Many people know Bruce Eric Kaplan as BEK, the longtime cartoonist for The New Yorker. But he’s also worked as a writer on the iconic TV shows “Six Feet Under” and “Seinfeld,” where he penned the episode in which Elaine was enraged by a cryptic New Yorker cartoon.
To say that Kaplan, 46, is versatile is an understatement: In his spare time he’s authored eight books, most recently his whimsical black comedy “Everything is Going to Be OK: A Book For You Or Someone Like You.” The tome is, in his words, a “little picture book for adults” —specifically college graduates freaking out about their future – or anyone else battling existential crises.
In the sparely drawn tome – which Kaplan dedicates “to the human race, who will sit through anything, especially nowadays,” an office drone named Edmund is inexplicably asked to give the commencement address at a graduation ceremony. After an OK start, he literally can’t stop talking, as his wife, Rosemary watches in horror. Days and then months pass, as Edmund tries too hard to be profound, babbles parables and clichés – and finally reaches an unexpected epiphany.
I caught up with Kaplan, who lives in Los Angeles, by phone from New York, where he is a writer and co-executive producer on “Girls,” Judd Apatow’s upcoming HBO half-hour comedy, starring Lena Dunham (“Tiny Furniture”), about five young women in Brooklyn who sound like they could use a nice pep talk from Edmund. “It’s about girls out of college trying to figure out what to do with their lives,” Kaplan said. “The connection for me between the book and the show is the questioning: ‘Why are we here? What are we doing? And how do we make our time here meaningful?’”
Kaplan jokes that one could “blame Judaism” for his penchant for almost Talmudic questioning. His New Jersey childhood was “high-end Conservative,” he said, and his parents’ bookshelves overflowed with cultural touchstones such as “The Chosen.”
“I’ve tried psychotherapy, yoga, meditation, and the questioning goes away to a degree, but I’m still kind of plagued by it,’” he said.
Kaplan was bored and hot during his own graduation speech at Wesleyan University in 1986. But in his 20s, he was mesmerized by the commencement speeches he saw broadcast one after the other one day on a cable channel. “It was so beautiful watching these individuals who were in a way sending a message out to people in the world,” Kaplan said. “What I like about graduation speeches is that they’re an opportunity for someone to make sense of their life and to impart that wisdom to someone else. It’s like a sanctioned self-help moment,” said Kaplan, who admitted, “I can’t get enough of self-help books of all kinds.”
What was Kaplan up to after his own college graduation? “In my 20s, what I most recall is obsessing over, ‘I want to be something, but what should I be?’” he said. “I started trying to be a writer and failed for years. I tried novels, short stories, sitcoms, movies, plays, anything. And then to support myself I had millions of jobs on the fringes of show business.”
That’s when Kaplan decided he should be a cartoonist for The New Yorker, despite his utter lack of experience. But he had loved New Yorker cartoons as a child, and had enjoyed drawing. So, armed with little except his own conviction, he checked out a book on how to be a cartoonist from the Beverly Hills public library; a chapter on The New Yorker informed him that prospective artists should send 10 to 15 drawings plus a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the editors for consideration.
Kaplan promptly did so; he figured he could succeed with James Thurber-esque, single panel cartoons—and was astonished when his drawings were returned with a form letter. “I was really hurt, but I was crazy in my 20s,” he said. “Part of me was always sure I would get everything, and another voice said, ‘This will never happen.’”
Yet Kaplan persevered, turning out hundreds of drawings (all of them rejected) over the next few years. His cover letters went from polite to well, not: “Here are 10 cartoons that any other f—-ing magazine in the world would publish except for you ass——-s,” he said by way of example.
Around the same time Kaplan got his first television-writing job, however, a Federal Express envelope with an offer arrived instead of the usual rejection form. “A letter inside said, ‘I know you think we haven’t been looking at your stuff all this time, but we have,’” he recalled.
Kaplan has now published three volumes of his New Yorker work from over the past 20 years. When the “locovore” (eat local) movement became all the rage, his cartoon featured a shark, chomping on a human arm, telling another shark: “I’m trying to eat more locals.”
Kaplan’s witty and mordant sensibility came in handy when he worked as a scribe and co-executive producer on “Six Feet Under,” Alan Ball’s acclaimed series about the trials and tribulations of the Fisher family and their Los Angeles funeral parlor. Kaplan wrote the episode in which the teenaged Claire Fisher loses a foot (yes, a foot) stolen from the mortuary; he also penned the one in which a friendless woman chokes on her TV dinner and is only discovered dead in her apartment a week later. Titled “The Invisible Woman,” the 2002 episode explored the quandry, “Does a life have meaning if you can’t pinpoint the meaning?”
“Actually I think that ‘Seinfeld’ tackles the same kinds of issues as ‘Six Feet Under,’ just in a different way,” Kaplan said. “While one is funny and seems to deal with minutia, and the other is more somber and deals with larger issues, they’re both concerned with an examination of our lives. You can have a classic Seinfeldian conversation about that or you can have the Nate and David [Fisher] argument, but ultimately they’re the same thing.”
Kaplan is tackling more existential angst on “Girls:” “I’ve been rewriting an episode that is all about the lead character questioning her ability to be a writer and if she even deserves to be a writer,” he said. And how will Kaplan make that humorous? “She’s upset, and any time anyone is upset, it’s funny,” he said.
You can order Kaplan’s book at http://www.amazon.com/Everything-Going-Be-Okay-Someone/dp/1416556923. “Girls” will premiere on HBO in 2012.