Its parameters are tight: black and white. One square. One caption. It’s bare, and it’s simple. It doesn’t have dialogue or physicality or access to the infinite euphonic range of fart tones. It is the New Yorker cartoon, and despite its naked form in a culture of boundless multi-sense-stimulation, it remains a venue of high comedy.
If your impulse is to say that New Yorker cartoons are universally stuffy and unfunny, I understand. It’s okay. I was just like you once: dismissive, thought I knew everything about comedy, cursed a lot.
Then one day I got in a cab right after a man who resembled Jeff Goldblum—but richer—had exited. On the seat, he had left an issue of the New Yorker. I leafed through it. My eyes fell on a cartoon: a father in a swimming pool is talking to his kids who are standing on the edge. A shark is holding a gun to the man’s back. The caption: “Come on in kids, the water’s fine— just fine.”
And there it was. A hilariously demented, guffaw-inducing cartoon. A shot of hard joke liquor.
That moment inspired me to step back – away from the generally-accepted notion that these cartoons are all inscrutable, pretentious, unfunny. I started taking another look at the magazine’s cartoon output, which you can access freely from their site. I think I found the root of the pervasive anti-New Yorker attitude: the majority of the magazine’s cartoons are narrowly tuned to the sensibility of a stereotypical New Yorker reader. There are a lot of psychiatrists interacting with their middle-aged patients, neurotic couples walking on sidewalks, friends eating at a restaurant and being neurotic. Out of the fifteen to twenty cartoons published in each weekly issue, there are plenty that emanate this mood, and this mood at some point came to generically represent the comedy style of New Yorker cartoons, and that is when a broader, younger audience got turned off.
But for every batch of these milder cartoons, I would find a standout gem —- a cartoon stingingly funny and fresh enough to rival the best comedic cartoons from any platform out there. I began noting the authors of these. And over and over again the names of the same two cartoonists kept appearing.
The cartoonist who conceived the shark-gun cartoon is named Farley Katz. He also drew this one: a genie who has just been summoned out of a magic lamp pleads with the smirking wish-maker: “You really just want to watch me punch myself in the face three times?” And this one: A gang of armed and vicious bowling pins have cornered a frightened bowling ball in a dark alley and are about to murder him; “Payback time.” Katz has published 56 more cartoons in the New Yorker. He’s known for drawing cartoons with black and Hispanic characters -— and their races are not part of the joke. If you want to make it in the universe of funny cartooning, you can start by launching a popular webtoon, getting your comic books published, and successfully submitting to the Big 3: Mad, Playboy, and the New Yorker. Katz has already done all of these things (except getting into Playboy, who expressed reservations about bestiality). He also created his own trading cards and is currently shopping around two TV specs. Oh, and he’s 25 years old.
Then there’s Zach Kanin. Kanin published his first New Yorker cartoon in 2005, when he was 21. Now he’s 26 and has 127 cartoons to his credit. He’s also published a book, writes long-form comedic pieces for the New Yorker, and is currently at work on a graphic novel and an animation project.
Here’s one of his New Yorker pieces: a teakettle on a stove is given a speech bubble and is screaming about the boiling water inside its “stomach.” There’s another one where two soldiers in the midst of brutal combat are ducking behind sandbags. Caption: “I’m never seen Mom this angry before.” And then there’s that helpless, beached whale who also happens to be an aspiring writer. His typewriter is in front of him, and he’s thinking: “Day 247, still no fingers.”
Katz and Kanin are the youngest staff cartoonists in the New Yorker’s 85-year history and their cartoons described above are prime examples of the jarring hilarity you can find printed in the New Yorker despite what popular prejudice may tell you. Right now, thanks to them, New Yorker cartoons can compete with webtoon behemoths like XKCD, the Perry Bible Fellowship, and Achewood. The New Yorker is an old humor institution that has smartly chosen to let in a new breed of cartoonist and allow itself to evolve.
“Anyone can submit,” Kanin told me. “Anyone can mail or fax submissions, or even go drop them off in person.” The legendary cartoon editor at the New Yorker -— Robert Mankoff – is storied for his strict open-door policy and his religious adherence to meritocracy.
Some of the best comedic illustrations out there today are in those pages. The only thing left is for that musty New Yorker stigma to finally evaporate.
Dustin Lushing is a writer living in New York City.