They are a familiar pair to millions of comic strip readers in the U.S. and abroad. Frank, the big guy who appears to have stalks of wheat sprouting from his upper lip, does all the talking. His silent sidekick, Ernest, sets the proper mood by assuming a look of either (a) smug approval or (b) total befuddlement. “Oh, oh!” says Frank, “the government’s got a new revenue-sharing plan! Now we have to share even more of our revenue with them!” Little Ernie responds with (b).
Such observations from Frank and Ernest spring from the head and hand of Bob Thaves, a part-time cartoonist. The other part of his time he’s an industrial psychologist. “A curiosity about human behavior probably acts as the common denominator in my two jobs,” concedes Thaves, who has seen more than his share of foibles in business and industry (cartoon). Still, he tries to keep his two pursuits separate. Frank and Ernest pokes fun at jocks, bums and bureaucrats, but never at doctors. Thaves does allow an occasional religious gag—such as a “Prophet-sharing plan” in heaven.
Thaves, 52, hails from Burt, Iowa, where his father was a printer and a newspaper publisher. Though Bob began drawing as a child, he never had any formal training. “I don’t regard myself as an artist,” he says.
At the University of Minnesota, he majored in psychology and eventually earned his master’s degree. He began work on his doctorate but quit two years short of his dissertation. “I just got sick of school,” he explains.
With his wife, Katie, and their two children, Sara (now a sophomore at Mount Holyoke) and Tom (a high school senior), Thaves settled in Manhattan Beach, Calif. in a home with a view of the ocean. As a psychological consultant to industry, he deals with such problems as worker hostility on assembly lines and employee motivation and fatigue. “I help companies make decisions about their people and sometimes help someone make a decision about himself,” Thaves explains.
He has never had time himself to get bored on either of his jobs. He began drawing for his college humor magazine, the U of M’s celebrated Ski-U-Mah, and later sold a few cartoons to national publications such as the Saturday Evening Post. In 1970 he thought up Frank and Ernest, drawn “as a single horizontal panel—like a magazine cartoon with a caption,” he remembers. The following year it was picked up by the Newspaper Enterprise Association for national syndication, putting Thaves in the big time. “The pay is multiples better than when I began,” Thaves says carefully.
Being funny seven times a week is hard work. “There are times when I’ve had the flu and the last thing I wanted to do was draw.” His fans sometimes send in ideas (“particularly a man in Reno, who is a steady source”), but most are his own. “I try to have three a week I think are very funny and a couple I think are adequate. And there’s usually one born of desperation. Nobody can be a winner every day,” says Thaves, the psychologist in him showing.
Thaves likes to let his comic strip characters speak for him. Recently Frank and Ernest were pictured as Agriculture Department officials talking on the phone to an unseen constituent. “While it’s true, sir,” Frank says, “that I don’t plant ‘taters’ and I don’t plant cotton, I can assure you that those who plant them are not forgotten.” This time Ernie looks pleased.