Before, during, or after…?

I’ve been nuts about cartoons – especially New Yorker cartoons – for decades. A single-panel cartoon is a snapshot, of course, a single moment in time; and I’m fascinated by whether that moment is before, during, or after the joke happens. Take three examples from the 02/23/09 issue – please.

I don’t think I can reproduce these here, but just describing them must come under the “Fair Use” doctrine.

Mustn’t it? Well, obviously, we’re about to see.

BEFORE: In a city park, a happy dog holds a Frisbee-size flying saucer in his mouth. Inside, one tiny alien says to another, “They seem friendly enough so far.”

The situation is already funny, but Gary Larson and the New Yorker itself have used the inadvertently-mistreated-alien situation before. In this cartoon, the big payoff is in the future: what the dog, and probably his owner, are going to do with this “frisbee,” and what that’s likely to do to the alien’s assessment of the situation.

DURING: Male patient sitting on an examining room table, addressed by the doctor, whose hands are completely wrapped in bandages. The doctor says, “Until I recover, let’s just assume your prostate is fine.”

This situation isn’t going anywhere because it can’t. You are looking in on it during the gag.

AFTER: A clown in full Bozo drag is just appearing before Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates. Saint Peter says, “Well that was a birthday party the kids won’t soon forget.”

This moment is after the gag. The deliciousness comes from imagining what kind of birthday party ended up killing its party clown.

I like cartoons that solicit our imagination because they involve us in the gag. Even the doctor joke depends on our imagining what might happen if the doc attempted a prostate examination.

By contrast, the same issue includes a cartoon showing a middle aged woman looking at a another middle aged woman’s painting-in-progress, invisible to the viewer. She says, “I’m serious – you could really pursue this as an embarrassing hobby.” Okay, the comment is amusing, but the entire gag takes place inside the frame and the viewer isn’t required to do anything but appreciate it.

The clown gag is by Charles Barsotti, one of my two all-time cartoonist heroes (Walt Kelly and Al Capp being dead). My other idol is George Booth, he of the dumb dogs and dumber humans. Booth is a master of the “after” cartoon. In one of my favorites, we’re looking past two garage mechanics, out the roll-up door of their shop as they watch a lone car wheel and tire bouncing along  the otherwise empty street outside. The garage owner says, “Jaimie, isn’t that Mr. Ferguson’s wheel?”

I promised that this post would look at foolishness  caused by a lack of good sense, understanding, or foresight about the self.

But I digressed.

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