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Aack! End of ‘Cathy’ also marks the end of an era

As “Cathy” ends its 34-year-run, a TODAY producer meets the comic strip’s creator — and realizes that while the character may not be as edgy as she once seemed, she never lost her ability to raise a smile of recognition.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

AACK! As Cathy would say.

It’s the end of an era: The comic strip “Cathy” is kaput. Its final frame ran in Sunday’s newspapers after 34 years of daily strips in as many as 1,400 newspapers.

And 32 years after Cathy’s creator, Cathy Guisewite, gave her first television interview to then-anchor Jane Pauley on TODAY, the cartoonist gave her exit interview to TODAY’s George Lewis. And I got to produce it and meet her.

Of course, I’d already known her cartoon namesake a long time. When “Cathy” first appeared in the late ’70s, it was groundbreaking. Sure, there’d been other comic strip chicks — Blondie and Brenda Starr, Betty and Veronica — but I certainly wasn’t drawn to those dames. We had nothing in common.

‘Cathy’ then and nowThe Women’s Lib movement was in full swing when “Cathy” burst on the scene, and up until then, nothing on the funny pages had reflected the struggles of me and my college-age gal pals. But Cathy’s daily dose of neurosis, insecurity and angst pretty much reflected what we were dealing with: shoving our butts into teeny bikinis, or waiting for boyfriends to call, or — as a result of no phone call — trying to resist the temptation of comfort food. (Cathy’s choice is chocolate; mine is a tub of home-style rice pudding.)

My generation clipped “Cathy” strips and Scotch-taped them to our dorm doors, then graduated her to our desks at a succession of low-level jobs. I surprised myself when I noticed I had a yellowed “Cathy” about yearning for lunch on my office wall. (It’s right next to a photo of a young starlet with cellulite: You figure out the juxtaposition.)

When the strip started, “Cathy” was a reflection of the real Cathy Guisewite. Not so much anymore. When we got to Guisewite’s home for the interview, it was the complete opposite of the chaotic mess that cartoon Cathy’s place comprises: It was so clean you could eat off the floor. And there wasn’t a single doughnut.

Mind you, I did see real Cathy eat — a couple of slices of honeydew melon. In fact, Guisewite says that the most common reaction people have to her when they meet her is “You're not fat.” What could be better? Please note that my goal is to have someone, just once, say that to me.

I expected “Cathy” cartoons to be hanging all over the house, but instead her office hallway and the bathroom beside it are covered in framed comics from many of her greatest admirers, such as “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz. Bathroom reading was never so much fun.

34 years of smilesWhen Guisewite announced she was ending the strip, there was an avalanche of columns about how its relevance had come and gone. At first I felt that way too, although I hadn’t read “Cathy” in years (what with all the rehabbing celebrities, Tea Party candidates and the miserable Mets to keep up with, I no longer have time for leisure reading).

Then it became my job to pore over 34 years of strips. Sure, some of them were corny. And in this post-“Sex and the City” world, they lacked the edginess of Samantha’s bed-hopping and Carrie Bradshaw’s million-dollar shoe collection.

But I came to a renewed appreciation for the strip. While I didn’t howl with laughter, I kept turning the pages with a knowing smile, nodding my head in agreement — especially the pieces about the mother-daughter relationship.

You try being funny and meaningful and spot-on every day for 34 years. Maybe the cartoon Cathy didn't keep up with the times by climbing the corporate ladder or hitting the glass ceiling or enjoying motherhood (much to the relief of Guisewite’s real-life daughter, I suspect). Maybe Cathy’s long-awaited marriage to her schlubby boyfriend Irving didn’t tackle the gritty problems of recession-era romance or martial infidelity. But I’d sure give anything now to have a life full of Cathy’s low-level anxieties about weight and shopping and boys and motherly smothering. I thank Cathy — the real Cathy — for her gentle humor about all that.

Now pass me a doughnut. And some rice pudding.