After the torrential deluge of media and web commentary about the controversial New Yorker cover of Barack and Michelle Obama fist-bumping in Muslim and terrorist attire respectively, none of us needs yet another discussion about its taste or appropriateness. But the cover also spawned a mini-industry of sidebars about humor. Frank Schaeffer's piece right here on the Huffington Post took exception with Maureen Dowd's view of the subject in The New York Times and Jon Stewart's on The Daily Show. These three estimable opinions, along with Jack Shafer's Slate article, represent only the most recent efforts in an age-old quest to define humor.
That humor is as difficult to define as pornography is attested to by the classic Show Biz story about the vaudeville comedian who goes to visit his old partner of many years on his deathbed. The pitying visitor looks down at his ashen friend and says, "Dying must be tough." The partner looks up and rasps, "Not as tough as comedy."
Writers have sought to capture the muse of comedy ever since Aristophanes had his Athenian women withhold sex in exchange for peace. The essence of humor has been variously defined as exaggeration, incongruity, irony and, if you respect the genius of Jack Benny, timing. However, of equal but often overlooked importance is point of view. I submit that what caused the firestorm of controversy about The New Yorker cover was that the point of view was missing or, at least, skewed.
After all, The New Yorker is an openly-liberal publication that has supported Barack Obama throughout the campaign, so when they put a right-wing point of view of the candidate on their cover, the first impression among readers is, "Hey wait a minute! What is that doing here?" and among non-readers, "Hey wait a minute! What is that doing there?" Both sets of readers are forced to think. Thinking is delay. Delay impedes humor. Timing again. Ask Mr. Benny. Of course, his classic delay when asked by a robber, "Your money or your life," drew laughter because the point of view had been established that Jack Benny was stingy.
Had the cover image of the Obamas-as-terrorists been contained in a thought balloon being contemplated or dreamt by John McCain, the added dimension would have provided a point of view. Twice during the primary campaign, the magazine had covers with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, separate combatants for the nomination, in relationship poses: first on the cover of the February 11 and 18, 2008 issue they appeared as doppelgangers of Eustace Tilley, The New Yorker's iconic snooty New Yorker; and then on the cover of the March 17, 2008 issue, the two candidates were in the same bed, reaching for a red telephone, ringing off the hook, a play on Clinton's controversial middle-of-the-night terror call television ad. The incongruity provided a point of view.
Within days of the cover's publication, political cartoonists chimed in with their very own points of view:
• In the best representation of differing points of view, Matson duplicated the original cover twice, but changed the masthead on one to read National Review. To drive the point home, the label over the National Review read "Malicious Slander" and over The New Yorker, "Sophisticated Satire."
• Darcy had Hillary and Bill Clinton fist-bumping and smiling while seated at their artists' drawing boards, ostensibly creating the controversial cover themselves.
• Beeler had Barack Obama holding up the cover saying, "I fail to see why this New Yorker cover is funny!" A John Q. Public figure standing next to Obama says, "Yeah, they get that response a lot."
• Streeter had Barack Obama facing Eustace Tilley, whose eye is blackened and whose monocle is cracked. Obama says, "Dude, if you need a monocle to see the point, it ain't satire!"
• Kevin Siers had Alfred E. Newman dressed as Eustace Tilley, and holding up a sketch of Obama with a bomb, while saying, "What me worry about sophisticated satire?"
• Lalo had a duplicate of the original controversial image but changed the masthead to The Red Necker.
• Bilicki had Osama Bin Laden fist-bumping a burka-clad woman under the masthead, The Al-Qaeder.
• Simanca had John McCain fist-bumping George W. Bush dressed in terrorist garb.
It all depends on your point of view.