Photo courtesy of The New Yorker.
In 2004, the people at The New Yorker set out on a daunting task—to compile in one massive collection every single cartoon that has ever been published in the magazine since it first hit shelves on February 21, 1925. Cartoon Editor-in-chief and wit-extraordinaire Robert ‘Bob’ Mankoff had this to say about the accomplishment: “From the start of the process, we were relentless, unsparing, obsessive, compulsive, and even possessed in our efforts. We examined every single page … to ensure not a single cartoon was missed. In the end, after examining more than four hundred thousand pages, we found 70,363 cartoons” (Mankoff, vi).
The New Yorker cartoon is distinct in its methods, according to Mankoff: “a single-line caption and a carefully thought-out integrated situation in which image and caption are interdependent” (vi). It is the brevity of the wit that makes it a) so funny, and b) so impressive. A lot of the laughter expelled at a New Yorker funny is done so at a subconscious recognition of cleverness with so much truth and absurdity packed into a few words and one still image. Rarely do we see more than one speaker in a New Yorker cartoon, and most often the quip is delivered in seven words or less.
Cartoons of this sort, meaning ones that appear in contemporary popular magazines and newspapers like The New Yorker, Playboy or The Wall Street Journal, are “a comic snapshot, a funhouse mirror, of their time” (vi). They represent the modes of thought, desires, conventions, cultural consciousness and social zeitgeist of the time in which they were drawn. Examining the history of the New Yorker cartoon bank has provided an obscure lens into the history of the nation and the shifts in the American identity since the 20s, but a lens nonetheless.
Historians rely on many sources to understand “the times” in which they study. Everything from the obvious (newspapers and magazines) to the not-so-obvious (grocery lists and accounting ledgers) provide clues to our past. Humor is no different. Discovering what people found funny in 1925 versus what we laugh at today informs us a lot about the metamorphosis of the American identity. Some things never change—Americans have always found politics, religion and sex topics to make fun of and laugh at. On the other hand, racism, feminism, pacifism, and many other “isms” are constantly reshaping our sense of humor. You can see all this by looking at some of the comedy over the last 90 years that has made it into the New Yorker.
Editor David Remnick notes how “remarkable it is how closely readers pay attention to the subtleties, the evolving genres, the mix of topical jokes and social criticisms” (Remnick, viii). It’s true—one cannot enjoy a New Yorker issue without noticing one or two characteristics about the cartoons. Often, when I talk to other New Yorker subscribers, we reference the cartoons more than the articles themselves. Why do we do this? Is it because a comical drawing provides a small moment of relief in such a heavily rhetorical magazine? Like a clown at the circus, one whose role is to provide a break from the action and anxiety we feel from watching the trapeze artist somersault though the air or the lion-tamer stick his head into the jaws of a beast, is it this grounding in reality and humor that attracts our attention? Perhaps, but there is a very large argument to prove that idea false as well.
If New Yorker cartoons are only hilarious insofar that they exist interspersed among the intellectual giant that is the magazine itself, then why do they turn up in so many other places outside the domain of excellent journalism? New Yorker cartoons sell books, make it onto desktop calendars and we see them magnetized to the refrigerators or pinned to the bulletin boards of so many offices around the world. As much as we may like to think that a one-slide/one-snide drawing provides relief to an otherwise heavily-engaged reading, the fact that so much of the work is timeless and boundless trumps that suggestion.
The fact is, “the cartoons are essential to The New Yorker. They are what readers read first. (Don’t lie. You know it’s true.) They set the tone of the magazine. They are, in fact, the emblem of the magazine, and as far as editor David Remnick can tell, the longest-running popular comic genre in American life” (Remnick).