Further adventures in cartoon understanding

From the October 30th New Yorker, two cartoons:

(#1) By Seth Fleishman (sdf)

(#2) By Paul Noth

The theme is an old one: what do you need to know to understand what’s going on in the cartoon — and then what do you need to know to appreciate why it might be funny? (As to the latter: the humor will come as mordant social commentary or will turn on some sort of disjuncture, clash of ideas, surprising juxtaposition, or absurdity.)

Lots of cultural and topical information is relevant, so I wonder: what if the reader is an 8-year-old American kid? or an English-speaking educated person in another culture (in Japan or the Phillipines or Nigeria or Finland)? How much of this can they get?

Above: in the sdf, we have a mafia don confronted with his newspaper-fetching dog, with the fish as a bridging element; in the Noth, a sommelier in a hoity-toity restaurant who is also performing Jewish-mother shtick.

#1: it’s all about the fish. To understand sdf’s cartoon, you need to know (on the left side of the cartoon) something about the stereotypes of the Sicilian mafia in the US, starting with the figure of the mob boss in this context, the mafia don, and his characteristic costume, exemplified in detail in #1. And then (on the right side of the cartoon) you need to know that the newspaper-fetching dog is a staple of pop-cultural representations of Anglo (US and British) lower-middle class life. (I have never experienced a newspaper-fetching dog in real life, but I recognize the cultural motif.)

What unites these two stereotypical figures is the fish, which fills a role in each of the two fictional universes.

In the homey domestic life universe, people bring home fish, from a fish-monger or small grocery shop, wrapped in a newspaper. This was a real thing, from the days of small neighborhood food shops, back in the early-to-mid 20th century (I witnessed it as a child): old newspapers as a cheap wrapping for foodstuffs, especially fish (and in the UK, fish and chips), but now survives merely as a homey image of the lives of “regular people”.

You don’t need to know all of this to understand #1, but you do need to recognize something of what a fish in a newspaper conveys socioculturally, as well as what a newspaper in a dog’s mouth does.

In the mafia don’s universe, the fish has a very different significance, and this is something you need to know about to appreciate the cartoon: a fish is notoriously a mafia message that its recipient will “sleep with the fishes” unless they heed the warning. From a site on the Italian mafia:


This is actually an old Sicilian method. Fish were wrapped up in any article of clothing that was once owned by the murdered victim and then delivered to the Mafia family signifying that their member was dead and now at the bottom of the sea. The fish is a symbol of being killed, slain, massacred, or brutally murdered [by] another Mafia family.

Text for #3:

Michael, bewildered, said, “what the hell does that fish mean?” It was Hagen the Irisher, the consigliori, who answered him. “the fish means that Luca Brasi is sleeping on the bottom of the ocean,” he said. “It’s an old Sicilian message”. (Mario Puzo, The Godfather)

No wonder the don in #1 looks so disconcerted by his dog. (Headline: DOOM DOG DISCONCERTS DON)

#2: It’s Mama with the wine. sdf’s cartoon is wordless, but Paul Noth’s depends crucially on words. Conceivably, it could do without the title, which announces the central play on words — mommelier (= Momma/Mama + sommelier) — though it would take considerable cleverness to deduce that from the mommelier’s appearance and words. Without her words, howeveer, we’d have no way of picking her out not just as a woman (a mama, in slang), but as specifically a yiddishe momme/mama.

In any case, she’s the hinge element in the cartoon, the piece that belongs to stereotypes of two different worlds — fine dining and the drama of Jewish-American domestic life — in two different ways, startlingly (and ridiculously) realized in a single figure (and one label). To understand the cartoon you need to know a good bit about both worlds.

First, of course, you have to recognize the setting as a high-end restaurant: high-ceiling formal room, tablecloth, wine glasses on the table, the well-dressed diners, and of course a sommelier with a bottle of wine.

Then, on sommeliers and Jewish mothers:

(#4) Sommelier in the costume of his craft, with tasting cup on a ribbon

A sommelier, or wine steward, is a trained and knowledgeable wine professional, normally working in fine restaurants, who specializes in all aspects of wine service as well as wine and food pairing. The role in fine dining today is much more specialized and informed than that of a wine waiter. (Wikipedia link)

Sommeliers were for a long time exclusively male, and female sommeliers are still rare, so the figure in #2 is already remarkable.

The Jewish mother … is a common stereotype and stock character used by Jewish and non-Jewish comedians, television and film writers, actors, and authors in the United States. The stereotype generally involves a nagging, loud, highly-talkative, overprotective, smothering, and overbearing mother or wife, who persists in interfering in her children’s lives long after they have become adults and who is excellent at making her children feel guilty for actions that may have caused her to suffer. The Jewish mother stereotype can also involve a loving and overly proud mother who is highly defensive about her children in front of others. Like Italian mother stereotypes, Jewish mother characters are often shown cooking for the family, urging loved ones to eat more, and taking great pride in their food. Feeding a loved one is characterized as an extension of the desire to mother those around her. Lisa Aronson Fontes describes the stereotype as one of “endless caretaking and boundless self-sacrifice” by a mother who demonstrates her love by “constant overfeeding and unremitting solicitude about every aspect of her children’s and husband’s welfare[s]”. (Wikipedia link)

The Jewish-mother sommelier in #2 is working her passive-aggressive unappreciated-slavey ostentatiously self-sacrificing shtick. While recommending the Malbec.

Order it. And write her or phone her regularly with thanks; otherwise, she’ll never let you forget it. (That’s another little Jewish-mother joke, edgily combining somewhat uncomfortable Jewish humor with somewhat dubious joking about women.)



One Response to “Further adventures in cartoon understanding”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    Just to add a note of appreciation for sdf’s spare visual style in #1, reminiscent of the best of (the also wordless) Spy vs. Spy.

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