I heard of Kaz after my friend Eleonora Jonušienė invited him to Lithuania to speak at a conference of animators. Later I read his comic books “Underworld”, “Sidetrack City”. I felt that the author does not fit into the frame of “Spongebob” co-creators image. We talked in outdoor café in Vilnius Old Town in September 2018.
Interestingly, you say that I write my first name utterly different from the way I sign my last name. I guess there’s a little bit of schizophrenia there.
Even writing your own comics, you’re balancing two different things. You’re balancing the writing and drawing aspect. Any child always starts out with drawing. You don’t start out by doing stories. You start by doing little pictures. Then, you look at the pictures, and you try to imagine into those pictures what the story might be.
My mother was not educated so she couldn’t read very well, even in Lithuanian. She left Lithuania when she was two years old, and her mother pulled her out of school in second grade for her to take care of her two younger brothers. So she basically just spent all day with the 2 younger brothers in a West-German refugee camp for Lithuanians, playing all day. She had to entertain these two little boys the whole time by making up stories using her imagination. I remember when I was a child, we would buy these second-hand books in the Salvation Army, and I remember a Doctor Seuss books. She couldn’t read them. She’d struggle so she would look at the pictures and make up the story. It wasn’t until second grade when I realized — I didn’t know that at that time when I was younger — she’s making these stories up and so I would make up stories in my head all the time, just being inspired by her.
I don’t know if that answers your question about living in these two places at the same time. As a kid growing up, I felt like I was an outsider. We had to speak Lithuanian in the house. Nobody else spoke Lithuanian in , NJ, that I knew of besides my grandmother who lived in Hoboken and she was kind of a mean old woman, as I recall. People would look at me and say, “You’re just saying gibberish. You’re just making up words.” So I felt like a little bit pulled towards life in America — pulled continuously because my father was involved in all these Lithuanian organizations in New Jersey. We would do Christmas pageants. A Lithuanian priest would come to the house and bless every room. It felt so weird and archaic to me as a kid.
It was a Lithuanian priest, and there was a Lithuanian church in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
I would say it was a half-hour drive, maybe less, from where I lived. But the problem was, there was a Catholic school there, and they would have Lithuanian school on Saturday mornings. So, Saturday morning in the 1970s was the golden age of Saturday morning cartoons on television, and I was in love with comics, cartoons, movies, all that science-fiction fantasies. To be pulled away from that to do lessons and put into a class with children who were much younger than me was kind of embarrassing.
I do remember the day I just walked out of class and said to my father, “Nope, I’m not going to do this anymore”. He was very upset, obviously, but he was a deacon at that church — I think that’s what they call him. He was that guy who would stand there in the podium and say, “Turn to this page…” He wanted to be a priest. He was very devout. He would take us to the church, my brother and me, and we would sit in the back, and when the mass would start, we would sneak out. There was a candy store that we would go to, and there was a little park where we’d just swing for a while and watch the time. When the church is about over, we’d sneak back and be like, “Oh dad, that was wonderful.” He caught us one time, so he put us right in the front, right in front of him on the front row. He was watching us the whole time, like a hawk. And so, what we would try to do it, we would try to make each other laugh because if he saw us laughing, we’d be in trouble. It was the hardest thing not to laugh.
A lot of people ask me, “Is there anything that you wouldn’t make fun of?” This is not a very deep answer. I always say I don’t make fun of my friends and my family because that’s a personal thing that I could get in trouble with. Sometimes I’m not even aware of these things when I’m writing or drawing them. Still, I am aware when I write longer stories and the moral of the story naturally comes out.
With “Underworld”, sometimes I’m just trying to tell the joke, sometimes I’m just trying to be funny. Sometimes I’m trying to be weird, but I think it works the best if before I do it, I sit down and close my eyes and I say, “How am I feeling right now?”, “What is it that I’m feeling right now?” Then I just start drawing it, it sort of comes out, sometimes almost magical. But then again, I’m a writer and artist, and those last couple of panels are things that I work on, like a poet, who would work just to make it work.
Well, it does come out, and I try to, sometimes, hide it a little bit. My attitude towards my mother, more than my father, comes out. She’s very strict, very violent kind of women in many ways, like bipolar. I would come home, and I wouldn’t know which mother it’s going to be: today. I was a terrible student because I always had this sort of anxiety. At home, there was a lot of anxiety. There’s a lot of stress because like I said, we were very poor, and my mother was young and uneducated.
