“Don’t send things that aren’t funny.”
So reads the salient bit of advice offered in the online resource Writers Write on how to get published in Funny Times.
Now pushing 40, Funny Times has relocated its editorial office to Bloomington. What’s that? You’ve not heard of it before? That’s because up until September, the cartoon and humor magazine was available only through mail subscription. Founded by a couple of back-to-the-Earth, late-generation hippies in Cleveland, the monthly is scrambling to catch up to the digital age. And, it is hoped, it’ll catch up with a whole new generation of, if not hippies, then whatever the most wired, most in, most …, well, hip among us want to call themselves, as long as they want to laugh.
At the same time, the Funny Times folks revel in their overall throwback-ness. “We love being old school,” says editor Mia Beach.
Looking like an old newspaper Sunday-comics section on megavitamins, Funny Times celebrates — nay, venerates — that historic art form, the editorial cartoon. No, not cartoons like Bugs Bunny or BoJack Horseman, but more in keeping with the often single-frame, static tableaux with minimal wording that Thomas Nast or Bill Mauldin made famous in the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively. Those and the sequential strips penned by Jackie Ormes, Nate Powell, Joe Lee, or Joel Pett of more recent vintage. Either way, Funny Times presents in each issue more than a hundred cartoons lampooning and illuminating politicians, celebrities, climate change, Satan, dogs and cats, ethics, justice, jellyfish, the afterlife, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and …, and …, oh, just about everything and anything.
Ours are not funny times, to be sure. What is there to laugh at these days? Then again, have we humans ever experienced an era mercifully free of horror, tragedy, grief, and fear? Humanity’s had to work our way through any number of hells, scratching and crawling our way up from countless abysses. We’d be stuck in those abysses had we not the capacity to laugh.
“More than ever, the world needs humor,” says Funny Times co-founder Ray Lesser.
“In the most difficult times, it’s really valuable to find those moments that remind us of joy, of happiness and humor,” says co-publisher Gabriel Piser.
Both Beach and Piser hold down the Funny Times fort here in Bloomington, along with co-publisher, Piser’s spouse, and Ray Lesser’s daughter, Renae Lesser.
Piser and Renae Lesser moved here three years ago. Beach has been a Bloomington stalwart since 2005. Lesser’s parents, Susan Wolpert and Ray Lesser, started the magazine back in 1985 when they were casting about for a direction after experiencing a deep grief.
The couple had been living in a trailer on a 114-acre farm in southern Ohio. Running the farm was back-breaking work and they weren’t exactly becoming rich. Then they lost their first child, a stillborn they’d named Rose.
“It starts with losing Rose,” Ray writes in the Funny Times origin story on its website.
“Before that, nothing really bad had ever happened to us,” Sue writes.
At the same time, Sue’s father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Soon, she’d have to begin taking care of him. Mourning, confused, overwhelmed, Sue and Ray decided to hit the road, head west, and, they hoped, clear their heads for the work they had to do.
Their first stop: Dayton, where their psychic, Amal, lived. “It makes perfect sense that people who run a cartoon newspaper have their own psychic, doesn’t it?” Ray writes.
Amal told them they’d be starting a business, something they hadn’t given the slightest thought to. They shrugged and pushed on toward the West Coast. They hit Santa Cruz, California. There, Ray spied a newspaper on top of a cigarette machine. It was called The Santa Cruz Comic News, chock-full of editorial cartoons curated by a fellow named Tom Zajak.
“This would probably be a fun thing to do,” Ray said to Sue.
“You have to understand that Ray and I knew NOTHING about publishing,” Sue writes.
They contacted Zajak, set up a meeting with him at his house, and peppered him with questions. Zajak explained how he ran his newspaper, how he found cartoon artists, what syndication was all about, how to solicit ads, and all the minutiae of running a serial publication.
We love being old school. —Mia Beach
As they drove back east toward Ohio, Sue and Ray jabbered nonstop about the cartoon newspaper they’d start. They batted around a bunch of different possible names until they came up with Funny Times. They volunteered to work at the local Athens, Ohio, alternative newspaper just to see how something got published. They learned layout and production techniques and even such basics as how to use border tape to make a box around an ad.
One morning, they went out to eat breakfast. They looked around the diner and saw customer after customer reading the Sunday newspaper. “The comics,” Ray writes, “were the first thing everybody turned to in the paper.”
The couple decided to move to the Cleveland area in October 1985, both to be nearer Sue’s father and because it’d be a large market for their publication.
It would be political and they’d run the works of some big name cartoonists. Sue swears she’d never read the comics section and that she’s never cared for cartoons. That’s why, Ray writes, she became a good cartoon editor.
