‘Cartoons are like gossamer and one doesn’t dissect gossamer.’ So says Mr Elinoff, the fictional cartoon editor of the New Yorker in an episode of Seinfeld, when trying to explain a cartoon to Elaine. Elaine isn’t satisfied. Mr Elinoff suggests the cartoon is a commentary on contemporary mores, a slice of life or even a pun. ‘You have no idea what this means do you?’ says Elaine. ‘No,’ he concedes.
The scene sums up the problem of understanding the New Yorker’s sometimes oblique sense of humour — and may come as a relief to the many British cartoonists who have tried and failed to break into the Big Apple’s literary bastion. It’s reassuring to think that even Americans as funny as Seinfeld can be baffled by New Yorker jokes. Yet still the mystique survives, and most British cartoonists have had a stab at getting into the magazine, lured by its great cartoon history (James Thurber, Saul Steinberg, Charles Addams) and the money: it pays more than ten times as much for a cartoon than UK magazines.
Former (real) cartoon editor Bob Mankoff said in a Ted Talk: ‘The New Yorker occupies a very different space. It’s a space that is playful in its own way, and also purposeful, and in that space, the cartoons are different… New Yorker humour is self-reflective.’ Elsewhere, he recalled that when he was finally rewarded with a contract in 1980, the contract referred not to cartoons but to ‘idea drawings’, what Mankoff calls the ‘sine qua non of New Yorker cartoons’: a drawing that requires both cartoonist and reader to think. Indeed, there is Sam Gross cartoon of a landscape with a large sign reading ‘STOP AND THINK’ and a man saying: ‘It sort of makes you stop and think, doesn’t it?’
So New Yorker gags are more philosophical than their British counterparts.