Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell loves small talk. This personality trait serves her beyond just being good at interacting with strangers — it’s a focal point of her work. Her most recent project, What Did I Do Today?: A Record of Stuff You’ve Already Accomplished (out January 10), showcases her keen eye for details and the hilarity of the everyday. On top of that, Campbell’s first-ever gallery show, called TODAY, debuts this Thursday, January 5 at ArtsClub in Manhattan.
The New Yorker cartoonist and filmmaker spoke with Greenpointers about her latest projects, her advice for aspiring cartoonists, and her love of Law & Order.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I love the idea of an anti-productivity journal, especially after a pandemic. How did the project come together for you?
Some days, I would look at my to-do lists and I had crossed out what I said I was going to do and I wrote in what I really did, and I thought it was funny, if I said I was gonna work on my book and go to an exercise class, and then none of that happened. I started writing in “cried in Target for no reason” and “ended up on a call with mom for two hours” then “sort of worked.”
It really entertained me, to kind of compare what I said I was going to do with what I really did. It started in planners, but then I started to legitimately make those lists at the end of the day. I called them “Today Lists.” On top of just keeping my regular to-do lists, at the end of the day, I’d write down everything that happened that day, just quick bullet points and whether it was things I saw or felt or really did, and I only gave myself one page. I started sharing those on Instagram, and they got really popular…it really started to feel like poetry in a weird way. Like, took a walk, did something really normal, and then would have some horrible deep thought like “Oh my God, when are my parents going to die?” Not only did I start to get a really positive response with people saying they looked forward to them and finding the little gems in them, but then also I had people writing to me that they were making their own lists, and I thought that was really cool.
For me, not only was it a nice process to look at my days, but it also helped me as a writer and artist. I have so much anxiety about keeping track of things so I don’t lose a thought or idea that I could potentially make something out of later, so I have the neurotic part of me that feels like I have to write literally everything down. I don’t always have time to do that, but instead of trying to draw full comics or essays about something, when I started to keep bullet points, just for future ideas, it was kind of a nice way to fight writer’s block and just sort of keep track of things without pressuring myself to draw a full comic.
I’ve been doing those since 2018 or 2019. At the same time, I started doing this thing called “Seen Scenes.” I remember talking with my boyfriend about feeling so disconnected from New York and working from home. I’ve worked from home longer than for pandemic reasons, like most artists, I just work out of my apartment, and I sometimes feel like, why the hell do I live here when I’m just in my apartment trying to work all the time? I don’t have an office to go to, I don’t always have the best sense of community. I mean, now I really don’t, because the New Yorker’s office isn’t open, but I know that a lot of artists feel that way, especially cartoonists. We’re all freelancers so none of us have a space to go into. I was looking to feel more connected to New York and my boyfriend and I came up with this idea that I’d pick five things that I’d seen that week anywhere in New York and just start drawing them. It could be anything that I thought was interesting or funny or sad or beautiful.
I started doing that and it did make me feel more connected, because I was looking outward a lot more, and trying to find things in the city and in the neighborhood that were just a part of the community and the beautiful weird nature that is New York. It started to become a Sunday series, and they were all over the place, from seeing a guy with a pig walking down Second Avenue to overheard conversations, to something maybe more beautiful that I’ve seen, and it really did make me feel like I had more of a reason to be out in New York, and it became something I really started to look forward to. Same thing with the lists.
All of these new practices I was building in my own creative process that were helping me feel connected with myself and my community and helping fight writer’s block, I realized I could put that into a journal but for me, all the self-help crap in the world is so much about, like, do more and feel more productive and get everything done, and it’s like, that is so overwhelming and also bullshit. If I begged myself to do more, more, more, then I only would feel more anxiety. I wanted to make something that could exist in the self-help world, but was more about “literally do less.” Look more at what you already have everyday, and what you experience accidentally, and how much more interesting that can be.
You have an exhibit opening up on January 5, “TODAY: 10 Years of Cartooning.” I imagine if you’re someone who produces work every day, that means you have a lot to pull from. What was that curation process like?
