Four from the New Yorker

In the November 16th New Yorker, four cartoons that made me consider, once again, what you need to know to understand what’s going on in a cartoon and what you need to know to understand why the cartoon is funny. Two cartoons by artists who have appeared on the blog before (Harry Bliss, Shannon Wheeler) and two by newcomers to this blog (Kaamran Hafeez and Tom Chitty). The cartoons:





Bliss: a Charlie Brown bris. (Yes, it’s a Bliss bris cartoon.) Clearly, to get this cartoon you need to know that bris is (the Yiddish name for) the Jewish ritual circumcision of recently born male children, that the participants include the baby, the mohel who performs the circumcision (a role filled by Snoopy in #1), the parents of the baby, and (usually) others (who will attend the celebratory ceremonial meal after the circumcision itself). You will also recognize the yarmulkes (or kippahs) worn by the males, Snoopy included).

Oh, yes, of course you need to recognize that, except for the baby, the participants are all characters from the comic strip Peanuts (which has its own Page on this blog; Harry Bliss now has his own Page here as well).

It’s mildly entertaining that the characters from the seriously Christian Charles Schulz’s Peanuts world turn up in a New Yorker cartoon in an observant Jewish guise. But that’s not enough to make the cartoon actually funny. That must have to do with the fact that everybody (except possibly Snoopy) looks so unhappy. That would seem to indicate they are dismayed at the pain of the procedure about to be performed, though the pain is a crucial component of the ceremony. But big OUCH! (A friend suggests that they might also be dismayed that a dog is serving as mohel.)

(Note that local anesthesia is routine in medical, as opposed to ritual, circumcision.)

Wheeler: the fish and bicycle. This one, with the fish speaker protesting about his wife being in bed with a bicycle, is simply nonsensical surrealism — unless you know the catchphrase “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”.

The feminist catchphrase was popularized by Gloria Steinem (who is still, at the age of 81, campaigning vigorously), but she didn’t originate it. From Wikipedia:

Patricia Irene (Irina) Dunn (born 1948) is an Australian writer, social activist and filmmaker, who served in the Australian Senate between 1988 and 1990. Born in Shanghai, Dunn grew up in Australia and studied at the University of Sydney.

… Dunn coined the famous catch phrase: “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” which was subsequently popularised by Gloria Steinem and became a popular slogan among feminists. Later, U2 used the phrase in their song “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World”.

The cartoon still has a surrealistic edge to it, but now it has a source, in the embodiment of a formulaic expression.

Hafeez: the unamused king. Basic background knowledge 1: the two figures are emerging from an amusement park (though it’s not so labeled), an institution designed to entertain people by providing them with thrilling rides, food of a certain kind, side shows, and the like.

Basic background knowledge 2: the fgure on the left is a king, recognizable by his ceremonial robes, and his companion is some sort of servant or vassal.

Observation: the king uses the “royal we” (and the verb amuse, as in amusement) in expressing his failure to be entertained. That would be charming and linguistically interesting, but not deeply funny. What makes it funnier is that the king is very slightly modifying a famous quotation, widely attributed to another monarch, Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom.

But the attribution of “We are not amused” to Victoria is disputed. From the Wikiquote entry for Victoria:

This quotation is attributed to Victoria, with varying stories. In Caroline Holland’s Notebooks of a Spinster Lady, published in 1919, the story is put without clear details: “Her remarks can freeze as well as crystallise. There is a tale of the unfortunate equerry who ventured during dinner at Windsor to tell a story with a spice of scandal or impropriety in it. “We are not amused,” said the Queen when he had finished”

… An interview with Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone in 1976 states that the Princess asked her grandmother about this quotation and that Victoria said that she had never said the famous phrase.

The cartoon’s humor could have been made denser if the king had been made more similar to a celebrated cartoon king, namely Otto Soglow’s Little King. From Wikipedia:

The Little King was an American gag-a-day comic strip created by Otto Soglow, telling its stories in a style using images and very few words, as in pantomime.

Soglow’s character first appeared on June 7, 1930 in The New Yorker [note the New Yorker connection] and soon showed signs of becoming a successful strip. The Little King began publications in comic book issues from 1933 … The Little King ran until Soglow’s death in 1975.


Now, about the artist. From his website:

Kaamran [Hafeez]’s interest in drawing cartoons began at the age of ten when his mother brought home a Walter Foster-Preston Blair animation instruction book. At the age of twelve, inspired by the work of Don Martin and Jim Unger, Kaamran decided he wanted to be a cartoonist. Drawing came easily, but not knowing how to write humor at that age was a problem, and his early efforts came to naught.

In 1993, following a Bachelor of Music, Kaamran came across Mischa Richter’s book, The Cartoonist’s Muse, in which the venerable New Yorker cartoonist describes in great detail the process and techniques of generating ideas. Kaamran found he was actually able to write humor and sold his first cartoon – to King Features for use in their single-panel comic, The New Breed.

He then went on to do cartooning (and a variety of other things) in NYC, Ann Arbor MI, and Vancouver BC, where he now lives.

Chitty: What do we want?  Of the four cartoons, this one may be the funniest even if you lack a piece of background knowledge, though you do need to notice that the two people on the left are angry and that the guy on the right seems to be sheepishly apologetic, suggesting that he is in fact late — unpunctual — in meeting up with the other two; he has missed NOW.

The bit of knowledge that enriches the humor is the fact that the shouted call-response formula (in two or three parts):

(Who are we? + RESPONSE1)
What do we want? + RESPONSE2
When do we want it? + RESPONSE3

which originated in protests of various kinds —

Who are we? Women!
What do we want? Equality!
When do we want it? Now!

has now become a meme, and serves as the medium for jokes, most of which seem to turn on mocking people with disabilities:

What to we want? A cure for Tourette’s.
When do we wat it? Cunt. / Balls! / Fuck you, cocksucker bitch. / etc.

What do we want? A cure for ADHD!
When do we want it? SQUIRREL!

What do we want? A cure for dyslexia.
When do we want it? OWN.

On the artist for #4, very briefly, from his own website:

Tom Chitty is an illustrator, cartoonist, and animator. He has worked with a variety of clients in digital media, video production (directing and storyboarding animation), and publishing.

One Response to “Four from the New Yorker”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    There’s another important piece to the Peanuts cartoon: There used to be (and perhaps still are) annual December TV cartoon specials titled A Charlie Brown Christmas.

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