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Saturday, July 21, 2007

Where Did the Funny Go?

"If it's such a good aphrodisiac, how come there are only forty nine of us?"


You know, a bunch of us were admiring the work of some cartoonists recently; including a bunch of whom worked for the original Punch, the Williams brothers, Mike and Pete, Albert Rusling, John Donegan, and Bill Stott, at The Cartoon Gallery Ltd, which is owned by Albert, and his wife, Margaret. It was another Punch old boy, Peter Dredge, who pointed out it's a crying shame that there is no publication nowadays that can do justice to Albert's big cartoons, in the UK, and that is true on two counts; there is no canvas here for these big half-page and full-page cartoons, and no forum here for the surreal humour behind them.



You know, a lot of publications here in the UK use cartoons that just are not funny. Of course this has always been the case and I remember being well paid by Accountancy Magazine in the 1980s for really unfunny cartoons, that were published because they had a tenuous link to Accountancy. I think the same is true for many publications that have one purpose, theme, agenda, or a particular target audience in mind, as long as the cartoon mentions that subject, it jumps ahead of anything that is unrelated to the subject, even if that unrelated cartoon is funnier.



Some publications these days though, seem bewildered when it comes to humour, and have started to publish anything that is vaguely contemporaneous but not funny, rather than a cartoon that is funny, but not contemporaneous. The problem with this approach is that cartoons are very much a stream of consciousness production. They come from a place that is difficult to access and often come as waking dreams or even as actual dreams that the cartoonists jots down and then draws. These sparks of inspiration can be incredibly surreal and genuinely laugh out loud funny; in a way that a cartoon concocted around an event, and made to a deadline, in a controlled fashion, just cannot be.



This surreal aspect is, I think, what lifts a cartoon out of the ordinary and makes it art. Making a cartoon around Tony Blair, or Gordon Brown, or George Bush, or petrol costs, or inflation, or low-slung jeans, falls short because it needs to be contextualized to make any sense and to be remotely funny. It's humour, if it has any, is fleeting. The surreal cartoon, on the other hand, can be timeless.



To my mind that is why the best cartoons in the world are being published in the US and the claim that one British Magazine makes, occasionally, to publish 'the funniest cartoons in the World' is the most laughable thing in the entire publication - not including how little they actually pay for the cartoons.



My worry is that the paucity of markets here and their reliance on these cartoons, which must be contemporary, but not necessarily funny, will lead to a de-skilling of the cartoonists that are left here (and there are not that many still in the business). They will be encouraged to think only within the box and to curtail their imaginations. One day, our cartoons here will be the equivalent of Reality TV.

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