The fun thing about cartoonists is that we’re not very precious, because we have to be drawing at least 10 new pieces a week, at minimum. I’ve got hundreds if not thousands, just piled up in boxes. I also work on paper. A lot of people work digitally now, but I don’t.
The gallery is under a specific theme. I have all types of work that I wanted to pull together stuff that also did have to do kind of with the themes of the book, since they’re coming out at the same time. The exhibit is just called “Today.” I wanted to bring together work that was specifically about small moments in your day to day life. Stuff that’s more focused on everyday, silly, small things and thinking about sketchbook stuff and small talk and the minutiae of life. That has been the key words in pulling together which pieces I’m having in the exhibit, and I’ve also been producing some new work for it, but it is mostly a collection of all these past years.
I’m still in the middle of it, I’m laughing at myself, like “What do you think about this one?” It is quite hard. I’ve been having my friends come over and help me, like, “look at all these hundreds of cartoons!” and “what do you think?” So I’ve been trying to pull definitely some of my most famous ones, but also some of the ones that for me, are my personal favorites that fall into those categories that maybe weren’t as funny to everybody else, but we all have our works that we love more. It’s gonna also incorporate my lists and also my sketchbooks will be on display, because so much of my work really just comes from me doodling, and now for the past several years, just walking around Greenpoint. I feel like I truly am always on a walk with my dog. But I’m so excited, I just can’t believe that I have a gallery, after all these years. I moved to New York almost 10 years ago, and it’s so wild to me.
I’m also teaching two workshops there, that are basically going to incorporate everything I’m telling you right now. The workshop is some basics of cartooning but also all of the processes that I’ve put into the What Did I Do Today? journal, and how to start making these lists, and how to pull from them, and pull funny jokes out of those lists and turn those personal ideas from your life into cartoons. They’re on January 20 and 28.
ArtsClub, it’s a really cool new gallery, the way they have the art. All the exhibits they’ve had in the past few years are with teaching artists. You have the art up, but you’re also going to learn from that artist, which I think is a really cool thing that they do.
Did you notice any trends or evolution over those 10 years?
For anyone who draws, it’s really interesting to look back and watch your work basically just get better. I look back at stuff from years and years ago, and I can’t believe how I draw a face or something. But it’s also really cool, like I’ve seen myself really improve just by the sheer amount of work I have to put out every week. I’ve counseled some younger cartoonists and they’re like “Well, how do I get better?” And all I can tell you is to draw everyday. You have to draw every single day, and you will naturally improve. There’s no other way to go about it. The first time I went into the New Yorker to see Bob Mankoff, the editor then, I handed him my first batch of cartoons, and he handed them back to me, and he said, “You need to draw 500 cartoons before you see me again.” I obviously didn’t do that, I was back the next week, but in a way he was right. You just have to keep drawing and drawing. A hilarious and a horrifying thing he said to me, but it did not deter me!
In looking at all my work, I really see that I am, and this is why I wanted the show to be like this, very focused on the minutiae of life, and just sort of small moments of hilarity. I’m also a documentary filmmaker, and that’s the kind of stuff I focus on in my films as well. All my work is very focused on the phrase “small talk.”
I think it comes from where I grew up in California, all day, every day, my neighbors were running in and out of each other’s homes, just gabbing to each other 24/7. I was the youngest of five kids, and I just loved watching everyone run in and out and complain about their days. That was my favorite thing, like “What happened at the grocery store? Tell me everything!” I’m still like that, I just wanna hear everyone’s really small, tiny, weird things that happen throughout the day, and I think that has a lot to do with my work…and especially in Greenpoint, my God, do I love the funny shit that happens around here.
How does living in Greenpoint influence your work?
I love what a community Greenpoint is, it makes me feel more like, just in the fact that in probably the first two months here, I just started to see the same people on the street everyday, and you just start building funny relationships with people that you see at the coffee shop and see at the pharmacy. I love all the characters around here. For me at least, everyone’s so open to speaking with each other. And it’s the thing that I yearn for, basically, because I grew up in such a small town. I want to talk to everyone. I’m chatty, and I wanna talk, I’m not like “Don’t look at me, don’t talk to me, I’m busy.” Please tell me what happened to you today, I’m dying to hear it!
