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My quest for a universal cartoon

The universal cartoon is a rare thing

28 March 2020

9:00 AM

28 March 2020

9:00 AM

A cartoon caption is a work of art. It is a sitcom in miniature — but whereas a situation comedy might take half an hour to reach its punchline, a cartoon caption has to do so in seconds. Cartoonists toil endlessly, revising and rephrasing, to perfect a caption. There are rules. The funniest word has to appear at the end. The caption has to be a balance between anticipation and delivery. The line has to be succinct and the rhythm has to be right — clumsy phrasing can ruin an otherwise strong comic idea.

In 2006 a blogger called Charles Lavoie wrote that every New Yorker cartoon could be captioned ‘Christ, what an asshole!’ — a concise take on Jean-Paul Sartre’s view that ‘Hell is other people’. It was, he believed, the perfect all-purpose caption. It might be applied to many cartoon classics — such as Thurber’s fencing man slicing off his opponent’s head (original caption: ‘Touché!’) or the legendary Mankoff cartoon of the businessman on the phone saying: ‘No, Thursday’s out. How about never — is never good for you?’ When applied to political cartoons it might appear less of a joke, and more a statement of fact, but it works nonetheless.

Some time later, an artist called Cory Arcangel suggested an alternative universal caption: ‘What a misunderstanding!’ This prompted much discussion among toonophiles. Not to be outdone, a designer called Frank Chimero came up with another, after giving it ‘12 seconds of thought’: ‘Hi. I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn.’ And, ‘like any thought that takes 12 seconds to think, I put it on Twitter’. It went viral and Chimero was hailed as a genius by Time magazine. ‘Everyone was apparently very bored at work that day,’ says Chimero. In a meta-metamorphosis, the caption even ended up in print as an actual caption to a cartoon in the New Yorker. And when a piece was published about the phenomenon entitled ‘Everyone was apparently very bored at work that day’, that too was suggested as a universal caption. ‘Okay, now this is getting out of hand,’ remarked Chimero. ‘This is getting out of hand’ was an instant addition to the growing list.

When the New Yorker ran a universal caption competition, readers submitted a number of alternatives to the original ‘Christ, what an asshole!’ These included the self-referential ‘It’s like we’re in a New Yorker cartoon’, the snarky ‘If you have to ask, cancel your subscription’, and the near-perfect ‘I wish I’d never been drawn’.


The possibility of a universal caption is intriguing, but I began to wonder if it was also possible to find a universal cartoon — an image that, when shackled to any caption, would raise a chuckle. Cartoonists are very keen on regurgitating the same image, or ‘celebrating the cliché’, as we like to call it. People stranded on desert islands, squashed hedgehogs, men on window ledges, lemmings jumping over cliffs — the list of clichéd cartoon situations is long. There’s a common denominator that’s always funny: peril. When you fall down a manhole it’s a tragedy; when someone else falls down a manhole it’s hilarious. When cartoonists draw yet another person on a psychiatrist’s couch, it’s not simply laziness but a desire to amuse one’s colleague. It is a badge of honour among cartoonists to get a cliché published.

Clichés, though, do not work as universal cartoons. I’ve tried applying a variety of captions to a stock desert island gag, and the situation isn’t as universal as might be hoped. One of the most enduring captions in the history of cartooning — ‘You spoil that dog’ — makes no sense beneath a man sitting alone under a palm tree.

By chance, I stumbled upon a possible solution. When I was submitting photo-bubble ideas for Rod Liddle’s column in the Sunday Times, the then editor expressed revulsion at a particular image. ‘I hate that picture,’ he said, and tossed it on to the pile of rejects. Thereafter I made it my week’s work to come up with an alternative topical caption to the same image to present to him. Partly this was to annoy him, but I hoped he would find it amusing when he eventually realised what I was up to. (He didn’t.)

As the weeks went by, I accumulated more and more jokes all about the same image, until I began to suspect that it might be the universal cartoon I had been looking for. The picture is not a cartoon, but it has been drawn as a cartoon by many cartoonists and it has an undoubted cartoonish quality. It is Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’. For many, it is the symbol of angst that defines humanity. For me, it is a springboard for jokes. Munch may have thought he was digging deep into his soul to express the agony of the human condition, but in fact he was inadvertently producing the most hilarious image ever created. Try it with any caption you choose. It works with any caption from recent issues of The Spectator:‘God I miss Brexit’, ‘I’m self–oscillating’ or ‘And if that doesn’t work, you could always have an affair with Boris Johnson’.

In 1967, Jack Markow wrote the Cartoonist’s and Gag Writer’s Handbook, which lists ten pages of useful potential captions for single-frame cartoons, including ‘Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking’, ‘Pretend you didn’t notice him’, ‘I just washed my hair and can’t do a thing with it’, ‘It’s a boy’, and many, many more. All work, in some way, with ‘The Scream’. I particularly liked, in the current climate, the simple ‘Gesundheit’.

Maybe it’s the gravity of the image juxtaposed with the silliness of the caption that makes it fit. Whatever the reason, I can’t think of any other picture that works in this way. Even so, if readers do have alternative universal cartoons, please send them to universalcartoon@spectator.co.uk.

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