Along with beautiful things about her playing with children, there was a lot of anxiety. Here she was, taken out of Lithuania and taken out of Germany and now she stopped in this weird little city, Hoboken, right across the river from Manhattan. She barely saw my father (only on the weekends) because he had two jobs. I would hear my father late at night when I’m in bed, he comes in, and then I listen to him getting up to go to work, so he was almost like a ghost in many ways.
I guess a lot of this stuff winds up, especially if I sit down and I think, “How am I feeling today?”, “How do I feel about something”, instead of other times where I might overhear a conversation that I thought was funny, and that I could make a perfect gag out of. Jokes are essential to me.
I think that everything has a funny side, but not necessarily to me. Some things happened to me that I probably wouldn’t find strange because they’re painful, but I’m sure somebody else can find humour in them. They can make fun of me that way. Humour is critical to me. The whole idea of just making light of pain, that’s what it comes down to. I’m making light of suffering. How do you go through anxiety? How do you go through pain? It’s the idea of whistling past the graveyard. Sometimes I don’t believe it, I’m not sure if this is a really funny thing or even if I should think of it, but I’m doing it as a form of therapy for myself, so I could get through with things. You’ll notice that one of the things that people brought up when I first started doing “Underworld” is that they kept saying, “Ugh, you’re making jokes about death”. In the United States, it’s usually something you don’t make fun of because people don’t even want to think about their mortality.
Everybody knows — everybody dies. But nobody wants to be like, “Why would you want to sit around and think about it all that long?”
No, I don’t. [Laughs] But I have pushed my mind away from thinking about it to go on and enjoy life. I’m older now, I just turned 59, next year I’ll be 60, and I’m feeling my mortality because I go to a doctor. They’re telling me, “This is happening to you, and this is happening to you.” I do think about it. I have been thinking about it lately, and I want to die happy. I want to have a happy death, and I don’t want to die and think, “I could’ve done this. I should’ve done that.” I don’t want to think about all the pain I caused or whatever. I have a friend who’s going through a severe disease, and I see him slowly deteriorating. It’s sad to see that because he’s very vital. He’s younger than me.
I think that’s an okay legacy. Obviously, SpongeBob is going to override everything because it’s just a significant pop cultural thing, even of my own work. But I’m hoping if you find that, you’ll find my own work. When I got sick with ulcerative colitis in the late eighties or early nineties, I was working on a story, a comic strip called a “Sidetrack City”, which was a collection. I must have been about two-thirds of the way through it. I was convinced I was dying because of what was happening to me physically — losing weight. There was no diagnosis of what was going on with me. I thought I had AIDS. All I could think about was I’ve got to finish this story. I can’t die and not finish this story. I believe that the story just kept me going. If you read the story, you’ll see that towards the end, I’m wrapping things up rather quickly. There are things like big word balloons, I’m explaining what to story was. Otherwise, the story would have gone on. It took me two to three years to do the story. It would’ve gone on for another two years because I was doing it on the side of doing other work. But I really needed to finish. I don’t know why, but I really needed to tell this story.
It’s not a long story, but I worked on the pages as if they were works of art, I was really designing the pages.
I think it’s like a belief. At the end of the book, it says, “What do I believe?” I was going through that in my own mind at that particular time. I was living with this artist, his name is , and we did a lot of experiments with LSD at that time. We were reading philosophy, quantum mechanics and science, and we would wake up in the morning and just throw a concept at each other and go, “Whoa, what the heck?” Then we would try to do that in the throes of a psychedelic experience too. He was very adept at painting and working when he was on it, whereas I would just look at the page and try to capture things. We were reading a lot of weird stuff, just trying to rearrange our brains for some reason. But we found it fun, too. That comic strip came out of all those conversations and all.
The conspiracy theories somehow always worked their way in. At the time, Desert Storm was happening, and Bush was president, and so we were reading all these magazines that came out. It was crazy, and we were just scaring the hell out of ourselves. There’s this dark thing and this doing all this and we have no control of the world. People were pulling strings around us. That had a lot to do with that because it was this idea that architects were creating the city. To create these, little dust devil winds move stuff around in order to confuse people about what’s real and what’s not real, which now seems very Trump-like to me. But yes, we were playing with those ideas.
What do you mean four dimensions?