Funny Times hit the streets in 1985. Sue and Ray sold ads to keep it going at first. “After four years of selling ads and having two babies we realized we were no longer making enough to live on,” Ray says. The couple decided to try to gain a national following with a subscription-based business model. They opened a post office box and instituted a direct-mail campaign. One day Sue and Ray went to the post office and found the box crammed full. “While we were pulling out the envelopes,” Ray says, “the post office lady said, ‘Wait, I have a lot more.’” She lugged a box filled with more envelopes containing subscription checks onto the counter.
Sue and Ray kept all those first-time subscription checks in a shoebox. They didn’t want to cash them until they were sure they could fulfill their end of the deal; after all, they’d never before mailed out a monthly publication to outposts all over the country.
What if their plan didn’t work?
“We worried it might be considered postal fraud and the Postal Service would come after us!” Ray explains.
Within six months, Sue and Ray’s Funny Times had 10,000 subscribers. Their home became the headquarters of their mini-publishing empire.
“It took off very quickly,” says Gabriel Piser.
“So much so,” Mia Beach adds, “they couldn’t really believe it. The success took them by surprise.”
“My mom was actually doing layout when she went into labor with me,” says Renae Lesser, “so I was quite literally born into this family business.”
Renae grew up in a madhouse. “Phones were always ringing with subscribers calling, cartoons were spread out on the dining table, my first babysitters were Funny Times employees, and my first after-school job was doing Funny Times customer service.”
Piser adds: “Sue and Ray were doing all the layout in their bathrobes on the dining room table and in the spare bedroom. There were photocopies of cartoons all over. Renae would be doing her homework assignments on the back of them. The newspaper was just fully woven into their lives.”
“Funny Times is in Renae’s blood, through and through,” says Mia Beach.
As a toddler, Renae became something of an office mascot. “I was always just wandering around the office cheering people up and goofing off,” she says. The staff took to calling her the “morale office.”
“I basically still think in cartoons,” she says. “I mean, I read so many cartoons as a kid that I just see the world through the lens of a single-panel cartoon.”
It makes perfect sense that people who run a cartoon newspaper have their own psychic, doesn’t it? —Ray Lesser
After Renae married Piser, the two consulted on special projects for Sue and Ray and even did some succession planning for them, but neither thought all that much about taking over the business. “For years my folks had floated the question about whether this was something we would want to take on, but it didn’t feel like something that needed to be decided right away. It wasn’t top of mind,” Renae says.
“About a dozen years ago we had a company planning/visioning meeting,” Ray Lesser says. Each of the participants was directed to draw up three lists:
- What things have you wanted to do in life but haven’t yet accomplished?
- What do you want to do in the next five years?
- What would you do if you learned you only had six months to live?
Each of the lists would then be pared down to a top five.
“When Sue and I were walking around talking about our lists later in the day,” Ray says, “we realized that Funny Times was not on any of our top five lists. So we decided to make a five-year plan to retire.”
In 2021, longtime Funny Times editor, business manager, and operations manager Sandee Beyerle told the founders she, too, was ready to retire, just as the founders were preparing to do so. “That was unexpected,” Renae says.
“Having confidence that Renae and Gabriel understood the business’s reason for being and that they had ideas about how things might be updated, we decided to ask them to give it a try,” Ray says.
“We had to move really quickly to decide what to do next,” Renae says. She and Piser took the publishing task on and decided to split management into two positions, editor and operations director. They hired the couple’s friend, Mia Beach, for the former, and Renae’s cousin, Rachel Lee, for the latter.
“What really solidified it for me was realizing we could work with people we trust and love working with and that this project could be as fun and joyful as we wanted to make it,” Renae says.
“I married into one of the silliest family businesses,” Piser says. “When Renae and I got together, it wasn’t on our radar that this would be something we would take over. But it was very easy for me, having fallen in love with Renae, to fall in love with this beautiful project that’s been part of that family for decades.”
Rachel Lee came with a pedigree in whimsy: She’d studied clowning with both Wavy Gravy and the Pickle Family Circus and, once, even took a course taught by clown/doctor Patch Adams. Mia Beach’s backstory includes a dramatic turn or two — more on that in a bit.
One big reason subscribers have flocked to Funny Times: It has offered an all-star cast of some of the biggest names in cartooning, satire, artwork, and trenchant political commentary. The list includes:
- Lynda Barry
- Dave Barry
- Alison Bechdel
- Andy Borowitz
- Bill Bryson
- Matt Groening
- Garrison Keillor
- Paul Krassner
- Molly Ivins
- Michael Moore (yes, that Michael Moore)
- Phil Proctor
- Rita Rudner
By the year 2000, Funny Times had amassed more than 60,000 subscribers around the country. Each of them would get in the mail every month a 24-page, 11-by-8.5-inch batch of cartoons, as well as about a dozen written features, some of which are still written by Ray Lesser. It was — and remains — a comics aficionado’s dream come true.
