We are thrilled to have Jeff Johnson join the Richard Dawkins content team. He's an actual cartoonist from "The Simpsons", the longest running primetime cartoon TV show. He agreed to be interviewed and is our Secular VIP of the Week.
RDF: Were you always an atheist? How did you come to that?
Jeff Johnson: I consider myself agnostic with both feet dipping in the water of atheism.
RDF: So what kind of atheist are you? How did you commit to that? Were you raised in a religion?
Jeff Johnson: I was raised with religion, my parents were both Catholic – they weren't devout Catholic, but I suppose they just followed protocol and raised us the way they were raised… There was a lot of joking going on around the house which probably contributed to the fact that I become a cartoonist and an animator, but as far as the religion goes in the household, there was no strange religion, it's just being exposed to catechism and the Catholic Church at such an early age, during your formative years, you take that stuff on pretty heavy and it's been a long process of trying to figure things out, to strip that baggage away.
RDF: As a child, what did you think of the Church?
Jeff Johnson: When I was ten I was in the confessional again and it went like this:
Jeff Johnson: "Excuse me father for I have sinned. I called my little brother a shitface and refused to go visit some distant cousins."
Jeff Johnson: He said, "Do ten Hail Marys, an Act Of Contrition, and one Our Father".
Jeff Johnson: I then asked if I was supposed to believe Jesus walked on water for real and did Moses really part the Red Sea.
Jeff Johnson: He said, "Do you know what a metaphor is? You should remember there is no science without God!"
Jeff Johnson: After looking up the word 'metaphor', two weeks later I asked him what miracles are metaphors and which are real.
Jeff Johnson: "Do ten Hail Mary's my son", he said.
RDF: You met Christopher Hitchens once and he was a great inspiration to you.
Jeff Johnson: What was so inspirational to me about Christopher was watching him at work. He had a lot of adversaries in the audience, coming to attack him… He managed to keep the room laughing the whole way through… it was like watching a cat playing with the mouse before devouring it.
Jeff Johnson: Later on I had a chance to meet him when I was working on Industrial Light and Magic, on Star Wars, after going to art school… I met him in a little book store.
Jeff Johnson: I was still hanging on to religious baggage, and I wanted to ask his studies in Devon, when he went to boarding school, and… what his experience was in relation to mine. The Catholic school gave me through the teachings of Jesus, so we had common fabric there, and I wanted to see if that was invaluable to him. He immediately dismissed it, because he was the great debater that he was, and simply said: "We all have to grow up at some point. We don't need the Church to tell us right from wrong."
Jeff Johnson: He said we had a right to know for ourselves. The Church is telling us we can't be moral without Big Brother, and continued with some of the things he'd said during his great lecture. He thought religion was the main cause for evil in the world. He was pretty clear and I was impressed with how direct he was, how clear-minded he was about things.
RDF: How did you end up animating for "The Simpsons"?
Jeff Johnson: I studied Fine Arts at the Rhode Island School of Design and I fell in love with animation.
Jeff Johnson: I knew I had to go West and at some point I packed everything up and I came out here to work into animation and I came out to Hollywood…. I worked my way up through commercials, getting featured work at Warner Brothers and eventually Disney, I worked at Dreamworks, all the major studios… but what really appeals to me is single panel cartoons in which you can say a lot in a very instant, direct way. And the same thing applies for painting.
Jeff Johnson: In animation we have hundreds of people working on these projects, but there's nothing like having your personal fingerprints all over that individual work and that's what I'm working towards now. I'm really taking off on my own.
Jeff Johnson: I ended up on The Simpsons' movie and it was such a great group of people, it was a perfect fit for me. I'd always loved The Simpsons because it's so well acted and obviously so well written, the voice talents are stellar, and everything's top notch about the show, but in terms of animation style they worked in a very different way than I'd been used to… that's probably why I didn't knock on their door earlier. When I was asked to come on over and check things out to possibly be on the feature, they were going to step the animation up a little bit in terms of its complexity but in reality we still kept it balanced between limited and full animation going on there to maintain the humor. "Embrace the stiffness" was one of the slogans we used.
Jeff Johnson: The group was so great that I ended up staying in for the TV show and I've been there since 2007. It's a great place to be.
RDF: Is there anything that you want to specially draw to?
Jeff Johnson: If you join me on Twitter I try to post a cartoon a day. I'm working towards publishing a book, and I'm seriously working on "Fortune Cookie" cartoons… So, hey, that's entertainment for free. Come on board.
Jeff Johnson: On my Tumbler they'll be able to find more, some of the fine art, some paintings. There'll be a variety there, with a different set of disciplines. And there will also be animation coming: I've created a site called http://spanimationfilms.com – it's short for the terms short attention span animation. I'm trying to wiggle it down to the stuff that I started with, cartoons that are just black and white; single panel cartoons coming to life.