Is there a sense of humor peculiar to New York? Let’s explore the subject and see. Since the New Yorker presents itself as quintessential New York, we’ll have a look at some of their cartoons (minus the cartoons themselves, alas). Not the cartoons of recent years, which I don’t find that amusing, but vintage cartoons from the past. Then as now, they often show a middle-aged couple in their living room, with one of them addressing the other.
In one cartoon that I still find amusing, the husband says to the wife, “Well how would you feel, if someone called you ‘spry’?” Of course this assumes that the reader catches the nuances of “spry,” which most Americans would; it’s used of the elderly and meant in a complimentary but somewhat condescending way. Right off one notices that New Yorker cartoons have a context, require a certain amount of prior knowledge.
A famous New Yorker cartoon shows a householder retrieving the Sunday New York Times that has been delivered to his doorstep. When he picks it up, under it he finds a dog squashed flat. No New Yorker requires an explanation, but other readers might not fully “get” it, unless they know just how thick and heavy a Sunday Times can be.
Still another cartoon: a matronly woman is showing a bunch of tiny tots around a museum that could well be the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The kids are eyeing a painting reminiscent of Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass), showing two very clothed gentlemen and two very unclothed ladies lunching in a rural setting. Says the matron, somewhat taken aback, “It’s … a picnic.”
Still another very New York-centered cartoon is a cover illustration of the New Yorker showing a crowded rush-hour subway car and, holding onto a strap and unmistakable, Osama bin Laden. But the tired commuters either have their nose in a book or newspaper, or stare vacantly into space; no one recognizes the man most wanted by the U.S. authorities in the wake of 9/11. I sent this to a friend in North Carolina with a brief explanation of New York commuters and the boredom of the commute; without that explanation, he confessed he wouldn’t have “got” it.
Finally, I’ll mention my favorite New Yorker cartoon, dating from years ago but fresh in my mind because our downstairs neighbor has it posted on his bathroom wall. Speeding in a roadster are a middle-aged couple, the wife in an abundance of furs and an outlandish hat that looks like an inverted funnel, and the husband sporting dark glasses, with a cigar planted firmly in his teeth. Everything about them says filthy rich, and nouveau riche at that. The wife says to the husband, “Remember that Christmas you sold your watch to buy me a comb, and I sold my hair to buy you a watch fob?” Mildly funny to begin with, but much funnier if you recognize the famous O. Henry story, “The Gift of the Magi,” that inspired it. In the story a young husband and wife with scant resources want to give each other a really nice Christmas present, so he sells his watch to buy her accessories for her hair, and she sells her hair to buy him a watch chain. They then discover that their gifts have been rendered useless, but they appreciate the intent behind them and therefore feel rewarded. The O. Henry story has a dose of sentiment, but the cartoon has none. Once again, for full appreciation the New Yorker cartoon requires prior knowledge on the part of the viewer.
What do I conclude so far? Yes, there is a New York sense of humor, urban, sophisticated, and devoid of sentiment, and it assumes a certain knowledge and awareness. Here now are two time-honored New York jokes, so time-honored that no New Yorker will waste a laugh on them, but that show a New York sensibility:
Tourist to New Yorker: “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”
New Yorker: “Practice, practice, practice.”
Again, there’s a context: you have to know the significance of Carnegie Hall.
The second joke: A young man arrives for the first time in the city and sets his luggage down. “Look out, New York,” he announces, “I’m here to conquer you!” But when he looks down, his luggage is gone. (More relevant in the 1960s and 1970s, when New Yorkers were obsessed with crime.)
Further conclusion, based on these two jokes: New Yorkers consider themselves insiders, and everyone else outsiders. But the club is not exclusive. Anyone can join it by moving to New York, or by visiting often enough to get to know the New York temperament.
So what do New Yorkers laugh at today? Here are some examples:
· Larry Craig, a Republican senator from Idaho, was arrested in 2007 for alleged lewd conduct in an airport men’s room. He claimed it was all a misunderstanding, to be explained in part by his “wide stance” when sitting on the john. Late-night comedians had a field day with this, and New Yorkers joined heartily in.
