Think You Have A Bad United Airlines Story? I Think I Can Top It

I just spent over 10 hours trapped inside a United plane at the Newark airport.

The list of reasons for the delay was, well, magnificent:

1) Food was not stocked on board

2) Needed de-icing

3) Needed de-icing again

4) Lost fuel from waiting for takeoff

5) Lost our captain

6) No new captain (stuck in traffic)

7) Lost our crew while waiting for new captain

8) Got new crew

9) Still no new captain (still stuck in traffic)

10) Got new captain

11) Lost new crew while waiting for new captain

I wish I could write comedy that well.

During the 10 hours, we got off the plane only once.

Wait, you may say, they have to let you off the plane after so many hours.  Well, not really.

They tell you that you can leave.  But if you do, they add, you need to remove all your luggage. Translation:  If this plane is ready to go, we will abandon you like a three-legged mule.

Result:  You don’t dare leave the plane.

Remember that guy United dragged off the plane not too long ago? We were longing to be him.

But United added to the experience by offering no WIFI, no water, and no food.  The food part was especially ironic given that the lack of food on the plane was the initial reason for the delay.  Turns out, they weren’t going to give it to us anyway.  Eventually, I walked to the back of the plane and snuck a glass of water from the flight attendant.  I traded away one of my children for it.

But it was all okay, because United kept me informed viatext, telling me in a series of texts that the flight would:

Depart at 3:30 pm (wrong)

Depart at 7:45 pm (wrong)

Depart at 8:45 pm (wrong)

Depart at 9:35 pm (wrong)

Depart at 10:35 pm (wrong)

Depart at 12:55 am (wrong)

Depart at 11:59 pm (wrong) (an odd shift back in time, as well)

Depart at 12:30 am (wrong)

Depart at 12:59 am (wrong)

Depart at 3:49 am (wrong)

If you’re keeping score at home, that’s a stunning 0 for 10.  A monkey taking an algebra exam could do no worse.

In fact, their updates were so consistently wrong that I started texting back to update THEM, replying to each of their updates with:

Update:  We don’t have a pilot.

Update:  Crew just left.

Update:  You literally have no idea what’s going on.

And after ten hours on board, they finally cancelled the flight at 1:30 am.

But like a good firework show, United saved the best for last.   They told us all that we would have to go to the United service desk to reschedule.

And that’s where the bad math kicked in.

Number of employees at service desk:  4

Number of people waiting for service desk:  400

So the same people who got off the plane at 1:30 a.m. had the added joy of standing in line until 5:00 am (And beyond.  Line still had 225 people in it when I left at 5:00a.m.).

The good news is that I finally got a new flight by connecting to United on Twitter.  The bad news is that the flight is not until Saturday.  Which means I need a hotel. So I’m out a few hundred more dollars.

United will tell you it’s all because of the weather.  And that’s true.

But it’s sort of like building your next house out of cardboard and blaming the rain when it disintegrates.  

I now get the United slogan – “Fly the Friendly Skies.”  The skies are friendly.  It’s their planes that suck donkey ass.

So next time you have to fly, don’t fly the friendly skies.

Fly the friendly airplane.

Ever Wished That Calvin and Hobbes Creator Bill Watterson Would Return to the Comics Page? Well, He Just Did.

Bill Watterson is the Bigfoot of cartooning.

He is legendary. He is reclusive. And like Bigfoot, there is really only one photo of him in existence. 

Few in the cartooning world have ever spoken to him. Even fewer have ever met him.

In fact, legend has it that when Steven Spielberg called to see if he wanted to make a movie, Bill wouldn’t even take the call.

So it was with little hope of success that I set out to try and meet him last April.

I was traveling through Cleveland on a book tour, and I knew that he lived somewhere in the area. I also knew that he was working with Washington Post cartoonist Nick Galifianakis on a book about Cul de Sac cartoonist Richard Thompson’s art.

So I took a shot and wrote to Nick. And Nick in turn wrote to Watterson.

And the meeting didn’t happen.

Bill apparently had something to do.  Or more likely, wanted nothing to do with me.

Which is smart.

But Nick encouraged me to send an email to Bill anyways.   I said I didn’t want to bother him.

But a week or so later, this Pearls strip ran in the newspaper:


And I figured this was as good of a time to write to him as any.

