‘Is there something in this?’ — The quest of two Aussies to get a cartoon in the New Yorker
A vape oil salesman. A husband thinking to himself after a comment from his wife: “I can’t wait to blow this out of proportion”. Bigfoot wearing a big hat to detract from his big feet.
New York-based, Aussie expat comedians Scott Dooley and Jason Chatfield came up with the name of their new podcast about eight minutes in to episode one. A show that grew out of pub catch-ups earlier in the year, ‘Is there something in this?’ sees the pair toss up, take apart and hash out ideas for the next New Yorker cartoon, while dissecting the science of what makes a good cartoon good.
By the end of each episode, they have a batch of ideas for the pitching. Listeners are invited to send in their ideas, too. If it holds up to New Yorker standards, the pair will draw it and slap it on the cartoon editor’s desk.
You might think that an audio-based form of entertainment dealing with a visual-based form of entertainment would find itself in boggy ground, fast.
Chatfield agrees. “This thing really shouldn’t work,” he confesses over email. “It’s two blokes talking about drawing. It’s like dancing about architecture.” Yet at nine episodes in at time of writing, they’ve already cracked 5400 unique listeners per episode.
It’s undeniably interesting, getting to eavesdrop in on the creative process. But what makes the show entertaining is that this process is, by and large, banter-driven. A dialogue between two like-minded scamps, their primary aim is to crack each other up; cartoons are the side-product of their fun.
Listening to their wisecracks, you’d think they were old friends. But despite moving to the Big Apple at around the same time in 2014 (“I’d heard Obama was a terrific bloke and I should get over here as soon as possible,” recalls Chatfield), the two didn’t really know each other in Australia.
In their new city though, they started bumping into each other all the time — on the street, in New York comedy clubs where they both do stand-up. Soon, a camaraderie was struck.
“One night after a show, [Scott] pitched me an idea for a cartoon,” recounts Chatfield. “I drew it up, went in and pitched it to the New Yorker. The new cartoon editor, Emma Allen, said ‘Oh, wow. That is grim,’ and handed it back like it was dripping. I knew right then we had something.” (They’ve just sold the same cartoon to MAD magazine.)
Getting rejected by the New Yorker is the norm. But getting published is no pipedream. Several cartoons cobbled together live on the podcast have made it to the magazine’s Daily cartoons section. (You can see one of them above.)
“The New Yorker appear to have done away with their standards,” quips Chatfield, who at 23 was Australia’s most-syndicated cartoonist. “We’ve also sold a half dozen to MAD magazine, but of course, they never had standards to begin with.”
In-between spitballing ideas, Dooley and Chatfield also ruminate on the broader science of cartoons across cultural contexts. For instance, they reflect on the shifting goalposts of comedy — like how a cartoon which would’ve been seen as hilarious in the ’50s would be judged as downright inappropriate today. They also talk about the idiosyncrasies of New Yorker cartoons — how they have a certain language and set of recurring tropes readers have come to expect.
“To their credit, they’ve been publishing a lot more different stuff lately,” Chatfield says. While he still keeps the American magazine’s audience in mind when pitching, he also insists upon the importance of sticking to your comedy guns and being yourself, in your own “silly voice”.
Loose to the point of shambolic, combining the vigorous curiosity of professionals with the lively ribbing of mates, “Is there something in this” is a way to appreciate cartoons, even with your eyes closed.