Comic strip apology to really isn't

'Get Fuzzy' creator says Pittsburghers need to take a joke

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"Get Fuzzy" urged Pittsburgh yesterday to get a life.

Darby Conley, the nationally syndicated cartoonist who promised to atone for an Oct. 30 "Get Fuzzy" strip implying that Pittsburgh stinks (literally), devoted a full four panels yesterday to Pittsburgh in 400 newspapers around the world.

   
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But the mea culpa may not please the thousands who flooded Conley with e-mail messages, hate mail and a few death threats after his dog-and-cat strip lampooned Pittsburgh as a tourist destination known primarily for its smell.

While admitting that he made the "incorrect comment that the beautiful city of Pittsburgh may have a 'smell' of some kind," Conley drops his straightforward apology in the second panel, writing that he was "unaware that this outdated stereotype is no longer an accepted topic for humor and/or jocularity."

The 33-year-old Boston-based cartoonist then pokes fun at the angry Pittsburghers who suggested other places (New Jersey) might smell worse, writing that "we now see that Pittsburgh would like New Jersey to continue to be the brunt of false, smell-based geographical slurs."

He ends with his talking-dog "Satchel Pooch" explaining to readers that, "We should have made it more clear it was Sewickley Heights that smells."

"Tomorrow:" a postscript to the strip reads, "an official apology to Sewickley Heights."

Conley's underlying message: Learn how to take a joke, Pittsburgh.

Whether the area will take that advice is unknown. The e-mail frenzy prompted by Conley's original Pittsburgh strip, which started with a talking feline named "Bucky Katt" asking a travel agent for packaged trips based on smell and ended with the agent handing the cat a tourism pamphlet from Pittsburgh, says as much about the protectiveness and sensitivity of Pittsburghers as it does about the outdated perceptions of a once smelly city.

As proof, some image-conscious officials still were not laughing yesterday.

"We haven't been a smoky city in decades," said former KDKA-TV reporter Bill Flanagan, who led a recent effort to craft a new image for the Pittsburgh area. "So 'smell' tends to be an especially sore subject here."

Nevertheless, "I'll accept it as an apology to the Pittsburgh region. It corrects an outdated stereotype, albeit at the expense of New Jersey and Sewickley Heights."

But some readers of "Get Fuzzy" agreed strongly with Conley's underlying message yesterday, arguing that Pittsburgh needs to lighten up a little.

"It's a comic strip," said Bryan Maloney, a native Pittsburgher who now lives in Indianapolis. "Laugh or don't. It's not like [Conley] was promulgating racist propaganda or inciting people to hunt down and slaughter the children of Pittsburgh. 'Yer town smells' is only the sort of thing that a criminal or utter lout would make death threats over."

Sewickley Heights, the butt of yesterday's stink joke, wasn't sure what to make of the strip yesterday. The municipality ranked 57th last year in Worth magazine's annual ranking of the 250 richest towns in America.

Borough manager Bill Roye, when told about it, asked: "Are you serious? I am at a loss for words."

When asked if the wealthy, bucolic borough of about 1,000 truly smelled, he said, "No. It's kind of hard to believe someone would say that."

As Flanagan said, "Anybody who knows Sewickley Heights would know it's a joke."

It is not known why Conley, who could not be reached yesterday, chose Sewickley Heights as the punch line of his strip yesterday.

He does, however, have a friend who lives in the Pittsburgh area. This friend, in fact, was the inspiration for the original Oct. 30 strip, which Conley wrote after hearing his friend complain about the outdated perceptions of a town no longer plagued by noxious fumes. Pittsburgh became the object of satire only because of Conley's desire to tease his college buddy in print.

Little did he realize how much pent-up anger the gag would release.

"What started as an inside joke," Conley conceded in an e-mail earlier this month, "has gone pretty horribly wrong."

In the days after the strip appeared, Conley received 300 to 400 e-mails and a few death threats . After the Post-Gazette printed a story about the strip, which does not appear in local publications, Conley received thousands of messages, according to The Associated Press. Conley told AP: "This comes out of left field. This is not indicative of a normal response when you poke fun at a city."

Perhaps Conley can rest easier knowing that other well-known cartoonists have survived a lampooning of Pittsburgh.

Take the example of Bill Watterson, creator of "Calvin & Hobbes." One of his strips started with Calvin, a young boy, and his companion, Hobbes, a tiger, lying on a hill, looking up at the sky.

Calvin: "Where do you suppose we go when we die?"

Hobbes: "Pittsburgh?"

Then a pause.

Calvin: "If we're good or if we're bad?"


Dan Fitzpatrick can be reached at dfitzpatrick@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1752.


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