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At Stanford, 'Doonesbury' creator reflects on the power of humor, satire and storytelling

On the first evening of his three-day visit to campus, Garry Trudeau, a cartoonist who also has written for stage, television and film, delivered "Harry's Last Lecture on a Meaningful Life."

L.A. Cicero Garry Trudeau

Cartoonist Garry Trudeau, the fifth Rathbun Visiting Fellow, delivers “Harry’s Last Lecture on a Meaningful Life” on Monday at Stanford's Memorial Auditorium.

Garry B. Trudeau, creator of the Pulitzer Prize-winning comic strip, Doonesbury, told a Memorial Auditorium audience Monday that up until 10 minutes before he took the stage, he and the Rev. Scotty McLennan, dean for religious life at Stanford and his former college roommate, had been arguing about whether he actually was qualified to be the 2014 Rathbun Visiting Fellow at Stanford, given the others who had held the title before.

"He says 'yes,' but if this were an SAT question, and you were asked which one of the following didn't belong – Supreme Court justice, secretary of state, civil rights icon, Dalai Lama and cartoonist – you'd get that one right," he said, referring to the five people chosen as Rathbun Fellows since the program began in 2008.

The first four fellows were retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor; George P. Shultz, former U.S. secretary of state, treasury secretary and labor secretary; Marian Wright Edelman, founder of The Children's Defense Fund; and His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.

"It's almost as if Scotty, exhausted from the effort of bringing world leaders to Stanford, turned to his committee and said: 'Good news. I've asked my college roommate to explain a meaningful life.' What was he thinking?"

Nevertheless, Trudeau proceeded to deliver the fifth "Harry's Last Lecture on a Meaningful Life," an address that honors the late Stanford law Professor Harry Rathbun.

The lecture – and Q&A that followed – capped the end of Trudeau's first day on campus as the 2014 Rathbun Visiting Fellow.

Trudeau touched on many subjects, humorous and serious, during a 30-minute lecture peppered with anecdotes and asides that frequently brought the audience to laughter.

He talked about the quick success of Doonesbury, which represented a departure from the mainstream comics of the early '70s. Trudeau created his first comic strip, Bull Tales, for his college newspaper at Yale University. He relaunched it two years later as Doonesbury.

Generational identity

Trudeau said his future employers didn't seem to mind his lack of technical skills, but embraced him for his perspective – his generational identity.

"The sloppy draftsmanship was seen as a sort of shorthand, a kind of cartoon verité, dispatches from the front, raw and subversive," he said. "Why were they subversive? Well, mostly because I didn't know any better."

Trudeau, who earned a bachelor's degree and a master of fine arts degree at Yale, said his college years had given him the "completely false impression that it was not only commonplace but safe for an artist to comment on volatile cultural and political issues in public."

"In college, there's very little downside," he continued. "In the real world, there is, but in the euphoria of being recognized for anything, you don't notice it at first. Indeed, one of the nice things about youthful cluelessness is that it's so frequently confused with courage."

In 1975, Trudeau became the first comic strip artist to win a Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning for his Watergate cartoons. In 2010, he published 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective, a celebratory anthology of the comic strip, which still appears in newspapers and online. He also has written for the stage, film and television. In 2013, he created the comedy series Alpha House for Amazon Studios, which recently renewed the television series for a second season.

Training a humorous eye on the foils of his own generation, Trudeau said baby boomers invented the idea of "forever young." In fact, he said, the worse thing we can say about anything is that it is old – old paradigms, old thinking and, particularly, old age.

"In one poll of baby boomers, when asked when old age began, the average response was '80' – two full years past current life expectancy," Trudeau said. "So the new 'old' is 'death.'  When a baby boomer passes on, it will be said that he died of late middle age."

Trudeau talked about why people are drawn to storytelling.

"Why do we binge-watch, spend hours on role-playing games, read five years of Calvin and Hobbes in a single sitting?" Trudeau asked. "It's not fully understood, but as author Jonathan Gottschall lays out in his recent book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, the evidence does seem to support an adaptive function. Stories, it turns out, are simulators, opportunities to practice negotiating the challenges of everyday life."

Gottschall reported that when we experience sorrow at a sad story or terror during a horror movie or delight with a happy ending, the exact same parts of our brains light up as if we were experiencing those emotions in real life – a process that deepens an individual's emotional intelligence, Trudeau said.

"Contrary to the image of the bookworm being socially inept, it turns out the heavy readers of fiction have an easier time in their social relationships than people who read a lot of non-fiction," Trudeau said. "They make better choices, because they've had more practice."

Satire's crucial role

Turning to what he called the "greatest story of our lifetime," the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Trudeau said the tragedy seemed too big, too overwhelming to process.

"Some of you may recall that following 9/11, the late-night comedy shows abruptly went off the air, and commentators wondered if they could ever return, if maybe irony was dead, and comedy and entertainment no longer had a real place in public life," he said.

Not long afterward, The Onion, a satirical news organization, proved them wrong.

"It stayed away from the victims, the thing that was raw and untouchable, and instead focused on the terrorists themselves, turning them into buffoons," Trudeau said.

One headline read, "Hijackers Surprised to Find Selves in Hell." Another one read, "God Clarifies Don't Kill Rule." The day after that issue was published, Trudeau said, readers sent thousands of grateful emails to The Onion.

"What the editors had understood is that storytellers and entertainers of all kinds were – and are – considered indispensable precisely because life can be such a bitch, not in spite of it," he said. "Our reward for enduring the foolishness and hypocrisy and meanness and cruelty of everyday life is that there are endless opportunities to see it mocked."

Trudeau said one of the lessons he learned studying fine arts in college was the importance of inquiry, of opening the mind and of seeing through fresh eyes every day.

"The examined life should be about taking a look, and then another, and then another, breaking through the walls of complacency, whether they were built of self-deception or prejudice, always challenging the obvious, asking the impertinent question," he said.

"When you stop looking, or when you see only what you want – as a human being you become a stenographer."

Trudeau's stay included lunch with students and interviews with Stanford Daily reporters. He also met with students and faculty for conversations on "Life in Art: Art in Life," "Feminism for Males," "Beyond Political Silos," "A Creative Life" and "Military Affiliations." His visit ends tonight with a reception and dinner hosted by Provost John Etchemendy.