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The New Yorker is bad for cartooning

by Ted Rall

When you tell people you’re a cartoonist, one of the first things they ask you is whether you’ve ever had a cartoon published in The New Yorker.

I don’t blame them. Everyone “knows” that running in the same pages that showcase(d) Addams and Chast proves you’re one of the best.

The marketing hype behind New Yorker cartoonist and cartoon editor Bob Mankoff’s new memoir — featuring something I really am jealous about, a “60 Minutes” interview — further cements the magazine’s reputation as cartooning’s Olympus.

“For nearly 90 years, the place to go for sophisticated, often cutting-edge humor has been The New Yorker magazine,” says Morley Safer.

As is often the case, what everyone knows is not true.

Here’s a challenge I frequently give to New Yorker cartoon proponents. Choose any issue. Read through the cartoons. How many are really good? You’ll be surprised at how few you find. But don’t feel bad. Like the idea that the U.S. is a force for good in the world, and the assumption that SNL was ever funny, the “New Yorker cartoons are sophisticated and smart” meme has been around so long that no one questions it.

From the psychiatrist’s couch to the sexless couple’s living room to the junior executive’s summons of his secretary via intercom, New Yorker cartoons are consistently bland, militantly middlebrow, and mind-numbingly repetitive decade after decade.

Which is fine.

What is not fine is not seeing fluff for the crap that it is.

The New Yorker is terrible for cartooning because it prints a lot of awful cartoons, and uses its reputation in order to elevate terrible work as the profession’s platinum standard.

They pay pretty well. Which prompts too many talented artists, who under a better economic and media model would produce interesting, intelligent, great cartoons (and did so, in the alternative weekly newspapers of the 1990s, for example), to pull their satiric punches and stifle their creativity.

Of course, not every cartoonist follows the siren call to Mankoff’s office in the Condé Nast building. It is possible to make a living selling cartoons to other venues. I do.

Still, the New Yorker casts a long shadow, silently asking a question one fears is heard by art directors everywhere: If you’re so smart and so funny and so talented, why aren’t you in The New Yorker?

Mankoff and his predecessors have created a bizarro meritocracy in reverse: bad is not merely good-enough, but the crème-de-la-crème. It’s like singling out the slowest runners in a race and awarding them prizes and endorsements. Some runners, devoted to excellence and the love of competition, will keep running as fast as they can. But fans will wonder why they don’t wise up.

What makes a cartoon good/funny? Originality, relevance, insight, audacity and random weirdness. (There are other factors, which I’ll remember a minute after it’s too late.)

Originality in both substance and form, and in both writing and drawing, is the most important component of a great cartoon. It is rare to find. Cartooning is a highly incestuous art form; most practitioners slavishly copy or synthesize the work of their forebears. Editors and award committees (composed of editors) have short memories and no historical knowledge, which feeds lazy cartoonists’ temptation to present initially brilliant, but now hackneyed and recycled, ideas as their own.

Other cartoonists’ punch lines, structural constructions, even their drawing styles, are routinely stolen wholesale; alas, media gatekeepers never have a clue. All too often, the plagiarists collect plaudits while the victims of their grand larceny of intellectual property die sad and alone.

Well, maybe not sad or alone. But annoyed over beer.

Give The New Yorker its due: Since it reacts to trends and news in politics and culture, the magazine’s funniest cartoons can be relevant.

Sadly their single-panel gags say less than Jerry Seinfeld’s jokes about nothing. At best, name-checking Lady Gaga or hat-tipping Instagram elicits a knowing ha ha, they read the same stuff I do (such as The New York Times).

Mankoff’s book takes its title from the line of perhaps his greatest hit: “How about never — is never good for you?” This is an “nth degree” concept.

What happens if the back-and-forth that busy people often experience when they’re trying to set a rendezvous achieves its ultimate, most extreme conclusion? It also showcases anxiety and insecurity among the aspirational bourgeoisie, the not-so-secret sauce of New Yorker humor, for nearly a century.

But what does Mankoff’s cartoon say? What does it mean?

A cartoon doesn’t have to be political to matter. “The Far Side” wasn’t political, but most of Larsen’s work reveals something about human nature to which we hadn’t previously given much thought. To be funny, a cartoon must rise above it’s-funny-cuz-it’s-true tautology. Mankoff’s “never” toon does not.

Nor does the magazine’s famous “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” piece, drawn by Peter Steiner in 1993 (though Matt Petronzio’s post-Snowden update does).

If you can credibly reply “so what?” to a cartoon, odds are it’s not worth your time.

A great cartoon is funny because it’s dangerous.

A 19th-century relic of the degrading “shape ups” depicted in the film “The Bicycle Thief,” The New Yorker’s submission policy is a system — intentional or not, no one knows — that filters out originality and rewards a schlocky “throw a lot of sh— at the wall and see if anything sticks” approach to cartooning.

Every Wednesday morning, Mankoff holds court, looking over submissions of cartoonists who must present themselves in person rather than, say, email or fax their work. Because submissions must be fully drawn and the odds of acceptance increase with the number of cartoons presented, New Yorker artists deploy dashed-off, sketchy drawing styles that haven’t changed much since the 1930s.

Editors at other publications work with professional cartoonists they trust to consistently deliver high-quality cartoons, and help them hone one or two rough sketches to a bright sheen. The results are almost always better than anything that runs in The New Yorker — yet “60 Minutes” doesn’t notice.

“How much do the cartoonists make? Editor [David] Remnick will only say: nobody’s becoming a millionaire,” Safer says in the “60 Minutes” piece.

Well, Mankoff did. But that’s another story for another time.

Ted Rall is a cartoonist and writer. © 2014 Ted Rall