Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


June 22, 2009

The Bastard Child of Eustace and John

Farley Katz read six thousand submissions a week at the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest.

Joe Horton

In the cryptic world of Irvin-type-Eustace Tilley-glossy-cartoon-intellectualism, there are two truths: one, cartoons and captions in The New Yorker have their own sense of "humor." Two, to cartoon or caption for the New Yorker is the highest honor an advanced-degree holding Caucasian mortal with disposable income can receive, more valuable than three MacArthur Genius Awards and more prestigious than five Nobel Prizes.

Farley Katz: Self-Portrait
"The New Yorker built a computer to judge what's funny, but it became self-aware and tried to commit suicide."

Farley Katz: Self-Portrait

Enter Farley Katz, New Yorker cartoonist, former assistant to the caption contest editor and one of the brains behind the New Yorker’s humor blog, the suspiciously straightforward-sounding Cartoon Lounge. In the following interview, which was conducted over e-mail and edited for clarity, Katz describes the similarities between roller coasters and cartooning, the truth behind John Updike’s book reviews, and the terrible realities of the magazine’s famed cartoon caption contest.

Gelf Magazine: There's a whole lot of misinformation out there about the New Yorker, cartooning, cartoonists, the New Yorker caption contest, and, well, you. Your name is indeed Farley Katz?

Farley Katz: I was born John Hitler, but had that legally changed for obvious reasons&#!51;John is too common, Googlewise. Now I'm Farley Katz, a cartoonist for the New Yorker and other cartoon-related things.

Gelf Magazine: And you were born in San Antonio? You once worked as a roller coaster operator and a telemarketer?

Farley Katz: I wasn't born in San Antonio, but I spent my formative years there, cutting my teeth on roller coasters and telephone scams. You can learn a lot about a person by stealing money from them over the phone.

Gelf Magazine: Is this the required career path for cartooning?

Farley Katz: Cartoons and roller coasters are essentially the same thing. Ideally you want to scream, throw your arms up in the air, laugh, and then five minutes later, uncontrollably vomit cotton candy.

Gelf Magazine: What's a day in the life of a New Yorker cartoonist? Feel free to include intimate personal details.

Farley Katz: I wake up, drink a gallon of coffee, and then spend several hours writing cartoons. Sometimes I'll spend an entire day doing this, and then realize that the coffee was actually alcohol and that I am in a hospital. Afterward, I sort through the ideas, choose the best ones, and then draw them up.

Gelf Magazine: You have a series called "Books By The Cover," in which you review books based solely on their covers. It seems like you might ruffle some feathers for that kind of blasphemy. Any death threats? Any submissions for review? Also, I can't help but notice that this series only began after John Updike, God rest him, passed. How intimidating was he? Did he know where your office was?

Farley Katz: I don't want to scramble your eggs here, but ALL of the New Yorker's "book reviews" are done this way; I just decided to start being upfront about it. Speaking of Updike, he was too lazy to even look at the cover of the books he was supposed to review. He'd always come into the office, hand me a book, and beg me to describe the cover to him. Then he'd "write" his essays and make a million dollars. That's how the world works.

Gelf Magazine: Let's talk about the Cartoon Lounge. Is it difficult to convince the New Yorker staff that the magazine can print humor that's not written by Woody Allen and use up internet space for jokes when Sy Hersh might blow the lid off something HUGE at any moment?

Gelf Magazine: The cartoon lounge is a blog written by four of the New Yorker cartoonists. It's sharp and edgy, like a box with very sharp edges. Once we made a joke about farts which was funny only if you imagine the reaction of a typical New Yorker reader (a distinguished old philanthropist who does actually fart, but would never blog about it in polite company).

Gelf Magazine: A recent cartoon of yours for the New Yorker caption contest had some creatures in a group going off a cliff or a ledge or something and another creature was looking back at the group of creatures. The winning caption was, "I'm just curious. What's your excuse?" Do you cartoon with a caption in mind? If so, how far or how close was this to your intended?

Farley Katz: I just draw the creatures and let the internet do the rest.

Gelf Magazine: Your most favorite cartoon, either of your own hand or another? Or, one that just sticks with you?

Tom Cheney Cartoon

Created by Tom Cheney.

Farley Katz: I can't choose an all-time favorite, but here's a Tom Cheney cartoon from last year that I really love because it reminds me of my childhood.

Gelf Magazine: Until last week, you helped edit the cartoon caption contest. How many captions does the cartoon contest get, on average, in a week?

Farley Katz: Each week we receive about six thousand captions. Five thousand of those are jabs at Obama for his health care plan. Most of what's left are captions from my mom asking me when I'm going to get a real job. The remaining three captions are chosen as finalists.

Gelf Magazine: Robert Mankoff's introduction to the New Yorker caption contest book lists you at as having given eyes to “223,859 entries and counting”…any idea of your current tally?

Farley Katz: Last week I read my 400,000th caption. We had a big party in the office; everyone got wasted and hooked up. Updike would have loved it.

Gelf Magazine: I've read that there’s an algorithmic computer program that helps sort the entries into specific categories? Do the categories have names? After they're sorted, what happens next?

Farley Katz: The New Yorker built a computer to judge what's funny, but it became self-aware and tried to commit suicide. Now the categories are chosen by man.

Gelf Magazine: Let's say there's a really brilliant guy who's submitted a few really, really brilliant captions to the contest but has not been picked, for some really odd reason—maybe his emails are bouncing back, maybe his computer isn't plugged in, maybe the editors are taking his captions and using them in their own books, maybe they're too good—what would you say to this person, who is also exceedingly handsome, to keep his spirits up?

Farley Katz: Never give up. Always have hope. Remember the Alamo. The caption game is a numbers game. If you write enough funny captions week in and week out, eventually you will be a winner—that's guaranteed by law. Also, if this guy is so handsome, why isn't he a movie star or leader of a sex cult?

Joe Horton

Joe Horton is a writer based predominantly in the northern hemisphere.

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