Every time I go to the pharmacy, I go to Markowa Apteka on Manhattan Avenue. Every time I’m in there, something hilarious happens. All of the wonderful Polish people in the neighborhood are ready to talk to me. I love the guy that stops everyone on the street to talk to them about their dog. He’s an old Polish man, and he stops me probably five times a week to tell me, “You are a beautiful soul because you take care of animals” and “You need to know that you’re filled with compassion.” And he says the same thing every time. And he turns to my dog, Margie, and without fail, he goes, “I’m writing a book about dogs.” I look forward to seeing him.
I live on Eckford Street. It’s just a great community, and I think everyone’s hilarious here. It’s just quite entertaining. There’s the guy who sits outside of Paloma [Coffee and Bakery], he knows everyone. Everyone that walks by, he’s talking to them…I actually drew a cartoon about him, not that he would know it.
Greenpoint has a wonderful community and there’s a natural comedy on almost every corner. I used to live down below Prospect Park. I spent almost seven years there, and that was something I personally never really gained there. I loved being near Prospect Park, but I never really had that sense of community, and then as soon as I moved up here, it was like, oh my God, this is what I’ve always wanted. This is the New York I’ve wanted to experience, and I’m finally having those types of relationships.
Something I find interesting about your work is that I feel like cartoons are sort of a specific type of humor compared to live comedy or stand up, but you’ve been involved in a lot of those live comedy spaces. What’s it like to bring those two worlds together?
For me, it’s obvious, but not all cartoonists feel this way. There are a lot of cartoonists who are stand-ups. Not all of them, but there’s a lot of them. I also naturally love talking and love being on stage. They really influence each other but they’re not the same. The way that you tell a joke on stage, and then how that joke could be transferred into a cartoon, they’re very different deliveries, but they could have the same core piece to it. When I’m working on my stand up material, it’s a really great exercise for my brain.
It’s really good for helping you to be a better comedy writer. You know you really think more about the punchline, and you think about what’s the essence of the joke. There’s similar topics with stuff I talk about on stage versus my cartooning, but the tone and the delivery is different. It just helps me out a lot, and I used to do more standup. I mean, the pandemic obviously threw a lot of comedians. So many comedians I know were like “Before the pandemic we were all out every night doing mics and doing shows and just constantly giving your whole body and soul to stand up, and after two years off of it, it’s like, I don’t have to torture myself like that anymore!” Now I only do it if I’m booked, which is a much healthier standpoint for me personally.
Many cartoonists are more shy, and their comedy comes out on paper, so they don’t do stand up. Jason Chatfield is a wonderful cartoonist who also does stand up, Victor Varnado, Emily Flake, we actually do a whole show together where we do rejected New Yorker cartoons, we do stand up with them.
Last year you released a memoir, Murder Book, about your love of true crime. You love Law & Order which famously films in Greenpoint. Have you ever seen the show film up close?
[Laughs] I can’t handle it! This year, it’s so little to probably somebody else, but the biggest accomplishment of my life is that Law & Order bought some of my paintings. It’s in the background of one of the episodes, and you can’t even see them. But I was screaming bloody murder, and I absolutely had a watch party.
It’s the highlight of my life to see where Law & Order films, because lately it’s every goddamn street. Between SVU, the new Law & Order, and Organized Crime, they’re everywhere! My favorite thing that happened last fall, I was out really early in the morning with my dog, and the Law & Order crew was unloading their trucks, and I was just, like, begging for someone to talk to me. I literally kept walking by, like my dog will engage with one of these crew members. And finally, they did. One of the grips starts talking to me, because he wanted to say hi to Margie, she’s a great in for any conversation. And I start telling him that I’m so obsessed with Law & Order, like tell me everything, and it turns out this guy has been working since like the Jerry Orbach days. He’s giving my dog an entire bagel, and I was like, “that’s a lot of bread” but I don’t even care anymore, I just want to talk to you so badly…So I tell the guy how obsessed I am. I literally have it on all day, every day. And he looked at me, and he goes, “That’s not healthy.” [laughs] He was actually quite disturbed, it made me laugh so hard!
I have yet to see Christopher Meloni, he is so sneaky. I know he’s around, but he can’t be found!