Gag Writers and Cartoonists at The New Yorker: A Potted History

envelopeWord of a new blog by an 18 year veteran of the gag writing profession has caused me to ruminate on the long and winding road traveled by cartoonists and gag writers  at The New Yorker. 

When I began contributing drawings (cartoons) to the magazine back in the late 1970s  one of the unexpected and unsolicited consequences was the regular arrival in the mail of stuffed envelopes of ideas from gag writers.    I remember opening the very first one and finding a thick stack of index cards containing descriptions or set-ups for  drawings as well as captions. That was the first and last time I ever looked at a gag writer’s idea. The reason being I wanted to know that whatever ideas came my way, came out of the blue — from the Cartoon Gods. In other words, I wanted to do my own distilling. For me, it’s  the best part of this work:  the moment an idea presents itself. If ideas were handed to me (or more specifically, mailed to me), that moment would disappear. This attitude of rejecting ideas provided by others  came out of a then relatively new tradition at The New Yorker.

In the magazine’s earliest days, there was much collaborative thinking when it came to the cartoons. Ideas were sometimes suggested during the Art Meeting — editors working with other editors, tinkering with an idea provided by the artist, or coming up with a wholly new idea; some artists’ ideas were handed over to the magazine’s “cartoon doctors” ( Peter Devries was one, as was E.B. White, whose name usually pops up in this context for his retooling of Carl Rose’s broccoli caption); some artists worked steadily with a writer (Helen Hokinson and James Reid Parker, most notably); some ideas came (unsolicited) from outside the magazine; some artists did their own ideas ( Gardner Rea, and James Thurber to name two. I’ll add an asterisk next to Thurber only because of the unusual case of Thurber drawing a Carl Rose idea. Harold Ross thought Thurber’s style might be a better fit for Rose’s “Touche!”  as Thurber’s people seemed “bloodless”).  Some artists used their own ideas and supplemented with bought ideas (Peter Arno is an example); some relied completely on outside ideas, such as George Price.

Somewhere along the way though, collaboration began to be perceived by some of the cartoonists as a negative thing, and not business as usual.  It’s possible the seeds were planted in August of 1934 with the arrival of that month’s issue of Fortune magazine, with its  wide-ranging article on The New Yorker by one of its former editors, Ralph Ingersoll.  Ingersoll, pausing to throw a few darts at several of the magazine’s contributors, including Peter Arno, mentioned  that many of its artists relied on outside ideas. At least one of the magazine’s artists, Gluyas Williams, was displeased to be mentioned as someone whose ideas were, according to the Fortune piece, entirely supplied by The New Yorker. If you can get hold of Thomas Kunkel’s  Letters From The Editor, you’ll find on pages 85 – 87 a wonderful letter Harold Ross, The New Yorker‘s founder and first editor, wrote to Williams regarding collaboration. Here’s a snippet of what Ross wrote: “So help me, there’s no sin, no harm, and nothing unethical in drawing up an idea suggested by a man who can’t possibly draw it himself.”

Arno had no problem telling the world he used outside ideas along with his own, as he did in the foreward to his 1951 collection, Ladies and Gentlemen:

“For the first few years I did think up most of my own situations.  I had to. I was developing a style and a new kind of format, and there was no way anyone else could do it for me. But as time went on, and a distinct pattern for my work was set, it became easier for others to make contributions.”

With Ross’s death in December of 1951, and William Shawn’s appointment as the magazine’s editor in January of 1952, the Art Department’s collaborative ethos took a different path.  The practice of giving ideas to various established cartoonists remained in place (see “James Stevenson’s Secret Job”), but gone was the Art Meeting by committee; the new Art Meeting consisted of  just Shawn and James Geraghty, the Art Editor. According to Geraghty’s successor, Lee Lorenz, Shawn was a believer in the notion that the artists should write their own ideas. With that, the idea of providing cartoonists with ideas slowly began to taper off and came close, in the 1970s, to the point of extinction…but not quite. Some cartoonists, such as veterans Mischa Richter,  George Price, Whitney Darrow, and Charles Addams still relied on bought ideas (I provided an idea for Addams in the early 1980s and to Darrow in the late 1970s).

With many, but not all, of the cartoonists arriving at the magazine in 1950s and  1960s, it had become standard practice to provide The New Yorker with a complete cartoon: idea and drawing.  By the time a wave of new cartoonists arrived in the 1970s, it was a badge of honor to do all your own work. Roz Chast wrote that using bought ideas seemed kind of “like cheating.”

In the Fall of 2000, when I interviewed David Remnick, The New Yorker‘s current editor,  I asked him about gag writers at the magazine. He told me he knew of just one cartoonist occasionally using outside work.  It’s likely there were a few others — some cartoonists don’t broadcast their use of gagwriters —  but the majority of New Yorker cartoonists were, and are today, still thinking up their own ideas. Some collaborations have cropped up in recent years, acknowledged on The New Yorkers Table of Contents as well as on the cartoons themselves — but these have been one-offs (or two-offs) and not long term collaborations like Ms. Hokinson’s and Mr. Parker’s.

While I remain in the camp that never uses outside ideas, my thinking on cartoonists using gag writers has evolved, most likely as a result of working on my biography of Peter Arno.  Without gag writers, we never would’ve experienced Helen Hokinson’s world, or George Price’s. We would’ve missed out on many gems by Addams, and Syd Hoff, Mischa Richter, and of course, Gluyas Williams. I’ve come to realize that these artists, and many more, were great interpreters, like great singers handed a song.



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