On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Dog

2B or not 2BOn Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Bob Mankoff rejects most everything he sees. He works as the cartoon editor at the New Yorker, a magazine whose sense of cartoon humor is famous, but extraordinarily difficult to define. This is not a new problem. In fact, the New Yorker has always suffered from a rough case of not being able to explain itself (the problem goes back to the 1920s when Writer’s Digest asked the New Yorker’s editors to advise writers interested in the magazine; in essence, the New Yorker editors could not).

“Well, we needed the rain.”“How About Never – Is Never Good for You?: My Life in Cartoons” is a kind of small-scale coffee table biography, half text and half cartoons. As with the New Yorker magazine, it’s difficult not to be attracted to the cartoons, but I was good: I read the whole book including all of Mankoff’s confessional text and all of his chosen cartoons. What surprised me: only a few of the cartoons made me smile or laugh. And that got me to thinking about how difficult it must be, to select from the stack of 500 cartoons from regular contributors and an equal number from wannabes. Mankoff writes, “eventually, I cull the pile down to fifty or so, which I’ll take to the Wednesday afternoon cartoon meeting…” where the stack will be winnowed down to just seventeen, maybe eighteen cartoons that will be published in the magazine. (There are, and have always been, so many rejects, Mankoff started a new venture called Cartoon Bank to give exposure to the rejects—and earn some money for himself [before he joined the magazine as cartoon editor] and for other working cartoonists.

So what’s funny? Or, perhaps more to the point, what does the New Yorker believe to be funny?

I just read a book about that topic and I still don’t know the answer. But I know a good New Yorker cartoon when I see one.

There are good ones on page 148.

The first shows a pair of snails with large spiral shells on their backs. They are staring at a plastic Scotch tape dispenser which resembles them. The caption: “I don’t care if she is a tape dispenser. I love her.” Very spare, right to the point, softly funny.

The second shows a man about to lose his head to a guillotine. The executioner offers a choice of two baskets to catch the head. The caption reads, “paper or plastic?”

On page 156, a cat is being instructed about litter box use by his owner: “Never, ever think outside the box.”

On page 251, under the sign, “Horse Play,” a horse is up on his hind legs shouting to a horse in the barn loft, “Stella!!”

On page (I lost count and they’re not all numbered), a croissant and tea on one side of the breakfast table and a whole lot of bacon, pancakes, sausage, eggs, juice, coffee, and the caption, “Welcome to America, bitch.”

On 284, a man has been murdered, and he is lying face down as two detectives look on. The room’s walls and floors resemble a crossword puzzle. One detective says to the other, “any clues?”



So what have we learned? It’s no easier to write a book about cartoons than it is to select cartoons for the magazine. What’s funny is just funny—once again, there is no science to any of it. Which leads back to Mankoff on page 4, where he writes, “I’ve ignored E.B. White’s famous admonition, ‘analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”

BTW: The statement about the dog that titles this article





Food: The Meta-layer

Past few months, everybody’s talking about the meta-layer. We don’t just watch TV. We add a meta-layer, tweeting about the Academy Awards, commenting on comments–ideas piled on ideas. We’re learning to comment on everything, with or without the requisite knowledge of the facts involved, rarely with the research needed to form a coherent opinion.

Not so with Mr. Gopnik, whose past stories about his young family’s life in Paris (Paris to the Moon) and their return to Manhattan (Through the Children’s Gate) are among my most-recommended books, and whose 2011 book, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food has provided several months of nourishing food for thought, or thoughts about food, probably some of each.

Where did restaurants come from? Who came up with the idea of not just eating outside the home, but dining there? (Long answer, begins around the French revolution). Quite rightly, he compares the restaurant customer to an aristocrat, accustomed to being served (and served beautifully). Gopnik delights in grazing through the thoughts of Brillat-Savarin and Grimod–two early, influential writers about food and dining–but I like the bit that he found in Robert Frost best:

“Home is a place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. A restaurant is a place where, when you go there, they not only have to take you in but act as though they were glad to see you. In cities of strangers, this pretense can be very dear.”

This is a book in which New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik thinks about food, and thinks about how others think, and have thought, about food. He goes deep, with some chapters so mired in philosophy or history that they eventually become indigestible. Fortunately, these are exceptions. And when the going becomes thick, he pauses for to write an email to Elizabeth Pennell, who wrote with intelligence and wisdom about food about a century ago; these chatty emails cover the true benefits of cinnamon, the best ways to cook lamb, the extraordinary use of hot air in the hard-to-find and hard-to-cook pommel soufflés, his dog Butterscotch’s love for steak, and other lighthearted stuff.

Adam Gopnik is a regular contributor to The New Yorker.

This is not a book to read over a single meal. It is, instead, book to be savored, bit by bit, over several months. There is simply too much information, too many glimpses and meta ideas, too much richness and provocation and serious research, to be enjoyed quickly. It is slow food for the brain–imagine that, in an era of emails and tweets–much of it about topics I’ve never really thought much about.

For example, Gopnik compares “cook it at home” recipe books that restaurants sell with the home game version of, say, Hollywood Squares. Certainly, there is a resemblance, but the resources and the spicing are entirely different, and so is the experience. He tells a long and funny/odd story about his search for a live chicken that can be purchased, cooked, and eaten within the bounds of New York City, and another about the cleverness of farming tilapia to feed large urban populations, then adds the zesty meta-layer, invoking Adam Smith and the total cost associated with what he believes to be a current fad for localism. And so:

“If Kenyan greens take less total energy than Plattsburgh tomatoes, then we should revel in them no matter how far they have to travel.”

And so it goes, through questions about whether we really can taste the differences between wines (or whether the situation and the artifice overpower the actual human capacity for taste), the imperfection of memory as it applies to the fancy French restaurants of 20th century Manhattan, why sugar was used mostly to flavor tea in England but became the impetus for the pasty industry in France, the various ethical arguments for and against the slaughter of animals for human consumption, and so much more.

As with his own food choices–today, spicy beans and rice, tomorrow, a complicated and challenging attempt at a classic French dish from a century ago–some sections are rich with friendly storytelling and some are thick with pretense, serious thinking, and historical reconsiderations. Unlike Twitter, you need not absorb every idea in an instant. There is time enough to consider the meta-layer, to appreciate the fine writing that has long been Gopnik’s strong suit, time enough to think about what Gopnik has said about what others have said and done, and perchance, to learn something about their ideas by reading Brillat-Savarin in the original (on my list, but not for this year).

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