Gag cartoons are a combination of punch lines and scenarios intended to make readers laugh. They cover a wide range of humorous situations through an arsenal of approaches that include underscoring social discomfort over relations with members of the opposite sex, poking fun at awkward family moments, providing an outlet for laughing at social inhibitions, or conveying the perceptive and sharp observations of children. Gags play with language, offering both linguistic and visual puns. Such cartoonists as Peter Arno remind us that politics is a theater for humor, and Barbara Shermund spoofs the foibles of women, by placing them in atypical contexts. George Price and other artists lampoon behavioral quirks that have maddened and amused readers of such popular magazines as the New Yorker, Esquire, and Look.
“Let's go to the Trans-Lux and hiss Roosevelt!”
Peter Arno (1904-1968) lampoons a group of middle-aged socialites hissing at President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the Trans-Lux, a popular New York theater. In this drawing, unlike the published version, the group appears scantily dressed, perhaps for a costume party. Though highly popular with most Americans, Roosevelt was strongly disliked by many members of the conservative, social elite. The Trans-Lux often screened newsreels that featured the president. Arno's first published drawings appeared in 1925 in the New Yorker and remained a popular feature during his forty-year cartooning career.
Peter Arno. “Let's go to the Trans-Lux and hiss Roosevelt!” 1936. Variation on cartoon published in the New Yorker, September 26, 1936. Ink brush, ink wash, and opaque white. Art Wood Collection of Cartoon and Caricature, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress LC-DIG-ppmsca-06566 (24). © Estate of Peter Arno
“I'm doing a bit of pre-furlough research”
In this cartoon by Garrett Price (1896- 1979), a happy-go-lucky soldier breezily tells his comrade that he is doing “pre-furlough research,” as he adds addresses from the telephone directory to his own address book. Price's winning combination of a smiling jaunty soldier, bright colors, and amusing caption render this an engaging and upbeat scene, created the year that World War II ended. Price's illustrations and cartoons were published in Life, Collier's, Scribner's, and the New Yorker, for which he created more than ninety cover designs.
Housewife, Wearing Bunny Cocktail Outfit
Increasing divorce rates, women's liberation, and society's emphasis on sexuality in the 1970s led many Americans to reconsider the institution of marriage. George Price (1901-1995) uses his angular, almost cubist style to lampoon women going to great lengths to keep the spark in their relationships with men. In this gag cartoon, the unsuspecting husband walks through the door moments before his equally aged wife dressed in a Playboy bunny outfit and high heels surprises him. Price, a cartoonist with the New Yorker from 1932 to 1995, once said, “If the situation is funny enough it shouldn't require a line.”
George Price. Housewife, wearing bunny cocktail outfit, greets husband with a drink as he enters the front door, 1971. Published without caption in the New Yorker, January 15, 1972. Watercolor and ink brush with white out over graphite underdrawing. Art Wood Collection of Cartoon and Caricature, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress LC-DIG-ppmsca-03305 (26). © 1971, New Yorker, reproduced courtesy of Cartoonbank
Cuties. “It's a quiz show.”
E. Simms Campbell
Well known for his appealing drawings of beautiful, long-legged women, E. Simms Campbell (1906-1971), in this cartoon, captures two equally attractive young women. The brown-haired beauty hands the phone to her red-haired cohort, telling her that she is best qualified to answer a quiz show question comparing redheads to blondes because “you've been both.” A brilliant, pioneering African American illustrator and cartoonist, Campbell launched his own feature, Cuties, for King Features Syndicate in the 1930s and published work in mainstream publications such as Judge, Esquire, Cosmopolitan, the Saturday Evening Post, and Playboy.
E. Simms Campbell. Cuties. “It's a quiz show. They want to know which has the worst temper, blondes or redheads. You answer him, dearie; you've been both!” November 2, 1952. Watercolor over graphite underdrawing. Art Wood Collection of Cartoon and Caricature, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress LC-DIG-ppmsca-05869 (27). © 1952, King Features Syndicate, Inc.
Barbara Shermund (1910?-1978) depicts a disgruntled dog rolling his eyes at a would-be huntress's utter lack of skill. Spent shells littering the ground and birds escaping in flight tell the tale in this droll hunting scene that Shermund renders in lush watercolor, graceful outlines, and clearly drawn details. A frequent contributor to the New Yorker, Esquire, Life, and other mainstream magazines of the day, she revealed a feminist attitude in her portrayals of women in atypical situations, yet did not avoid poking fun at women's behavior in her work.
“I am not the husband—I'm the father!”
The dapper gentleman proudly proclaiming his paternity might be at home in today's America, but at mid-century he receives an indignant glare from the nurse at the maternity center in this humorous cartoon, probably published in Esquire. The richly illustrated cartoon is by Dorothy McKay (1904-1974), née Jones, who trained at the California School of Art and the Art Students League in New York and quickly made her name as a humorous illustrator and cartoonist for such magazines as Esquire, the New Yorker, Life, and Colliers.