So I emailed him the strip and thanked him for all his great work and the influence he’d had on me. And never expected to get a reply.

And what do you know, he wrote back.

Let me tell you. Just getting an email from Bill Watterson is one of the most mind-blowing, surreal experiences I have ever had. Bill Watterson really exists? And he sends email? And he’s communicating with me?

But he was. And he had a great sense of humor about the strip I had done, and was very funny, and oh yeah….

…He had a comic strip idea he wanted to run by me.

Now if you had asked me the odds of Bill Watterson ever saying that line to me, I’d say it had about the same likelihood as Jimi Hendrix telling me he had a new guitar riff. And yes, I’m aware Hendrix is dead.

So I wrote back to Bill.

“Dear Bill,

I will do whatever you want, including setting my hair on fire.”

So he wrote back and explained his idea.

He said he knew that in my strip, I frequently make fun of my own art skills. And that he thought it would be funny to have me get hit on the head or something and suddenly be able to draw. Then he’d step in and draw my comic strip for a few days.

That’s right.

The cartoonist who last drew Calvin and Hobbes riding their sled into history would return to the comics page.

To draw Pearls Before Swine.

What followed was a series of back-and-forth emails where we discussed what the strips would be about, and how we would do them. He was confident. I was frightened.

Frightened because it’s one thing to write a strip read by millions of people. But it’s another thing to propose an idea to Bill Watterson.

The idea I proposed was that instead of having me get hit on the head, I would pretend that Pearls was being drawn by a precocious second grader who thought my art was crap. I named her “Libby,” which I then shorted to “Lib.” (Hint, hint: It’s almost “Bill” backwards.)

(The introduction of Libby can be found HERE and HERE).

At every point in the process, I feared I would say something wrong. And that Bill would disappear back into the ether. And that the whole thing would seem like a wisp of my imagination.

But it wasn’t that way.

Throughout the process, Bill was funny and flexible and easy to work with.

Like at one point when I wanted to change a line of dialogue he wrote, I prefaced it by saying, “I feel like a street urchin telling Michelangelo that David’s hands are too big.” But he liked the change. And that alone was probably the greatest compliment I’ve ever received.

I don’t want to say any more about our exchange because to do so would probably be to compromise the privacy he so zealously guards. But I will offer you this one biographical tidbit:

Technology is not his friend.

I found that out when it came to the logistics of the artwork.   I drew my part first and then shipped him the strips. I wanted him to fill in the panels I left blank, and simply scan and email me back the finished strips.

I asked him to do this because I did not want to be responsible for handling his finished artwork. Partly because I knew it would be worth thousands of dollars. Partly because I knew he wanted to auction it off for charity. And partly because my UPS driver has a tendency to leave my packages in the dirt at the end of our driveway. (I could just imagine the email I’d have to write the next day: “Dear Mr. Watterson – The first comic strip you’ve drawn in 20 years was ravaged by a squirrel.”)

So this left doing it my way. Digitally.

And this is when I found out that Bill Watterson is not comfortable with scanners or Photoshop or large email attachments. In fact, by the end of the process, I was left with the distinct impression that he works in a log cabin lit by whale oil and hands his finished artwork to a man on a pony.

So I proposed working out our technological issues over the phone. But he didn’t want to.

At first I thought it was because he didn’t own one. Or have electricity. But then I remembered we were emailing.

And so I soon came to the sad realization that he probably just didn’t want me to have his phone number. Which was smart. Because I would have called that man once a week for the rest of his life.

And so we worked through the technological problems via email.

And unlike every other technological problem I’ve ever had, it was not frustrating.

It was the highlight of my career.

The only thing Bill ever asked of me was that I not reveal he had worked on Pearls until all three of his strips had run. (And if you haven’t yet seen those three strips, they can be found HERE, HERE, and HERE.)

And so I did not reveal his participation until now.   And it was the hardest secret I’ve ever had to keep.

Because I knew I had seen something rare.

A glimpse of Bigfoot.

There Are Worse Things Than Incoming Mortars (Updated)

Luck is a relative thing.

Take, for example, a summer vacation.  You arrive at the hotel and the front desk clerk tells you,  “You’re lucky.  We ran out of regular rooms and had to upgrade you to a suite.”

