The story behind the “Keep it open” cartoon published in this week’s Airmail

By Jason Chatfield

There are very few cartoons of mine that I have ever fought for, insisting the joke was worthy of publication. More often than not, a rejected cartoon just isn’t a good fit, isn’t well-enough executed, has been done in some form or another (and probably already purchased), or just doesn’t work for the publication’s tone.
But…. as listeners of my podcast will know, there is one single joke I have been insisting needs to find a home for over 3 years, and that is this week’s cartoon in Airmail.

It all started with a silly little idea…

As often happens, I was out in New York one night, minding my own business when an idea struck me from behind. I was sitting at a bar ordering a beer when the bartender asked me for a card to keep my tab open. (This is something Australian readers might not be familiar with since we pay each round of drinks as we order them back home. In New York, as in many other places in the US, a bartender will just take a card from you when you order and ask you if you want to ‘close it out’ or ‘keep it open’. Or sometimes they’ll ask if you want to ‘open a tab’.)

I told the bartender to ‘Keep it open’ and as I said it, I turned my head to the street-facing window to see a hot dog cart.

The idea struck… New York’s cart vendors are such a ubiquitous part of sidewalk life, and it was truly eerie to see them vanish for much of 2020 during the lockdown. You can get great halal meat, hot dogs, roasted nuts- you name it, there’s a cart on a sidewalk somewhere selling it.

I thought it would be funny to have someone at a hot dog cart handing him a credit card and saying “Keep it open”… Who would do that? Well, someone who really likes hot dogs. How do you show that? Well, let’s make it a tourist with a fanny pack (bum bag) and, well, a hefty waistline. (For brevity, I wrote “Fat guy”) I quickly typed the idea into my phone so I wouldn’t forget it and went about my night.

I recorded an episode of my podcast with Scott that week and pitched the idea on the show. It was one of those rare ones that just worked right away. The only alt version we considered was having a kid at an ice cream truck with a credit card saying ‘Keep it open.’ to the ice cream man, a throng of kids hovering around the truck. We discussed it being set in maybe an upper-class-looking part of town.

I walked around the city taking pictures of the carts for accuracy in the drawing, ( I do that sometimes) then set about scribbling. The more I worked on it, the more I felt the joke was solid. There wasn’t a hell of a lot to it -and I was in a panic that it had already been done, and way better, at that.

I started researching other hot dog stand cartoons from the New Yorker to see if it was already something they’d published. I found there were some funny ones -especially by Zach Kanin and Roz Chast- but nothing on ‘keep it open’ that I could find.

I finished the cartoon, added the caption and rode down the river to One World Trade to submit the cartoon to the Cartoon Editor in person.

To my delight, she agreed it was funny and put it in the ‘yes’ pile.

Now, it should be known that the ‘yes’ pile isn’t an automatic ‘yes’. The pile still has to filter through the Editor before it officially gets signed-off; same with the ‘maybe’ pile. More on this process in HBO’s “Very Semi-Serious”.

So, I left the New Yorker that day with the hopeful thought — “ maybe I’ll sell one this week!” It isn’t easy getting a cartoon published in this ole’ mag.

O.K. emails came and went at 5pm on Friday and my inbox was empty. I guess it didn’t make the cut.

When I returned the following week and asked what had happened to my beloved “Keep it open” cartoon, I was told it was nixed on account of it being insensitive.

I’m used to this happening- it’s part of the territory. Cartooning is 99.9% rejection. I pressed on and pitched another batch… but I had a feeling in the back of my head that the cartoon might not be dead yet.

I asked if there was another way to have the joke work, and the Cartoon Editor suggested to maybe make it not be anything to do with being obese.

I went ‘back to the old drawing board’, as Arno says, and re-worked the cartoon.

This time, I asked my wife if she would pose, holding a credit card and wearing a black dress, from a 3/4 rear angle. An eyebrow was raised, but I insisted, “It’s for work! I promise!”

She generously obliged and I sketched out the pose, reworking the cartoon to be a young woman after a big night on the town with a snapped heel strap, jonesing for some street food. I changed the vendor from being a creepy Kilroy-looking feller to an authentic NYC street vendor I’d seen on 55th & 6th.

