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A Knack for Art

Nick Galifianakis sketches out a career as a celebrated Washington Post cartoonist

By Tim Hyland

Nick Galifianakis

Nick Galifianakis does not draw for the money. In the world of cartoonists, he is actually quite famous, not to mention widely published, but he doesn’t draw for the fame, either. He doesn’t draw for the plaudits. He doesn’t even necessarily draw with a hope or care about what kind of response he might get.

Rather, says the School of Communication (SOC) alumnus, he draws because, even if he was doing something else for a living—if he was a doctor, as he once planned to be, or a teacher or a lawyer—he would still be drawing. Because he simply can’t imagine not drawing.

“That’s not to say that I always wanted to be a professional, but I knew even when I was little that I could draw what I saw, and I also realized others couldn’t. As a kid in Durham, North Carolina, I would decorate neighbors’ driveways,” says Galifianakis, whose family later moved to Falls Church, Virginia. “And they must have been tickled by my murals because they would avoid parking on their driveways until the rain washed off the colored chalk drawings.”

A few decades later, that hasn’t changed. One of the most acclaimed and talented cartoonists of his time, Galifianakis has for the past 20 years served as the editorial cartoonist (and editor, advisor, and sounding board) for Carolyn Hax’s hugely popular Washington Post advice column, “Tell Me About It.” It’s a role that has not only given Galifianakis a massive stage on which to showcase his talent—the daily column is syndicated in more than 200 newspapers nationwide—but also one that has allowed him to stretch his legs creatively in a way that few other cartoonists have.

Plenty of cartoonists are tasked with commenting on the world of politics; Galifianakis, in working alongside the prolific (and highly opinionated) Hax, has a daily opportunity to commentate on life. His work is alternately sophisticated and light-hearted, sorrowful and whimsical, tragic and comic—perfect accompaniment, in other words, for a column that helps readers deal with issues that hit on universal themes.

“I was doing political cartoons, and eventually became bored with politics,” says Galifianakis, who before landing the job at the Post worked as an editorial cartoonist for USA Today. “But relationship dynamics always appealed to me. I was drawn to and excited by the opportunity to comment on things we’ve all been struggling with since we lived in caves.”

Indeed, though Hax’s column tackles any number of topics—from addiction to family problems to financial issues and so much more—it is, at its heart, mostly about relationships: the good ones, the bad ones, the lasting ones, and the ones that fail. And perhaps it’s true that the duo’s commentaries resonate so strongly with readers specifically because these two longtime collaborators have endured their own relationship struggles; married in 1994, three years before the column debuted in the Post, the couple split in 2002.

Galifianakis and Hax shared the news of their separation in a live chat. She took some heat from readers when it was revealed (in the pages of the Washington Post, no less) that she was pregnant with twins, and engaged to a childhood friend one year later. “Carolyn and I had been separated for quite a long time prior to our announcement so there was no romantic overlap with her new husband,” says Galifianakis, who’s close with Carolyn’s three sons and husband Kenny.

Galifiankis sketching a cartoon

The criticism was withering, but Hax took it in stride—as did Galifianakis. Their marriage was not meant to last, they both agreed. But their professional relationship was. Hax would continue to pen the column, and Galifianakis would continue to illustrate it—and edit, too. Just as he had from the very beginning.

The pair’s process, as they’ve described it, is a true collaboration. Hax starts by choosing the questions (out of the countless number she receives) she thinks might be the most interesting to her readers, and then writes her responses. At that point, she shares a draft with Galifianakis, who essentially sees it as his job to make sure that Hax sounds like Hax—and not any other run-of-the-mill advice columnist.

As Hax once explained to WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi: “[Nick is] actually an excellent editor in that he knows my voice so well and he knows my writing so well that he knows when I could do better and he says, ‘You know, this is flat.’ ‘This doesn't work.’ ‘This joke isn't funny.’ ‘Why are you using that word here?’ Or, ‘You're completely ignoring this perspective.’ I mean, he reads for all elements of the piece.”

Although some may marvel at the pair’s ability to work together despite their past, Galifianakis says their collaboration continues to succeed for two reasons: First, they remain good friends and second, they have enormous professional and artistic respect for each other. Indeed, his praise for his ex-wife is effusive. He describes her as brilliant, witty, and hilarious—the perfect advice columnist, in other words, for a decidedly imperfect world.

“I believe that advice columnists fall into three categories: There is Carolyn Hax, there are those who want to be Carolyn Hax, and then there are those who are lying,” he says. “She’s just head and shoulders above everyone else.”

After starting college at the University of North Carolina with sights set on a career in medicine, Galifianakis later enrolled at AU, where SOC professor emeritus Glenn Harnden recognized his talent and artistic sensibilities, and recommended that Galifianakis consider studying film. Later he trained under longtime SOC professor John Douglass and wrote his first-ever screenplay. But his big break came when Harnden helped him land an internship with a DC production company headed up by Phyllis Ward. “Everything was new and exciting and different. Crafting and telling a story really played to my sensibilities,” Galifianakis recalls.

The internship also spurred him to take risks in pursuit of a career in the arts. One day, during a production meeting, Ward mentioned that she was looking for an animator to help produce work for a short animated sequence in her film. She asked her staff if anyone knew somebody who could handle the job. “And I said—it was a complete lie, of course—‘Yes, I animate!’” Galifianakis says.

He spent the summer learning the ins and outs of old school, hand-drawn animation. Later, feeling increasingly confident not only in his talent but in what he had to say about the world around him, Galifianakis started drawing and submitting editorial cartoons to papers throughout the Southeast. It didn’t take long before he started getting published. He landed a job as an editorial cartoonist with USA Today in 1992 and was later working on a freelance basis when the Post approached Hax, by then his wife and a Post copy editor, about starting an advice column. The Post also wanted her husband to illustrate it. Although the original idea was to have Galifianakis simply create themed icons to run with the piece, he instead sketched something directly related to that first column.

And just like that, he became the column’s standing artist.

The rest, of course, is history. Galifianakis’s time with the Post has given him a huge audience, helped make him one of the most recognized cartoonists in the country, and served as the platform on which he published his first book, If You Loved Me, You’d Think This Was Cute: Uncomfortable True Cartoons About You. He doesn’t take his success for granted. And he truly loves his job.

“I do this because I can’t not do this,” he says. “When I was drawing on my neighbor’s driveway as a kid, I wasn’t really thinking about what they were going to say about that mural. And that’s still largely true today. I do this work for an audience of one.”