Artist and comedian Josh Cicci, interviewed by Aleathia Drehmer for PRATE. Mostly self trained, Joshua is a published artist/illustrator. His work has been featured in the Connection newspaper and you can see “The Prickly Pair” comic strip running monthly in the Tubac Villager.
AD: What were your favorite cartoons and comics as a kid? What really planted the bug in you to want to start drawing?
Josh Cicci: I can’t recall the exact age, but when I was about 6 or 7ish I cut the tips of my two middle fingers off on a family camping trip (funny story, you had taught me earlier in the week or so what the middle fingers mean, when we found a carved-wooden middle-finger by meme’s shed).
I was practicing them and shoving them in between the crux of a flimsy wooden folding stool, and boom. So while I was laid-up my grandmother whom we called “Meme,” brought me some Carl Barks drawn Uncle Scrooge/Donald Duck comic books. This began a love-affair with 3 things, cartoons, the Barks/Disney style in particular, comic books as literature, and ducks. Then I stumbled upon Hanna Barbera cartoons. That was it for me, the Flintstones, Yogi Bear, loved Quick-Draw-McGraw (he lived in the desert like me!), Scooby-Doo was awesome stressful dramatic television theatre. The progression was natural classic Looney-Tunes/Warner Brothers, then the Jay Ward stuff like Rocky & Bullwinkle, Dudley & Snidley, Prof. Peabody, a lot of my humor comes from that stuff. Soon after that it was Marvel & DC comic books. But Charles Schultz, Walt Kelly, Bill Waterson, Robert Crumb, MAD Magazine, I could name drop for hours. I find cartoons to be a very safe and comforting aesthetic.
AD: How old were you when drawing was something you HAD to do rather than wanted to do?
JC: Well in one way I suppose since other people knew I could draw. As a kid I was encouraged to draw, for fun, but also distraction. I drew as a defense mechanism, not just in a heavy psychological sense, but also literally. I went to some pretty rough public schools in CT and NY, so along with my humor I used my artistic abilities to keep from having to fight. Young men are extremely primal animals so you must quickly identify how you are useful to the pack, it is this that makes kids targets or not, anyway I drew to amuse them. I could not only make the joke about the teacher but I could draw him/her in a compromising position. The down-side to being a dog with a trick is having to do the trick. I’d get to be a vending machine. What always struck me, even by like 2nd grade was kids would take an awesome drawing of Daffy Duck by Chuck Jones and tell me to draw it exactly. Like this:
“Can you draw this?”
“But you already have that picture.”
As for it being a chore, or job, luckily I haven’t been in that place yet. I still love it, I leave all my deadlines for the last minute, sadly that’s my m.o. but I still love it. In some ways I wish a jock would walk up to me now in a diner and have me draw the Raider’s logo for him.
AD: Did you ever take art classes?
JC: None formally. Just in public school like the rest of us. I took a cartooning class at Pima Community College when I was just out of high school. I took it because it was taught by a local cartoonist named Joe Forkan, who now teaches at CSU Fullerton, he had a strip in the Tucson Weekly called ‘Staggering Heights”, it was really cool. After like the second day he asked why I was taking the class with my skill set, I had a strip in the Pima Aztec at the time, I said I wanted to meet him and have permission to sit and doodle for 2 hours a day, I was still looking for ways to avoid adulthood. He introduced me to Max Cannon, creator of the hilarious “Red Meat”, and gave me an A for the class and I just hung out and drew. That was about it. Otherwise I studied along peers and masters—friends and family such as yourself. I had friends named Chris Berritta & Aubrey Taylor in 5th/6th grade we did comic books together, I admired their styles. After high school I hung with a lot of Tucson graffiti writers alongside my good friend Jerry Wagner, all a huge influence.
AD: Your work has a very playful, almost child-like quality to it. Is this intentional?
