Derf Raises Stink in Kentucky

"Tickle-Me Elmo" Cartoon Also Sparks Protest in Cleveland.

True story: There was a three-year-old boy in Cleveland who owned a Tickle-Me Elmo doll. The child loved the toy. In fact, you might even say he loved it too much: Periodically, he would stick the doll between his legs and enthusiastically hump away.

The child belonged to parents who just happen to be friends with John Backderf (a/k/a “Derf”), the man behind the comic strip, “The City.” Last month, when the father shared with Backderf the story of his son’s odd predilection, the cartoonist knew right away he had material he could work with.

The comic strip that resulted showed an excited youngster sporting a big smile while having his way with a Tickle-Me Elmo.

The strip ran in more than 50 alternative newsweeklies. According to Backderf, the initial response was favorable: “I got a few e-mails from people saying they liked it. That was about it.”

However, after the cartoon appeared in Lexington, KY’s ACE Magazine on Dec. 9, the praise soon gave way to recriminations. According to the paper’s staff, a man who identified himself as a member of the media called the paper and began hurling verbal grenades.

“He said we were child pornographers because of ‘The City’ cartoon we were running that week,” says Editor Rhonda Reeves, who took the call. “He said he was going to go on the air at a prominent local radio station and call us ‘child pornographers.'”

Despite repeated requests, the caller refused to identify himself. When he hung up, Reeves dialed *69, the local phone company’s return call service. “He answered the call using his name, ‘Don Souleyrette,'” says Reeves, who soon discovered that Souleyrette hosts two Hispanic talk shows on a local AM radio station.

According to ACE Publisher Susan Saylor Yeary, Souleyrette called “three or four” more times and told her that he would protest the cartoon’s publication by calling ACE’s advertisers and urging them to yank their ads and blasting the paper on the air during one of his talk shows.

“I called the management of the radio station and asked them if they were aware of what he was doing. They said he could do whatever he wanted to on his own show,” says Saylor Yeary. ” We also soon learned he was calling our advertisers again and again, saying he was calling ‘on behalf of the children.'”

The best Saylor Yeary can tell, no ACE advertiser has yet succumbed to Souleyrette’s pressure. However, she’s hardly sanguine about the whole episode.

“Most of our advertisers were telling us, ‘This loony keeps calling us.’ But even if they don’t boycott the paper, this doesn’t help,” she says. “When someone is calling you ‘a child pornographer,’ nothing good can come out of it.”

Souleyrette calls most of Saylor Yeary’s allegations either “exaggerations” or “flat-out lies.” He only called the paper once, he claims. He also says he never threatened to rip the paper on his radio show — and he has no intention of doing so in the future. Moreover, Souleyrette claims he never called the paper’s publishers’ “child pornographers.”

Souleyrette does acknowledge that he contacted about two dozen ACE clients. “I’m still working at it, calling their advertisers. The reason I’m doing this is to make sure [the advertisers] know what kind of publication they’re advertising in — a magazine that shows a child being sexually awakened at age three.

“Now, I’m no prude by any means. I don’t think I’m holier-than-thou. I’m not opposed to satire either. But this cartoon crossed the line. It shows that [ACE] considers nothing sacred. They should leave the kids alone — that’s all I’m saying. There’s enough weird stuff going on in the world with these kids without printing something like that.”

Coincidentally, as ACE was battling Souleyrette in Lexington, 300 miles up Interstate 71 the Cleveland Free Times was dealing with its own Derf-generated controversy.

According to Publisher Randy Siegel, an administrator at the Cleveland Clinic — the area’s largest medical facility, and a weekly distribution point for 2,000 copies of the Free Times — was also offended by the Tickle-Me Elmo cartoon. Siegel says she banned the paper from inside the sprawling complex.

Siegel also says that a Free Times distribution employee was detained by hospital security personnel the first time he tried to deliver the paper after the ban went into affect.

“We’ve been temporarily suspended from distributing the paper inside the building,” says Siegel. “But we still have our boxes outside. In the coming weeks, I plan on meeting with the higher-ups [who outrank the administrator who banned the paper]. I’m confident [the hospital] will re-consider and we will again be allowed again to distribute the paper inside the building.”

Siegel is amazed that some people were so offended by Derf’s cartoon. “It’s not nearly as racy as some of the skits on ‘Saturday Night Live.'”

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