Roth has been a humorous illustrator and cartoonist all his life and, for most of that time, has freelanced, snatching a living by hustling one assignment after another in a highly competitive market, the wolf kept at bay by ingenuity and energy. And talent. And luck, Roth readily admits – even proclaims — lots of luck.
Roth had the luck to be born in 1929 on the cusp of the dawning Great Depression, so he learned the survival value of scrambling for gainful employment while growing up in Philadelphia. Roth and his older brother shared the same interests and frequented the Philadelphia Art Museum and the Philadelphia Library. They went to exhibitions and shows. Very early, Roth fell in love with jazz and learned to play the saxophone. He also drew pictures and even sold a few.
Upon graduation from high school in 1946, Roth was awarded a full scholarship to the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Arts, but he was expelled at the end of two years because he was always arriving late – he was playing sax in jazz bands until the wee hours of the morning and couldn’t get out of bed in time for class. Roth started freelancing artwork in the summer of 1948, but until the mid-1950s, his saxophone was a more dependable source of income than his pen. In 1952, he started to get lucky: he got in on the ground floor of TV Guide, married Caroline Wingfield and met the Dave Brubeck Quartet, which soon led to assignments doing record album covers. He was selling regularly enough to such magazines as Glamour, Charm and TV Guide, that he was making a living as a cartoonist.
Roth’s big breakthrough came in 1957 when he started working on Trump, Playboy’s satiric magazine, and on Humbug, a more penurious production, both the inventions of Harvey Kurtzman, founder of Mad magazine. For these enterprises, Roth did what he called “pure humor” – ideas executed solely for the sake of comedy and satire. He also began doing illustrations for Playboy and cartoons for England’s Punch magazine, and he sold a cartoon into newspaper syndication.
Called Poor Arnold’s Almanac, it ran for two years, beginning in May 1959. In each installment of the Almanac, the opening panel announced the topic for the day, and Roth played variations on the theme in the manner of a jazz musician, turning the subject this way and that, inspecting it from every angle and finding inconsistencies in human behavior and naked emperors everywhere he looked.
From the mid-1960s on, Roth’s work appeared regularly in most major magazines. In 1983, Roth was elected president of the National Cartoonists Society and the next year received the NCS Reuben award as cartoonist of the year. He won many Gold and Silver Medals in the Society’s annual shows. He appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson several times and on David Letterman’s Late Show. He lectured at Princeton, Yale, the Philadelphia College of Art, and at other art schools.
For Roth, every drawing represents an artistic challenge as well as a narrative one. “I try to give myself little problems,” he said. “Brubeck, years ago, was on a symposium and somebody asked him, ‘Would you describe what playing jazz is?’ And he said, ‘It’s getting yourself into and out of trouble.’ I thought that was a good way to put it. If you’re not doing that, you’re really hacking it, doing the same thing over and over. I always want to push it a little.'”
Robert C. Harvey
Author, The Art of the Funnies: An Aesthetic History