There’s an amazing through line that links cartoons from The New Yorker down the ages. As if they were written by an inspired, singular hand, but with multiple unique voices, these cartoons serve as perhaps the greatest cultural mimic of our times. Not all humor is so lucky.
When Andy Millman, Ricky Gervais’ character in the HBO/BBC show “Extras,” finally gets his sitcom produced, it comes complete with a tiresome, corporation-inserted catchphrase (“You havin’ a laugh? Is she havin’ a laugh?) tacked on to his character. Designed to appeal to a large audience, this corporate dumbing down becomes a reflection on Andy, the audience, and the very art of humor. In “Extras,” the world within a world of TV critics, friends, celebrities and co-workers are “Havin’ a laugh,” but with semi-tragic consequences. In a sense, everyone who comes into contact with this sell out is tainted by the commercialism. What was merely a tired expression from the north of England can never really be heard with the same ears ever again. It has been downgraded to a Class-1 riposte.
With the venerable New Yorker magazine, there is a curious phenomenon that may be unequalled in the world of humor. For just over 80 years, this publication has produced consistent and funny cartoons that not only refuse to die, like Dorian Gray they refuse to age. It is simply amazing, if the history is maintained, how these cartoons hold up some four score years later.
When I originally received “The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker” book/DVD-ROM combo as a Christmas present, my first assumption was to start reading somewhere in the ’50s, as cartoons often don’t age well. Try finding a funny cartoon from 100 or so years ago and you will see what I mean. Cultural references have been all but erased or marginalized, the zeitgeist is passé, and our sensibilities have shifted dramatically.
Or so one would think. I kept reading the book backwards until I found where the break even point on New Yorker humor was: 1925, its very inception. There are many theories, but personally, what makes these cartoons timeless are the evergreen subjects: New York, lawyers, divorce, relationships, alcohol, art and money. This, coupled with the wonderfully out of kilter talents of artists like Charles Addams, makes for an essential primer in humor.
Now the book itself is only 670 pages and features the highlights of each year, sectioned off by decade-related essays. That in itself is a treat, and easily manageable to read. The bonus is the new DVD-ROM, with PDF files for each decade that contain every single cartoon ever published in the magazine. (Original copies had them spread over two CD-ROMs.) This translates to 70,363 cartoons and, on the face of it, that seems like a hell of a lot. Well, it is. But it’s not insurmountable if you read it in year-by-year chunks. You’d be amazed how quickly one cartoon year can pass. I’m still working on it, but that’s the joy. I know there will always be another 10 to 30 thousand cartoons I haven’t read yet.
Now, to my mind, this is the perfect marriage of technology and old-school publishing. Which is what I like. As a consumer I am getting something I have always coveted: New Yorker cartoons that remain funny, challenging, creative and nearly always on the money. No corporate interference, no dumbing down, no tainting.
To this day, we are all—still—”having a laugh.”