Take a Road Trip Across America with Cartoonist Lynda Barry in the 90s Documentary, Grandma’s Way Out Party

Who wouldn’t love to take a road trip with beloved car­toon­ist and edu­ca­tor Lyn­da Bar­ry? As evi­denced by Grandma’s Way Out Par­ty, above, an ear­ly-90s doc­u­men­tary made for Twin Cities Pub­lic Tele­vi­sion, Bar­ry not only finds the humor in every sit­u­a­tion, she’s always up for a detour, whether to a time hon­ored des­ti­na­tion like Mount Rush­more or Old Faith­ful, or a more impul­sive pit­stop, like a Wash­ing­ton state car repair shop dec­o­rat­ed with sculp­tures made from cast off muf­flers or the Mon­tana State Prison Hob­by Store.

Alter­nat­ing in the driver’s seat with then-boyfriend, sto­ry­teller Kevin Kling, she makes up songs on her accor­dion, clowns around in a cheap cow­girl hat, sam­ples an over­sized gas sta­tion donut, and chats up every­one she encoun­ters.

At the World’s Only Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dako­ta, she breaks the ice by ask­ing a beard­ed local guy in offi­cial Corn Palace cap and t‑shirt if his job is the ful­fill­ment of a long held dream.

“Nah,” he says. “I thought it was a joke … in Far­go, they call it the world’s biggest bird feed­er. We do have the biggest birds in South Dako­ta. They get fed good.”

He leads them to Cal Schultz, the art teacher who designed over 25 years worth of murals fes­toon­ing the exte­ri­or walls. Nudged by Bar­ry to pick a favorite, Schultz choos­es one that his 9th grade stu­dents worked on.

“I would have loved to have been in his class,” Bar­ry, a teacher now her­self, says emphat­i­cal­ly. “I would have giv­en any­thing to have worked on a Corn Palace when I was 14-years-old.”

This point is dri­ven home with a quick view of her best known cre­ation, the pig­tailed, bespec­ta­cled Marlys, osten­si­bly ren­dered in corn—an hon­or Marlys would no doubt appre­ci­ate.

Bar­ry has long been laud­ed for her under­stand­ing of and respect for children’s inner lives, and we see this nat­ur­al affin­i­ty in action when she befriends Desmond and Jake, two young par­tic­i­pants in the Crow Fair Pow Wowjust south of Billings, Mon­tana.

Frus­trat­ed by her inabil­i­ty to get a han­dle on the pro­ceed­ings (“Why didn’t I learn it in school!? Why wasn’t it part of our cur­ricu­lum?”), Bar­ry retreats to the com­fort of her sketch­book, which attracts the curi­ous boys. Even­tu­al­ly, she draws their por­traits to give them as keep­sakes, get­ting to know them bet­ter in the process.

The draw­ings they make in return are trea­sured by the recip­i­ent, not least for the win­dow they pro­vide on the cul­ture with which they are so casu­al­ly famil­iar.

Bar­ry and Kling also chance upon the Stur­gis Motor­cy­cle Ral­ly, and after a bite at the Road Kill Cafe (“from your grill to ours”), Bar­ry wax­es philo­soph­i­cal about the then-unusu­al sight of so much tat­tooed flesh:

There’s some­thing about the fact that they want some­thing on them that they can’t wash off, that even on days when they don’t want peo­ple to know they’re a bik­er, it’s still there. And I have always loved that about peo­ple, like …drag queens who will shave off their eye­brows so they can draw per­fect eye­brows on, or any­body who knows they’re dif­fer­ent and does some­thing to them­selves phys­i­cal­ly so that even on their bad days, they can’t deny it. Because I think that in the end, that’s sort of what saves your life, that you wear your col­ors. You can’t help it.

The afore­men­tioned muf­fler store prompts some mus­ings that will be very famil­iar to any­one who has immersed them­selves in Mak­ing ComicsPic­ture This, or any oth­er of Barry’s instruc­tion­al books con­tain­ing her won­der­ful­ly loopy, intu­itive cre­ative exer­cis­es:

I think this urge to cre­ate is actu­al­ly our ani­mal instinct. And what’s sad is if we don’t let that come through us, I don’t think we have a full life on this earth. And I think we get sick because of it. I mean, it’s weird that it’s an instinct, but it’s an option, just like you can take a wild ani­mal, a beau­ti­ful, wild ani­mal and put him in a zoo. They live, they’re fine in their cage, but you don’t get to see them do the thing that a chee­tah does best, which is, you know, just run like the wind and be able to jump and do the things… I mean, it’s our instinct, it’s instinc­tu­al, it’s our beau­ti­ful, beau­ti­ful, mag­i­cal, poet­ic, mys­te­ri­ous instinct. And every once in a while, you see the flower of it come right up out of a gas sta­tion. 

After 1653 miles and one squab­ble after over­shoot­ing a sched­uled stop (“You don’t want me to go to Butte!”), the two arrive at their final des­ti­na­tion, Barry’s child­hood home in Seat­tle. The occa­sion? Barry’s Fil­ipino grandmother’s 83rd birth­day, and plans are afoot for a potluck bash at the local VFW hall. Fans will swoon to meet this ven­er­at­ed lady and the rest of Barry’s extend­ed clan, and hear Barry’s reflec­tions on what it was like to grow up in a work­ing class neigh­bor­hood where most of the fam­i­lies were mul­ti-racial.

“I walked in and it was every­thing Lyn­da said,” Kling mar­vels.


The jour­ney is every­thing we could have hoped for, too.

Lis­ten to a post-trip inter­view with Kling on Min­neso­ta Pub­lic Radio.

H/t to read­er Char­lotte Book­er

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Lyn­da Bar­ry on How the Smart­phone Is Endan­ger­ing Three Ingre­di­ents of Cre­ativ­i­ty: Lone­li­ness, Uncer­tain­ty & Bore­dom

Car­toon­ist Lyn­da Bar­ry Shows You How to Draw Bat­man in Her UW-Madi­son Course, “Mak­ing Comics”

Lyn­da Barry’s New Book Offers a Mas­ter Class in Mak­ing Comics

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine — cur­rent issue: #63 Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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