Hollywood’s a town full of multitasking hyphenates, but Bruce Eric Kaplan might be its only practicing cartoonist-slash-producer.
He was credited as co-exec producer and scribe of a recent “Six Feet Under” episode, “The Trap.” Meanwhile, New Yorker readers recognize him as “BEK,” which is how he signs his sparse but telling cartoons.
His artwork is at once simple and sharp: clean line drawings complemented by biting commentary. It’s a universe populated by savvy animals, uptight gentry, precocious moppets and cynical industryites. Sometimes the worlds collide.
In one, a little girl chides her brother, “Why did you speak to Dad? He can’t greenlight anything.”
When not struggling as a TV writer in the early ’90s, Kaplan taught himself to draw. A library book explained the weekly submission process for New Yorker cartoons and, after years of sending drawings and receiving form rejection letters, he finally sold one.
“At most it was three years,” Kaplan recalls of the time it took. “But it felt like it was forever because it was happening every week.”
When it came time to staff HBO’s quirky “Six Feet Under,” Kaplan was an obvious choice. “He’s able to find humor in strange and sometimes painful places,” says series creator Alan Ball. “He’s able to capture that tone that’s both funny and sad, which is what our show is about.”
Ball was a fan of Kaplan’s cartoons before he first worked with him on sitcom “Cybill.”
“I basically flip through it to find the ‘BEK’ cartoons,” admits Ball on how he approaches the magazine.
These days, Kaplan still submits a weekly set of cartoons for possible publication. Working on the 13-episode “Six Feet Under” has helped normalize his schedule and gives him time to wear both hats.
“Even when the hours have been really bad for me as a TV person, I still have a weekend,” he says. “There’s still 48 hours for me to carve out some time.”
“He’s indispensable,” Ball declares. “He basically runs the writer’s room once we start production. I depend on him completely.”
Despite the continual hat-switching, Kaplan won’t label himself either cartoonist or writer-producer. “They’re both creative processes,” he explains. “Like cooking and gardening– it’s calling on different areas of your brain.”
Not surprisingly, his cartoons are a reflection of his own psyche. “They come from some sort of unconscious place. It’s what evolves from what stuff I was working out in my head,” he explains. “That happens in a script, too. . . Even if you have an outline, you never know what a character is going to say.”
“His lines are wonderfully crafted,” New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff says of Kaplan’s appeal. “He’s philosophizing, but you don’t feel like his characters are making wisecracks — they’re playing it straight. It’s the attitude that makes it.”
While a cartoonist has yet to appear in the Fisher & Diaz funeral home, Kaplan’s gigs have overlapped in the past. On an episode of “Seinfeld,” Elaine is confounded by a cryptic New Yorker cartoon and challenged to come up with her own. Kaplan was the writer behind that segment, but it wasn’t culled from his own imagination. Kaplan says he was inspired by a real-life cartoon-confusion scenario mentioned in Time magazine. “Because I draw cartoons, it was something that caught my eye.”
For a man showcasing his talent on two highly respected outlets, Kaplan is surprisingly unassuming. With a double life that serves up unusual sets of dichotomies — writing/drawing, collaboration/solitude, the glitz of Tinseltown and the erudition of New Yorker — there’s no arrogance about him. If anything, he displays a Seinfeldian neurosis about his success.
“I don’t feel safe about anything in life,” he says, citing another skein on his resume. “You learn that on ‘Six Feet Under.’ Nothing’s permanent.”
Says the New Yorker’s Mankoff, “Put it this way — Bruce has never lost faith in nihilism.”