No, there is more than that. There has to be more than that, right? You can say there are 10, but then they can tell there’s even more because they don’t even know where dimension light comes from. So yes, there’s definitely a lot more. If you think about it too hard, your mind expands a little bit about that, but I also find it frustrating because I can’t access those dimensions. I couldn’t walk through them.
My wife and I were really into — I don’t remember the writer, but he wrote a book called The Holographic Universe. It’s basically saying that the structure of the universe is holographic. We went to see a lecture by him at the cyclical Society of New York, which was very fun because he explained the idea of ghosts. He told the idea of objects moving from the mind and all that wonderful stuff. But yes, I definitely believe there are more dimensions.
I’m walking through them, but they can be really, really small.
Earlier this year, I talked to Alan Lightman, a writer with a background in theoretical physics. He’s quite frustrated because he says there’s no more reason to teach physics to kids. We believed earlier that we could find out everything about universal truths. Whether it’s multiverse or string theory or another theory, it’s obvious that we can’t enter those other universes. We can’t find out and test it.
I can understand that frustration.
Through your imagination, obviously, you can do that. I could have entered Lithuania in my imagination, but I decided actually to come here physically.
[Laughs] Probably the shallow reason is it’s just escapism. I wanted to leave this world and enter into a different world, depending on what kind of fucked-up you mean. There’s alcohol that just kind of numbs you and makes you “liquidy”, psychedelics expand your mind — mushrooms grow your mind.
Well, as I said, there are different reasons for it. Alcohol is going to bring you down from that anxiety, hopefully. Depends on what kind of fucked-up you mean.
I was referring to one of the episodes from “Underworld” where the character said a punch line that was a justification for getting fucked up. The argument was that there is no reality. Everything is an illusion, basically, why worry?
Actually, I was making fun of the idea of the comic strip not being real, so why not just get fucked up and have fun? That could have been me playing in my mind a little bit. I have a wife, so I don’t just want to leave this world and shoot heroin just to escape. I like where I am now, I like the world, so I want to come back. I don’t want to leave forever in that sense. I don’t feel like I need to kill myself to get fucked up. But I think I do need to escape from reality and I need to tap into other things. If chemicals do that — I have not been able to do that through meditation, like yoga.
I guess I have to study hard enough to be like to be able to do something like that. If you have a life where other people’s lives aren’t dependent on you. I don’t know if you read any Terence McKenna. Still, he was this philosopher of mushrooms, and his whole philosophy was called the archaic revival. He wanted to bring back the idea that people use mushrooms as a way to enhance knowledge and better society. One of the things that he said at a lecture was, “When you’re born, you’re given this spacesuit. Your body is your spacesuit. Why not press all the buttons that you can?” [Laughs]
Of course. I think it definitely does. It depends on how you do it. Teenagers would just go in a parking lot and play Led Zeppelin, and they had no kind of experience. I’ve had experiences where I sit in a quiet room and — it’s probably your own brain — you’re tapping into a more significant thing. You’re asking a question, and hopefully, you get an answer. I remember doing probably the most powerful drug — it was called dimethyltryptamine, . It just lasted about two and a half minutes when you inhale it. Still, within an instant, with your eyes closed, boom you’re somewhere completely different. So you learn that the mind is not necessarily just encased in the skull, it’s connected. We came out of the earth, so we’re connected to everything. It depends on how you think about it and I’m sure different people think about different ways, they have various trips. It’s like language.
I didn’t really study meditation. I just felt I was at a time in my life where I needed to calm down. You’re just sitting in a room, and you have a teacher who guides you, it’s a guided meditation for relaxation. It wasn’t anything really intense at that point. It wasn’t like taking an and having a guru take you through something. It wasn’t like that at all.
Yes, but it was tough for me. It was very tough to calm my mind down. I got animated cartoons, rocket ships, everything flying through my head all the time. [Laughs]
I don’t think so. I’m still looking. I’m still reading and trying to learn about myself and the world. We all have a worldview that goes up to a certain point and then maybe stops working for us or we’re bored of it. Like, “Okay, well I did that already. Now I want to try to sell the worldview, let me try this other idea.” You must try ideas too. We all try ideas on.
