Je suis Charlie Hebdo, et aussi Michel Brown, et aussi Darren Wilson et aussi… As Teresa Prados-Torreira recently observed in this space, the last month has seen an international slurry of reactions to the Charlie Hebdo Massacre from outraged officials, scampering journalists, erstwhile academics, dedicated peace-keepers, and, of course, the international community of artists, cartoonists, and satirists. Prados-Torreira astutely summarizes in her 20 January post, “at first glance, it seems obvious that the answer to this dilemma should be a wholehearted affirmation of the need to stand in solidarity with the French magazine, with the murdered cartoonists, and in support of free speech. But the content of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, their irreverent depiction of Mohammed and Muslims, have resulted in a cascade of critical essays online and elsewhere.”
Many have since noted that, for interpreters within and beyond French culture, the magazine’s scabrous treatment of all things sacred and sanctified could be labelled either courageous or irresponsible depending upon personal preference. One thing is certain, though, Charlie Hebdo was rarely, if ever, about discretion. Even more interestingly, a new angle on the extensive media coverage of the attacks has taken shape that inquires as to why the tragic murder of several talented artists has become, either incidentally or on purpose, a larger global issue and a much more public and popular rallying point than the rampant cruelties taking place in Nigeria involving Boko Haram?
Even more interestingly, we have to admit that slander, satire, and ridicule of Arabs, Muslims, and Islam are hardly rare in America mainstream culture. Consider the skirmishes that erupted over the years surrounding Johnny Hart’s abuse of Islamic and Judaic symbols in several episodes of his comic strip, B.C., especially the “potty humor” episode that fused the sacred icons of Islam with the half-moon of an outhouse door. Is this not Charlie Hebdo territory? With the rhetorical avalanche surrounding Charlie Hebdo just beginning to settle, we might wonder if any more discussion could possibly serve to alleviate the tension, fear, and uncertainty that has seemingly spread across an outraged global public.
It’s a very fair question, but instead, I would like use the terror attacks in France, and their subsequent influence, to explore a few more local and personal concerns about the deploying of satire, the power of cartoons, and the often unexpected inaccuracies of visual wit. Since the assault on the Charlie Hebdo offices, there have been several inspiring statements of solidarity and strength in support of free speech and equal opportunity insult, most notably including the great public demonstrations in Paris, throughout France, and across the world.
Can there ever be a more heartening and honest sign that humor – especially in its most relentless, hostile form – deserves our attention, respect, and scrutiny? There have also been a wide variety of high profile reactions and commentaries throughout the intellectual honeycomb of bloggers, critics, and scholars. Much has been made of Joe Sacco’s somewhat disappointing Guardian catechism “On Satire.” Important statements have also arisen from doyens of provocative comics including Art Spiegelman, Keith Knight (who produced two suitably irreverent texts from very different perspectives), and Steve Benson, among many, many others. Scholars also have contributed valuable and sometimes revelatory insight into the complex legacy of French cartooning and its contribution to both Charlie Hebdo’s editorial policies and the violent reactions that it frequently instigated. Bart Beaty and Mark McKinney have offered reasoned and informative assessments that went largely ignored in the media frenzy following the attacks. Even richer and more comprehensive studies of the violent potential of editorial cartooning have also arisen from astute historians like Paul Tumey and Jeffrey Trexler. Cartoonists, of course, have been at the vanguard of the fight for freedom of speech, recognition, and reaction. From the very moment that news of the attack broke in France, powerful responses like this one were quickly finding their way around the world’s webs.
It stems from a conversation that Bob Mankoff had one time while trying to arrange to have lunch with a “friend.” After several attempts to get together and several “not availables,” in frustration, Mankoff asked, “How about never—is never good for you?” Luckily, Mankoff is a cartoonist for the New Yorker, and he was able to parlay that conversation into a cartoon that is an oft-repeated question as used by Nancy Pelosi on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show during the 2012 election, and it is listed in The Yale Book of Quotations somewhere between Herman J. Mankiewicz and Mao Tse-Tung. It is also printed on coffee mugs and thong panties. To paraphrase Mark Twain, this is the joke that made Bob’s fortune.
