4. 3. 2021

English Version | All of us will die. All of us, except for Hugo van der Ding

by Ana Murcho


Because it is humanly impossible the man behind “A Criada Malcriada” won’t find a way to get around life, and become, as is the prerogative of great geniuses, immortal.

There are things, however fleeting, that can never be forgotten. Dior's Haute Couture Spring/Summer 1998 show, at the time led by John Galliano, was, in the words of Tim Banks, “like the mix of every drug experience that every person has ever had, concentrated in 10 minutes, and multiplied by a thousand”. The renowned fashion critic mentions this moment whenever he’s asked about his favorite show of all time. An interview with Hugo van der Ding - writer, radio and TV presenter, author of the extinct Facebook page “Cavaca Para Presidenta”, one-time member of [teenage band] Onda Choc, former book translator, inventor of a ton of cartoon characters,of which stand out “A Criada Malcriada” ou “Juliana Saavedra, A Psicanalista Que Deixa Os Pacientes Na Merda”, attentive observer of human nature, lover of insects and royal families, excellent replicator of the great London fire, a rebel with printable causes and others that we prefer leave out - it's more or less like that. You can never forget it, and it’s like the mix of every illegal substances than can be used, multiplied by a thousand. Or, say, two thousand. On a gray February afternoon, van der Ding (whose real name may or may not be Hugo Sousa Tavares) arrives at the Vogue newsroom, now stripped of a large part of his collaborators due to the lockdown, like a ray of sun in acids. It is practically impossible to remain indifferent to his energy, his laughter, his good mood. And, in addition, to his intelligence, his generosity, his humility. An hour of conversation does not give us the right to make an assessment of his personality (Kurt Cobain, it seems, had a great phrase about it). However, we can claim that we are now almost friends (are we, Hugo?), thus the decision, for the first time, to treat an interviewee by “tu” [in Portuguese, “you” as a double sense; there is a difference between “tu”, which is used between friends, and “você”, which is a more formal way to treat someone]. All of this would be enough to condemn him to immortality, like the protagonists of his rubric “Vamos Todos Morrer”. But the 44-year-old funny guy's facade hides someone who has much more to give to this world (and the other one). Namely, light. More light.

We are in full lockdown again, which is a cooler way of saying that we are, again, locked in our houses. How are your days? My days are… shit (laughs). I try to wake up at six in the morning, because I start working at Antena 3 at seven, doing the morning show. So I wake up at six to be at my desk at seven, since a year ago, talking to the backside, talking to a wall, pretending I'm talking to my two colleagues, Tiago Ribeiro and Ana Markl, in order to do a show and people think that the three of us are in a very good mood for three hours. This was my initial plan, and I did it for a while. I went to bed early, around ten, to wake up at six and sleep properly. As the quarantine passed, and I think that's what happened to everyone, I was completely deregulating the schedules. [...] And then what happened to me? I started to see that it was four in the morning, and I thought 'Well, maybe I should go to bed to wake up at six'. Then I thought ‘Maybe it’s better not to sleep’. So now I go to bed at about five in the afternoon, wake up at five in the morning (on good days), do the program, then try to do a few more things, because I'm always doing thousands of things, and I'm locked in my house going a little bit crazy.

Are you still able to maintain your routines? Can you make your cartoons the same way, or do you notice that creativity is already getting in the way? I do. I started to notice it this month, I think. In the first lockdown I was not in Lisbon, I fled to the countryside. [...] Now I am experiencing the lockdown in an apartment in Lisbon for the first time, alone, and I have felt, for a month, that I have nothing to say. I don't feel like saying anything else. Finally, all this weight of people being closed at home, the pandemic being so much worse than it was a year ago, for the first time I feel that I have nothing to say. Sometimes something really funny comes up and I will to do a drawing, but I feel that now it’s costing me a lot. But I still receive messages from people saying ‘What about the cartoons? You should be forced to do one every day! ’Making radio is also being difficult. How interesting, I had never said that out loud! Now I would start to cry... (laughs) But I am in therapy, it has helped me a lot. I also have a lot of disposable income, I am now doing seven hours of therapy a day, money is spent on practically nothing else. And I am providing a lockdown in Monaco to my therapist, who has already moved in, bought a house there, and is going to parties with midgets who carry trays with cocaine on their heads.