JC: In as much as it is what I mean to do. Otherwise, it’s just the style I see things in. I don’t see a landscape or a still-life, I see bears wearing shirts, and very bright colors. And again cartoons and comic books have been very integral to my life and development. I think that’s what society as a whole doesn’t get about hobbies. Individually we all understand that people need a non-work task that they enjoy getting lost in, but as a whole culture we make assumptions about these hobbies. Comic-book “nerds” (see I’m doing it, but we’re nerds, gamers are geeks, there are so many distinctions) didn’t wake up one day and say I am going to spend hours and dollars on this thing now, like checking out a new TV show. We are invested in this medium from a long time back. It reminds us of both the joy of our childhoods and the pain. Those child-like, bright, loud cartoons provided the foot-powered Mystery Machine out of there. Now they provide the time machine back.
AD: You have a comic strip called “The Prickly Pair”. Can you tell us where that is published at and how it came to be? How many years has it been running?
JC: “The Prickly Pair” (which is a play on words, here in the Sonoran Desert we call the common “paddle-cactus” the prickly pear because of the little pink fruit that blooms on them) runs in the Tubac Villager and just celebrated one year in December. The Villager’s publisher is Joseph Birkett, he has been a dear friend of mine for almost 15 years. He is a very talented artist who has served not only as an influence on my work but also as a mentor in most aspects of my art. His mother Maggie Milinovitch publishes the Connection out of Arivaca AZ, where I also learned many things from artist C. Hues whose work is phenomenal. Joe also published the Connection for a time, I had done covers for it and comics here and there, stuff I want to get online eventually. So he asked me last year to do it, and we did it all official like and he pays me, so I’ve been grateful he nudged me into it. He’s always been very encouraging. The Villager will be putting the archive of 2010 on their website soon.
AD: Recently you had a booth at the Street Fair in Tucson where you sold original pieces of art and prints. Was this the first time you have done this sort of thing? What did you learn from the whole experience?
JC: This was the very first time yes. I had only been painting on this scale for a little more than a year. But yeah we had never done a craft fair before. I feel that my style of art is conducive to that environment. It is simple and child-like, and “cute” so I don’t have any delusions in regards to what I make and who my potential audience is. I have good artist-friends in the Tucson community and I might balk at the idea of them setting up in a church parking lot, some art is to be appreciated in a gallery some on a 7 year olds bathroom wall. My wife Andrea was a whirlwind, just got everything going all along the way. She runs my website, and conducts business, which I could never do, and she pretty much learned from top to bottom how to facilitate a booth at a craft fair, so now we can do that. I learned that you can’t take anything personally. I didn’t hear any negative comments, but I did have something very precious to me in bins on 4th avenue for sale, so that is a little chapping.
AD: As I know very well, growing up in our family was a series of comedic duels to see who was funnier than the other. I remember you being naturally comical and quick of wit. Do you think this was the stepping stone for you to get into stand-up and improvisational comedy?
JC: Absolutely. No doubt. I was only trying to get my grandfather/father/and uncles to laugh from the time I could speak, especially hanging around the restaurant in Elmira around all of them. I loved to see my mother and grandmothers laugh. I liked making you laugh, and Jerica was a particularly good “get” especially early on. I was always blessed to be around funny people that appreciated the humor in life. Individually and as a family we have faced a lot of tragedy and always managed to laugh at it all.
AD: You have performed with some heavy hitters of comedy. Can you tell us about the highlights of those experiences and what you took away from them that affected the way you looked at not only comedy, but about the craft of collaboration?
