Funny Business

Rich Balducci takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin'

Jun 6, 2001 at 4:00 am
The man with short gray hair moved quickly, stealthily, through the corridors of Barnes-Jewish Hospital's intensive-care unit, carrying a prettily wrapped gift box. He walked past two nursing stations, quickening his pace. At last he found it: ICU Room 5. Inside, August Busch III, head of the largest brewery in the world, was recuperating from a heart-bypass operation. The man poised to enter the room was Rich Balducci, publisher of the satirical magazine Snicker. The two men had met years before -- through their lawyers -- when the brewery sued Balducci for trademark libel over an ad parody, "Michelob Oily."

Then the brewery's all-star team of lawyers and trademark specialists put a full-court press on Balducci. The case had gone from a Balducci victory in the U.S. District Court of Eastern Missouri to a reversal on appeal. When it came back to federal district court, Judge Jean Hamilton coaxed a settlement; Balducci was paid $10,000 by the brewery in exchange for his destroying the remaining offending issues. The next Snicker featured a parody of Busch beer. That was six years ago.

Balducci entered the room. He saw August III, sitting up in bed. At the foot of the bed was his son, brewery scion August Busch IV. "They were very confused at first," recalls Balducci. "And the old man, the Third, he sees the gift box and asks: 'Is that the glove?' He must've thought it was a baseball mitt from McGwire or somebody. I said, 'Who am I -- Michael Jackson?' He didn't crack a smile. Then he looks at his son and says, 'Who's it from? What is it?' I said, 'Well, why don't you read the card and find out?'"

In the gift box were old issues of Snicker. August Busch IV read the card. "That guy cannot read," remarks Balducci. "He was mumbling and stuttering, just butchering the dramatic lines that I had written. It ended with 'The doctors say you'll be up and firing people in no time. Signed, Rich Balducci.' But the name didn't mean a thing to him. He just sat there with a blank look on his face. That really affected me -- that he could just crush someone unseen by shifting weight in his office chair."

Don't tell Rich Balducci that it's unrealistic, even egotistical, to think August Busch III would know him or his pesky fish-wrap. Balducci, 42, is in his own world, a strange place filled with dire prognostications, elaborate conspiracies, neuroses, tantrums and flights of fancy.

Balducci's physical world is a ranch house in a quiet Creve Coeur neighborhood, where he lives with his wife, Kathleen, his mother and three slobbering boxers named Dolly, Whopper and Pixie. On a recent weekday afternoon, he answers the door with an opaque crystal tied to his forehead, looking like some dime-store Mephisto. "It's over the eye chakra," he explains in all seriousness, "and it unlocks energy forces and increases intuition." Apparently R.B. -- as he calls himself -- believes the crystal confers magical powers that will help him summon his inner demon to lambaste, ridicule and skewer whoever happens to stray into his sights. If Mark Twain had "a pen warmed up in hell," then Balducci has a pointed sable brush dipped in bile.

"Come on down to the crypt," he says, descending the stairs to the basement. The crypt is the nerve center of Balducci Publications. The centerpiece is the drafting table strewn with acrylic paints, crayons, erasers and little toys. Steps away, behind a curtain, is the stat camera, acquired from the old St. Louis Weekly. It may be a relic, but it produces four issues of the cartoon-centric Snicker each year. The magazine (really an oversized newspaper format) was conceived by Rich and Kathleen as a forum for local cartoonists and illustrators to show their work. The first issue appeared in April 1987, just before they were married. Soon Kathleen went to work in retail sales while Rich stayed home, drawing his own pictorial broadsides and conjuring Snicker out of long-stewing fulminations. At first, the humor was mostly sophomoric -- "throwing rotten eggs," as Mad cartoonist and former Snicker contributor Bob Staake puts it. In the last five years, however, it's taken a different turn, becoming more political but remaining as sophomoric as ever.

The current issue is no exception. "I hogged the center spread and the back cover," says Balducci. "I try not to do that, but I had to knock Clinton and Bush." The gatefold is a takeoff on the famous war photo of Vietnamese children running down a road, but among the G.I.s behind them is a leering, pantsless Bill Clinton, chasing the bawling, naked prepubescent girl. "Me so horny!" he exclaims. The back cover shows a beaming Dubya snorting lines in the configuration of the White House. "Of course, it offended a great many people, which delighted me," says Balducci, "because people that get offended and try to censor things? I don't dig those people anyway. I think they need to be eradicated.

"You know, like Tom Brokaw?" he continues excitedly. "He calls the World War II generation the Greatest Generation. To me, they were the worst generation, because they were blindly led into World War II like 'sheeple,' and they created the A-bomb, which caused radioactive pollution, and the nuclear power plants came of that. And they talk about car exhaust creating global warming? That's bullshit, because those atomic-bomb tests and, later, the nuclear-bomb tests -- there's been 600 of them by the United States: 200 in the atmosphere, 200 ground-level and 200 underground -- those tests destroyed the ozone layer, created that big hole ..."

