PEN International Talk – 10

  1. Humorists enjoy making connections that might escape the notice of other people

Here’s Bill Bryson commenting on a common dining utensil in his Notes from a Small Island:

“… I find chopsticks frankly distressing. Am I alone in thinking it odd that a people ingenious enough to invent paper, gunpowder, kites and any number of other useful objects, and who have a noble history extending back 3,000 years haven’t yet worked out that a pair of knitting needles is no way to capture food?”

The first sentence tips us off. But it’s the setup that works here, as well as the final description of “a pair of knitting needles” as a callback to chopsticks.

In a New Yorker cartoon, the setting is a sparse room where a bearded adult male in a hat stands at a table and makes furniture. A young boy watches. Chairs hang from a nearby wall. In the caption, the furniture maker says to the young boy: “No, lad, we aren’t movers. We’re just Shakers.”

In another New Yorker cartoon, a nervous job seeker sits across the desk from a hiring manager. It’s clear from the drawing the manager had just made a phone call. As he sets the phone down, he tells the job seeker in the caption: “Your references asked me to hold you here until the police arrive.”

Cartoonists, especially, like to twist clichés. For instance, in a drawing by Brian Savage, a man crawls in the desert under a hot sun. His clothes are in tatters, his face and body sunburned. He looks up and sees four people sitting at a table starring at him. They’re all dressed for hot weather and wear wide, shade-providing hats. One person smokes a pipe, another wears sunglasses. In the caption, the crawling man says, “Thank God. A panel of experts.” In a cartoon by B. Kliban, the setting is a highway flanked by smokestacks and ugly buildings. We see the back of a man in a tuxedo running down the highway. The caption? “Houdini escaping from New Jersey.”

Kliban made one of my favorite statements about cartoonists. He said,

“But the technologists have got their toys and they’re going to play with them.  Like, if cartoonists had all that money we sure as hell would use it.  There would be weird cartoon sculptures five hundred feet high, and free rubber chickens, regardless of a person’s religious belief.”

Then there’s this gem of association from comedian Warren Hutcherson:

In elementary school, in case of fire you have to line up quietly in a single file line from smallest to tallest. What is the logic? Do tall people burn slower?

And, finally, this food-related comment from David Sedaris:

“What’s the trick to remembering that a sandwich is masculine? What qualities does it share with anyone in possession of a penis? I tell myself that a sandwich is masculine because if left alone for a week or two, it will eventually grow a beard.”

This is what humorists do best: they make wild yet seemingly logical connections. Who knew a sandwich had gender? David Sedaris, that’s who.


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