You had a TV show, you have the radio show, you make your cartoons, you already published books... What exactly is your profession? Is comedian a word that makes sense to you, or is it too reductive? I never knew very well... Comedian [is something] I really don't like, because I think I do a lot of things, it's not my fault that I am funny when I do these things. This does not mean that I am a comedian. A comedian is a person whose first purpose is to have fun. I am not to blame for being funny, I am doing other things, I am just doing radio, or writing, or making drawings. If people find it funny, it's their problem, now don't say I'm a comedian. Do you understand my question? They usually write ‘author’. When they don't know what to say, they write ‘author’, which is a little vague. Like, ‘He does things out of his head.’

And you, what do you think you are? I think I'm trying a lot of things for fun, because I like to try things, until I settle on what I want to do when I grow up, which is to write, to be a writer. Now I’ve broadened the spectrum a little bit, it’s not just books, I would like to write for theater, for cinema, in fact I’m doing that, I’m just writing an animated feature film, which is one of the things I’m enjoying the most. With taxpayers' money. In fact, like my entire career. I work on public radio, I am now writing a feature film with taxpayers' money, through ICA [Instituto do Cinema e do Audiovisual]...

You started to become known with the Facebook page “Cavaca Para Presidenta”. At that time, you were a translator. Was it your full-time job? Yes. I lived abroad until I was 28, 30 years old, and then I came back and I didn't really know what to do. I had a friend who worked at a publisher, and as we know in Portugal everything works by pulling a few strings and knowledges. I don't have any higher education in translation and therefore she decided to put me ahead of all the people who invested time and money in their professional training. As always happens in Portugal. So I started doing translation, and did maybe 10 years of literary translation. But I was good at doing that, one must say it.

Then you created “A Criada Malcriada”. When did you decide to drop translation and dedicate yourself full-time to humor? I never dedicated myself to translation, really. I have a serious problem with work organization. When I'm doing a lot of things, as is the case, things go well, but as soon as it becomes an obligation it loses a little bit of fun. At the time, they gave three months to translate a book. And for me to be doing the same thing for three months was a nightmare. What I was doing was: I was two months and three weeks going out at night, drinking, and sleeping with different people every day, and then there was a week left to deliver the book and I would said 'Sorry, you need to leave' and then started to translate the book. I even went to the hospital, and I was unable to sleep to deliver the book, it really happened to me. So I never devoted much to translation, it was a bit of a dilettante. When I started doing these things, I stopped having time to translate, which was something I was also very tired of doing. It wasn’t a huge risk like ‘I’ll leave translation, but this is so uncertain’, these are things that never cross my mind. I am very stupid in these things. I didn’t thought, ‘Let me see if this works’, I don’t live my life like that. I suck.

Are your drawings inspired by real people, or are they characters that exist only in your imagination? I think they are a mix of the things I see. I think that, since I was a child, like my friends too, we are like sponges, we absorb everything we are listening to. We have records of everyday characters, of people with whom we meet, who we can perfectly mimic. I think that was the secret of “Cavaca Para Presidenta”, for example. I sometimes say expressions, I’m playing or imitating I don’t know who, I don’t even know who I’m imitating, and I think, 'Where did I hear this?' And the truth is, I heard that, for sure, somewhere in my life. So not all characters are inspired by a person who exists, they are a mix of things that I hear and that I then channel to a bunch of characters... They are just mean people.

None of them is good? They are good but, I mean, they are twisted people. I love this universe. In fact, I noticed, late, when I already had many characters, that all my characters are women, for example. I have practically no male characters.

The astronauts, aren’t they men? We will never know. Because if they take the suit off, with the depressurization, you won't even understand it. Women, in fact, have a much richer universe than men. Men are much more basic, aren't they? They like two things, they say two sentences, more or less... It's true! [...] A man gets high with spikes, the woman gets high with spikes... otherwise. Spikes may be even sharper, the high might be more disguised, but it is still a high with spikes, and I think it's fun to explore these things.

