Cartoons that Work
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ROGER ROSENBLATT: This essay on a cartoon collection from the New Yorker Magazine comes with the following warning label: “Don’t pay any attention to it.” There’s no point in trying to say something serious about humor. It just gets depressing. Cartoons, especially, defy analysis.
We only want to look and laugh, something the readers of the New Yorker have been doing blissfully these past 75 years, at the work of James Thurber… …Charles Addams… …Ed Koren… …Chon Day… …Booth… …Steig… …Peter Arno… …Bob Mankoff, who edited the collection… …Roz Chast, and on and on.
If it’s sophisticated analysis you want, analyze this: Peter Arno’s “Priest at a Baseball Game.” Or Charles Addams’ “Man in Flight.” Or Thurber’s famous courtroom confrontation involving a kangaroo.
James Thurber was a particularly intriguing cartoonist. He used to say that he really didn’t know how to draw, so when he started out on a cartoon, he didn’t know how it would wind up. This may account for a nutty though tantalizing ambiguity in his work. The obvious joke in the courtroom cartoon asks the question how exactly could a kangaroo, as a piece of evidence, rouse anybody’s memory, and of what?
But then there is also the idea at play of a kangaroo court, if you see what I mean. Then there is Thurber’s “Woman on a Bookcase,” for some reason omitted from the recent New Yorker collection. Crouching on her perch, is she dead and stuffed? Is she alive and insane? Do you care?
Do you really want me to go into Max Eastman’s treatise on comedy, or Havlitz on humor? Or Henri Bergson’s complicated theory of laughter and physical momentum? I don’t think so. Back to the magazine, then, which, it seems to me, has used cartoons in a particularly clever way.
Nowadays, all magazines open with little items of news and gossip aimed at drawing the reluctant reader toward the longer and more substantial articles. The New Yorker cartoons have functioned in the same way, but more elegantly and enjoyably.
One flips through the pages of an issue, made happy here and there by a cartoon, and then the eyes are seduced to the words on a page. Many cartoons are articles: Chast’s “Cab to Hell;” Stevenson’s “Man and Wife;” C.E. Martin’s “Father and Son;” Saul Steinberg’s “Interior Calendar.”
In its early days, New Yorker cartoons played a subtle game of making fun of the upper classes, while at the same time courting them. The totemic figure of Eustice Tilley serves this double purpose. There were lots of drawings of maids and butlers, plumbers and coal delivery men, putting on airs that blew in both directions. Gilbert Bundy’s organist brings all that back.
Today, the brush is broader– political jokes, jokes of the moment. I tend to like cartoons that don’t make a lot of sense, deliberately, like Leo Cullum’s “Doctor and Cow.”
And Danny Shanahan’s “Elvis.” One wonders where a cartoon originates in the imagination. How much fun it must have been for Bill Woodman, once the toasters popped into his head, to let them fly. The best definition of a cartoon I know of is that of critic Stefan Kanfer, who wrote “a cartoon is an oblong island entirely surrounded by laughter.” That’s as much as anyone needs. Sorry, I can’t tell you why this cartoon by Ed Koren is funny. Or this one. But why would you want to know?
I’m Roger Rosenblatt.