Or you go outside to the hotel pool and the pool attendant tells you, “You’re lucky.  We’ve had rain all week, and today is the first sunny day.”

But luck is different in Afghanistan.

“You’re lucky,” said our military escort as we got off the plane, “The base hasn’t been attacked in weeks.”

See, that makes me feel about as lucky as I would checking into a motel and being told, “You’re lucky.  Guests here are kidnapped from their rooms a lot less than they used to be.”

As if that wasn’t enough, our military escort then delivered a more devastating bit of news.

“You’re rooming with Jeff Keane.”

As though having a bomb dropped on my head wasn’t enough.  Now I’d have to stare at the creator of Family Circus standing around in his “Kiss Me, Dolly” underwear.

And don’t take my word for it.  Just look at him in this pre-removal-of-pants shot and imagine for yourselves.

All that separated me from him was that little desk on the right.  See, here was my bed on the other side of that desk.

That’s a mere four feet between me and The Jeffy.  Almost close enough that he could reach out and hold my hand during the night.  I finally understood the meaning of the phrase, “War is Hell.”

But I am a trooper.  So I took one for the team and roomed with The Jeffy.

Our first step was to unpack.  I took out all of my cool clothes and put them in drawers.  He laid out his “I Love Billy” underwear for Tuesday, his “I Love PJ” pajamas for Wednesday, and the “I Love Dead Grandpa” thong for Thursday.

When we finished unpacking, we sat on our respective beds wondering what we could do for the next couple hours.  He was thinking about getting something to eat.  I was thinking about how I could change the locks while he was gone.

We compromised and each sat at the desk signing a bunch of the postcards with our characters on them that the USO had given us to hand out to the troops.

There we sat, me and the creator of Family Circus.  Him doing his patriotic duty by signing the postcards.  Me doing my patriotic duty by not pushing him out the window.

And that’s when the air raid sirens went off.

“GET DOWN.  GET DOWN.  GET DOWN,” shouted the garbled voice across the base’s PA system.

And at that moment, my greatest fear was not my possible demise.  It was that my last vision on this planet, the one that would have to carry me toward the afterlife, would not be of a nude supermodel begging me to make these last few moments count.

It would be this:

So much for being lucky.


UPDATE:  Jeff Keane responds in the comments section below.  But keep in mind, his version of events is one-sided, biased, slanderous, exaggerated and wholly false.  Unlike mine, which is the God’s honest truth.


Hey, Let’s See You Sit Next to a Comic Strip Legend for Eight Hours and Stay Quiet

I’m on a flight sitting next to Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau and I have a lot of questions.

Questions about how Doonesbury started.  Questions about the Doonesbury strips he liked the most.  Questions about the strips he liked least.

For me, this is out of character, for I make it a point to never talk to the person sitting next to me on a flight.  Especially a long flight.  And this one qualifies.

We are flying from Washington, D.C. to Frankfurt, Germany and then on to Afghanistan.  We are on a USO trip to visit the troops in Kandahar.

But this is Garry Trudeau.  And I have questions.

Making my mouth move even more freely are the Sierra Nevada beers I pounded at the United Airlines lounge just before getting on the flight.  (My goal was to get so drunk that my buzz would carry me through the next seven days of alcohol-free Afghanistan.)

Before I know it, three hours have passed and I’m still asking questions.

That’s when Garry puts his index finger to his lips and says, “Shhh.  We should probably keep our voices down.  The guy on the other side of me is trying to sleep.”

That’s when I notice we are the last two guys with our overhead lights on.  We are the last two guys awake.

But that doesn’t stop me.  So I keep firing away.  Only quieter.

Questions about what it’s like to win a Pulitzer.  Questions about what inspires him.  Questions about any regrets he may have.

And then it happened.  I don’t know exactly when it happened.  Or how.  All I know is that I had asked him this question about regrets and then looked over at this legend of syndicated cartooning and saw it with my own two bloodshot eyes.

Garry Trudeau was wearing noise-canceling headphones.

Because of me.

The guy he had chosen to sit next to.

At least now I knew one of his regrets.

I Know Why Russians Drink So Much

I just finished reading two plays by the Russian writer Anton Chekhov.

In the first one, the main character shoots himself in the head in the last line of the play.