How did you came up with the idea to make a rubric called “Vamos Todos Morrer”? I am fascinated with death, I find it an incredible topic. The two greatest figures of my life, while I was growing up, were my mother and my grandmother. My parents divorced very early, I grew up almost entirely with my mother, and then with my grandmother, who did not live with us, but I saw her every day. Therefore, the universe of women is very present, even in small gestures, in subtleties. And now I'm trying to remember what you asked me... Ha! And in addition to not having my father there, for my grandmother my grandfather's figure was very important. I didn't know him, he had died in the late 60's, and this marked me immensely, to have a dead person who was part of people's lives. I know when is birthday is, I know when he died, I know everything about him, and I never met him, only in photographs. At my grandmother's house, and my grandfather had never lived in that house, there was my grandfather's office. He never lived in that house, my grandmother moved after she became a widow, and there was a room there that was my grandfather's office, with everything put together as if he were alive. And nowadays I have it all in my house, which is a funny thing. It's where I draw, it's where I do everything, it's on my grandfather's desk, a man I've never met in my life. And so I think that also aroused a fascination for death and for not dying, how people manage not to die - the most anonymous people through those who like them and who perpetuate their memory, and others, who are the people of “Vamos Todos Morrer”. We speak of Plato, of Sócrates [pun with the former Portuguese prime minister] up to this day. Sócrates because, as we know, is under house arrest awaiting trial, Plato because he was a very important philosopher who lived two and a half thousand years ago.

Have you ever regretted any of your jokes? Um... No, I don't think so. There is a process with the jokes. Some cartoons I do on purpose because I want to send a message of things I believe in, but most of them are things I find funny and the interpretations are posteriori. Sometimes I read about the things I did based on the interpretations [others] are doing. 'Ha, in fact...' There are things that I think are just funny. But then sometimes I think 'Maybe it wasn’t what I wanted to say' and I started to gain a sensitivity... You can’t be hyper sensitive, because then I can’t make that joke of the guy who’s vacuuming a ward and hangs up the machine that keeps a patient alive because I think, 'Wait, the father of a friend of mine is connected to a machine in the hospital'. If you start to enter this loop, you do nothing. But I don't think I regret things, because I haven't had a lot of backlash. I had a little while ago, with a joke that apparently many people thought was transphobic, and that was not my intention, and it was the first time that I tasted those hatreds a little...

The hatreds of the culture of cancellation? Yes. I think these people also make a lot more noise than others, don't they? A group of 30 is enough to give the idea that the internet [is against you]. I received private messages and answered them all, but there were people who said... I'm not falling for the conspiracy theories but it was like 'Does RTP not speak?' Or 'Does Vodafone not speak?', because at the time I had made a commercial with Vodafone, and there were people saying that Vodafone had to speak out because I made a cartoon. And I think we have already entered a very strange planet, worse than Pluto.

Didn't you feel it on your skin until then? No. And I thought it was a huge failure. Nobody wants to be consensual. But in fact, I had never had that hatred, nor trolls, I had been a little protected from it.

But do you realize that it is something which is growing exponentially? Does it scare you, for example, the idea of forbidding certain films or books? It scares me. I think this is going to go very badly, still. We are in the beginning of [everything] going very badly. I realized that talking about politics nowadays on Facebook or Instagram is a completely wasteful topic, because you just open the door to hate. But it makes me think ‘So we have to talk’. I don't know very well what is the role of people who have a little bit of a stage, or a voice, but we have to talk. This thing of canceling, I realize that you have to make historical frameworks of things, I think this is important, the US has been at the forefront of these discussions, with “Uncle Tom's Cabin”, which is in fact a racist book. So we are not going to burn “Uncle Tom's Cabin”, but I think it is important to have a foreword that explains [the book].

What inspires you? I know that Quino, for instance, inspired you. Quino inspired me a lot. These are things that educate us about humor. These are things that educate us about fun, and even the times when things are funny. Quino, I don't know if he invented it, the joke in three stages, like Schultz too, who made Peanuts, Tintin, have always been great references in comics. Since I don't know how to draw, it is necessary to explain that comics appeared in my life completely by chance. What I liked to do was to write, be an actor, it was something I liked doing when I was younger and then I gave up, I decided to do something else. Drawing, I always knew that I didn't know how to draw. [...] But the references, in humor, I think are a bit universal. Then Monty Python on television. Herman, who is a very important reference, really, he is brilliant. Portugal sometimes has figures, they are almost always foreign, of course, as is the case with Herman. The Marquês de Pombal, when he made the Portuguese industrial revolution, had to call foreign dudes to make combs. The comb factory that existed in Amoreiras, which is still called Rua da Fábrica dos Pentes today, he had to fetch a Frenchman. Like, to make a comb! How could they not even make a comb? No, it's a little unfair, of course there are great people in Portugal. But Herman is so great. I get lost. It's from the medicines. Medicines are also a great inspiration.

