Crawford, Hawley Pratt, Al White, Frank Frazetta, Sergio Aragones, Dr. Suess, Gustaf Tenggren, Feodor Rojankovsky, Akira Toriyama, Al Hirschfeld, Chris Ware, Gustav Klimt, Yoshitaka Amano, Yoshiro Nightow, Otto Messmer, Milt Gross, Howard Post, and Mary Blair, like you mentioned... there's authors like Kafka that inspire me visually as well, but that's a whole other kind of list.

JA: I recently read your observation of Bob Clampett's short, Baby Bottleneck. What are your thoughts about the director, and are there other shorts of his that stand out in your mind at the moment?
KF: Did you know he went to my school? Yes, he did! In the 30s as a teenager he attended. Quite an alumnus to live up to! He was most definitely my favorite of the directors at Warner Bros. even before I was aware of it! Watching the random packs of Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies that they jumbled on Nickelodeon while growing up, I always was partial to the black and white Clampett cartoons (I don't think they played many of his color ones, at least I don't remember).

His cartoons are extremely "appealing", part of the Nine Old Men's principals, but a lot of people overlook "appeal" as a strong part of everything Clampett ever did.  I don't think he gets a lot of credit for that.  Books mentioning Clampett mostly say the same thing, that he did surrealistic cartoons and typically point to Porky in Wackyland- I think he needs to be reanalyzed in the history books for his animation.

(excerpt from Kali's review of Baby Bottleneck)
The next scene is pure genius, it is so chock-full of ideas that I almost fell off my bed watching this for the first time, every gag built up so well to the next, every pose gained momentum, the movement was so rapid, yet clear! I'm a little lost for words right here. It's a feeling I can't describe! As I was putting together this post, some classmates of mine started to giggle in the background. I had the screen paused each time I took a picture, and the lone frames themselves evoke a pure feeling of joy, pure ecstasy!

Porky & Daffy, Prehistoric Porky, The Sour Puss- but the one that comes to my mind as being a childhood favorite is We, The Animals- Squeak! I always got really excited when that one came on. It had my favorite song at the time, "Nya, nya, nya, nya....". I sang that often to my brother during and after creating mischief. Those gangster mice kill me. All the references were foreign to me, until I grew older, but they were all strung together with a deep-seated joyfulness, whether it was a happy scene or not. That, to me, defines Clampett. Cartoons can make you feel something, Clampett just so happened to convey every emotion, all in one piece, while making you laugh and sing.
JA: Tell me about your own short, Hawaiian Cowboy. I love your design of the characters, there's something very classic and charming about them.

KF: It will forever live in limbo as an unfinished piece, but I learned so much from the process. The task of conception, creating, animating, inking and editing is pretty daunting. I have been so fortunate in the help I received from friends, loved ones and teachers. The whole learning experience was incalculable.
The design definitely should be credited to every early cartoon, and mostly to John Kricfalusi for teaching me the logic in using simplistic characters while learning to animate. It saved me a ton of stress!

JA: If you had to define your work with one word, what would it be?

KF: Lyrical!
 JA: You joined John and Eddie to record commentary tracks for the first volume of the Popeye DVD collection; which shorts did you record commentaries for that didn't make it on the discs?  Also, do you have a favorite Popeye short?

KF: I think it was Never Kick a Woman and Big Chief Ugh-A-Mugh-Ugh. It is pretty hard to pick just one short, I would still have to go with Goonland. The endearing plot of a son looking for his long lost Pappy, the wonderful Goon song, the silly walks, and the dramatic film-strip breakage ending. So well rounded, I wish I had seen it as a kid! I probably would have had a baby heart-attack.
JA: You are obviously a huge fan of Fleischer's work; What are your thoughts on his other cartoons like Betty Boop and Koko the Clown?

KF: I remember when I was eighteen my friend had just bought a used copy of the Betty Boop video tape set.  I literally sat indoors for like three days watching them all in a row. Immediately the music had me captivated, and the way things were moving, everything was fun and quite refreshing. They epitomize fun in every way, well the early ones do, pre-code mostly. Everything is alive and based around music. I could see how well this worked for people of the Depression era, escaping their reality to go see these pictures, they have it all.
Minnie the Moocher gives me chills. When I think about the Betty Boop cartoons I usually visualize either that short, or Barnacle Bill, Swing You Sinners, Dizzy Red Riding Hood, and Bimbo's Initiation. Those are probably five of the best cartoons of that era, in my opinion. Grim Natwick animated the ending of Bimbo's Initiation, and that really cool scene of a three-quarter walk cycle of ghouls in Swing You Sinners, among other things. He did some of his most amazing work with the Fleischers, and then went on to doing near-realism for Disney on Snow White. When I saw all of his doodles from that period at the Animation Archive, I was in awe.
JA: By the way, I totally love your Maude Macher comics!

KF: Thank you! I have always kind of had her in my mind, mostly because she is pretty much the vision I had of myself as a child. I have come up with a bunch of liner notes and writings in my sketchbooks about her. I plan on basing her actual situations off a friend of mine, Sean Batton, who is a music and film aficionado from that period.
JA: What are your favorite comic creations?

KF: Popeye is probably my favorite comic to read, it is hilarious and has cool drawings, a double-whammy! Visually, I like a ton; but recently I have been admiring Hot Stuff and Little Audrey. Like the other small Harvey characters, they are all pretty much the same design, but they are so cute and the pictures so nice that I don't really care.
JA: We talked about DVD commentaries earlier, you also recorded one for a recent Looney Tunes collection; who is your favorite Warner Bros. director, and what short do you feel is that director at their best?

KF: Well, I am of course partial to the handsome Robert E. Clampett. He is most definitely at his best when he is allowed to do as he pleases. I think Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarves and Baby Bottleneck are good examples of Clampett in his element. I chose those two for their different types: the first being more musically oriented, and has a big rubber hose influence; the second, because of the amazing acting and exponential intensity of Porky and Daffy.
JA: What are your thoughts on the current animation coming from major studios?

KF: I actually prefer the shorts like Presto to the feature films, in the end. I wish they would do more shorts instead. Wall-E was a breath of fresh air, in that there weren't many annoying and famous actors who can't do good cartoon voices. They relied mostly on computer sound effects to create the robot sounds, which I liked. The overall effect the film had on me was depression.

JA: How about television animation?

KF: Perhaps Mighty B for the pretty backgrounds. For live action I enjoy watching What Not To Wear and Bridezillas- they're great because it's all women who are super crazy, so it's kind of like watching caricatures of real people.
JA: Being that you're a musician as well, what kind of music inspires you?

KF: My biggest influences are: The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Carter Family, Sons of the Pioneers, Hank Williams, Skeeter Davis, Patsy Cline, Neutral Milk Hotel, and The Magnetic Fields. I am kind of all over the place. The first album that I spent my own money for would have to be Björk's Post. It was for the sole purpose that after seeing John's video for her, I thought that it might have art by him on the inside! But then after listening to it, I fell in love with her weird sound, thanks to John!
JA: Who's your favorite cereal box character?

KF: My favorite cereal box character?! Holy crap! This is the hardest... I love so many, and the tasty treats they keep for me in their bags o' cereal.  Hmm...the original Tony the Tiger! Yes.

Follow Kali on Twitter: @KaliKazoo 
Subscribe to Kali's blog: Old Men with Kazoos and Beating Drums