The Pennys Dreadful


John Bardeen
Julie Larson is the “warped, beautiful” mind behind “The Dinette Set,” which skewers suburbia in daily single panels and double color on Sundays. “The whole basis of the cartoon started out as mass consumerism,” she says. “These people were completely obsessed with shopping.”
L. Brian Stauffer Photo

By Mary Timmins

Pudgy and pasty, with big mouths and tiny minds, Burl and Joy Penny are the folks you love to loathe, the ones who claw at big-box bargains and brag about their above-ground swimming pools and pronounce that drinking diet soda leads righteously to weight loss. They waddle their way through suburban America, barging around its malls and chain restaurants and housing developments, and you can only pray that they don’t settle down next door to you.

Most of all, they suck up oxygen – especially from the mind of Julie Harris Larson ’82 FAA.

As creator of “The Dinette Set,” the Pennys’ syndicated cartoon home, Larson knows her characters as only a mother, of sorts, can. From their perch on the funny pages – or, in some cases, wedged in among the classifieds like hunks of detritus from yard sales past – Burl and Joy reveal themselves daily in single panels (Sundays go to double-wide) as reverse role models for anyone who aspires to live the examined life.

“These characters are pitiful,” Larson said. “But they’re not pitiful to themselves. They’re happy as clams.”

Polls by some of the 70-odd newspapers that carry “The Dinette Set” nationwide have consistently placed it among the five comics most popular among readers. Other polls have consistently placed it among the five least popular.

One editor reassured Larson that high hate marks in cartoon surveys are a good thing, because, Larson said, “that means people are reading the comic, to react like that.” When such newspapers as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The News-Sentinel in Fort Wayne, Ind., dropped “The Dinette Set,” reader outcry soon reinstated the Penny clan.

“We got really heartfelt letters, saying, ‘I love it – I clip it and send it back to relatives in the Midwest,’” said the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s assistant managing editor Janet Grimley, who oversaw the hubbub when the comic got dropped 10 years ago. “We added it back within two weeks.”

Yes, America both cherishes and despises the pooched-out brood of “The Dinette Set,” which includes such singularities as Verla Darwin, of the cat glasses, and her toupee-topped suitor, Jerry Zwank. Their inflated rationalizations and smug non sequiturs are of a piece with the old observation by an anonymous wag that “when the American public walks, its knuckles scrape the ground.”

Satire being catharsis, Larson has accumulated a grateful following, whose e-mailed comments run to such outpourings as:

I have worked with a Burl. I have lived next door to a Joy. You are always on the mark, but on days when you are REALLY on the mark, my thoughts turn to moving as far north in Canada as I can.

OR

The characters remind me (painfully) of my own family when I was growing up – mundane and humorless, and accidentally the cause of much humor in others.

OR

… you have a warped, beautiful mind.

John Bardeen
For Larson, the Pennys “don’t covet having a Jaguar. But they will spend money on a BarcaLounger.”

When Jerry’s recent Valentine’s gift of special underwear to Verla included a bag she could put over his head, a reader e-mailed Larson asking, “How did you slip that one by your editors?”

Larson’s command of her cartoon world feeds on a counterintuitive affinity with the annoying family she’s birthed – an affinity she said readers share, too. “A lot of people enjoy seeing Burl giving it to someone or just saying it like it is,” she said. “They play Burl and Joy when they’re out. They talk in obnoxious tones and gush over a silly product on the shelves.” While “The Dinette Set” is carried in newspapers across the country, its essential sensibility emanates, like a waste gas, from the heartland. “The fact that ‘The Dinette Set’ is popular and understood around the country is because, I think, so many Midwesterners have transplanted themselves all over. New York does not, I don’t think, get it,” Larson said. “Or Boston. I don’t know if Boston would understand it.”

“I’m generalizing just like my characters right now.”

A native of little Lincoln, Illinois (population circa 15,000), the future cartoonist began her career as an architect and designer in California and Chicago, enjoying a success for which she credits “the power of a degree from Illinois.” Then it was on to mysteries of marriage, motherhood and Park Ridge, each more intractable than the one before it. Larson’s feelings about this phase of her life are explicit in the title of the comic she began creating back in 1989: “Suburban Torture,” a stinging send-up of vicious-teethed suburbanites, fattening on retail and gossip. The L.A. Reader, an alternative weekly, loved it, and so did L.A.

With expansion, though, came syndication, and with syndication came softening. The Pennys are “less rough around the edges” than their predecessors, Larson said, noting that, “When you’re syndicated, you really have to keep things – cheerful.” Verboten topics include politics, religion and death.

A new name was also de rigeuer. “I’ve always hated dinette sets. … I think the worst ones are on casters, so people can roll themselves around the refrigerator,” Larson noted of the comic’s rechristening. “That is the dinette set itself, where [the Pennys] sit and talk. And they are a set. It does define them.”

For the past five years, Larson has led her life in Lincoln, having moved homeward from Park Ridge as a single mom with three daughters: Genevieve, a UI sophomore who proofreads her mother’s cartoon quips (“Good English did not get beat into me enough,” Larson observed); high school senior Britta, who will join her sister on the Urbana campus this fall; and Christina, a high school sophomore. (The cartoonist’s mother and two of Larson’s five siblings also hold degrees from the U of I.) Larson has published five collections of “The Dinette Set” cartoons, including the latest, called “The Entitled”; has launched a line of “The Dinette Set” apparel; and is seeking other ways to make the Pennys pay beyond a newspaper world stuck in “1955 rates.”

Whatever the temptations posed by the Mel-O-Cream Donuts shop at the center of town and the Carhartt-clad farmers who take coffee and carbs there, Larson insists on the continuing suburban sensibility of “The Dinette Set.”

“I don’t have them in a Lincoln setting,” she said. “They wouldn’t survive in Lincoln.”

Editor’s note: Julie Larson invites reader comments on “The Dinette Set.” Visit  www.thedinetteset.com.

 

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