Below is the latest The Pain -- When Will It End?
Those of you who have not seen or heard about it should immediately view the video or read the transcript of Stephen Colbert’s address to the White House Press Corps Dinner: http://www.crooksandliars.com/2006/04/29.html#a8104 . The speech is very funny in itself, but it’s astonishing considering that it was given in the presence of George W. Bush himself, who sat rigid and unsmiling a few feet away at the same banquet table. Particularly notable is the tense silence from the Washington Press Corps, apparently as squeamish about humor as they are about truth.
It is not easy to draw a New Yorker cartoon. (Indeed, as the title of this collage implies, I have failed to do so.) David Foster Wallace once described them as having "an elusive sameness." The usual subtext seems to be self-congratulation on (disguised as self-deprecation of) New Yorkers’ trendiness, superficiality, and materialism. The typical reader response to one is a barely perceptible lifting at the corners of the mouth, and perhaps a murmured, "Mm." They have to be clever; droll, even. They must never actually be funny. For example, a friend of mine looked at panel #3 here, "What happens at the Pulitzers, stays at the Pulitzers," and suggested that it ought to be "Caldecotts" instead. This alteration made the cartoon exponentially funnier--hilarious, even--but also instantly rendered it ineligible for The New Yorker. It’s a tough genre. I have spent five of the last six winters in New York City, and once a year, on average, I get an idea that is clever enough but not too funny to be a New Yorker cartoon. This winter, in one of the sporadic and invariably futile bursts of ambition I succumb to when I’m up here, I finally decided to draw them all and submit them.
It is a little-known fact that at eleven A.M. on Tuesday of every week anyone can go to the offices of The New Yorker on the twentieth floor of the Conde-Nast building at 4 Times Square and get in line to show Bob Mankoff, their cartoon editor, his cartoons. It’s all very twentieth-century. I had been told that it was first-come, first-serve, regardless of seniority, so I got there unnecessarily early, around ten-twenty. Nobody else showed up for another half an hour. During this time I talked to the receptionist about H.L. Mencken, whose biography I was reading, and Dr. Samuel Johnson, one of whose books he was reading. This was to be my pleasantest interaction at The New Yorker.
Other cartoonists started showing up around quarter-‘til, including Sam ("S.") Gross, whose name is one of the few I recognize from The New Yorker. Over the next half-hour nine or ten other cartoonists showed up, all of them famous, I am sure, among people who care about New Yorker cartoons. The only one I recognized was Roz Chast, because she looks exactly like you would expect Roz Chast to look. A couple of them asked me if I wanted to go "look at the books." I had no idea what this meant: a file of old submissions? Compendia of New Yorker cartoons? Financial ledgers? It turned out to be the bench where books discarded by the review department are piled. I found the second novel by a writer whose first novel I was given after an author friend of mine declined to blurb it. I feel an unhappy empathetic bond with this author. If you’re reading this, Miriam Toeves, I like your books.
In the hallway to and from the discarded-books bench I got to see some framed Thurber originals on the walls. They were surprisingly large, scrawled on crappy yellowing paper. James Thurber’s eyesight was always bad, and deteriorated to the point of blindness, which is one reason his drawing is so crude. The other reason was that he couldn’t draw. S. Gross told me a story about the time Thurber was planning to take art lessons. Harold Ross told him not to do it. "You’re a fifth-rate cartoonist now, and if you take art lessons you’ll just become a third-rate cartoonist, and there’s already plenty of those." S. Gross, by the way, blames Thurber for the existence of the caption contest on the last page of the magazine. Another cartoonist expressed puzzlement at this connection. Gross growled: "Because he made people think that anyone can do this shit!" In the little room where we were all squeezed together waiting, I saw a parody of the cartoon caption contest tacked to the wall, drawn by S. Gross himself. Dashed across the top in ballpoint pen was, "The Winner!" The drawing showed a woman in a swastika armband opening a door to see a stork poking his head in with a baby in a bundle held in his beak. The winning caption: "I thought only Rotweilers brought babies." There was also a copy of an old New Yorker cartoon showing a doctor holding a four-foot long hypodermic syringe and telling his alarmed patient, "This’ll buy you six months," along with an irate letter from a reader, which read:
DID IT EVER OCCUR TO YOU HOW THIS CARTOON MIGHT MAKE SOMEONE UNDERGOING CHEMOTHERAPY FOR CANCER FEEL?
THIS IS EXTREMELY OFFENSIVE!
YOU SHOULD APOLOGIZE!
[Point size the author’s, obviously.]