Bob Mankoff has exploited his joke one more time by naming his memoir, How About Never—Is Never Good for You? My Life in Cartoons. Never is a new release by Henry Holt and Co. It is 285 pages of text and cartoons—lots of cartoons, most of which are from The New Yorker. There are cartoons from other sources used to compare the cartoon style of the different publications. But, most of all, it narrates the rise of Mankoff from an aspiring cartoonist to the cartoon editor of The New Yorker.
Along the way, Mankoff talks about the rhetoric of magazine cartoons. Among the stories is how a cartoon by Peter Arno that was published in 1941 became the cliché “Well, back to the old drawing board.” Some cartoons have a je ne sais quoi that resonates with the public and captures the imagination. As depicted, it may be the casual quality of the statement in light of the circumstances, but for some reason we, as readers, find it to our taste to repeat the phrase, and everyone knows what we are talking about whether we own a drawing board or not.
Caption: Well, back to the old drawing board.
Other aspects of the world of cartoons that Mankoff explores is the use of the Cartoon Bank, a digital storehouse of cartoon images that have been rejected by The New Yorker, but are still fine drawings that can be accessed by the public for a small fee. Mankoff began the bank in the early 1990s and managed it himself until it became unmanageable. The cartoons in the bank are sorted by subject matter so they are easy to access. He also discusses a Seinfeld episode in which Elaine cannot discern a New Yorker cartoon. And he assesses the different types of humor that are represented in the cartoons (while reminding us that analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog).
Perhaps, Mankoff’s most prized innovation is his “Caption Contest” in The New Yorker. This is his crowd-sourcing initiative that asks readers to write a caption for a drawing that is printed in the magazine. It is also available to non subscribers at http://www.newyorker.com/humor/caption. On the page, readers can submit an entry and vote on selected entries for previous contests. As a result of The New Yorker contest, there have been many political cartoonists that run caption contests. This is a link to one that was run by Tom Toles in the Washington Post.
The book is worth a read whether you invest the $32.50 (suggested retail price) for it now or wait until it sells for lower prices as a used book. But if I have not convinced you that it is time and money well-spent, listen to the interview between Terri Gross and Mankoff on NPR’s Fresh Air.
We are pleased to introduce Caroline Sposto as our poetry editor. She will be posting humorous poetry on a regular basis. Welcome.
Caroline Zarlengo Sposto has a B.A. in English from The University of Colorado and an M.S. in Electronic Media from Kutztown University. She spent the majority of her professional career as co-founder and managing partner of Sposto Interactive digital agency. She sold her interest in the company in 2009, returned to creative writing and has since published several poems, short stories and essays.
John Updike (1932 – 2009) crafted meaningful works about the complexities of mainstream American culture for more than five decades. Though best known for his protagonist, Harry Rabbit Angstrom, this longstanding critic, chronicler, and champion of our middle class first published light verse in the New Yorker. While his witty, poetic take on post-war society is incisive and satirical, it glows with amiable affection for its subject instead of haughty contempt or caustic cynicism.
His 1955 poem, “To an Usherette” ran in the New Yorker during the cold war. Its quirky characters, clever diminutives, unusual rhymes and musical meter provide dazzling, accessible fun at face value. Yet between the lines, this poem is filled with rich commentary about a pent-up and often-hypocritical era.
Levittown-inspired developments were changing the American landscape. A decade had passed since Rosie the Riveter had traded factory work for suburban domesticity or a marginalized “pink collar” job. Television was fueling an unprecedented level of consumerism, while fine-tuning our standards of social conformity. This was a period of acute class-consciousness, mass upward mobility, stifling corporate culture and commercially driven cookie-cutter sophistication. Moreover, behind closed doors, millions of American couples were quietly coping with the fallout from over-urgent, wartime marriages.
What underlying messages speak to you through this charming poem? Share your insight. Tell me what you think. Enjoy!
To an Usherette
Ah, come with me,
And we shall rather happy be.
I know a modest luncheonette
Where, for a little, one can get
A choplet, baby lima beans,
And, segmented, two tangerines.
