In the 1930’s, The New Yorker
cartoon was in its heyday. Artists such as Peter Arno, Helen Hokinson, Barbara Shermund, Alan Dunn, William Steig, and James Thurber, brought the art form to great heights in popularity and artistry. The generation of the 50’s and 60’s brought cartoonists such as Frank Modell, Charles Saxon, George Price, Ed Fischer, and Mischa Richter. The cartoons by that time had become fairly uniform in type and cartoonists often used gag writers, and with the exception of Steinberg and Steig, most of the cartoons were typical single panel with a caption.
The 1970’s brought change at The New Yorker. The art editor who had been selecting cartoons for three decades, James Geraghty, was replaced by Lee Lorenz in 1973. Only the second art editor, and the first cartoonist to hold the job, Lorenz brought a number of new artists into the fold right away. One of the artists Lorenz discovered was Roz Chast.
Roz began selling cartoons as soon as she submitted them to The New Yorker in 1978. I met Roz around 1979 after I sold my first cartoon to the magazine. When I first saw her drawings, I was simultaneously charmed and perplexed; there was nothing like them in the magazine at that time.
Her first drawing published in The New Yorker was called “Little Things,” and one can imagine the confusion it brought to many readers. Some were delighted, connecting to a cartoon in a way they had never before. The drawing is at once silly yet profound, and it’s hard to explain why. It was a taste of things to come from Roz. She examines the daily life of just about everyone, the small parts of our days that go unnoticed, unacknowledged, and under-valued. The simple pleasures, and the horrible deep worries; the secret life of cows, the bizarre thoughts of your homely neighbor, the ever-present obsessions of momâ€”nothing goes unexamined by Roz.
All cartoons are stories to one degree or another. Each has characters and settings and each cartoon has a beginning and an end – it’s just that we don’t often see it all: the story is implied in order to deliver the humor. Whether a single image or a multi-paneled one, Roz’s drawings are clearly stories that show us everyday people who may not be in our thoughts. And she seems to have affection for them. Yet one can also see a darkness; Roz had an early obsession with the work of Charles Addams and that connection is tangible in some of her darker cartoons. Her somber, realistic world-view is balanced out by her naive drawing style; we are caught off guard when a pessimistic tone emerges from the shaky, almost child-like line. But in the end, Roz’s love for her characters wins out, and one feels reassured and joins in her affection. They are us, but not really. Roz keeps us in a complicated dance of relating to those she draws, while allowing us to keep our distance so we can laugh.
It feels as though Roz’s drawing come straight from her psyche, uninterrupted. She is sharing her inner thoughts as they emerge, unedited. If one relates to what she is saying in her cartoon, it’s on an emotional level, not an intellectual one. New Yorker writer E.B.White famously wrote decades ago that humor should not be dissected; because, like dissecting a frog, no one cares and the thing dies in the process. One can’t analyze Roz’s work: it just is and we are drawn to it.
Her early drawings in The New Yorker were often one panel, but sometimes they were several boxes grouped together as if in a category. Soon, we began to see longer visual stories, and over the years, one could watch as Roz played around with format. With her stories, she’s inviting us into a world she inhabits, and saying to us, “Look who I found and guess what he/she is thinking.” Or, “This really grosses me out, does it bother you as much as it does me?” or “This is really stupid, I have to show it to you.” One grows to love Roz’s people and animals, and can’t wait for their reappearance in the magazine.
Cartoons are a reflection of our lives. What makes New Yorker cartoons unique is that they are not all crafted jokes; rather the best cartoons are reflections of life through the eyes of an artist. New Yorker cartoons are a seamless blend of art and words. Roz’s are just that; through her work, we experience the world a new way. She taps into something deep inside us that perhaps scares us, yet at other times makes us laugh and think.
In trying to understand the context in which Roz’s art developed, it is important to look at the 1970’s as the continuation of a period of change in the U.S. This was certainly true of humor as well. Television shows like Laugh In (1967) and Saturday Night Live (1975) were challenging accepted formats and delivery of humor, as did David Letterman a bit later (1982). In print, National Lampoon (1970) pushed the boundaries of humor in a similar way to MAD magazine (1952). At The New Yorker, Lee Lorenz began his tenure as art editor in 1973 by being open to different ways to create humor. Immediately he discovered Jack Ziegler, and then Roz, artists who make us question our established ideas of what humor can be. There was an air of questioning of authority, and that extended to humor.
This open approach by the editor also led to another change: the work of more women cartoonists began appearing in The New Yorker after a few decades’ absence. When Roz began selling to the magazine, there was only one other woman publishing cartoons: Nurit Karlin. Over the next few years, readers began seeing the cartoons of myself, Victoria Roberts, Huguette Martel, Roz Zanango, Ann McCarthy, and Stephanie Skalisky. The 1970’s was a time of change for women, and this was reflected in humor to a certain degree. Once you open up the standards as to what is considered “good” in any field, humor included, you get more diversity. Under the leadership of Lee Lorenz, The New Yorker cartoon became diverse again, as it had been in the beginning. Roz drew cartoons about women from a young woman’s perspective, a view that had not been heard from for a while.
I am grateful for my friendship with Roz that has spanned more than three decades, both beginning our careers at The New Yorker in our early twenties. We have grown up with the magazine – first as single gals, then both getting married, having children, buying houses, caring for aging parents, dealing with numerous (nerve-wracking) changes in editorship at The New Yorker, both of us soldering on as we chronicle all of this and more in our cartoons. In an interview of Lee Lorenz for my book “Funny Ladies: The New Yorker’s Greatest Women Cartoonists,” he told me a story about when he first showed Roz’s cartoons to Editor, William Shawn, who had the final say on what was bought. Upon viewing Roz’s submissions, Shawn asked, “How does she know they’re funny?”
Roz may not know the answer to that question, and I am pretty sure she would not want to answer that question. She is just putting her work out there, inviting us to enter her world. One doesn’t know Roz’s drawings are funny, we feel they are funny.