· “Wildman” Steve Brill, a forager who leads people on foraging tours in city parks, was arrested in 1986 for picking and eating a dandelion in Central Park. When the media reported a man arrested for eating a dandelion and described him as “nabbed
|Here he's putting the bite on Japanese knotweed.|
in mid-bite,” gales of hilarity erupted, and the charges were dropped before the case could be laughed out of court. (I celebrate the Wildman in post #23.)
· In 1997, when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a committed law-and-order type, appeared in public in drag, sporting a blond wig, jewelry, and a frilly pink gown, New Yorkers were at first incredulous. When the story proved true, they roared with laughter and came close to forgiving Mr. Get-Tough-on-Crime his many misdeeds as mayor.
· In the 1990s I did volunteer work for the Whole Foods Project, a nonprofit advocating a nutrition-based approach to AIDS and cancer. At one of the Project’s Sunday suppers a young woman performer, an enthusiastic supporter of the organization, introduced a number of her own by telling how she approached a new neighbor, a young woman from Memphis, and inviting her over for cocktails so they could get to know each other. “Oh no,” the neighbor replied, “I couldn’t do that.” “Why not?” The singer then launched into her song, “Jesus loves me but he can’t stand you!” It brought the house down. The woman minister of the church, in whose recreation hall the event was taking place, happened to be present and laughed so hard she nearly fell out of her chair. The occasion is vivid in my mind to this day.
The last example might not work outside New York, depending on the audience, but it suited the city’s sense of humor completely. Urban and sophisticated, New York humor tends also to be secular, and leery of anything claiming to be sacred.
What New Yorkers do and don’t find funny in a public figure can be seen in the career of Jim Fisk, the bouncy Vermonter whose antics put Wall Street in a frenzy more than once, and whose grandiose style of living while managing and mismanaging the Erie Railway earned him the name Prince Erie. To replenish Erie’s near-empty coffers, he and his pal Jay Gould brought suit against Commodore Vanderbilt, the richest man in the country, whom they had already diddled once but hoped to diddle again. Appearing in court, Fisk testified in a whimsical manner that repeatedly elicited laughter. Describing an interview he had had with Vanderbilt, he said, “It was pretty warm -- not the interview but the weather.” (Laughter.) “I remember, because the Commodore was a bit profane about it.” (Great laughter.) “It shocked me to hear him talk like that.” (Laughter.)
Fisk further remembered that, while he and Vanderbilt talked, he had noticed the great man’s shoes. “They had four buckles. I thought to myself, if men like this have shoes like them, I must get me a pair.” (Hilarious laughter.) So convulsed in mirth was the courtroom, that the judge himself was wiping tears from his eyes.
And when Fisk and Gould tried to corner gold and almost succeeded, convulsing markets on both sides of the ocean, they were summoned to Washington to testify before a Congressional committee investigating the tumultuous events of September 24, 1869, Black Friday. Had Mr. Fisk tried to corner gold? Certainly not. The committee chairman was baffled; millions had been at stake that day, yet no one admitted to a profit.
“Mr. Fisk,” he asked, “where did all that money go?
Replied Fisk, “It went where the woodbine twineth.”
Silence. Then titters, followed by mounting gales of laughter.
New Yorkers couldn’t help but like a rascal who disarmed courtrooms and even a Congressional committee with mirth. But then there came a change. Scandal-hungry elements of the press began reporting on Prince Erie’s deteriorating relationship with his lavishly kept inamorata, Miss Helen Josephine Mansfield, who was said to be dispensing her charms to a certain Ned Stokes, a dapper young man about town. Quarrels followed and Miss Mansfield, in a gesture of fiery farewell, hurled Fisk’s galoshes into the street. When a cartoon appeared in the press, showing Prince Erie bedewing his galoshes with tears, Gotham roared.
