Background knowledge

Every so often, I post about how much background information can be required to make sense of what’s going on in a cartoon (and then to see why it’s funny); see, for example, “Bizarro followup” of 8/29. Now, through several Facebook friends, this wonderful New Yorker cartoon by Nick Downes:


First, you need to recognize the two figures at the door as clowns — sociocultural knowledge, but very widespread, so that’s not particularly challenging.

The man at the desk is telling someone on the phone that “they” (that is, we calculate, the clowns) have arrived, presupposing some previous discussion about the clowns. But why does he say “Don’t bother”?

To work that out, you need to supply a very particular bit of sociocultural knowledge. You need to know a specific song, or at least its title.

That would be “Send in the Clowns”. From an excellent, detailed Wikipedia article:

“Send in the Clowns” is a song written by Stephen Sondheim for the 1973 musical A Little Night Music, an adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night. It is a ballad from Act II in which the character Desirée reflects on the ironies and disappointments of her life.

But in fact,

The “clowns” in the title do not refer to circus clowns. Instead, they symbolize fools, as Sondheim explained in a 1990 interview:

I get a lot of letters over the years asking what the title means and what the song’s about; I never thought it would be in any way esoteric. I wanted to use theatrical imagery in the song, because she’s an actress, but it’s not supposed to be a circus […] [I]t’s a theater reference meaning “if the show isn’t going well, let’s send in the clowns”; in other words, “let’s do the jokes.” I always want to know, when I’m writing a song, what the end is going to be, so “Send in the Clowns” didn’t settle in until I got the notion, “Don’t bother, they’re here”, which means that “We are the fools.”

In a 2008 interview, Sondheim further clarified:

As I think of it now, the song could have been called “Send in the Fools”. I knew I was writing a song in which Desirée is saying, “aren’t we foolish” or “aren’t we fools?” Well, a synonym for fools is clowns, but “Send in the Fools” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

In any case, in looking at #1, we conclude that the man at the desk must have previously ordered: Send in the clowns. Meaning circus clowns. He was wondering where they were, but now they’ve arrived.

Another Downes cartoon requiring sociocultural knowledge, though not quite as subtly as #1:


Here we need to recognize (from the pyramids in the background) that the setting is Egypt, presumably by the river Nile. Baby in a basket, among reeds on the side of the river. Two women. Ah: Moses.

The allusion is to Exodus 2:1-10 in the Hebrew Bible (or, as the Christians have it, the Old Testament).  In it, Moses was left in a basket amid the reeds and bulrushes along the Nile, in Egypt where the Hebrews had been living since the time of Jacob. From an ancient history site, with text from Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin:

By the end of Exodus 1, the pharaoh of Egypt (perhaps Ramses II) had decreed that all the Hebrew boy babies were to be drowned at birth. In the 10 verses from Exodus 2, Yocheved, Moses’ mother, hides her newborn for 3 months and then places her baby in a caulked wicker basket in the Nile River reeds. The baby’s crying alerts one of the pharaoh’s daughters who takes the baby. Moses’ sister Miriam watches in hiding, but comes out when it is clear the princess is planning to keep the child. She asks the princess if she would like a Hebrew midwife. The princess agrees and so Miriam arranges to have the real mother get paid to nurse her own child who now lives among the Egyptian royalty.

Then in #2, Miriam talks to Yocheved using what we have to recognize as modern therapist-language: “abandonment issues”. And that’s funny because of the incongruity of the two setttings, Biblical Egypt and psychotherapy.

On Downes, from Wikipedia:

Nick Downes is an American cartoonist who works mostly with single-panel comics, often on the subject of science… He has been a regular contributor to the Oldie magazine since it was founded in 1992.

Two collections of his work have been published: Big Science, AAAS Press, 1992; Whatever Happened to ‘Eureka’?, Rutgers University Press, 1994.

One Response to “Background knowledge”

  1. Bill Mullins Says:

    The key bit of knowledge required for the clowns cartoon is that the last lyrical line of Sondheim’s song is “Don’t bother, they’re hear.” Downes is quoting him.

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