I’m sure I have, but actually, I find them kind of dull. I think that the always reaching, always asking questions, still being curious — those are the people that I love. I like those guys, those girls, that never stop. [Laughs]
Mine, not at all. I don’t care. For some reason, it tends to be essential for other people, and I think that that’s ritual. I haven’t even really seriously thought about what to do. Do you want a headstone? Do you want to be cremated? I haven’t even really thought about that. Cremation, I guess. I just don’t want it to be a problem where somebody has to trip over me if I’m lying in the street, but it doesn’t matter to me. I’m not in it; I’m not in the body anymore. I’m gone. Unless I’m not. Unless I’m stuck in there, oh my God, that would be the most horrible reality ever, stuck in the coffin saying, “Please open up.” [Laughs]
People with become entombed. Their mind (not everybody but some people) is very sharp, but they can’t do anything. That’s horrible.
[Laughs] I used to make these lists where I’m just playing with language. At some point when I was younger, I played with the idea of wanting to be an actor because I wanted to be other people. I tried to step into other people’s lives, and I feel like I’m doing that as a writer and as an artist. I’m glad I’m not doing it as an actor because you’re not writing your own characters; you’re usually working on other people’s scripts. I haven’t tried creating different aliases for myself, but just in my imagination. Sure. Why not? We feel different at different times. We feel like different people many times. How many times has somebody said to you, “Wow, that’s not like you? You would never say that.” [Laughs]
Absolutely. I had lots of problems with my own identity. I never know how people perceive me, whether I’m a businessman or a medical doctor or a writer, or just some strange guy obsessed with different ideas. You remind me of what said that actors are pathetic. We despise actors because they can’t play themselves, they can only imitate somebody else.
I guess that they probably felt comfort in that, that they’re leaving themselves behind. They don’t have to be themselves and be like, “tell me what to do”. It’s almost like being a slave or something, you’re just subservient. Directors use that, and they understand that.
I like it. I think it’s great. I think some are obviously more beautiful and artistic to look at than others. Even I would sometimes get upset a little bit if somebody did some beautiful piece of artwork on the wall and then some asshole just comes up and does his tag saying, “Fuck you” But I like it. I think it’s great.
No. I’ve drawn on the walls. In New York, I went out and did posters with my artwork and stuff, but not a lot. I love seeing it. In the seventies and eighties, the subways in New York were just carved with this beautiful graffiti. It was weird when some of the artists would pick the thing that they’re going to draw. There was an underground cartoonist, in the 70s, who would draw these lizard characters and did another character called the teach wizard. For some reason, I guess maybe because of the spray paint that allows him to do that flowing kind of character, they started doing that. I just loved seeing that. To me it’s great, I love it. I would wish that I would see more different kinds of graffiti. Actually, it’s only started maybe about 10 years ago, when people use stencils, you see people using a baroque style of graffiti. They go through art history, and that’s always fun to see, all these different things.
Yes, I do. But my wife is a book buyer, so there are a lot of books that come into the house, and there’s always book reviews, and sometimes I’ll latch onto certain things. One contemporary writer that I like these days very much is, . I remember reading, I can’t remember the name of the book, but it was a novella about this sailor from the 1800s.
He was a completely horrible, drunk bastard. I remember reading this novella and thinking, “Wow”. This young woman wrote this novel, and she has an Iranian background. How did she do that? How did she tap into this crazy, wild drunk guy? The end of the story is almost like a punch in the face. It’s very funny once you get to the end of it.
I was fascinated by her, and I’ve read a couple of her short stories that I liked, and she wrote a book called “Eileen”, that I loved. It’s about this girl living with her father. What’s very cool about it is, she’s not afraid of her character-revealing gross things about being a woman. I talked to my wife, and my wife goes, “You don’t know that being a woman is kind of gross and other women will never tell you this.” So I thought it was really cool that she was able to reveal this stuff.
I’m reading her new novel now, which is going a little bit more slowly. I think it’s called “”. It’s about a woman who decides to take a whole year off entirely and just sleep all day, go out, get drugs from her doctor and, just hangs out, sleep and just completely numb herself. She was just describing her life. It’s a little slower because it doesn’t have the kind of narrative pull that a lot of stories have, but I love her writing. It’s amazing. I love the writing that creates these little explosions in your head like boom, boom. [Laughs] The best compliment for me is like, “I wish I wrote that. I wish I did that” because I get jealous when I see something that’s so good.
