Battle of the Sharpies: Cartoonists Square Off With Their Pens

According to Matt Diffee, there are 10 reasons why a cartoon might be rejected from The New Yorker: too lowbrow, too politically incorrect, too dark, too weird, too political, too difficult to “get,” too dumb, too bad, too dirty, too all-of-the-above.

But at Fisticuffs, an Iron Chef-like battle of the cartoonists, held last Thursday night at the 92YTribeca, even the most informal editorial guidelines were abandoned. Mr. Diffee, veteran New Yorker cartoonist and host for the evening, stood onstage and projected examples from his own personal archive of castoffs. For the last one (“too all-of-the-above”), we were shown an illustration of a carnival barker selling balloons in the shape of male genitals for $5.

“Look, The New Yorker is not a comedy club,” Bob Mankoff, the magazine’s cartoon editor, explained over the phone last weekend. “Not everything goes, nor should it. It’s mixed company, if you will. One of the easiest ways to be funny is to be cruel or obscene. We want to be funny without being too cruel or too obscene. I mean, it’s not like we have to worry that there aren’t enough cruel, obscene things going on in the world.”

Surely not! But at Fisticuffs, the cartoons were not under the burden of being fit to print, and rules–tacit ones, especially–are made to be broken. The contestants assembled in front of a sartorially humorless and typically Tribeca audience. Despite the designer eye wear and gray cashmere, all were ready and willing to laugh. The six cartoonists were split into teams of two, and the teams were named after a New Yorker cartoon cliché. There were The Castaways (Zachary Kanin and Drew Dernavich), The Psychiatrists (David Sipress and Emily Flake) and, in a jab at New Yorker cartoons’ lack of diversity, The African-American Lawyers (Paul Noth and Michael Kupperman).

There’s nothing more impressive than good improv. To see spontaneous wit at work may be the most humbling form of entertainment. What, no Google to confirm spelling? No coffee to spur that sparkle? On-the-spot illustration is fun to witness; it’s a foreign form of intelligence to anyone hard-pressed to scrawl out a Stüssy “S.” At the beginning of each round, the cartoonists started and stopped ensemble, like cicadas–Sharpies hitting and lifting the paper all at once. They seemed oblivious to the synchronicity. How do they draw so fast? Do they think and then illustrate, or do they illustrate and then think?

“It’s not about which comes first, the cartoon or the caption; what really happens is that the creative process is entwined with the actual act of drawing itself,” explained Mr. Mankoff. One might suspect–incorrectly, apparently–that cartoonists are synthetic stereotypes, combining the latent depression of the comedian with the asociality of the artist. “They’re not depressed! But there’s a misapprehension that as cartoonists are drawing, they’re laughing and having a good time. They’re working! Not everybody is suited to this kind of event. You can have people who are great cartoonists who would dread this. You need to be improvisational and to be able to work with the natural tension of the audience. Most people are actually quite funny. They say funny things all the time. The difference here is that you’re seeing people who aren’t afraid not to be funny. Most people are editing themselves constantly.”

As the dread-free, unedited competitors introduced themselves, they proved gregarious and kinetic. In light of the magazine’s annual Food Issue (or, in terms of cover art, “The Thiebaud Issue”), Paul Noth projected some original work, illustrations annotated with the stains of what he was eating at the moment of conception–glazed ham, pesto from the Republic of Georgia. Zachary Kanin read his future vows to his absentee fiancée; he promised to teach their children the seasons by the length of his facial hair (winter is beard, spring is mustache, summer is clean, fall is stubble). Drew Dernavich demonstrated how the process of woodcut printing leaves Clint Eastwood and Audrey Hepburn with identical bone structure.

To turn illustration–a private, solitary practice–into a public performance requires innovative event planning. Each competition encouraged a slightly different sort of improvisation. In the first round, the audience selected three words from three columns projected on a screen. The teams then had to include each term (“guru,” “chicken,” “desert island”) in a captioned cartoon. “Executioner” (not chosen) was written, like the other words, in blocky, all-caps holograph type. But unlike the others, it was accidentally projected on Mr. Diffee’s forehead, quivering across his animated brow for the entire round. “This is pretty fun, right?” he asked about halfway through the show. Indeed, we were being comedically coddled, never subjected to a dull moment.

As the cartoonists scribbled away, Key Wilde and Mr. Clarke, a pair of fun-uncle types in short-sleeved linen shirts, relaxed fit jeans and black boots, performed folksy, Raffi-like tunes. Surely joking, they said it was their first after-dark show. “What?! We usually play for kids!” Regardless of mean audience height, Mr. Wilde and Mr. Clarke were almost algorithmically good. Rhyming monosyllabic nouns to the tunes of catchy melodies is basically foolproof. And singing silly, half-rhetorical questions–“What’s the point of having a cat if you don’t know where he is?”–is another winning tactic. 

A number of mental tendencies, perhaps specific to cartoonists, were revealed over the course of the evening. Surrealist imagination, for instance, is a prerequisite for the job. You better hope that you can spin “Cheese,” “Gravity,” “How Dumb Southerners Are,” “Possums” and “Jacques Cousteau” into comedic gold. But even flopped jokes, it seems, can be redeemed by being read aloud. It’s a trick that would work only in a scenario like this one, though; The New Yorker, after all, is not an audiobook.

In lieu of a scientific system–tallied points, say–the victors were determined by subjective shouts. The decibel levels were ambiguous, but an executive decision was made for the sake of efficiency. Mr. Diffee scanned the crowd. Smiling and nodding, he agreed with the marginal majority: “I also think The Castaways won, so … The Castaways won!” The stakes weren’t high, and everyone seemed to have had fun. The prize? A half-gallon of skim milk. And as for the losers, well, they were punished appropriately. They were asked to slow-dance.

Battle of the Sharpies: Cartoonists Square Off With Their Pens