“Oh, Mr. Benholding, I never saw that look in your eyes before!”
James Thurber (1894-1961) brought whimsy to his cartoons about human relations and sexuality. Through his simple line drawing, he captures multiple emotions, including desire, fear, aggression, lust, and attraction. Thurber began his illustrious career at the New Yorker as an editor in 1927. In 1930 his colleague and friend, essayist E.B. White, found some of his sketches in the trash and promptly published them. Thurber's simple line drawings were due to his near blindness, the result of a childhood game of William Tell that went awry, but the condition gave his art a distinctive appearance that became a signature look for the magazine.
James Thurber. “Oh, Mr. Benholding, I never saw that look in your eyes before!” between 1930 and 1960. Graphite. Art Wood Collection of Cartoon and Caricature, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress LC-DIG-ppmsca-05862 (30). Used with special permission of James Thurber Literary Properties © Rosemary Thurber
A Happy New Year 1867—A Happy New Year 1917
In this cartoon for Life magazine, Rea Irvin (1881-1972) humorously imagines the difference between New Year's Eve celebrations in the years 1867 and 1917. For 1867, the proper Victorian family sips from their cups of tea in a parlor; while in 1917, a riotous party occurs with champagne corks popping, music, dancing, and general misbehavior. New Year's Eve celebrations did not begin until the early 1900s, with New York City's signature ball-dropping being introduced in 1907. Irvin contributed to such magazines as Life and Cosmopolitan and was the first art editor for the New Yorker.
Eugene “Zim” Zimmerman
Founder of the Grotesque School of Caricature, which exaggerated not only facial features but bodies as well, Eugene Zimmerman (1862- 1935) portrays “hillbillies” in this cartoon, playing baseball with varying degrees of skill. A dog, a duck, and a chicken enliven the proceedings. Cartoons that exaggerated racial, ethnic, and social stereotypes were popular in such weekly illustrated journals as Puck and Judge toward the end of the nineteenth century. An immigrant from Switzerland, Zimmerman ran a correspondence cartooning school and drew cartoons for several magazines.
Bootsie. “Brother Bootsie we really appreciate you droppin' in to wish us Merry Chris'mus. . . . !”
An African American family ready to enjoy their Christmas dinner hastens “Brother Bootsie” out the door in this cartoon by African American artist Oliver W. Harrington (1912-1995). Bootsie, a plump, black Everyman of Harlem first entered Harrington's series Dark Laughter in 1935 in the Amsterdam News. The cartoonist's series on urban black life brought sharp focus to abysmal problems in race relations, yet also depicted home life, as seen in this holiday scenario. Harrington left the U.S. in 1951 for Europe, where he continued his nearly sixty-year career.
Ollie Harrington. Bootsie. “Brother Bootsie we really appreciate you droppin' in to wish us Merry Chris'mus but we got a few things to do right now, so drop by some other time ... aroun' the first of April for instance!” December 30, 1961. Published in the Pittsburgh Courier. Crayon and ink over blue pencil underdrawing. Art Wood Collection of Cartoon and Caricature, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress LC-DIG-ppmsca-03492 (33)
When a Feller Needs a Friend
Capturing moments in the lives of everyday Americans, Clare Briggs (1875 - 1930) looked back on the past with a wistful nostalgia. His sense of humor appealed to Americans looking toward the simple past as they faced a changing society, when airplanes, automobiles, and radios made rapid communication possible in the 1920s. Briggs drew cartoons that dealt with the challenges in coming of age, relationships between men and women, and especially feelings, from inadequacy to joy. At the time of his death, Briggs was one of the top visual humorists in the field of cartooning.
Clare Briggs. When a Feller Needs a Friend. When You Meet Her Daddy and Somehow You Feel So Inadequate, 1923. Published by N.Y. Tribune, Inc., November 5, 1923. Ink over graphite underdrawing with paste-on. Art Wood Collection of Cartoon and Caricature, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress LC-DIG-ppmsca-03607 (34)
“All enjoying yourselves? That's splendid”
In this carefully rendered English church hall scene, the benevolent vicar smiles upon his middle-class parishioners gathered for a whist drive charity event. Leslie Illingworth (1902 -1979) carefully rendered the coal stove, the hats on the windowsill, the tea ladies making preparations, and the faces of the players, most of whom appear miserable though some are puzzled, bored, panicked, angry, and distrustful. He portrays the working-class crowd outside the window as downright happy. Illingworth, an energetic illustrator, worked as a cartoonist for the Cardiff (Wales) Western Mail and the Daily Mail (London).
Indian Snake Charmer Raising Dollar Bills from a Pot. ...