Le coup de grâce
My pretty lass,
Will be a demi-demitasse
Within a serviette conveyed
By weazened waiters, underpaid,
Who mincingly might grant us spoons
While a combo tinkles trivial tunes.
Ah, with me come,
And I shall say I love you some.
All material except for poem, (c) 2011, Caroline Sposto
Happy Birthday and Good Morning to Pee Wee Herman, fifty-eight years young.
(I don’t make monkeys, I only train them…)
“Work” to help you avoid “work”:
- David Sedaris is not running for President
- A Japanese author on the recent Mark Twain conference in Hannibal, MO
- Another description
- Susan Harris talk at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home
- Witstream–a compilation of comedians tweeting
- Dave Chappelle give an interview
- A podcast on comedy, featuring guest Patton Oswalt
- On Vonnegut banning, more
- On the fate of comic novels in a comedy world
- On the Final Destination movies as comedy
- Ever think you could cartoon for the New Yorker?
- Muppet diagram!
- Molly Ivins on Governor Goodhair
- Hey, you could write your own review of this for this blog! (or of a lot of other stuff…)
- Onion article of the week? This is appropriate for the beginning of school, but this struck me as much more funny.
For two follow-up posts on this question, see:
Born July 11, 1899. White is famous for children’s books, style guides, and his work at the New Yorker, but in humor studies, he is probably best known for his introduction to the 1941 book, A Subtreasury of American Humor, which he edited with Katherine White.
The beginning of White’s introduction is one of the most widely known statements about the study of humor, functioning as a witty injunction against the serious study of humor. It reads:
Analysts have had their go at humor, and I have read some of this interpretative literature, but without being greatly instructed. Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.
But as with many essays on the subject of humor, this statement acts as a clever dodge, what I have taken to calling a “definitional denial.” With a definitional denial, an author says “humor is undefinable”–often in a witty or humorous manner–but this rhetorical move is almost always followed by a definition of various aspects of humor. It is like saying “one can’t define ‘virtue,’ but everyone knows that virtue is this or that, but not the other.” Thus, for another instance, William Dean Howells’s review of Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad from the November 1869 Atlantic Monthly begins:
The character of American humor, and its want of resemblance to the humor of Kamatschatka or Patagonia,—will the reader forgive us if we fail to set down here the thoughts suggested by these fresh and apposite topics? Will he credit us with a self-denial proportioned to the vastness of Mr. Clement’s (sic) very amusing book, if we spare to state why he is so droll, or—which is as much to the purpose—why we do not know? 
Practically everyone is a manic-depressive of sorts, with his up moments and his down moments, and your certainly don’t have to be a humorist to taste the sadness of situation and mood. But there is often a rather fine line between laughing and crying, and if a humorous piece of writing brings a person to the point where his emotional responses are untrustworthy and seem likely to break over into the opposite realm, it is because humor, like poetry, has an extra content. It plays close to the big hot fire which is Truth, and sometimes the reader feels the heat.
The world likes humor, but it treats it patronizingly. It decorates its serious artists with laurel, and its wags with Brussels sprouts. It feels that if a thing is funny it can be presumed to be some- thing less than great, because if it were truly great it would be wholly serious. Writers know this, and those who take their literary selves with great seriousness are at considerable pains never to associate their name with anything funny or flippant or nonsensical or “light.” They suspect it would hurt their reputation, and they are right. 
Thus, the humor collection is a “subtreasury,” and thus humor studies confronts some longstanding critical and cultural views about humor as a subject of knowledge. But then again, much can be learned from dissecting a frog, can it not?
 See http://hs.hpisd.org/uploads/45/f69347.pdf
 [William Dean Howells], “The Innocents Abroad,” 24: 146 (December 1869), 764. Kamatschatka (now Kamatchka) is a peninsula in eastern Russia, which had a port prominent in Alaska’s exploration.
 Table of Contents of the book: http://www.modernlib.com/authors/misc/misc/miscMiscToCs/G73Subtreasury.html
(c) Tracy Wuster, 2011-2