Eventually Bob Mankoff arrived. Since I had gotten there first, I was first into the office. We had a pleasant talk, although I would have to say not as pleasant as my talk with the receptionist since this one included me being rejected, and there is a fairly low ceiling on how pleasant any such talk can realistically be. Talking with Bob Mankoff reminded me of something a colleague of mine who’s worked in comedy writing for TV told me about professional comedians: they never actually laugh at anything. When you say something funny, they nod appreciatively and say [solemn deadpan]: "that’s funny." He is one of those expert humorticians who discussed humor in an extremely abstract and erudite and humorless manner. We talked agreeably about B. Kliban and Dadaism and "humor that doesn’t mean." As you have gleaned by now he did not take any of my cartoons. He acknowledged that I drew well, and his reservations were perfectly valid and unsurprising: my style is too exaggerated and cartoonish for the magazine, where they prefer understated drawings that "let the joke do the work" and blend unobtrusively into the text. Also he wants to work with someone who’s going to become part of their regular stable of cartoonists rather than sending in one idea per year. "I hope that was helpful," he said, my cue to go. I thanked him and started to collect my cartoons back into their folder, butplaced his hand over three of them. I was so flummoxed and in already-out-the-door mode that I did not pause to ask him why. It wasn’t until I was back out on the street that I wondered, "What just happened? What did that mean? Did he just accept those cartoons? No, of course not—he would’ve told me so, there would’ve been some discussion of right and payment. Is he keeping them in some sort of file? Is he considering having someone else illustrate the gags? Is he going to maybe steal my ideas? No. Surely the venerable New Yorker would never do that. Right, don’t be silly--no large and powerful corporate entity would ever taker unethical advantage of an unknown individual with no legal recourse." As soon as I got home I printed out copies of the cartoons he’d kept and mailed them to myself as a paranoid precaution.
The reason I decided to run them as this week’s cartoon was that I was laid low by a short-lived but brutal head cold that felt like the flu and rendered me unable to do anything but lie in bed watching DVDs--which were, unhappily, all arty foreign films with subtitles, more than one of them set in Nazi-occupied France, and which I had no recollection of ever ordering.
Notes on individual cartoons:
"Spring Cleaning at the Met" was inspired by a visit to the Robert Rauschenberg retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this winter. I had mentally prepared an articulate defense of this cartoon as not being merely a cheap shot at Robert Rauschenberg but a whimsical riff on the ephemerality and fickleness of fashion in high art, but the truth is that it is a cheap shot at Robert Rauschenberg, whose work was drab and uninspired and monotonous and dull. The only "combines" (his pretentious term for collage/sculptures) of his I liked were the ones with stuffed birds in them, because I like stuffed birds. Museumgoers seemed to be shuffling through the galleries peering at the plaques and listening to their audioguides feeling nonplussed and anxious that they weren’t getting it, cowed by the officially bestowed "importance" of the work. This was particularly noticeable in contrast to the crowds in the simultaneous exhibit of Santiago Calatrava, who were taking open, childlike delight in the undulating sculptures and organic architecture.
"The Proof by Oncology" is a fatally flawed gag in that it depends on the reader’s being familiar with two separate terms, each of which is so abstruse and erudite that perhaps the only person in the world I could count on to know booth of them and get the cartoon would be my friend John. "Oncology," sadly the term with which more readers are likely to be familiar, refers to the study of cancer. Ontology is that branch of philosophy devoted to the study of being or existence, and "the Proof by Ontology" refers to several logical proofs of the existence of God which have been advanced over the centuries by thinkers from Saint Anselm to the mathematician Kurt Gödel, none of which I am smart or patient enough to follow but which nonetheless smell fishy to me. Readers may expect me to undergo an instantaneous, Road-to-Damascus-type conversion to hardcore, fundamentalist, evangelical, sandwich-board Christianity the moment I am diagnosed with anything life-threatening, or even if I develop chronic back pain. Do not imagine for a moment that this will obviate anything I have ever said about the nonsensicality of religion; it will simply mean that, like most people, I am willing to embrace any belief, no matter how batshit and delusional, if it will even feebly or fleetingly assuage my terror of death.
"What Happens at the Pulitzers..." was drawn shortly after I learned that I had once again failed to win the Pulitzer prize for editorial cartooning this year. (I nominate myself—yes, you are allowed to do this--and submit an entry every year.) This year’s winner was Jeff Luckovitch of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Readers may view Mr. Luckovitch’s artful and hard-hitting cartoons at http://www.creators.com/editorial_show.cfm?comicname=lk . I always find the masochistic ritual of checking out the winner’s work to be both depressing and consoling—depressing because it is invariably mediocre hackwork from the family dailies, using labelled caricatures and making obvious and uncontroversial points (that Tom DeLay, he sure was corrupt; boy, college tuition just keeps going up!), but reassuring because it impresses upon me that there was never the remotest possibility that my work might win. It would be like Eraserhead winning the Oscar for Best Picture, or Howard Dean winning the Presidency. Clearly my strategy is to wait until the current generation of Pulitzer judges dies. Sigh. This really would be funnier if it were the Caldecotts.
"Graveyard Shift at the Pussy Juice Factory"" is one of my most infamous cartoons, drawn almost a decade ago and never printed in the Baltimore City Paper. (Not even this week—my editor, like his predecessor years ago, balked in disgust, and I substituted the almost equally unlikely New Yorker candidate [December 19, 2001 in the archives] showing a carrot stuffed up an old man’s ass. Only you, website readers, are privileged to see the original version.) Not to deflect any responsibility for the final product, which is wholly my own, but "Graveyard Shift" was essentially a commission, dictated to me down to the last detail by my evil and hilarious friend (now mysteriously vanished) Michael Kirby. The ostensible point of the cartoon is pretty heavy-handed, but clearly there is a great deal more than that going on here, beginning, but by no means ending, with the mentally unsound conceit of a "pussy juice factory" itself. Talk about "humor that doesn’t mean." I gotchyer humor that doesn’t mean right here, Mankoff.