I waited 6 months, then submitted the cartoon for round 2: Again, the Cartoon Editor said it worked, the joke is solid, and she’d put it through to the Editor.

O.K. emails came and went at 5pm on Friday and my inbox was empty. I guess it didn’t make the cut.

I went back the following week to pitch a new batch, and enquired after my revised cartoon. Let it be known that usually information isn’t usually shared as to what the editor says, but in this instance, it was round 2 for the same joke and it was important to know why it died at the final hurdle.

Apparently, the woman in the cartoon “looked too much like a prostitute.”
As you can imagine, my wife was just thrilled with that feedback.

So, once again, I asked if there was another way to have the joke work, and the Cartoon Editor suggested to maybe make it not be anything to do with being a prostitute. Exasperated, she generously offered, “Just… make it a regular-looking guy.”

I went back to the old drawing board once more and re-worked the cartoon. I posed as the ‘regular-looking guy’ to get the posture just right. (I didn’t have any ‘regular-looking guys’ available to pose.)

I added a sports jersey, made the vendor someone with sunglasses and a cap so it was clearly daytime, and printed it out to submit 6 months later.

I jumped on my bike, rode down the river once more and pitched this third iteration to the Cartoon Editor. She very graciously added it to the ‘yes’ pile a third and final time before I slunk away.

O.K. emails came and went at 5pm on Friday and my inbox was empty. I guess it didn’t make the cut.

I returned the following week to pitch a new batch and enquired after my re-revised cartoon. I was told that the editor picked it up, looked at it quizzically, and said, “Oh, I’ve already seen this joke before!”

As I said at the start, there are very few cartoons of mine that I have ever fought for, insisting the joke was worthy of publication. More often than not, I just blink and get on with the next cartoon. But there was something about this one… I just couldn’t let it go. That night back at the bar I would have dismissed it as a silly idea, but now that I’d seen it come to life I was sure it had to find a home.

The cartoon sat in a drawer for a year or so until one day I was talking to the brilliant Joe Dator about it. Joe’s cartoons are easily some of the best in the magazine and his huge body of work is remarkably consistent. I was flattered that he wanted to help!

He suggested taking the human element out of the cartoon altogether so that it couldn’t possibly misfire as some kind of offensive cartoon. The suggestion was to go absurd; draw it as an elephant at a peanut stand holding the credit card in his trunk saying, “Keep it open.”

I went back to the old drawing board once more and re-worked the cartoon, adding Joe’s signature.

I jumped on my bike, rode down the river once more and pitched this fourth iteration to the Cartoon Editor. She very graciously said that it was time to let this one go… however she did like this iteration. (And she felt it would be made stronger if the elephant didn’t look like a children’s book drawing, and was more realistic-looking).

It was good feedback. I had thought having him more ‘abstract’ would lend itself to the suspension of disbelief of having an elephant be able to talk, much less have a credit card, but the absurdity does get deeper when it looks like a real elephant.

My first try didn’t look right, but here it is:

I showed Joe, and he said it would work better if it read the other way; ie. Have the Elephant on the left, vendor on the right. Once again, it was great feedback. I think every cartoon I’ve ever done that has been published has had at least one round of feedback or re-drawing before it made the page. It’s an invaluable part of the process for me.

The cartoon sat in a drawer for months before I decided to pitch it to the New Yorker one very, very last time. O.K. emails came and went at 5pm on Friday and my inbox was empty. I guess it didn’t make the cut.

Then, I thought I’d pitch it to my favourite new online publication, a few weeks ago, still resigned to the fact that the cartoon may well never find a home.

Then, one afternoon…

…I got a ‘yes.’

It sold!

Something deep in my cartooning soul burst open and I was so happy to finally find a home for this ridiculous joke. I went straight back to that same bar, ordered a beer just as the Yankees game started. The bartender took my card, I looked up at him and grinned like a huge idiot, and said…

“Close it out.”

Originally published at https://www.jasonchatfield.com on May 25, 2021.

New York-based Australian Comedian & Cartoonist for the New Yorker. Obsessed with productivity hacks, the creative process, and the Oxford comma.