JC: Well that is an interesting dichotomy, I perform both stand-up comedy and improvisational comedy. stand-up is a very solitary experience. You succeed or fail on your own. If I get up and tell jokes that I wrote and no one laughs I can only blame myself. If I am doing improv with 2 or 3 other people there is a lot of trust and reliance happening. When I ask “is that an elephant in your pocket?” and you say no, the scene is dead and it doesn’t matter how confidant I am, without your help we will fail. As far as the big names I’ve performed with, every time it was an amazing experience. Lewis Black in particular had great words for all of us, thanking us for being brave enough to do college-comedy. He was gracious when he declined to come to the party, he said “I’m too old for that shit,” but Demetri Martin and David Cross (comedians love to name drop it’s all we have) both came and hung out with us, both very great to talk to. Bobby Moynihan who I met when he was in the UCB touring company and is now a featured player on SNL, is a fantastic guy, see comedians of any kind are very competitive people yet we all know what it’s like to be heckled or to “bomb” so while we keep a safe distance we have a kindred spirit. That is why any comedian that has “made-it,” if they don’t turn into a total jerk from all the fame, they are really cool people, they realize how lucky they are, and someone like Lewis Black knows that no matter how well I do opening up for him I’m not a threat to him. But I love to collaborate on stage. Yeah I’ve performed on the bill with some “names” but the best people I have worked with no one knows yet. I performed with Comedy Corner at the University of Arizona for years (they are the longest running sketch comedy college group in the country) and I always tried to encourage the new incoming kids. I’ve had directors chide me for being too easy, I would’ve let anyone in the group, because you don’t get funny staying home watching Scary Movie 3 and telling jokes to your cat. I’ve met so many kids who say “but my friends thought that was funny,” and your mom thinks you are very handsome. You haven’t learned you’re funny until you make a drunk a-hole who is mad the bar turned off the game for an open-mic comedy night, laugh. Then you know.
AD: Who have been your biggest comedic influences? Who would you love to do improve with that you have not already?
JC: Wow, well my personal hero is Bill Murray. I don’t know that I’d like to perform with him, I’d hate for either of us to dislike each other. Otherwise I’d love to do improv with Tina Fey or Rachel Dratch, but honestly I’d just love to be able to perform with the people I did years ago. I don’t want to name their names because I would leave people out and feel like a jerk. But I have friends at Second City, Improv Olympic, the Groundlings. I have very good buddies who have a group call The Guys From The Internet (“they’re already in your house!”), I have performed with all of them, some of them for years, and I would love a chance to play with them again. As for influences like I said earlier on both sides of my family I had people who really appreciated good comedy, and they let me watch whatever from an early age, so I absorbed everything, I figured if it could make my grandfather laugh, it was funny and I should remember it. I wouldn’t have the comedic timing/style I have if not for the following: Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Peter Sellers, Steve Martin, Monty Python, the Not Ready For Prime-Time Players, the Peanuts and Daffy Duck.
AD: Music has been a large part of your life and I know that you have participated in some bands and written some songs. Could you delve into these adventures for us? Do you still perform?
JC: Music has been a big part of my life, but mostly as a fan. I have been in some bands, but to be honest only because of my charisma. I can get up in front of people and entertain. I was never in because of any talent. I did teach myself the guitar over the years to entertain myself. I do still perform from time to time because I have very talented friends kind enough to invite me to. I was in a very fun band that enjoyed some fans and local “fame.” We were called the Jack Acid Society which comes from a McCarthy-Era comic book by Pogo creator Walt Kelly. The best joke in the book is “what does the J.A.S. stand-for?” ‘I’ll tell you one thing we won’t stand for much!” We formed just after high school, none of us very good at our instruments, but we did have our “leader” Thoreau Smiley who is and was a fantastic song-writer who seemingly had an endless supply of material. So we played awesome covers but had a lot of original material which impressed folks because of our age. We were “adopted” by a small artist community in the mountains of southern AZ called Arivaca. They just loved us and treated us very well, very encouraging. So we played for hippies, and cowboys and very intense bikers, who just thought we were hilarious. We got payed in drugs a lot, which was fun for a bunch of 20 year old kids. We did get to record on a few occasions. We’ve been “flashed” many times. We used to do covers of classic hip-hop songs seriously years before it ever occurred to signed bands to. I’d get into yelling matches with audience members. We had a very punk-rock vibe due to our attitude and skill sets, but we were playing the Beatles and Bob Dylan and They Might Be Giants. We loved the Violent Femmes, we were very “angsty” but you couldn’t tell until you listened to the words. The music was always “up” and fast, we were bored by what later became “emo-rock,” it was just whiney and boring, fun, fun was the thing. We did a 15 minute musical version of Moby Dick, all original songs, it was a huge local hit. we still get asked to do it. I need to get it online, but all I know how to do is set the VHS tape next to my computer and hope they work it out on their own.