Who is, for you, a creative person? It's me! I'm not kidding. (laughs) A creative person... How do you define that? I think it’s a person whose thinking does not conform or fit the current perception of common sense. (laughs) I don't even know what I just said. I will try to repeat. It’s a person whose thinking is not, does not fit or conform to the current concept of common sense. This makes perfect sense, what I am saying. I guess. For me. This is a creative person.

Do you think that creativity is something that can be learned, or that is innate? I think that almost every area where people are generally genius is [something that can be] learned. One learns to draw, one learns to play the piano, one learns to be technically perfect, or technically competent. Then, you either have a genius or you don't have a genius. [...] I never learned to draw, for example, but I learned by myself, according to my needs. Today there is nothing, and that makes me very happy, that I want to express, no idea, a helicopter, a horse, that people don't realize that I am drawing a helicopter or a horse. This is learned. Now the rest I can't tell you.

When you get stuck, what do you do? Do you have an escape? Ride a bike. Running I find it completely pointless. I find it absurd. I know that nowadays it is very controversial to say this because everyone runs, but running is not going anywhere. When my friends tell me ‘I’m going to run,’ I only remember Forrest Gump. When you’re riding a bike, you may also be going nowhere, but can disguise it better. Because whoever sees a person running on the street, knows that that person is not going anywhere. On a bicycle I can be perfectly going anywhere. (laughs)

How do you keep yourself informed of everything that is going on in the world? Do you read a lot, do you consume a lot of information? Yes, I read a lot. And I consume a lot of information. Currently in the form of podcasts, I am always listening, from morning to night. But now I am trying to control myself because it is starting to be a very serious problem for my creativity. There are human activities that stimulate creativity. Reading is one of them. Because the information given to you is so little, it’s phrases, so your whole imagination is always being stimulated to complete what is missing in that environment. Because it's a written medium, you don't have images, you don't have sounds, you don't have voices. And that is always stimulating your imagination and your creativity. I find myself and there it’s been five pages that I am already in another world so I have to go back because I was in a completely different world.Most of today's forms of entertainment, however well done, are not really stimulating you, they are giving you everything you need to know: this character talks like this, this house is like this, the weather is like this, the lines are these, the space for your own imagination is very little. And nowadays I am shocked to find websites that say ‘This article only takes three minutes to read’, there are many websites that already have this. Or 'Be careful, this article takes six minutes to read, see if you have six minutes to read all of this until the end'. So you are living a little bit... I love everything revolving technology, I think everything is great, it really connected people, but it is a bit of a danger. [...] The sentence that sums up what I think of this is 'Boredom is the mother of all arts', of all creative expression. It's boredom. We need to get bored. And in the modern world, we have to rediscover boredom, I think. Boredom is a good thing, and people are afraid of boredom.

Do you like memes? Yes, I love it! Love! (laughs) Sometimes I feel really sorry for not mastering certain things, like Photoshop. What Insónias em Carvão [Facebook and Instagram page] does, I would love to know how to do that. I don't know how to do any of that, it sucks. Those things when you take a photograph and whatever... What he does is awesome, it's immensely funny. Most of the things I don't understand, because they are football jokes and I only know about Sporting. So I only understand football every 20 years and now I know everything, I see all the games, I know all the results, so it is only every 20 years that I wake up and say 'Ha, so now is our time to understand football'. I hope this goes well until the end. But I love it. I love memes. I'd love to do it, I don't do much. I do some with Egypt, I get some images and do the lines. These are memes, aren't they? Anything other than me drawing is memes, isn't it?

Were you already funny as a kid? I was a clown, yes. I think I grew up among clowns, I must say. My family is a whole family of clowns. How am I going to explain this? Everything has to be funny. My mom is one of those moms where everything always has to end with a laugh. Even in the greatest tragedies. [...] I think I am not able to establish relationships, that is, if they are very fleeting, I think I am, with people who have no sense of humor and who do not share that sense of humor with me. And I thought it was more rare. The fun thing about making the cartoons and doing things publicly is finding out that after all there are a lot of more fun people in what I consider to be fun.