And on and on and on. Conversation doesn't have to flow into logical segues, although any topic broached will ultimately lead to talk of convoluted conspiracies, numerology and the metaphysical meanderings of the ancients. Balducci is an avid reader of obscure and esoteric literature. In the corner of the basement is a space that looks like the most tantalizing area of a collector's bookstore -- spinner racks of comics from the 1950s, pulp magazines, scandal sheets, boxes of underground publications. "My library womb," remarks Balducci. "There are ideas gestating there that I tap into." Some of his pet pontifications include the fervent beliefs that human beings are the seeds of extraterrestrials; that the NASA moon landing was a hoax; that Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover and the Masonic Order all conspired to have JFK killed. And Jesus Christ? "He never existed; he was history's greatest fraud." When this former altar boy gets going on religion, he's as unstoppable as a lemming migration.

"The pope's going to be assassinated," he says, regurgitating the prediction of 16th-century French physician/astrologer Nostradamus. "It will be in late spring. I'm not sure if it's this year or next, but it will be in a place with two rivers, which is Belgrade, Yugoslavia. That trip has not been announced yet. So he should stay out of there. The last one, the one that only made it through a month, John Paul I? He was poisoned. Oh, and there's only two more popes after this pope, and then the fall of the Catholic Church -- which is about time. We're going to party that night, pal."

"He's definitely a true artistic personality," says Kathleen. "It takes a special kind of wife, a special kind of mother, special kinds of friends to understand him and be in his world."

Glenn McCoy understands Rich Balducci -- sort of. The editorial cartoonist for the Belleville News-Democrat and creator of the syndicated comic strip The Duplex was a fledgling cartoonist when he responded to an ad in a college paper. "I dropped some stuff off at Snicker," he recalls, "and nothing came of it. I figured that Rich thought it was junk. And then I got better, thankfully, and my stuff was getting published in larger circles, and the next thing I know, my stuff that I had sent to him years back started appearing. In fact, the last time I checked, he was selling pirated T-shirts of my cartoons. So I'll have to hunt Rich down, see if he has a check for me."

McCoy gives Balducci high marks as a cartoonist but doesn't discount his cantankerous side. "I used to think he's a loose cannon -- more like a loose thermonuclear device," McCoy says. "He once tried to choke me on live TV during a spirited discussion on censorship. But now I think he's one of these people whose karma is tuned into attracting trouble or grief."

One person who found herself on the receiving end of that grief is greeting-card artist Mary Engelbreit. "She got my magazine kicked out of Artmart because of the 'Mary Engel-Trite' parody," gripes Balducci. He took Engelbreit's trademark gangly-girl character and put her in a compromising position -- bending over with a puppy humping her. "Apparently that was the fuse that lit the rocket," says Balducci, doing his Dustin Hoffman/Ratso Rizzo imitation from Midnight Cowboy.

"There's a big difference between parody and obscenity," sniffs Engelbreit.

Balducci just can't stand Engelbreit's art. "'Life is a chair of bowlies,'" he vents, referring to a popular Engelbreit title. "What the hell is that? Her work is so homogenized, so idyllic. It pisses me off that the world isn't the way she draws it, with doors unlocked and flowers growing. She spends $15,000 a year at Artmart, and if she asks them to do something, you can bet they're gonna do it."

Engelbreit acknowledges asking Artmart to remove that issue. Artmart's Keith Baizer says it was offensive and that he would have removed it anyway. He notes that Snicker still sells there from a newspaper box in the parking lot.

Those faded yellow secondhand newspaper boxes have become almost as troublesome as their owner. One morning, Balducci went to service a box on Delmar Boulevard, in the University City Loop, but the box had been moved. He lugged it back to the original spot and was stocking it when a guy emerged from the building, the Market in the Loop. "He demanded to know if it was my machine," recounts Balducci. "I asked for his name and title. It's always good to get the identity of the psycho coming upon you -- I was once stabbed in the head with a pen while doing the route. The guy said he was Mr. Wald and that he owned the building."

"I didn't realize it was still published," says Dan Wald, 49. "I've never seen anybody open the box, buy a paper out of there. The box had graffiti all over it, and the paper inside was all yellowed and tattered, looked like it'd been there 50 years. So I moved it down the street. Next day, I look out, I see the guy's moving it back. I said, 'Listen, we don't want that there' ... and the guy starts going crazy. He starts yelling, 'That's my First Amendment right.' I said: 'Just calm down, buddy, take it easy.' And then he starts coming at me and pushing me."

Balducci takes up the story: "He starts getting close to me and starts to grab my arm, so I backed him off with my open palm. It was like girl-sissy fighting." The cops were summoned, and, after talking to both men, they charged Balducci with common assault, a misdemeanor.

"Artists have always had problems with kings," says Balducci airily. "Nowadays we have problems with people who think they're kings. This guy thinks he owns the sidewalk."

Balducci vows he'll fight this case with the same conviction that motivated him to fight the mighty brewery, take it to the Supreme Court if necessary. And even if he loses, he'll retreat to the crypt and gleefully lampoon Wald, the U. City cops and maybe the judge in the pages of Snicker.

Wald still puzzles over the incident. "The guy was just nuts," he reflects. "He obviously has a hot temper, but why?"