As time went by, Sue and Ray started selling Funny Times swag: T-shirts and sweatshirts, mugs and stickers. A couple of erstwhile-grieving hippies’ crazy dream had become an industry.
Now, to the delight of any number of Bloomington-area Funny Times aficionados, the magazine’s editorial offices are located here. (Rachel Lee works in her remote office in New Orleans and the production and customer-service office remains in Cleveland Heights.)
In 2020 Gabriel had scored a job at Indiana University’s Center for Rural Engagement, where he has worked under this town’s next mayor, Kerry Thomson.
As long as the couple was living in a college town, Renae figured, she’d grab at the opportunity to pursue a doctorate in the IU School of Education. With operations, editorial, and production in good hands, Renae and Gabriel can continue with their pre-Funny Times lives, even if, as Renae is quick to point out, “We are very hands-on and our lives are definitely nothing like they were pre-Funny Times.”
My mom was actually doing layout when she went into labor with me, so I was quite literally born into this family business. —Renae Lesser
Mia Beach’s pre-Funny Times life is more of an adventure tale. She ran away from her Muncie, Indiana, home as a teen, was caught, and then placed in a juvenile detention center. She ran away from that place, too.
She traveled the country in a van with her 19-year-old boyfriend (she was 15 at the time). The underaged fugitive and her overaged swain (running the risk of being hauled in as a statutory rapist) had to go deep undercover. “My face,” Mia Beach says, “was on ‘Missing’ posters all over the country.”
Mia and her boyfriend found themselves in Flagstaff, Arizona, one day. There, they met another transient. “He asked us what our story was, and we were honest with him,” Mia says. “He said, ‘You can’t say that!’” The wrong person just might drop a dime on them.
Mia went to the local library, pulled out an atlas, and flipped to the map of Canada. “I picked a really random Canadian town [Grand Falls, New Brunswick, population 5,300], came up with an address and just started repeating it,” Mia says. “It was the ’90s. It was hard for people to just immediately fact check everything someone said.”
Mia bought a pair of magnifying reading glasses at a Walgreen’s. Taking a cue from Superman, she concealed her true identity with a simple pair of horn-rimmed glasses. She and her boyfriend lived on and off in their Volkswagen bus and a hostel, taking occasional odd jobs. Her first child was born in the vehicle and raised its first year in the hostel. She was nearly identified several times.
While she worked as a telemarketer (and paid under the table), a co-worker saw her picture on a Missing poster and pulled her aside. “I used to be a runaway, too,” the co-worker said. “I just saw your sign. You need to get out of town.”
“We had a lot of incidents like that,” Mia says. “We kept narrowly missing the law.”
The poster with her picture on it was displayed at a convenience store a block away from the hostel they’d stayed at for a year or so. Mia says: “No one who went to that store to get their cigarettes or their sodas ever made the connection between Mia Beach, the kid from Indiana on the Missing poster, and Anna Mia Coleman, the New Brunswick, Canada, person.
“We were teenagers with a very cute cover story and people wanted to believe us.”
Some might consider Mia’s story something of a tragedy, or at least a less-than-wholesome tale. A creepy moment she experienced as a young girl, though, brought her nearer the funny world she’d inhabit as an adult.
“My grandfather ran a funeral home in Richmond, Indiana,” she says. “I spent a lot of time there when I was growing up. One of my very first memories was playing hide-and-seek in the funeral home. I accidentally ran face-first into the feet of a corpse on a gurney!”
Later, she’d discover the works of Alison Bechdel, whose Fun Home graphic novel describes her life growing up in a funeral home, with a father who’d go on to die by suicide. Mia’s father, too, died by his own hand.
That wasn’t the last time Mia Beach would be confronted with news of a too-early death. She got married after returning to Indiana and had a couple of kids in addition to the one she had while on the road. She and her husband split up, and then he was killed in a car-bike accident a few years ago. “I formed a little support group with other people who had recently lost ex-spouses,” Mia says. “That’s a very strange position to be in. Honestly, it was humor — the dark jokes, the goofy jokes, the laughter — that pushed us through the dark times.”
“There are emotional and physical benefits [to laughing]. The stress-release response. Your body needs that. It kind of needs to shake it all out. It’s actually good for you to laugh through that stuff.”
And with news of war, disease, poverty, hunger, environmental catastrophe, and all the other ills of today’s world bombarding us, we can use a magazine filled with cartoons to shake it all out.