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Two 'Objective Observers' Offer an Irreverent Look at Humans

January 09, 1985|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

First there was "Gnomes," those beguiling mites whose every quirk was analyzed in a book that sold a million copies. There followed, inevitably, over the next seven years, volumes about other marvelous or mythical creatures--fairies, wizards, witches. Now there is "Humans," a deliciously irreverent look at the most baffling of all beings.

And any resemblance between "Gnomes" and "Humans" is exactly the way the "Humans" creators, San Francisco graphic designers Mike Dowdall and Pat Welch, planned it. "It seemed ripe for satire," Welch explained. And human beings were the obvious subjects, he noted, because they are so "incomprehensible."

Years of Observation Thus began 147 years of research, living among the humans. That's 147 dog years ; the authors point out that humans "seem to be uneasy unless they know, at all times, their dog's age translated into human terms."

During these years of exhaustive field observation in the humans' habitats, Welch and Dowdall turned up data of extraordinary anthropological significance, to wit:

--Objects to be found in the human female habitat include jonni-brushes, velvet ring caddies, crocheted toilet paper cozies and framed calligraphy that says things like "Life Is a Miracle."

--Objects to be found in the male human habitat include dead plants in abundance everywhere except in the refrigerator, "where you often find live plants. Very simple plants, to be sure, but definitely living."

They also took note of such mystifying rituals of the humans as the Super Bowl, an athletic contest in which "if you happen to live in the winning team's hometown, you are required to set fire to your own car."

Dowdall and Welch decided to collaborate, they explained, because they wear the same size clothes, which cuts way down on luggage--"Anthropological research involves a lot of travel."

Presumably Welch's brother, Dennis, who helped write the text, does not wear the same size, as he wasn't with them on the book promotion tour.

There were, of course, other motivations behind "Humans." Though others earlier jumped on the "Gnomes" bandwagon, Dowdall and Welch didn't hesitate to say, "We knew we could draw better." From a single drawing, originally conceived as a poster, sprouted a book and, as Welch put it, "the rest is obscurity."

Contract in Hand

Book contract in hand, they retreated to their Main Street studio, explaining to clients that they would be unavailable for three months. "Our clients took us at our word," Dowdall said, grimacing.

The months of "exhaustive field observation and meticulous scrutiny" began. Dowdall and the brothers Welch studied these peculiar creatures called humans and concluded, among other things, that:

--"Where other beings scrape a meager living from nature, the human has largely replaced nature with cheap, comfortable, dirt-free substitutes."

--Humans have replaced work with "symbols of work, such as the 'consultant,' and with sophisticated abstractions of remuneration, including . . . the 'check which is in the mail.' "

--"Physically speaking, the most striking difference between humans and other better-known species is the 'spare tire' . . . the ultimate mark of maturity in the male."

Dowdall, 35, and Welch, 39, are, by their own definition, "young adult humans," but "hanging on by the skin of our teeth." After that, in the stages of human development, will follow "Still a Young Adult," "Not Getting Any Younger Adult" and "Coot." A coot "keeps seven drawers of socks in the original store wrappers, and occasionally awakes with a start at dinner to shout 'Cleveland!' "

But it is not just oldsters at whom Dowdall and the Welches have leveled pen and paints. The adolescent human, who gets a whole page, is a creature who, having passed introduction to typing, is a self-styled expert "on global politics, nutrition, art and the role of the feminist in Taoist writings." Adolescents, it is noted, "do not develop any tendency to keep these opinions to themselves."

'Close to the Truth'

"We really tried to stick to things that were close to the truth," Welch said.

The human therapist is depicted as a bearded, balding fellow with a pipe and earth sandals, "straight out of Marin County," observed Dowdall, "all those pseudo-psychology and encounter groups."

Do they view humans as ridiculous? "Incomprehensible might be the word," Dowdall suggested. "They seem confused." In which case, is the male human or the female human the more incomprehensible? While Dowdall squirmed off that hook, Welch suggested, "It's a toss-up."

Most of the females, he noted, have objected to their portrayal of female humans as creatures with "large bottoms." (It was an observation he first made when, as a kid, he watched a parade of polyester stretch pants at the K mart.)

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