In the second one, the main character shoots himself in the head in the last line of the play.

I thought maybe I’d read the same play twice.

But I hadn’t.  I checked the titles.  They were different.

I can’t help thinking of the conversations Anton Chekhov used to have with his editor.

“I have a new play,” Chekhov says.

“What about?”  asks his editor.

“A wealthy landowner.”

“What happens?”

“He shoots himself in the head.”

“I see.  Got anything else?”

“I’ve got one about a nobleman.”

“Tell me about it.”

“He shoots himself in the head.”

“Do you have anything else?”

“Yah.  I have one about a rich widow.”

“What happens?”

“She lives happily ever after.”


“Really.  Then she shoots herself in the head.”

Despite all this, Anton Chekhov is now known as the greatest Russian playwright who ever lived.

Which is too bad.

Because I have to imagine he influenced every Russian playwright to follow, some of whom may not have wanted to shoot their main character in the head, but felt compelled.

If I ever meet a Russian, I’m going to let him know that not all entertainment needs to end that way.

And I’m giving away my book of Anton Chekhov plays despite the fact that I have not read the last play in the book.

Because there is need.

It’s called, “Uncle Vanya.”  And I have a strong feeling he’s now deceased.  And that the word “Boom” is somewhere in there.

All this made me look up Anton Chekhov to see how he, the playwright whose every character dramatically shot themselves in the head, ended his own life. Care to guess?



No Boat; Honeymoon of the Damned, Part Four

It is the summer of 1993.  I am in Athens on my honeymoon with my lovely bride.

Who is crying in a travel agency.

She is crying because she has been trying to get us two flights home so we can cut our honeymoon short.  But she has just found out that changing the flights costs a lot of money.  Which we don’t have.

So we are stuck in Greece.

Tip No. 14 About Honeymoons:   It is  bad when they feel like hostage situations.

So I call an audible.  I tell her we’re going to Santorini.  It’s got beaches, beer and gyros.

She agrees.  Well, she doesn’t say no.  Mostly because she can’t hear me over all that crying.

So I take advantage of the situation by buying us two boat tickets to Santorini.  And they’re cheap.

How cheap?

So cheap the boat doesn’t show.

Travel Tip No. 22:   Boat trips are harder without the boat.

So we are sitting at the port of Piraeus and we are waiting for a boat.  Hours pass.  It is hot.

Staci sees a Greek man in a sailor outfit.  He is smoking a cigarette.  Staci approaches him, and in her best uptight Americanese, says this:

“Excuse me, but we were supposed to be on the 10 a.m. boat to Santorini, and it’s 1:05  now and we’re wondering what time the boat will be here because we would like to get to Santorini as soon possible.”

The man turns his back, takes one last drag on his stubby cigarette and tosses it in the sea.  Then he turns back to face her.

“No boat,” he says.

It is poetic, really.

‘Cause what else do you need to know?

There’s no boat.  You can “blah blah blah” all afternoon, but the situation is this:

There’s no boat.

I come to realize that it’s really the answer for almost any question you have in your unhappy life.

No boat.

I’d say it’s almost existentialist, if I knew what existentialist meant.

So we sat and waited.  And over the succeeding hours many Greek people showed up at the dock, which told us that at least some boat would be showing up and it would be going somewhere.  Which was better than here.

But we had a problem.

Despite our being the first people at the dock, there were now some people trying to stand between us and the edge of the water.  And here is where I will give you a travel tip straight from the good people of Mediterranean Europe about Americans and their love of orderly lines :

We mock your orderly lines.

In fact, if you have extra time, look up “line” in a Greek dictionary.  I did.  Here is a loose translation:

Place where big group of people shove each other.

And that, my friends, was all that my crying American bride needed.  Because now she was a proverbial camel.  And someone was about to put one straw too many on her proverbial back.

And that someone was a Greek man in an undershirt.

Who made the mistake of cutting right in front of her.

Causing her to do what any reasonable American tourist would do in that situation.

She kicked him in the back.

Oh, it’s on, my Greek friend.  It’s on.

I Pant, You Pant, We All Pant for Ziggy Pants

Sometimes when I parody another cartoonist I call them in advance.  Sometimes I don’t.

