For a cartoon to be funny is essential, but for me, a great cartoon can also do more. It can present complicated ideas or uncomfortable truths in a way that people actually enjoy.
Don’t get me wrong, funny for funny’s sake — like art for art’s sake — is totally justified. Funny draws the eye, engages the emotions, and makes friends with its audience. If it’s not funny, then the multiple meanings hidden in a great cartoon may never be found.
Bruce Eric Kaplan’s funny cartoon is a case in point. Just consider all the meanings packed in that drawing! Consider the message about control issues and power dynamics! What’s the point? In this simple cartoon, there are a lot of them:
- The challenge of delegating
- Abuse of authority
- Not taking responsibility
- The challenge of working for a control freak
- The challenge of BEING a control freak
I was cartoon editor at The New Yorker for almost 20 years. Each week, I would select cartoons from over a thousand submissions. My approach was eclectic. Sometimes, I’d choose a great gag just because the gag was great, not because it had any deeper meaning — like this one from Michael Crawford:
It’s a perfect mash-up of disparate frames of reference with a soupçon of hostility to punch up the chuckle.
But when I was looking for great humor that also had great meaning, one of my go-to people was Charlie Barsotti. Here’s an all-time favorite:
THEY MOVED MY BOWL: THE RESPONSES
First thanks to everyone who emailed me with their interpretation of the meaning of the cartoon. A few of you mentioned the book Who Moved My Cheese as a possible inspiration for the cartoon. That book was published in 1998 and the Barsotti cartoon in 1995 so maybe the inspiration went the other way around.
Many of you wondered if I even read your emails. Many of you are no longer wondering about that.
Here’s a take from Pat Rosenthal that I especially liked because it went beyond the obvious universal desire for control over our environment to the paranoia we may attribute to those doing the controlling.
What this cartoon means to me is that it reflects the deep fears in most of us about change. The bowl has been moved by those in charge of this dog’s welfare; what does that mean to him? Are they angry with him? Are they accidentally telling him they might be planning something that will affect his day-to-day routine? His world suddenly feels insecure and possibly unsafe; he may never have the same relationship with them he has now. Change can be very frightening.”
Indeed it can. And it can also be used to frighten us. Case in point, the Republican convention.
When it comes to presenting complicated ideas or uncomfortable truths in a way your audience will enjoy, nothing beats a great cartoon. It can disarm, engage, and do a lot of your work for you. Using cartoons in presentations, newsletters, and other messaging helps you make a memorable impact. And that is why Cartoon Collections exists.
Yours in Good Humor,