But for Prince Erie, worse was to come. In July 1871, when Fisk’s Ninth Regiment of the National Guard was protecting a march of Ulstermen against threats of violence from Irish Catholics, shots rang out, causing panicky spectators to stampede across the line of march, leaving the toppled colonel with a dislocated ankle. To avoid mobs of hostile Irish, he hobbled down back alleyways, hid his uniform under a coat given him by a sympathetic householder, took a taxi to the docks, boarded a steamboat, and ended up nursing his swollen ankle on the veranda of a hotel in Long Branch, New Jersey, a resort where he was persona most grata.
Getting wind of Colonel Fisk’s strategic retreat all the way to New Jersey, the press turned viciously on him, reporting rumors of his “wounded (?) ankle,” his backyard flight past ash cans and privies, his alleged fainting from terror, his fleeing the state in an old lady’s bonnet and dress. All the dailies sneered.
When the ailing Colonel finally retuned to New York, he faced lawsuits by Stokes and Josie attempting to squeeze thousands of dollars out of him. He who had once reveled in attention from the press now fled reporters hounding him daily for more juicy scraps of gossip. And he who had always been a joke-spewing mixer, a “people person,” kept more and more to himself, holed up in his brownstone with his valet, wrenched from the rumpus of his life. Yet the press showed him no mercy, and the town continued to titter and guffaw. Like most Americans, New Yorkers suck joy from the fall of the mighty.
When Ned Stokes, enraged by defeats in court, shot Fisk on a hotel stairway on January 6, 1872, and Fisk died the following day, the city reappraised him. Still hostile to Prince Erie were Wall Street, the bluebloods, and the pious, who viewed him as an upstart, a publicity-hogging parvenu, a disrupter of markets, a cheat, and a wanton. Those who sincerely mourned him included bellhops, messenger boys, dancers and chorus girls, his office staff and his adoring National Guard regiment, Erie Railway bruisers (his bodyguard), and recipients of his random acts of charity.
What made half the town idolize this rascal? He had tweaked noses with a wink of merriment, punctured pretensions, tipped generously, and laughed heartily at himself; above all, he was fun. When, as colonel of the Ninth, he got a military funeral with all the frills involved, multitudes watched in tears, as his coffin was borne away to the sound of muffled drums, with six colonels and a general in black-draped, solemn pomp – the biggest sendoff seen in the city since Lincoln’s casket had passed though en route to Illinois, a comparison that some thought obscene. Prince Erie had been a rascal, but at least a merry one; they would miss his bustle and shine.
Further conclusions: New Yorkers love a sense of humor, scorn weakness, relish scandal, hate pretension, esteem those who can laugh at themselves.
A personal note regarding this last: The only president of my time that I disliked personally was Richard Nixon. There was something about him that put me off: his total lack of humor, his vindictiveness, his vulnerabilities masked by spite and rage. My dislike began when, during Eisenhower's presidency, Nixon, the Vice President, was photographed in a church praying for Eisenhower's recovery from a heart attack; the photo had obviously been carefully planned, with the photographer positioned in the pew in front of him, so as to get a good full-length shot from the front. On the other hand, though I disliked almost all his policies, I rather liked George Bush Jr. When the Washington Press Club confronted him with a list of his utterances that made little or no sense, he laughed and said he hadn’t the slightest idea what he had meant to say. This won me over completely.
When it comes to four-letter words and irreverence, New Yorkers are an easygoing bunch, vastly more tolerant than many. But that doesn’t include the authorities, as seen in the Lenny Bruce obscenity trial of 1964. A stand-up comedian already notorious for his loose language and numerous arrests, Bruce was appearing at the Café Au Go Go on Bleecker Street in (where else?) Greenwich Village, where his performance on March 31, 1964, included a bevy of blunt sexual references such as “jack me off,” “motherfucker,” and “go come in a chicken”; the observation that “Eleanor Roosevelt has the nicest tits of any lady in office”; familiar monologs of his like “Pissing in the sink” and “To is a preposition. Come is a verb”; and the statement that men are oversexed animals willing to have quick sex with anything that moves, including a chicken. Sitting in the audience was a city license inspector who scribbled notes furiously. On April 3 plainclothesmen arrested Bruce and the club’s owner on charges of presenting “obscene, immoral, and impure … entertainment … which would tend to the corruption of the morals of youth and others” – charges bringing a maximum of three years in prison. (And charges that, come to think of it, echo the charges against Socrates in ancient Athens.)
