The Mind of MacNeil

An innocuous guitar-strumming exterior belies Bill MacNeil’s inner provocateur. But don’t be fooled. Leslie A. Westbrook follows the path of a modern satirist.

“Mr. Warmth,” Don Rickles.


on’t be deceived by that sweet young boy

on the opening page of graphic designer/singer-songwriter Bill MacNeil’s website. Behind a face of innocence lies a wickedly creative mind—and no one escapes his poison pen. From Prince Charles to Woody Harrelson, Leonardo da Vinci to politicians on both sides of the political spectrum, rock stars to the everyman. Anyone is fair game. His images range from macabre to tender, but nearly all of them are hilarious, depending on your sense of humor.

Bill MacNeil originally came to California to pursue a more traditional, and less abrasive, form of art.

Having toiled under the pressures and rapid-fire deadlines of late-night television—specifically, the Johnny Carson and Jay Leno shows—the 59-year-old Ojai resident is no stranger to world affairs and celebrity blunders. Still, the kid is star struck.

After spending 25 years as a graphic artist for NBC/Universal in Los Angeles, including freelance work and 18 years as one of two lead artists for “The Tonight Show,” MacNeil continues to doodle on his computer, as well as compose and sing songs.

Johnny Depp, caricature portrait.

“I had been coming to Ojai for several years, visiting friends, and I grew attached right away. It reminded me so much of where I came from—without the long, cold winters,” recalls the Massachusetts native who grew up in a rural setting on the outskirts of Boston.

He was the middle child of four (according to MacNeil math), with two older siblings and a younger sister. “Of course I was the most talented, the best looking, the smartest, the most interesting, and certainly the favorite,” he jokes, “although our governess would disagree… I’m just kidding, we had no governess.”

“All Things Jack,” Jack Nicholson.

MacNeil has been drawing pictures since he could hold a pencil. Both his dad and his paternal grandmother were artistically inclined. “My dad noticed my ability early on and always encouraged it,” he says, adding, “When I was ten years old, with a little help from my dad I drew a portrait of President Kennedy shortly after the fateful day in Dallas, and we mailed a copy of it to the Kennedy family. I received a thank-you letter back from Jackie O, which my mom saved. I was happy to find it among her things when she passed.”

After high school, he studied commercial design at the New England School of Art but was told by most of his teachers that he would do better pursuing a career in fine arts. Ironically, he wound up, many years later, working as a graphic artist/designer in television.

The tools of a modern satirist.

Late nights spent over the drawing table (in this case, a computer screen) may yield such images as a “gay” version of the Big Boy hamburger mascot, a spoof on Woody Harrelson’s marijuana chip Doritos, an aged Julia Roberts, the presidential carvings of Mount Rushmore morphed into the rock bank KISS… You get the picture.

“I’ve always loved to elicit laughter. I was always the class clown, and I’m a huge fan of stand-up and improvisational comedy,” he says. “I’ve always tried to incorporate humor into my artwork, even before doing so for a living with ‘The Tonight Show.’”

“Ha, Ha, Ha,” Phyllis Diller.

Along with being one of two lead artists for “The Tonight Show,” MacNeil also provided voice-over in a running sketch called “The Tonight Show Request Line.” The premise was that people were calling in from various locations nationwide to ask Jay Leno a question. In actuality, it was actors backstage supplying the voices. “The first one I did was the most nervous I have ever been in my entire life: I played a stoner from Chino, California!” he laughs.

Working for the great Johnny Carson—creating the visuals to his verbal jokes—for many years meant meeting just about everybody in show biz who walked through the doors of the NBC studios. And being a child of the times, MacNeil watched a lot of television growing up.

“Fossile Found,” Harrison Ford’s 70th birthday.

“The days with Johnny Carson were some of the best times of that job. As a kid, I would sneak my dad’s old mini black-and-white television set up to my room at night to watch Johnny, and then sneak it back before morning,” he recalls. “To find myself working with him for nine-and-a-half years, and then to stand talking to him at his house the night of his last show, was quite wonderfully surreal, to say the very least.”

And he never lost that sense of wonder. “I got a big thrill any time I ran into anyone even slightly famous,” he says. A few standout encounters include meeting Jerry Mathers from “Leave it To Beaver,” holding hands with Joni Mitchell while talking with her (“melting at the same time”), holding the door for Lucille Ball (she thanked him “in a smoker’s voice that sounded like a foghorn”), and preventing Bette Davis from “falling on her ass” when she slipped while exiting the stage.

“Swing Vote,” Betty and Barack.

But his favorite story is about the time he tried to meet the legendary actor Jimmy Stewart: “It was a Saturday and they were doing a roast of Joan Collins at NBC. I was the stand-by graphic artist for the show. I didn’t have a lot of duties to fulfill that day; I was there just in case they needed something last minute. This allowed me to position myself in locations where I might seize an opportunity to meet and shake hands with Mr. Stewart.” He finally got his chance—in the restroom. “When I walked in and saw him standing at the urinal, I came to my senses and realized, maybe I’d rather meet him elsewhere. Then when he didn’t wash his hands, I was no longer so anxious to shake one of them! I did get to see him several times after that, and it was always a thrill.”

“Mayberry’s Finest,” Ron Howard.

He admits that working with the writers was difficult at times: too many creative minds colliding and clashing. MacNeil believes that a good joke, like anything else, needs a good solid foundation to start with. If it has that, everything else is icing on the cake. “No amount of well executed graphics can make a joke funny if the idea is not funny to begin with. Being a perfectionist by nature, it was difficult for me to adjust to creating art that was only on the air for seconds, and not to fuss with it as I would with anything else I would create artistically,” he says.

Now the artist has time to pursue his other love: music. “I originally came to California to try to make it in the music business as a singer-songwriter. Music has always been my main passion, and songwriting is a constant activity in my life.” MacNeil went into the studio this summer to record some of his songs, which he plans to showcase at various venues in Ojai and Ventura.

“I never really pursued the business side of music, especially once I began working full-time,” he explains, “but I never stopped writing songs. And like anything you stay with long enough, you get seasoned. I’m ready now, more than ever, to get these songs heard beyond my four walls.”

So if you happen to hear some late-night music coming from a wee cottage on Foothill Road in Ojai, stop and listen a while. You may have stumbled upon Bill’s MacNeil’s World.


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