Filling His Daily Quota Of Humor

PAYSON PEOPLE

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Local artist Mike Rokoff said he sincerely believes that everyone needs something to laugh at on his or her wall -- besides a mirror.

It is a philosophy that has stood the test of a 40-year career writing and illustrating humorous greeting cards (mostly for Hallmark), a career that began with Conrad the Campus Cop, a cartoon he penned in for the Daily Sun, Arizona State University's newspaper.

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Mike Rokoff

"Conrad pointed out the rules but in a humorous way," Rokoff said.

One cartoon Rokoff remembers had three frames.

In the first one, Conrad was leaning on a legally parked car. In the second, Conrad dislodges the car's brake and pushes it until it is illegally parked. The third frame has him writing the ticket.

Just prior to his 1961 graduation, Rokoff said he got a phone call from the ASU Chief of Police, requesting that he come to the station. The Chief took Rokoff to a room in the back where, to Rokoff's surprise, every Conrad the Campus Cop cartoon was on the wall, many with names of real campus officers sub-headed on the Conrad character.

So right from the beginning Rokoff's career was about relationships.

"There is real strength in pointing out things that are political in a way but not political in style," he said.

Rokoff was one of only six of the 800 Hallmark card creators who was both an artist and a writer.

"(Hallmark) put the six of us in a room together and we fed off each other creatively and we all helped each other," he said.

Rokoff said that if he had three or four ideas accepted out of 25 proposed that was a great kill ratio. Only having one accepted was a bit more common.

"It boggled my mind at times," he said. "Here I am sitting in my studio laughing my a** off and someone is paying me to do this. It has to be fun, or it won't be funny."

It boggled his mother's mind, too.

At 28, she told him, "Sooner or later you're going to have to get a real job."

"I thought a lot about that," he said. "I think that her generation did not equate work with fun."

The job of a greeting card writer is to be alert to what people are saying and how they are saying it, and art of Rokoff's creative process was to leave the studio and take a drive.

"It is wonderful. Your mind kind of floats and free associates. Written ideas and visual ideas just float in your head. It is very exciting because there is a dynamic involved and you know you can't be disturbed."

Then there were the stops he made to eavesdrop in locally colorful truck stops and coffee shops.

"What everybody is talking about is relationships," he said. "Relationships are what the greeting cards business is -- your daughter or your mother or your wife or your mistress or whoever. In different parts of the country, be it Key West, Fla. or Olympia, Wash. people are talking about relationships using different words, phrases and cliches."

He got good at becoming invisible by wearing dark clothing and reading a magazine or book.

He convinced Hallmark that he be paid to travel across the country with no particular itinerary the month after Labor Day each year.

He ate at a floating restaurant in Chattanooga, Tenn. He walked up the gangplank and was waiting in line at the buffet when a teenage girl who was hosting asked him, "Are you all by your little lonesome?"

"I used that phrase on a card," he said with a laugh.

After visiting truck stops and restaurants, Rokoff would go back in the hotel, take out his portable drawing table and work on the ideas he would fax to the office the next day.

His career with Hallmark also took him to Bath, England.

"Woof," the line of cards with a little cat character he designed for Hallmark International is still selling even though he is no longer drawing the character.

Retired from Hallmark, but ever an artist in his home studio, he still jumps in his truck and heads to Flagstaff or the Valley to gather ideas for new work.

His current motto and favorite words are: "If not now, when?"

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