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Color Me Happy at the ToonSeum

on Wed, 02/12/2014 - 00:00

Color Me Happy Exhibit
When the McLoughlin Brothers published the first coloring book during the 1880s, little did they know that millions of childhoods would never be the same again. Around that same time, British artist Joshua Reynolds and Swiss educator Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi became early advocates of art being part of a young child’s education—arguing that it helped in their overall development—making coloring books not only a fun activity but a tangible teaching aid as well.

Over 125 years later, meanwhile, those same coloring books became a source of comic entertainment for residents of the Steel City thanks to a handful of local comedians and newspaper columnists from the Pittsburgh region. For its February 2014 “Color Me Happy” exhibit, the ToonSeum took actual pages from the 1950s coloring book collection of Western Publishing and distributed them to a small number of Pittsburgh-based comedic talents. Each was then asked to construct an original tagline for the images, with the best ones placed on display at the Liberty Avenue museum of the comic and cartoon arts.

Visitors to the exhibit were likewise encouraged to create their own captions, and were given post-it notes that could be fastened to the wall next to the artwork. “This is one of the most unique and interactive exhibitions we have ever presented,” Joe Wos, founding executive director of the ToonSeum, explained at the time. “It is a chance for our guests to express their own sense of humor and become a part of the exhibition as well.”

Among the local creative-types selected to participate in “Color Me Happy” were local standup comedians Mike Buzzelli and Terry Jones. It was not the first time that the duo have been involved with the ToonSeum, as both performed during the 2013 version of the ToonSeum’s annual Comics for Comics fundraiser.

“I like to keep in on knowing what’s going on at the ToonSeum,” Buzzelli explained of his continued support of the non-profit museum. “I’m an avid geek, nerd, whatever you want to call it. I still collect comics. I’m a comedian and I collect comics and I get really angry when people call me a comic because I like to say I’m a comedian. When I think of comics, I think of these little fluffy magazines with color pictures.”

Terry Jones is likewise a strong supporter of both the comic arts in general and the ToonSeum in particular. “I’m a huge fan of the ToonSeum, huge fan of comic books, cartoons,” he added. “Everything animated. I just love what you can do with animation and all art. I used to be an art major at one point in time and I grew up doing art. My mom was an artist, her dad was an artist. It fascinates me. The fact that you can take something that’s fictional and make it relatable to somebody in the living world always amazes me. So that’s why I like the ToonSeum so much. It just makes you feel like the big kid that you should.”

Although crayons were not involved, all of the participants in “Color Me Happy” let their “big kid” shine in the captions they created for the exhibit nonetheless. “Their cheerful grins belied their overwhelming and uncontrollable urge to maul,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist Eric Heyl wrote under the picture of a two cuddly bears dressed as sailors.

For a drawing of a bride and groom cutting a wedding cakes, meanwhile, WQED documentarian Rick Sebak added the tagline, “Just remember I can stab you as easy as I stab this cake,” while former morning radio host Jimmy Krenn had a small cat asking a much larger vacuum cleaner the question, “Did they neuter you too?” Other participants included Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial cartoonist Rob Rogers, members of the Arcade Comedy Theater and Joe Wos.

“It’s interesting to be given something that everybody is given,” Mike Buzzelli said of the experience. “Given the same product, the same picture and how many people came up with different ones. Seeing even other people participating by putting up post-its, and seeing what they came up with. I think it’s really fun that you can look at a picture and think of something funny about it. And then somebody else can come along and see something completely different in the same exact picture but be just as funny.”

While the above observation may be true, there is also the old adage that great minds think alike. “I see that there were a couple of people who had the same ideas,” Terry Jones commented during the opening reception for “Color Me Happy” on February 7, 2014. “We didn’t even meet each other or anything, or talk to each other but we kind of had the same ideas. I saw captions and went, ‘Hey, mine was similar,’ so I understand why they didn’t use it.”

In addition to being standup comedians, both Mike Buzzelli and Terry Jones were avid coloring book enthusiasts in their youth. “I used to not like the paint-by-numbers things but I did like coloring books,” Buzzelli remembered. Coloring books that contained superheroes were among his favorites, although one particular comic book character always gave him trouble. “Spider-Man is really, really hard to color,” he explained. “Even though it’s just red and blue, you have to watch the little black lines and there’s just all that stuff. I tried to draw him. He’s even harder to draw.”

Terry Jones agreed. “It is hard to color Spider-Man,” he said. “When I used to draw Spider-Man, you had to draw the lines afterwards, and when you’re a kid you don’t know any better so you try to color each individual square. You don’t know that you can color over the squares. It does make it difficult, especially because you have to really know Spider-Man’s colors to really get it right.”

Fortunately for both Mike Buzzelli and Terry Jones, Spider-Man was not part of the exhibit. Crayons were not a necessity either. And although both Buzzelli and Jones have artistic abilities of their own, it was their comedic talents that mattered the most for “Color Me Happy.”

“I actually just stared at the pictures and just thought of the funniest things that I could possibly think of that just didn’t make sense,” Jones explained with a laugh. “These things are pretty funny. I think it’s kind of hard to come up with the caption but once you stare at it long enough you kind of have a good idea.”

It wasn’t just the ideas that Terry Jones and his fellow participants came up with that were “good,” however, but the entire concept of the event as well. Although officially classified as a museum that caters to the comic and cartoon arts, the ToonSeum has consistently developed projects and sponsored events that are amongst the most unique and original in Pittsburgh—making it a “must see” experience for residents and visitors of the Steel City alike.

“I’m thrilled to do anything I can for the ToonSeum,” Mike Buzzelli said, expressing his own enthusiasm for the Liberty Avenue museum. “I love coming down here, and I want everyone to come visit the ToonSeum.”

He then paused before adding for extra emphasis, “Everyone!”

Anthony Letizia

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