Two 'Objective Observers' Offer an Irreverent Look at Humans

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.)

Welch was one of the creators, in 1975, of the "pet rock," a $4 gift item that sold 1 million. Giddy with success, the same group marketed a "sand breeding kit," two test tubes of sand for breeding sand in your own home. He would rather not talk about that little venture.

But, the authors emphasized, they wanted "Humans" to be more than just funny. Said Dowdall: " 'Gnomes' irritated me a little bit because there's a sort of extremism," a message of return to nature, "all of which is fine, except it's anti-human, really. These insipid six-inch twits who run around the forest with dirty fingernails don't exactly broaden the horizons of civilization."

Whereas he found the gnomes "real arrogant," Dowdall perceives "Humans" quite differently--"They're kindly, they're silly and they really try hard to make things work."

That isn't to say they aren't strange. For one thing, Welch said, "They all have jobs with prescribed purposes and titles, like assistant to the vice president of marketing. Now, what does that human do? Not a damn thing, except write memos."

On resumes, Welch noted, humans always "want a challenging position," whereas the truth is that is the last thing they want; what they really want is a job that's very easy for them but very hard for someone else.

Another amazing thing about humans, Welch said, is that they "will go to a place simply because you make it exist. All it is is a huge empty lot, but thousands of them show up." As a case in point, Dowdall said, "Humans go to garlic festivals." He calls this "unexplained clustering," a phenomenon that occurs also in shopping malls, at Shrine conventions and during spaceship launches.

Nor are they able to fathom humans' passion for living in suburbia, both of them having grown up in suburban San Francisco and happy to be city humans at last. They view suburbia as a place where "during the day, everyone is gone except the dogs, who sleep. At night, everyone returns to sleep except the dogs, who bark."

There are some humans universally unpopular with other humans, noted Dowdall and Welch--specifically, civil servants, people who come door-to-door peddling the Truth, meter maids and petitioners.

Already, Dowdall and Welch are considering a sequel. After all, they left lots of areas of human life untouched and others barely touched. There's religion, politics, commerce. . . .

They see themselves as "objective observers," reasoning that, as Welch said, "We always made the ridiculous things humans did come off as wisdom," always worked on the assumption that "if they do it, it must make sense."

So, it was only with semi-jaundiced eye that they scrutinized humans' sex drive, mating rituals, eating habits and language.

So humans aren't perfect. "They can't help it," Dowdall said. "Humans would like to change. They'd like to not make obscene gestures at each other on the freeway. Humans aspire to great things, but. . . ."

"It comes down to simple blockheadedness," Welch suggested. "They'd rather argue. It gives them something to do. They make up stuff to get upset about. I don't think there's anything diabolical about humans. They're not evil. They're just kind of common and frumpy."

But aren't they themselves humans?

"I like to think of myself as with them, but not of them," Welch said. Added Dowdall: "Same for me."

Then he kind of smiled and said, "I have to change the cat box when I get home today."

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