Gene Weingarten on the character that could have killed Doonesbury but didn't.

About Garry Trudeau's comic strip.
Oct. 27 2010 10:10 AM

Mr. Butts

Gene Weingarten on the character that could have killed Doonesbury but didn't.

Slate and have compiled a list of Doonesbury's 200 greatest moments. Read David Plotz's interview with Garry Trudeau. See Slate's complete coverage of Doonesbury's 40th anniversary.


My favorite Doonesbury character is Mr. Butts, the cheerful, chubby-cheeked, tobacco-hawking talking cigarette—not because he was the strip's best character, which he wasn't, but because of something else that he wasn't: the beginning of the end.

Most comic strips have a short creative arc. The cartoonist runs out of original ideas pretty early and begins to repeat himself until the strip becomes formulaic. The tipping point often is an obvious pratfall: an improbable plot development arising from creative desperation. In movies, this is called "jumping the shark." In comics, let's call it "marrying Irving," after the disastrous cave-in that so clearly presaged the end of Cathy.

The phenomenon often involves a tip toward the surreal. Even before there was an Irving, Dick Tracy shamefully married him in the early 1960s when Chester Gould sent his detective to … the moon. There, Tracy met a race of moonlings. The strip never recovered its dignity.

Mr. Butts arose in 1989 as a bad dream—the sellout nightmare of self-loathing rookie ad man Michael Doonesbury. So far, so good. (See the dream strip here.) But when Mr. Butts began to interact with other characters, I thought "uh oh."

Garry Trudeau had dabbled before in fantasy: Early on, Zonker talked to his plants, and they talked back. Weird roommate Bernie did science experiments that briefly turned him into a werewolf. Later, newsman Roland Hedley reported from amid the fizzling synapses of Ronald Reagan's brain. But Mr. Butts was different. He was the first inanimate object to come alive, a la Pinocchio, and become a regular character. Mr. Butts perjured himself before Congress. (See that perjury here.) He went to Iraq with B.D. He had "Irving" written all over him, I thought.

I should have known better. To marry Irving, you have to be out of ideas; That has never happened to Trudeau and likely never will. Like all great satirists, he stays fresh by feeding off the culture he lampoons.

No, Mr. Butts didn't bring down the strip. Trudeau has used him sparingly to deftly savage the duplicitous marriage between the tobacco and advertising industries. As always, Trudeau remained firmly in control, Doonesbury stayed as blindingly brilliant as ever, and Irving's still waiting at the altar.

Like Slateon Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.



More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.


Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Sept. 17 2014 10:36 AM MacArthur Fellow Alison Bechdel Recounts Telling Her Mother About Her Best-Selling Memoir MacArthur Fellow Alison Bechdel recounts telling her mother about her best-selling memoir.
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 9:03 AM My Father Was James Brown. I Watched Him Beat My Mother. And Then I Found Myself With Someone Like Dad.
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 8:27 AM Only Science Fiction Can Save Us! What sci-fi gets wrong about income inequality.
  Health & Science
Sept. 17 2014 10:20 AM White People Are Fine With Laws That Harm Blacks The futility of fighting criminal justice racism with statistics.
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.