Oscar-nominated screenwriter, noted graphic novelist and cartoonist Daniel Clowes isn’t sure how he developed his ideas about what is funny.
“In recent years, I have been trying to figure out where my sense of humor did come from,” says Clowes, whose 2010 graphic novel “Wilson” has been turned into the movie of the same name, now in theaters and starring Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Judy Greer and Cheryl Hines.
Clowes was born in Chicago in 1961, grew up in Hyde Park, where he attended the University of Chicago Lab School, and “moved back in the mid-1980s into the early ’90s.”
He says he’s convinced his exposure to the comedy he witnessed during his Chicago years shaped his appreciation of “this sort of sardonic, dark humor.”
“Prior to Second City, there was the Compass Players, and I remember being in awe at how they came up with such hilarious sketches,” Clowes says. “I also connect my humor education to Jimmy’s Bar, which was on the corner of Woodlawn and 56th. We lived at Woodlawn and 55th. My dad was a bartender there, and I really believe that played a big part in where my sense of humor came from.
“I was kind of born in the midst of all that — hearing the great stories and anecdotes that the bar patrons would tell. I can trace it all pretty much back to that.”
In “Wilson,” the title character, played by Harrelson, doesn’t have much of a filter, frequently showcasing his ability to say whatever he thinks at any time without any concern about how it will be taken by others. Director Craig Johnson describes Wilson’s personality as “a balance between funny and heartbreaking.”
Clowes adds, “There’s not a moment where [Wilson] is not in the midst of one extreme emotion or another. He is very different than the way I am — a reserved Midwesterner. I’m not prone to that kind of display in public, but I think, in all of us, we have our own inner Wilson that we wish would come out every once in a while. There’s something cathartic about having a guy who doesn’t worry about all the repercussions of his little displays.”
Clowes says he didn’t want to be as involved in making the movie as he’s been in past films based on his work, including “Ghost World,” for which he picked up an Oscar nomination in 2001 for best adapted screenplay.
“This was the first film where I decided I wanted to take my script, hand it off to a director and then go see the final film after it was finished,” he says.
After meeting with Johnson about the project, he says he realized he was in sync with the director about all the key details — including Johnson’s wish list for the lead actors.
“They were perfect, but I was thinking, ‘Good luck getting any of those actors,’ ” Clowes says. “Of course, no one was happier than I was when he got Woody and Laura and the rest.”
Clowes and his wife did spend two days on the set of “Wilson” during filming, “which was a nice way to meet everybody, like Woody and Laura.”
The writer says seeing Harrelson and Dern and the rest of the cast give life to the characters he created “was incredible. Even though in a graphic novel there are drawn representations of the characters on the page, the reader still has to fill in a lot of the details. They are left to imagine what the characters’ voices are like and all the rest.
“To see an actor inhabit that and then project it out to the rest of the world adds so much more to it. I was fascinated the first time I saw Woody as Wilson and see what he would be like as a real person and not just as a cartoon character.”