Winter 2004

Martha Stewart or Genocide: The Cartoonists’ Conundrum

The role of humor in editorial cartoons is being debated.

By Steve Kelley
“It’s not funny.” With those words, my first editor would kill my cartoon. The hours I’d spent digesting news and constructing the cartoon’s elaborate and penetrating metaphor would evaporate. Nothing I could say, no logic I might invoke—“The tree is the Middle East and the beehive is the PLO …”—could hope to reclaim the idea. It had been deemed “not funny.”

It was emblematic, perhaps, of the landscape nearly 25 years ago when I started my editorial cartooning career. The idea was at last taking hold among editors that the cartoons on their editorial pages, at least to some degree, ought to amuse readers. The dark, heavy-stroke style of Bill Mauldin and Herblock was being eclipsed by the fine-lined whimsy of Pat Oliphant and Jeff MacNelly. One media writer might have put it best when he described MacNelly as “a stand-up comedian who sat down in ink.”

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Fast-forward to September 19th of this year. In a Los Angeles Times column entitled “Cream of the Crop, or Mush?” Lexington Herald-Leader cartoonist Joel Pett argues that too many of the political cartoons reprinted in prominent, national news venues might be amusing, but seem to lack any redeeming editorial value. Pett, whose savagely incisive cartoons won him a Pulitzer Prize, decries what he sees as the willful backsliding of our profession.

Debating Humor’s Place

Pett’s column represents the spilling over of a debate that has heretofore boiled mostly among cartoonists ourselves, a dispute on which we are as divided as the national electorate was on the presidential race. Many of my colleagues contend, as Pett does, that we often dilute our message, if not overpower it altogether, by our compulsion to be funny. The more humor a cartoon has, the argument goes, the more philosophically anorexic it is apt to be. Further, they insist that commentary about pop culture and celebrities violates the sanctity of our location in the paper—that seeing a cartoon about Michael Jackson on the editorial page is like seeing a ceiling fan in the Sistine Chapel.

Others, just as vehemently, disagree.

This much is indisputable: Humor is a powerful means by which to attract people’s attention and sell an idea. It’s why people enjoy being around someone who is funny, why public speakers are taught to begin their remarks with a joke, and why so many television commercials promoting products as hysterical as, say, nasal spray, make their pitch in a way that is, at least ostensibly, funny.

Humor is like the “free gift” my bank is forever offering new customers. It helps create a relationship in a world competing for consumers’ attention. Humor encourages readers to add the cartoonist to their subconscious list of must-reads. In that way, the humor in a cartoon on Tuesday actually increases the impact of Wednesday’s cartoon by inducing readers to return to their source of amusement.

Despite the internal fisticuffs, the infusion of humor has proven profoundly beneficial to us collectively. Newspaper surveys routinely reveal that editorial cartoons are a favorite staple for readers. They require little time to ingest, which is an advantage, but that could be said of department store ads, and everyone isn’t flocking to them. What the cartoon offers, that so little else in the paper does, is a measure of levity. To borrow somewhat from Bill Clinton (and oh, how that pains me), “It’s the humor, stupid.”

Quite simply, humor is a narcotic for readers and, whether we admit it or not, to some degree we’re all dealers. Even cartoonists who believe funny cartoons somehow blaspheme our profession routinely exaggerate politicians’ features for effect. If caricature is not meant to amuse, then why do it?

The problem really isn’t that cartoonists are trying to produce work that is funny. Our increasingly conspicuous failing is that we make obvious attempts at humor only to come up short. Some of these cartoons are painfully predictable, some are poorly written, and many, many employ tired, hackneyed ideas that we merely retread with updated news. How many incarnations of the CBS “black eye” have we produced? How many times have we depicted the three wise men bringing this year’s must-have toy to the baby Jesus? How often have we drawn a television set spewing garbage on the living room floor? When these cartoons fall flat, we blame what is most obvious: the lame attempt at humor or irony on which the cartoon is built.

Pett’s lament seems to be less with the cartoonists for being funny at times than with the editors at the Big Three—Newsweek, USA Today, and The New York Times—for their predilections toward kinder, gentler cartoons. He is not alone.

At our convention each year, we spend more time jawing about the Big Three’s cartoon selections than any other topic. I suspect most of our grousing is motivated more by pettiness than any exalted journalistic principle. At least mine is.

We surrender to the impulse to produce “lite” cartoons occasionally, in part because it’s good to vary our pitches, but also because we periodically weaken and give the people what they want. Every day we walk into a cafeteria of possible cartoon subjects, and somewhere in the course of looking around, we put a topic on our tray. Are we all expected to make the same selection each day? Is it not possible that a story foregone today can be selected tomorrow?

What matters most is that over time each of us addresses a variety of subjects and remains true to our individual principles and ideals. Some of us will instinctively highlight the clownishness of human events, while others will feel obliged to remind readers of the gravity of the situation. And the national media can and will republish whatever they see fit.



The Content of Cartoons

Are there subjects simply too frivolous to warrant an editorial cartoonist’s attention? Most editors and cartoonists would agree there are, although as with matters of taste, it’s difficult to determine where to draw the line. Yes, Michael Jackson is just a pop star, but child abuse matters, right? Cartoons about how fat kids have become seem beside the point at first, but obesity is an epidemic of sorts.

I published two collections of cartoons and divided each into sections entitled “Politics” and “Stuff People Actually Care About.” Maybe that sums up our collective conundrum and explains why national newspapers and magazines, intent on attracting readers rather than challenging them, so often republish cartoons about fad diets and Martha Stewart instead of famine and genocide.

While many cartoonists note that job opportunities at newspapers are shrinking, and indeed they are, we can hardly lay the blame on humor. Our numbers increased considerably in the 1970’s and 1980’s because of humor, during a metamorphosis from blunt and serious cartoons to sharp and witty ones. Call it our “humor-boom generation.” As political cartoons became less dour and ominous, they became more popular, and papers created positions for more of us.

The contractions we are enduring now are in part the consequence of our (borrowing from Bush this time) “catastrophic success.” With the influx of so many talented cartoonists came the ready availability of their work through syndication. In a sense, we offer newspapers the means by which to outsource each other for a few dollars a week. Does it really surprise any of us that in thin economic times newspaper bean counters would do the math?

In the face of disappearing jobs, cartoonists are understandably looking for ways to improve what we produce. Still, second-guessing the work of our colleagues or the judgment of editors seems contrary to our nature. It is at least ironic that members of a group as doggedly independent as political cartoonists, who seethe at nothing as much as being told by an editor what to draw or not to draw, would labor so intently to impose constraints on one another. Certainly it is not productive.

The thought that there is a right and a wrong way to approach what we do overlooks that there are infinite means by which to assail a blowhard politician or to deconstruct a boneheaded piece of legislation. If William Safire can share space on the page with Dave Barry, then why not Ted Rall and Mike Peters? Can’t we all just get along?

What separates us from reporters and editors is the range we’re given to exceed propriety. That’s the beauty of our job. We’re handed a huge bag of implements—from scalpel to chain saw, Louisville Slugger to cream pie—and each of us gets to choose what’s appropriate on any given day. Instead of pointing fingers at each other, maybe we should be thanking our lucky stars that we don’t have to sit at the adult table with the rest of the journalists.

Steve Kelley is editorial cartoonist with The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. His work has won numerous awards, including the National Headliner Award in 2001.

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