Thursday, December 17, 2015


For some reason I received an e-mail from Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor at the New Yorker, recruiting me to assist in a new process for winnowing down entries to their caption contest. Presumably I was selected because I was a finalist in the contest several years ago, but I was a little surprised to hear from him because I hadn't entered since then. For the last few weeks I have been participating in the process and enjoying it. I can see why they want help, because it would be tedious to sift through thousands of entries each week. Most of the entries aren't funny, and there are usually multiple similar ones. On top of that, I find that the pictures sometimes have little potential, and that makes finding a good caption even harder. Anyway, this isn't a bad diversion for me and it takes only a few minutes each week. I like thinking about humor and agree with Wittgenstein, who once said that "a serious and good philosophical work could be written that would consist only of jokes."

I realized that though I've discussed my early interest in comic books I haven't mentioned anything about cartoons. As I said, I didn't start reading books until about halfway through college, and comics such as Superman and Batman influenced my imagination as much as anything until then. During my adolescence we often had copies of the New Yorker at home, and I developed an interest in their cartoons quite early. They have a universal appeal and have probably always been what sells the magazine. The cartoons of Charles Addams had the strongest effect on me. Not only did they possess a dark humor, but they also contained elements of social criticism and satire. Addams was effective at making fun of the middle class in postwar America and had an appeal to subversives like me. In contrast, the TV program, The Addams Family, was humorous but lacked satire; John Astin, who played Gomez Addams, turned him into a kooky eccentric, and Charles Addams's bite was nowhere to be seen.

I still have some reluctance to read the New Yorker, but it seems to have improved a little over the last few years with a new editor and a better staff. The cartoons, when I read them, are still pretty funny, though they are not the final word on cartoons. I think that kind of work is highly demanding and requires more creative skills than most people possess, thus I respect Gary Larson for retiring from The Far Side series after fifteen successful years. Larson would have been good at the New Yorker or anywhere, and he must be upholding higher artistic standards than most successful artists in any field. Although the New Yorker cartoonists seem to maintain their standards well, I can't understand why the cartoonist Garry Trudeau of Doonesbury didn't retire thirty years ago, because he was never in their class. As far as I can tell, Bob Mankoff is doing a good job, though as a personal matter I would prefer edgier cartoons. It amuses me to think that, for all of the stylish appeal of the New Yorker, it is the cartoons, not the short stories, poems or even the journalism that make it what it is.

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