|One of his many arrests, this one in 1961.|
News of Bruce’s arrest provoked protests from prominent writers and entertainers of the day – Allen Ginsberg, Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Henry Miller, James Baldwin, Gore Vidal, Woody Allen, and others -- guaranteeing that the trial in June 1964 before a three-judge panel would be well attended and well reported. Bruce’s attorney thought he faced prosecution not for his use of dirty words, but for his attacks on religion and public figures. The prosecutor, on the other hand, viewed Bruce’s show as a series of “nauseating word pictures” seasoned with offensive words spewed at the audience, unredeemed by any artistry or cogent social criticism. Testimony by the license inspector and policemen who had attended performances took three days. The defense called expert witnesses who testified that Bruce’s routine was not sexually arousing, did not offend local community standards, and was socially significant. The prosecution then complained that it had trouble finding expert witnesses to counter these arguments, because the experts didn’t want to come off as “squares.” So there it was: the hip vs. the square, easygoing New York vs. the prudes or, to be kinder, vs. traditional morality.
The decision wasn’t announced until November 4, 1964: guilty. Bruce’s act, said the presiding judge, appealed to prurient interest, was patently offensive to the average person in the community, and lacked redeeming social importance. One of the three judges dissented.
At a later date Bruce was sentenced to four months in the workhouse but was free on bail. He never served time, for he died of a morphine overdose in California on August 3, 1966. One of the New York assistant prosecutors later expressed regret for his role in the case, stating that they had used the law to kill him.
|Lenny Bruce's grave in Eden Memorial Park in Mission Hills, California.|
I suspect that the presiding judge was right in asserting that Bruce’s act was offensive to the community, for that community was not confined to the East and West Village, but extended to all five boroughs. (But were all five boroughs in the audience that night?) Whether or not the act appealed to prurient interest, I can’t say, not having witnessed the performance; I doubt if it would have fired me up. On the other hand, I’m not sure if I would have found it funny or socially significant. This was the late Lenny Bruce, drug-ridden, unfocused, obsessed with his drug busts and obscenity arrests – not Lenny at the peak of his career. But there is something very moving in his appeal to the judges, just prior to sentencing, to see his act just once.
Today New York City and State derive scant satisfaction from the prosecution of Lenny Bruce. In 2003 a group of prominent lawyers, scholars, and entertainers sent a letter to Governor George Pataki asking that he issue a posthumous pardon of Bruce to show the state’s commitment to free speech, free press, and free thinking. And the governor granted it – the first posthumous pardon in the state’s history. So the last laugh is Lenny’s after all.
Those who defended Bruce at the time of his arrest, and who argued for a posthumous pardon, are a good indicator as to who define and shape the New York sense of humor. They include:
- Live-wire activists who write letters and sign petitions
- The “in” people, the “with-it” crowd, the hip (or those who think they are)
- The young in spirit (if not in years)
- Manhattan professionals (who often commute from the other boroughs)
- People who spend little time in churches, synagogues, or temples
- People who read the New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and Mother Jones
- People who spend time in museums and galleries, but give little attention to sports
- Hardy souls who think of themselves as unshockable (until some event proves them wrong)
Needless to say, this leaves out a lot of New Yorkers who do spend time in churches, synagogues, and temples, who do follow sports, and have never heard of Mother Jones. But they don’t define New York humor.
Goodreads giveaway: I have listed one copy of No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World as a giveaway on Goodreads, the website for people who like to read books. The free copy will be given to one of those who sign up for it; Goodreads will pick the winner. So far, 124 people have entered their names. In addition, 53 people have marked the book as "to read," though I know from experience that this doesn't mean that all 53 are going to read it. (A confession: Long ago I marked three books as "to read," but still haven't found the time to read them.)
Coming soon: Bedford Street: Edna St. Vincent and the Wobblies, an old witch selling Egyptian chandeliers, and drinks laced with LSD, courtesy of the CIA.
© 2015 Clifford Browder