In the case of the Ziggy strips this week, I did.  In part because I needed some help.  Specifically, with the premise of this particular strip:

I had never before spoken with Ziggy creator, Tom Wilson Jr., so it made the conversation a little awkward.  My intro to him on the phone went something like this:

“Hey Tom, my name is Stephan Pastis, and I do the comic strip Pearls Before Swine.  Anyways, I’m doing a series where my characters are really, really mad that your character never wears pants.  And they’re going to organize protests, and cars are going to get overturned and they’ll go on a hunger strike, all because they think this grown man should be wearing pants.”

I never know what I’m going to hear on the other end of the line when I make one of these calls.  Will they hang up?  Will they say no?  Will they swear?

Tom was great.  I think all he said was that sometimes Ziggy did in fact wear pants.  I conveniently ignored that.

But then I needed his help.

“By the end of the series,” I told him, “Rat is going to declare victory, saying that you — Tom Wilson — have agreed to put pants on Ziggy.  Do you think there’s any way you can put pants on Ziggy that day in your strip?”

“Sure,” he said, accommodating as can be.  He could not have been nicer.

So I did my strips, told Tom that the key strip would run on December 16, and he sent me an email confirming that “Ziggy will wear pants on Dec. 16th.”

Feeling triumphant, I went online this morning to look at Ziggy and to my great surprise, he has no pants.

Never before have I been so disappointed to see a man with no pants.

At least I think he has no pants.  Here is Tom’s strip:

Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I’m presuming that like me, Tom doesn’t color his own dailies (the Monday through Saturday strips).  And the heel and sole of Ziggy’s right foot do look pretty angular, so maybe those were some sort of stretch pants on Ziggy, and the colorist just screwed up and colored them flesh tone.  Sure, he’s not wearing shoes either, but I see Ziggy as a bit of an elf and elves don’t need shoes.  They’re like magical midgets in tights.

So are they or aren’t they?  Did Rat win his protest?  Or go down in ignominious defeat?

You’ll have to be the judge.

It’s a controversy for the ages.

Pants-gate has begun.

In War, No One Retrieves the Golf Balls

I grew up in San Marino, California.  It is a conservative, wealthy suburb of Los Angeles.

It has a lot of rules, or at least did when I grew up there.

For example, when I was there, you could not park on the street overnight (without first calling the police department and getting permission).  You could not pump your own gas (the attendant at the station had to pump it for you).  You could not blow or wash your leaves into the street.

McDonald’s were not allowed.  Nor were movie theatres.  And you could get a ticket for jaywalking (as my sister did from a police officer who was hiding in the nearby bushes).   I have feared jaywalking ever since.

It is all about preserving status quo.

And it is not a land of surprises.

Fast forward 30 years.

To midnight in Baghdad.

Where I, child of San Marino, am standing outside the palace of Saddam Hussein.  The air is warm and still.  It is tinged with a hint of smoke.

Next to me is Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau.

We are hitting a bucket of golf balls into Saddam Hussein’s lake.

“Who gets the balls out of the lake?” I ask the soldier who gave us the bucket.

“We don’t,” she said.

Of course, I think to myself.

In war, no one retrieves the golf balls.

I immediately imagine the island of golf balls that must be forming at the deepest depths of Saddam’s lake.  One day it will crest above the surface, like a coral island made of Titleist.

While this is happening outside the palace, cartoonist Mike Peters is inside, looking for someone who can fix our room’s thermostat.  He finds a two-star general.  The man is in charge of 22,000 soldiers.   But we are chilly and we need him to fix our thermostat.

If that’s not far enough from the pristine lawns of San Marino for you, consider this:

Twenty yards to the left of me is editorial cartoonist Mike Ramirez.   He has won two Pulitzer Prizes.  But he is not drawing that night.  No, Mike Ramirez is feeding Cocoa Puffs to Saddam Hussein’s fish.

And these are not normal fish.  They are ugly, scary fish.  Some appear to be five-feet long.  I assume they’re eating golf balls.

One of the soldiers shows us a video of a duck landing on the surface of the lake.  A fish ate him. In Baghdad, even the fish are evil.

I hit a long drive.

Watching the golf ball ascend, I see in the distance the faint silhouette of a Blackhawk helicopter.  It is firing its guns.  It is a deep boom you feel in your rib cage.

