A night with political cartoonist Joel Pett

Jessica Kiehnau

Joel Pett, a political cartoonist for the Lexington Herald-Leader and Pulitzer Prize winner, visited Barnes & Noble on Thursday, Oct. 19 to give a talk.

The WKU Libraries hosted the event which was free for everyone.

Pett was born in Bloomington, Indiana, but moved to Nigeria when he was a boy. He traveled extensively throughout his life, living in 30 countries on five continents across the globe.

Now working at the Herald-Leader, he said he’s honored to have won numerous awards, such as the Global Media Award in 1995, the Robert Kennedy Journalism Award in 1999, a Pulitzer for his editorial cartoons in 2000 and was a finalist for the award in 1989, 1998 and 2001.

His cartoons have been in notable newspapers, including USA Today, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and Newsweek. Pett has held U.S. State department workshops and has explored the world of stand-up comedy.

Despite Pett’s achievement, the night wasn’t very formal at all. Instead, it felt more like a comedy routine. The night started off with jokes, and Pett greeted customers as they passed by.

“When I retire, I’m going to be a really creepy Walmart greeter,” Pett said.

While Pett joked around, he also drew caricatures of many famous politicians and presidents, such as Ronald Reagan, Sr. George Bush, Bill Clinton, George Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

“A caricature isn’t meant to be complimentary,” Pett said as he drew Trump’s hair. “The purpose is to take someone’s worst feature and… make it worse.”

That isn’t the only wisdom Pett had.

“Sometimes, a caricature ends up becoming more like the person, rather than the actual person themselves,” Pett said. “Also, only draw people like this when you don’t like them.”

While Joel Pett did entertain the crowd, he also gave them a bit of insight into the actual workings of a political cartoonist. He said the career seems to be dropping off due to current culture.

“It’s the great American art form, however, it’s basically dead,” Pett said. “The future for cartoonists is hopeless. There’s no way people will ever get corporate sponsorships anymore since anyone can whip something up and send it out through the internet. It’s a shame.”

While he said the future does seem grim for the career, Pett gave the audience a small glimpse into his working process.

“Anger moves me,” Pett said. “Humanity makes me furious.”

He said he reads, listens and watches the news every day, gathering any information he can use in a comic.

“Really, getting political material to make fun of is not that hard. It shouldn’t be made this easy,” Pett said. Afterwards, he makes a list of ideas, stares at it and most importantly, plays around with different concepts until he can produce a cartoon.

Pett said he doesn’t always get away with his controversial opinions. Many times, he’s been bombarded with hate mail, angry phone calls, threatening faxes and even a protest. Pett has received one death threat, but the situation was quickly handled before it got out of control.

One of his most controversial cartoons involved the current Governor of Kentucky, Matt Bevin, back in 2015. The cartoon depicted Bevin cowering under a desk, while an attendant says to him, “Sir, they’re not terrorists…they’re your own adopted kids!”

Furious over the cartoon, Bevin called Pett a racist. While Pett didn’t mean for that message or to attack the children, he explained that he was only condemning Bevin’s stance on the Syrian refugee crisis.

“As political cartoonists, it’s on us to be our own judges to decide if something we draw is okay or not. However, I believe the worse something is, the more you need to talk about it,” Pett said.

Reporter Jessica Kiehnau can be reached by her Twitter @JessKeyno