The New Yorker's inscrutable, evolving sense of humor

For those who get them and those who don't: every cartoon the magazine has published in 79 years

Shore up your living room coffee table: Here comes the heaviest book in the house. With a $60 price, it weighs in at 9 pounds, and there's more. The book itself contains only 2,000 cartoons, with commentary by various New Yorker writers, but also included are two CDs with all 68,647 cartoons ever published in the magazine.

Whether this is a worthy project and a cause for celebration depends on your ability to sit for hours in front of the computer - and whether you need another reason to do so. But scrolling through the decades, you do notice something about the development of a magazine that has defined a good chunk of the American sense of humor.

The New Yorker began in 1925 with almost total reliance on the upper reaches of society as its reader base, and the cartoons inevitably showed wealthy poseurs and stuffed tuxedos, dropping bons mots on their way to the theatah.

Only later, during the sobering modern wars of the century, did the humor begin to take notice of the real class structure of the city and, by extension, the country. In fact, until the '60s, it's fair to say that The New Yorker remained parochially New York, if such a thing is possible.

Here, most prejudices are formed by seldom leaving the city - once described as a small island off the coast of the United States. The cartoonists approach politics gingerly, putting strong opinions in the mouths of children or characters we don't have to take seriously. The blame is softened by the source, and it's sometimes an annoying mannerism.

Nowadays, of course, political correctness has taken a variety of subjects completely off the artist's table: jokes about the poor, and about servants of color, about the relative intellect of the genders, woman drivers and so on - all gone.

There are distinct surviving trends, however, some that follow the times and some that are unique to The New Yorker. Robert Mankoff, the cartoon editor and compiler of this tome, must be the world's expert on these categories, having edited other collections on lawyers, cats, dogs, and doctors.

At first, the cartoons were unabashedly European in nature, drawn by people (mostly men) who had actually studied anatomy and physiognomy.

The ideas for the cartoons were supplied by others. In fact, it surprised fans to read in his obituary a few years ago that the master cartoonist, George Price, a fixture for decades in the magazine, had contributed only one joke to the thousands of cartoons he published.

The book also describes the odd editorial process that accompanies the cartoons, and it's not like editing prose. The discovery and refining of a funny idea, and matching it to a certain moment captured in the drawing, are unexplainable, although Mankoff makes valiant efforts to do so.

For one thing, Mankoff says, you have to forgive many failures in order to see the one drawing that really works. (By the way, he'll give $10 to anyone who finds a cartoon missing from this compilation.)

That The New Yorker survived the demise of other general-interest magazines in the face of television's growth was due to its beneficent publishers, the Fleischman family, and its loyal readers. (The magazine is now owned by Condé Nast and has been famously unprofitable in recent decades.)

If there's one trend in this book to bemoan, it's that the artwork has gotten worse, or at least less important. Real drawing is rarely taught in this country any more, and much draftsmanship is celebrated for its distinctive quality, even if awful, rather than for skill with a line. That trend doesn't make the cartoons any less funny, but something is missing.

Even so, this book is a major achievement, and you can certainly rest easy knowing that you won't have to buy another collection for a while. And if your subscription lapses for a bit, you're all set in the cartoon department.

Jeff Danziger, the Monitor's political cartoonist from 1986 to 1996, is a cartoonist with The New York Times Syndicate.

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