I cannot sleep that night.  All ten of us cartoonists have to sleep in the same room in five bunk beds.  We end up sleeping with the light on, because not one of can remember to turn it off.   So I now know the answer to the joke, “How many cartoonists does it take to turn off a light bulb?”  It is something more than ten.

I walk outside at 6 a.m. and hit more golf balls.  The air is grayish brown.

I’m a long way from San Marino.

And I am not afraid of jaywalking.




Saddamapalooza, Day 5; or The Last Time Ever I Saw Garry’s Face

I am sitting in a Blackhawk helicopter flying over a war zone.

Here is a Blackhawk.


Here is me:


And sitting across from me, helmet slightly askew, is this guy:


He is Garry Trudeau, creator of the legendary comic strip Doonesbury.

And I am sitting there thinking, “How the hell did I get here?”

You see, I have six main comic strip influences:  Peanuts, Calvin & Hobbes, Bloom County, Doonesbury, Far Side and Dilbert.

I was fortunate enough to meet Charles Schulz and Berke Breathed.  I’m friends with Scott Adams.  I’ve never met either Gary Larson or Bill Watterson, but then neither have most cartoonists.  And I had only seen Garry Trudeau once at a Reubens convention (cartooning’s annual awards weekend).

So when I found out Trudeau would be coming with us other cartoonists on our USO-sponsored trip to Iraq, it was definitely one of those “Is this really happening?” moments.

It’s an odd mixture of feelings flying with one of your cartooning heroes over a war zone.  A whole bunch of thoughts ping around inside your head.   They go something like this:

1)  I don’t want to die.

2)  I am sitting across from Garry Trudeau.

3)  Helicopters crash a lot.

4)  Dude, that is Garry Fucking Trudeau.

5)  I don’t want to crash.

6)  From that head came Doonesbury.

7)  I should touch that head.

8)  That would be strange.

9)  There are machine guns on either side of me.  My Honda Accord doesn’t have those.


Whoa.  Problem.

That last thought wasn’t from inside my head.

It was from outside my head.

That is bad.

It was this thing:


And then a second burst of fire, this time from the machine gun on the right side of the helicopter.


I didn’t get a picture of that gun.  But it looked a lot like this one:


These two guns are the loudest thing I have ever heard.  I know this because earlier I had experimented by screaming into Mad Magazine artist Tom Richmond’s ear, “NOBODY LIKES YOU” as loud as I could over and over and he could not hear me.

And yet I heard the guns crystal clear.

We ALL heard the guns crystal clear.  I know this because Jeff Keane started praying.  I couldn’t hear him, but I could read his lips, and he was praying to that ghosty Grampa character in Family Circus: “Save me, Dead Grampa, save me.”

And so there I was.

In a helicopter shooting at things.  And now my thoughts are more focused:

1)  We are shooting at things.

2)  In war, you shoot at things when things shoot at you.

3)  Something is shooting at me.

4)  I am going to die.

And then, a rather strange last thought:

5)  Here is the last thing I will ever see:


If you had said to me as a thirteen-year old boy reading Doonesbury in the Los Angeles Times that Garry Trudeau’s face would be the last thing I would ever see, I would have had a hard time figuring out that scenario.

But here it is was.  Right in front of me.

Making matters worse, I could see the headline in my head.  “CREATOR OF DOONESBURY AND OTHERS  SHOT DOWN OVER IRAQ.”  Being an “other” made me sad too.

We all sat there in stunned silence.  Jeff Keane praying to cartoon characters.  Tom Richmond trying to hold me.  And me, grabbing a gun, hanging out from the open window and offering to save everyone’s lives.

When we landed, we learned that they were not shooting at people.  It was some routine thing the helicopter crew did to get the aim right on their guns.  They fired at random desert targets.

Worse, editorial cartoonist Chip Bok, seated in the front of the helicopter and wearing a headset, knew it was about to happen and didn’t indicate that to any of us.  That’s the kind of people cartoonists are.  We make our friends think they’re going to die.

That amuses us.

I have to say that had that been me in Chip’s position, I would have gone even further.  Knowing my fellow cartoonists would see me with a headset and thereby assume I knew what was going on, I would have jumped up and down and mouthed, “WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!”

But we did not die.  We lived.

To see another day.

And another face.

Beyond this one.