Do you have any confessable addictions? Addictions? Reading, maybe it’s an addiction, I don’t know if it is. Smoke is a drag. I quit smoking yesterday, I had 24 hours without smoking. I smoke a lot since I am doing the show at home. I don't even want to say how much I smoke, because it's a shame, I'm smoking a lot. And I haven't smoked for 24 hours, but in the meantime I got irritated with something and had to go running to buy a pack of cigarettes. But I really wanted to quit smoking. I drink a lot of coffee. And now, both in confinement and since I am on the radio, other more fun addictions have had to be left behind, because it is very difficult to get smack at six in the morning. I'm kidding! I'm kidding! I'm kidding! How horrible. I'm kidding!

What is the worst question someone can ask you? In general? I don't know... 'What do you think about that?' I love to ask 'What do you think about that?' I used it as a catchphrase, I ended all sentences with 'What do you think about that?' And until people realized that I was not asking anything it was hell. I don't know, in interviews? Maybe it’s ‘How do ideas come up?’ Are you going to ask now?

And the one you always wanted to answer and that no one has yet remembered to make? I am thinking of the answer. [pause] I don't know, I think you've asked me everything I wish you'd asked me. As I always answer to everything, I can't think what I want to answer, maybe I'm afraid of the most intimate questions. I will always answer sincerely, the first thing that comes up, and I don’t think what my image [is going to look like], sometimes it works against me, right? I'm not thinking about an image that I want to project, so I don't know ... Asking someone if that person is happy?

That is very intimate. It is very intimate. And I don't know what I would answer, because I would answer the first thing that crossed my mind, and yes, I think it must be horrible. Because it is much more... ‘Are you happy?’ is the most embarrassing question in the world, because it is not asking when you were happiest, or ‘remind me of a happy moment in your life.’ No. ‘Are you happy?’ is a question that forces you to rethink your whole life in a second, or less, to then answer, and then what’s going to come out, you’re going to have to live with that for the rest of the day, at least.

Do you think that laughing is always the best medicine? Yes, I think so. I think it is. I think you can't help but laugh. I think taking things seriously is stupid. There are serious things, and this only applies to our things, I am not saying to laugh at the misfortune of others. It's not 'The best is to laugh' while someone is telling a horrible story, which happened to him, like 'I lost my parents, and my brothers and grandparents, they all died in a concentration camp', it's not 'The best thing is to laugh', that's not what I'm saying. Although I think so, but it is a personal choice. But there was nothing dramatic enough in my life that I couldn’t say ‘Let me find a vaguely amusing angle on this’, and sometimes the angle is just that it happened to me. And then I laugh. So I think so. I think so. There is nothing I say like 'I don't play with this' or 'I am not able to laugh at this'.

How would you like to die? You know that a while ago I thought it was the question I would like to be asked. Can you imagine? How funny! When I said I was thinking of an answer, I don't know, here it has to be a little bit more... I have to think what to say. I would like to die very old, I would like to last for many years. As I get older, there are fewer and fewer years that I want to live, that is, when I was 20 I thought 'I wish I lived to be 500 years old', then you start pacifying that life is not like that, right? Nobody dies screaming, age pacifies, nobody dies old, screaming, saying 'No, I don't want to', so age is pacifies you with death, and we see that in our grandparents, they are not saying 'What a horror', no, they are pacified. But I would like to die very old. And this is horrible to say, but I would like to die on my birthday. I was born on December 24th, and it is special for me to be born on that day. There are always people saying 'Oh, it's a pain to be born that day', no, it's nothing, it's the most special day of the year, I love being born on December 24th. And I would like to close this cycle, that is very sad to say, but I loved to die the day I turned... 170 years old, the day I was born. I liked to die the day I was born. How horrible! (laughs)

Do you believe in life after death? Of course! Yes, yes, yes. It is very strange. I cannot explain, I am not religious, but it does not occur to me that the people I like, who have already died, do not continue to exist somewhere. So, to be honest, I have to say yes, that I believe in life after death. I may not believe it for most people, but I cannot believe that people I loved so much have ceased to exist. It's not even just in my heart. They really exist. It is almost the children's classic of the little star in the sky, I completely believe that. Now the people that you liked and who died, I don't know what to guarantee you.

If you could choose, what would be your last words? Some are real life lessons. Goethe, when he died, said ‘More light’. It's incredible. I think they must be the most awesome last words in the world. And there are those who say that he was just saying 'Open the curtains, for God's sake', but I think those are some great last words. 'More light' is great.

*Originally published in The Creativity Issue of Vogue Portugal, from march 2021.
Full credits on the print version.