William Steig (1907-2003) gives a wry take on the ‘exotic traditions' of foreign lands in this scene of an Indian snake charmer who makes music so magically that he causes dollar bills to rise out of his basket. Two western tourists appear agog. Steig depicts the figures with clean, spare lines, delicately shading their forms and shadows with ink and watercolor washes and cleverly using the same green for the Indian's turban, clothing, and paper money. From 1930 on, Steig's acerbic, elegantly drawn cartoons graced the pages and covers of the New Yorker. In addition, he wrote and illustrated more than thirty children's books.
William Steig. Indian snake charmer raising dollar bills from a pot to the amusement of two American tourists, between 1950 and 1970. Watercolor and ink wash with opaque white over graphite underdrawing. Art Wood Collection of Cartoon and Caricature, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress LC-DIG-ppmsca-09430 (36). © Estate of William Steig
“I would just like to spend a night with you to find out what makes you late every morning!”
Relationships between men and women provided fodder for many gag cartoons, especially in the adult magazines published by Timely Features. The sharp-nosed secretary scorns her boss and he scolds her for failing to come to work on time. Her dress, inappropriate for work in the world of the 1950s, titillates. Thomas Jefferson Machamer (1900-1960) began publishing his cartoons and illustrations as a teenager and had a dual career with both mainstream periodicals and newspapers as well as adult publications. He drew the popular comic strip Gags and Gals for the New York Mirror and the Baffles for the Los Angeles Times.
Jefferson Machamer. “I would just like to spend a night with you to find out what makes you late every morning!” between 1950 and 1960. Wash and ink. Published by Timely Features, Inc. Art Wood Collection of Cartoon and Caricature, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress LC-DIG-ppmsca-09115 (37)
“When do the fathers come running hysterically onto the field?”
Phil Interlandi (1924-2002) captures a highly amusing moment between father and son as they watch a baseball game on television. The little boy wearing a baseball uniform intently watches the adult players on screen, and innocently asks a question that sharply highlights parents' unsportsmanlike behavior at their children's athletic events. Little League Baseball was founded in 1939 with the intention of promoting athletic ability and sportsmanship in children six- to eighteen-years-old. Interlandi, a gifted freelance cartoonist, had his work published in magazines such as Look and Better Homes and Gardens, and, most notably, in Playboy.
Phil Interlandi. “When do the fathers come running hysterically onto the field?” between 1950 and 1970. Published in Look magazine. Ink, ink wash, crayon, and opaque white over graphite underdrawing. Art Wood Collection of Cartoon and Caricature, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress LC-DIG-ppmsca-09126 (38). © Estate of Phil Interlandi
“I'll be ready to leave, Pop, just as soon as Mr. Smith gets through showing us some stag films”
Double entendres are classic sources of humor for gag cartoonists. Ed Dahlin (b. 1928) captures the innocence of a child watching some home movies about deer for a Boy Scout meeting with the bawdy sense of the term “stag film.” Dahlin studied cartooning at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. He contributed gag cartoons to several publications, including, the Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal, Look, and Parade. He became the art director of McGraw Hill's filmstrip unit and eventually started his own production company, producing more than 2000 educational filmstrips.
Ed Dahlin. “I'll be ready to leave, Pop, just as soon as Mr. Smith gets through showing us some stag film,” ca. 1962. Ink wash and charcoal. Published in Argosy magazine. Art Wood Collection of Cartoon and Caricature, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress LC-DIG-ppmsca-09116 (39). © Ed Dahlin. Used with permission.
This cartoon offers a witty, bovine fantasy on the past and present of downtown Chicago. Arnold Roth (b. 1929) shows a cow peering at a small town on a lake, kicking over a lighted lantern and imagining the twentieth-century skyscrapers of Chicago—specifically, the twin corncob shaped Marina City building complex completed in 1964. A gifted cartoonist, Roth cleverly combines fine ink drawing, brightly hued watercolor, and collage in his sophisticated spoof on the legendary origins of the city's modern center. Tradition holds that the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which destroyed most of the downtown, began when Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked over a lantern.
“Couldn't we meet in a more secluded place, dear?”
A couple embracing in an art museum gallery find themselves surrounded and disconcerted by paintings that portray people who appear to look disapprovingly at them. David Pascal (b. 1918) combines detailed drawing in ink with broad areas of ink wash in this delightful drawing, a rendition of life intimidated by art. A freelance illustrator and award-winning cartoonist, Pascal has had his drawings published in the New Yorker, Harper's, Saturday Review, New York Times, Punch, and Look. He has also written and illustrated numerous books.
David Pascal. “Couldn't we meet in a more secluded place, dear?” between 1965 and 1974. Published in 1000 Jokes. Ink wash, ink, opaque white, and charcoal over graphite underdrawing. Art Wood Collection of Cartoon and Caricature, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress LC-DIG-ppmsca-09122 (41)