By Jason Chatfield,
(You can skip to Part 2 if you already know all this.)
I read the New Yorker every day. I’m a little obsessed with it.
I get the daily email dispatches, read the articles, the short fiction, the political analysis, listen to the podcast but most importantly, I read the cartoons.
My relationship with The New Yorker started when my Aunty bought me a Subscription for my 21st Birthday. It was a really grown-up gift, particularly for an immature man-child like me. But it meant she never had to wonder what to get me ever again, because I loved it!
The New Yorker is one of the longest-running magazines that still truly values the cartoon as a vehicle for ideas and humour. It takes great effort to ensure the cartoonists aren’t treated like garbage as they tend to be these days by other varying publications.
Until that point, I’d only ever seen New Yorkers strewn among the old magazines of my dentist’s waiting room. An unsurprising candidate for a New Yorker subscription; An older gentleman who only drove vintage Jaguars and was, well, a dentist.
For that reason, I’d always mentally categorised the audience of the New Yorker in the high echelons of the wealthy and powerful. A grand old publication produced 47 times a year since 1925 for what I thought was an exclusive generational string of white liberals, frequenting the penthouses of the Upper West Side. The type to throw cocktail parties in the Hamptons and wittily discuss the stock market. I always pictured the office itself a sassy madhouse of esoteric intelligentsia and whimsical japery. Seinfeld didn’t help that perception.
It wasn’t until the first issue arrived in my spider-infested letterbox that I realised the writing was as accessible to a 21 year-old man-child like me as it was to my Jag-driving tooth-yanker. (and I needed to fumigate my letterbox.)
Unsurprisingly, the obvious feature that jumped out at me was the cartoons. They were short, punchy gags (Literally. They reminded me of those in Punch.), and I didn’t always get them.
That was weird for me. I always got cartoons. Even without a context, I had an innate sense of why something was funny. It was an education getting to know the humour and the taste of the Cartoon Editor. The gatekeeper. The oracle. His name?
Getting a cartoon past the gatekeeper into the New Yorker is like getting a hole-in-one while standing on the wing of a Learjet and singing Shake it Off by Taylor Swift in flawless Esperanto. At least that’s what I’ve always been told. It’s not quite as impossible as that. (But it’s not far off.)
The elusive art of writing and drawing the perfect cartoon is a years-long, sometimes decades-long process of learning and rejection. It is surgically finding the delicate marriage of perfect word economy and perfect line economy. Oh, and hopefully making it funny.
Such is the mystery of the whole process that just last year, 60 Minutes dedicated an entire segment analysing the history and process of getting your cartoon in the New Yorker. The segment takes us behind the scenes and into the mystical Times Square office of the New Yorker to the desk of the bespectacled Mankoff himself.
Clichés, as I’m now told, are key. A clever spin on a familiar stereotype, saying or scene is always prime fodder for the New Yorker Cartoon. I purchased the hefty tome that is The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker which could double as a cinder block. The thing broke three of my bookshelves. Seven years on, I’m still only half-way through the introduction.
The Assistant Cartoon editor, Colin, has to wade waist-deep through a sea of 5000+ Caption Contest entries to find a diamond. Every week.
There’s a great story of how the late Roger Ebert finally won the New Yorker Caption Contest after entering virtually every week for as long as he could remember. In it, he quotes Mark Twain, who advised: “Write without pay until somebody offers to pay you. If nobody offers within three years, sawing wood is what you were intended for.” Ebert goes on to say “I have done more writing for free for the New Yorker in the last five years than for anybody in the previous 40 years.” It was a life-changing event for him.
With all of that said, the magazine have recently been allowing a lot of newer, younger faces into the mix to ensure a future generation of cartoonists are around to populate the pool.
Fast forward to today. I continue my New Yorker subscription in Manhattan, receiving it each Wednesday as it’s released instead of waiting 3 weeks for it. I added to my paper subscription with an all-access digital subscription so I could read it online every day, and I do!
(Oh, and I fumigated my letterbox.)
If you’re interested in New Yorker cartoons, one of the best blogs is Michael Maslin’s Ink Spills blog at http://michaelmaslin.com/inkspill/