In its final season, the TV sitcom Seinfeld did a send-up of the cartoons in The New Yorker. The magazine's comics are distinctive – short, quippy, topical, understated. Simply put, they're smart.
Maybe too smart, sometimes, and that's what the character Elaine found when she got her own cartoon published in the magazine.
Well, The New Yorker is not done with this. This week, 14 years later, it has used Elaine's fictional cartoon in its caption contest. It's a pig standing at a complaint department. The magazine wants readers to re-caption it.
The man who made that decision, The New Yorker's cartoon editor Bob Mankoff, tells Weekend Edition Sunday guest host Linda Wertheimer that that Seinfeld episode has been sticking in his craw ever since it aired in 1998.
"Actually, I thought it was really quite interesting," Mankoff says, laughing. "Because, look, for the most part, The New Yorker cartoons are completely transparent – there is something to get."
The cartoon is an opportunity to deconstruct funny, as Mankoff does in his blog. He offers a cartoon summary of the Seinfeld episode for those of us who can't remember the pig.
In the episode, Elaine visits Mankoff's TV double, The New Yorker's cartoon editor, who admits that sometimes he doesn't get the jokes, either. "Cartoons are like gossamer," he tells her, "and one doesn't dissect gossamer."
"A few of The New Yorker cartoons absolutely had that sort of elusive, gossamer quality," Mankoff concedes, "where there wasn't this really thing that you get, you just sort of enjoy it."
Of course, Mankoff gets e-mails all the time from readers who don't enjoy it.
"We don't focus group anything," he says. It's pretty much just him and two other editors making the calls.
"I see a thousand cartoons a week, and I bring in these 50," he says. "Really, by the time you see a thousand cartoons, you can be a little humor-loopy. And sometimes things that will appeal to you that — they just seem weird and funny, and you can't explain."
One thing he can explain — and has on his blog — is why Elaine's cartoon isn't funny. The short story: It veers to the weird. Perhaps it'll be funnier the second time around.
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