AD: What music really speaks to the whole experience of your life thus far? What is your go to tunes when everything just isn’t going your way?
JC: That is easy, Bob Dylan, hands down. If I am having a personal issue there is a song or album that will help, always. I am just in awe of what he can do and say, and the path his life and career has taken. He wrote Hard Rain when he was 19 years old, it’s just amazing to me, I was trying to figure out how to make Ramen taste better with powdered mustard, so yeah I like Bob. I have seen him live nearly 20 times, 18 I think.
AD: In recent years you have had some bouts with physical illness that have challenged you and yet, you still keep moving forward? Does your art help you with this?
JC: Yes it has. Music/Art/Comedy has kept me from becoming very depressed, which is easy for anyone to do. I don’t care how a person feels about depression, I’ve met people who think it’s a crock, and while I believe in being positive, human beings are prone to sadness. And it’s ironic and kind of strange that this ability to ponder the meaning or meaninglessness of life that makes us depressed to the point of paralysis it is also the reason we create. Literally though I had a lot of free time at home resting, so I just dove into drawing and painting. It has saved me many times.
AD: How has this huge change in your life changed the way you approach art, music and comedy?
JC: Twice in the last year and a half I almost died. Not to be overly dramatic, but both times I had doctors look me in the eye and asked how I was alive and did I know that I shouldn’t be awake or breathing, in a coma at best. When I was diagnosed with diabetes my blood-sugar was so high that there was almost no “blood” in my blood, it was just syrup. 5 months before that I had to have 6 pints of blood put in me, I had less than a third of the blood a human needs to not go brain dead. My answer was always “I have too much to do to die, Coma? I should be so lucky, who wouldn’t enjoy a nice nap,” they always just stared, comedy and medicine don’t go together, that was how I realized Scrubs was not a documentary. So these experiences have given me even more gratitude and appreciation for life. I am thankful that I am still able to create and that people enjoy it. That is also why I do these childlike pieces, I like kids, I envy their place in the universe and I think they get it right more often than any adult. Children spend their lives trying to figure out as much as they can about our world and emotions, and adults spend their lives burying what they have learned, for various reasons. So I try and appreciate life like a child would.
AD: I have heard around that you are considering writing a memoir that chronicles your journey with Crohn’s Disease and amateur comedy as well as a memoir that outlines your life according to Dylan albums. Where do you find the time to work all of this in and how far along are you with these projects? What do you hope to achieve by writing them?
JC: I don’t have the time, well I didn’t anyway. I was recently laid-off from my day-job in social work, which was sad but a blessing. I hope I will have the time to create. But I have a mind that never stops and I have ADD, so I have a hundred projects going at any minute, which sucks because it takes me forever to finish anything, but now that people are buying my art it compels me to meet deadlines and honor contracts, you know grown-up stuff. I just want to have fun writing them and maybe learn more about myself, and maybe share that with others. I have cousins and a niece that I would like to share my experiences with, I want my own children someday, I look back on all the loved ones I’ve lost and feel like a dumb-ass for not documenting their lives and experiences. We think we’ll be around forever so we don’t turn on the camera or voice-recorder, or even write down stories our grandmothers tell about their lives. So it’s out of the vanity of not wanting to be forgotten that I believe motivates artists to create, that and chicks.
AD: Do you have any websites or upcoming gigs that folks should know about so they can experience the wonder of Josh Cicci?
JC: Yes, joshcicci.com is where my site is and purchases can be made there. I do commissions of any kind, I don’t say no, I take it all as an exciting challenge. Josh Cicci Designs has a fan page on Facebook where we give away prints all the time. I perform stand-up almost monthly and am in a new improv group called KLAU! so nothing booked right now but folks in Tucson can check out my Facebook page to get updates of gigs. So even if a person can’t afford to buy a piece they can still drop me a line, I love to talk ideas and always negotiate.