[Laughs] Well, it’s very funny. I’ll reveal something about my ego. Sometimes I will go back and read some of my older stuff, and I’ll laugh. I’ll go, “Oh my God, I was so good at that.” “Who was that guy?” [Laughs]
Yes, but my wife is good at stopping me with that kind of stuff. I think a lot of that stuff probably has more to do with this sort of a shallow impulse that I have, like, I want to be mean right now, and I want to say something nasty and stupid. The problem nowadays, because of social media, that silly thing you said goes around the world so quickly. So sometimes I do have to think about that. I have written emails or posts, and I’m about to send, and then I’ll go — “You know what, let me see how I feel tomorrow morning about this particular thing.” I think we have to protect ourselves. We have to be a little guarded.
The character can say anything. I do not hold back with that. My excuse is that it’s not me. Its crib rat was talking, but it’s me, it’s the essence of me coming through. But lots of times when I do that, even in a comic strip, I’ll really think about it. I’m like, “Is this how I really feel or am I just trying to be shocking for the fact of being shocking because that’s too easy to do.” So usually if it’s shocked just for the point of being shocked, sometimes I don’t do it. I feel like it’s too stupid or too easy. I have done it if there’s a deadline and the comic strip has to be in on Monday morning, and I can’t change it and let it go through. [Laughs] But I can’t think of anything that I feel wrong about.
It all depends because I did a comic strip about that.
I don’t think Beckett would say that. That sounds like something a comedic writer would say. Probably somebody in the 1940s or 1950s said something like that. But yes, I did a comic strip about that where a character goes to church, and there’s the story of Christ. It wasn’t that funny. It should’ve been funny because there are 2000 years in between. [Laughs] But you can’t make fun of it. [Laughs] I’ve done Jesus Christ on the cross jokes. I find that funny. I don’t know what that space in time is. I guess everybody has their own.
For instance, I was telling you that when I had colitis, my pain was so bad. One morning I woke up and it was so, so wrong. It was almost as if somebody took an ice pick and just shoved it up to my butt. It was that bad, but I started laughing. I couldn’t believe the pain was so bad. In that sense, there was no time. The pain was happening, my tragedy was happening, and I was laughing right away. [Laughs]
Sounds like a Yogi thing. The thing that I really loved in that book was on page 69. I noticed a poem about a long, saved smile — when a character wanted to save a smile until he dies, so he lived a miserable life without smiling.
Right. The death grin. [Laughs]
Well, I’m basically saying — have a life. No, obviously, I’m trying to be funny. So I’m doing all these extreme things. But the ending of that particular comic strip is: then, and only then, can you draw fuzzy and delightful things. It’s funny because it came out from a real thing. I was reading about these cartoonists who were animators in the 1940s and 1930s in Hollywood and even in New York. They couldn’t find work doing animation because business changed, so they were drawing funny animal comics. These were hard, grizzled, alcoholics doing these fuzzy, fuzzy things. So it was my sort of making fun of that. I actually don’t necessarily think you have to have that intense life. I think you have to think about life. You have to be a deep thinker. You could be a young person but be really smart and have really wonderful deep thoughts.
I think about , who wrote all these amazing poems and he was very young. He didn’t do it anymore — gun runner, right? He got sick and died. So live a life, a real life. Travel and meet people, learn how to have fun, learn how to do things, or you can have an inner life. You could teach yourself how to have an inner life.
You could intellectually travel in your mind, hopefully, if you’re smart enough at an early age too. You’re probably an intelligent man. Is that how you got here? I was not, I was a dumbass. I was a bad student, a horrible student. My reading and writing were terrible, but I always had imagination. My head was always out of the window as I was still thinking about things.
Yes. A lot of effort. You have to stay on the track when you’re thinking about something. It takes discipline.
Yes, I think so. There’s a lot of potential out there, but there’s a lot of people too. They don’t all have to think. I don’t want my cab driver to be thinking philosophical thoughts when he’s driving me home. Maybe when he gets home and lights up a pipe or whenever, he can do it. But I don’t think most people do. It’s true. It’s painful to think about things. My mother would say smart people are unhappy. She would say that to me, but I disagree with her. I think intelligent people can be unfortunate and obviously get depressed about the world and everything in the world. But if you’re smart enough, you’re also happy because you could see what’s amazing and incredible about the world.
I could get silly about it — just life itself and being in this room and touching an object — it’s so beautiful. You’re alive, you’re doing things, but not everybody wants to think that way all the time. I don’t think that way all the time. You don’t think that way all the time.