At The New Yorker, eru­dite wit, with a lit­tle ex­tra dash of weird

As the mag­a­zine ex­pands its in­ter­net pres­ence, the amount of hu­mour it pro­duces grows

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - JA­SON ZINOMAN

The New Yorker is known for its prob­ing in­ves­tiga­tive re­port­ing, deep-dive pro­files and Pulitzer-win­ning crit­i­cism. But in­creas­ingly peo­ple are read­ing it for a few laughs.

As the mag­a­zine ex­pands its in­ter­net pres­ence, the amount of orig­i­nal hu­mour it pro­duces has grown, with comic es­says and car­toons of­ten mak­ing up about a third of its most pop­u­lar ar­ti­cles on­line.

In some ways, that’s a re­turn to the roots of the mag­a­zine, which be­gan as a Jazz Age hu­mour publi­ca­tion that cham­pi­oned James Thurber, Robert Bench­ley and Charles Ad­dams, and helped de­fine com­edy for decades. “With The New Yorker,” Russell Baker wrote, “Amer­i­can hu­mour be­gan to mas­ter the arts of un­der­state­ment, to re­fine the cru­di­ties of old-fash­ioned bur­lesque into satire, to trea­sure sub­tlety and wit.”

As the new car­toon ed­i­tor of the mag­a­zine, Emma Allen, 29, has be­come a stew­ard of this tra­di­tion. In an in­ter­view in her of­fice at 1 World Trade Cen­ter, she said pro­mot­ing the kind of re­fined wit the mag­a­zine has long been known for mat­tered less to her than pub­lish­ing voices that are gen­uinely funny and rep­re­sen­ta­tive of com­edy today.

“I don’t feel be­holden to find­ing the next Bench­ley or a Bench­ley knock­off,” she said. “I like things that are witty. I also like dumb fart jokes. The high­low spread is much more in­ter­est­ing than try­ing to mum­mify a thing and keep pre­sent­ing it all over and over again.”

In May, Allen re­placed the long­time car­toon ed­i­tor, Robert Mankoff, who has moved to Esquire, where he is its new hu­mour ed­i­tor. Mankoff was the star of a 2015 doc­u­men­tary, “Very Semi-Se­ri­ous,” that show­cased the mag­a­zine’s process of sift­ing through 1,000 car­toons ev­ery week to set­tle on the 15 or so that make it into print. Ev­ery Tuesday, artists still come into the of­fice to pitch their car­toons di­rectly to the car­toon ed­i­tor.

With an easy, self-dep­re­cat­ing laugh, Allen de­scribed her first ex­po­sure to run­ning this sys­tem. (When ed­i­tors at The New Yorker turn down a pitch for an ar­ti­cle, they rarely do it face to face.) “It took me the first 10 peo­ple be­ing, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so ner­vous,’ and they were like, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so ner­vous,’” she said, with two weeks un­der her belt. “They were like: ‘We’re try­ing to sell you work.’ And I was like: ‘I’m try­ing to sell my­self.’ I’ve been buy­ing them pas­tries, lit­er­ally but­ter­ing them up.”

Allen has a sprawl­ing set of re­spon­si­bil­i­ties: She also ed­its the daily car­toons for The New Yorker on­line; works on video and ra­dio hu­mour pieces for the mag­a­zine; runs its hu­mour Twit­ter ac­count; and for three years has edited Daily Shouts, comic es­says that have be­come one of the most pop­u­lar fea­tures on the site. (Ac­cord­ing to the mag­a­zine, in the past three months, traf­fic to those es­says is up 60 per cent from last year.)

Her abil­ity to find new voices for Daily Shouts is what first drew the at­ten­tion of The New Yorker’s ed­i­tor, David Rem­nick. “She was bring­ing in peo­ple and things that I hadn’t heard be­fore, and some­times you need to rein­vig­o­rate parts of the mag­a­zine,” he said by phone, adding, “We need to have a deeper ex­plo­ration of the web, as far as car­toon­ing.”

Allen, who grew up on the Up­per West Side, has in some ways been prepar­ing for this job her whole life. As a child, she cut out The New Yorker car­toons and filed them with “an archival drive” matched only, she said, by her col­lec­tion of pho­tos of Leonardo DiCaprio. She at­tended Brear­ley School in Man­hat­tan, where, she joked, her comic ca­reer was born. “I went to an all-girls school for 13 years whose mas­cot is the beaver,” she said. “You can­not come out at the other end of that with­out a sense of hu­mour.”

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Yale — where her hu­mour col­umn mas­quer­aded as an ad­vice col­umn for the school news­pa­per — she worked in me­dia, of­ten cov­er­ing the art world. She wrote a funny fea­ture for The New York Ob­server re­cap­ping the re­al­ity show “Work of Art,” and started at The New Yorker as an as­sis­tant to the ar­ti­cles ed­i­tor Susan Mor­ri­son (who is work­ing on a book about Lorne Michaels), oc­ca­sion­ally writ­ing, then edit­ing Talk of the Town pieces.

Af­ter tak­ing over Daily Shouts, she brought in sharp young co­me­di­ans like Me­gan Am­ram, one of the fun­ni­est voices on Twit­ter, and up-and-com­ing comic writers like Emma Rath­bone (“GLOW”) and Hal­lie Can­tor (“Lady Dy­na­mite”). And she pushed for more ra­dio and video pieces.

Find­ing new voices for car­toons may be more chal­leng­ing, be­cause there are so few out­lets pro­duc­ing one-panel gags, but also be­cause read­ers and artists have come to ex­pect some­thing very spe­cific from The New Yorker car­toon, the gen­tly ob­served com­edy-of­man­ners-style that “Se­in­feld” lam­pooned in an episode in which Elaine con­fronts an ed­i­tor who can’t ex­plain the joke of a car­toon.

When asked about how her tastes dif­fer from her pre­de­ces­sor’s, she said, “I think I have a slightly weirder sense of hu­mour.” She added later, “As much as I like ob­ser­va­tional gags, I also like things that are more sur­real.”

Allen said that she hoped to ex­pand the kinds of car­toon­ing on­line, in­clud­ing try­ing more work with mul­ti­ple pan­els and pair­ing joke writers with car­toon­ists on some projects. While she has had suc­cess find­ing traf­fic on­line, at­tract­ing more on­line read­ers, she added that pre­dict­ing what will do well is fu­tile, point­ing to a Daily Shouts piece by Amy Col­lier. “It’s about a guy whose Tin­der pro­file is him hold­ing a fish,” she said, shrug­ging. “It blew up.”

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has ush­ered in more po­lit­i­cal com­edy at The New Yorker, as it has at many other news me­dia out­lets, and Allen said she wor­ried that “an ex­haus­tion” could set in. While she said she has Catholic taste, she does have pet peeves.

“I do think there’s a type of re­gres­sive — that old wife — sit­com hu­mour that per­sists some­how,” she said, adding that they have a short­hand in the car­toon de­part­ment when they see a joke like that. “I’ve never re­ally watched ‘Ev­ery­body Loves Ray­mond’ but when­ever there’s a joke about a nag­ging wife or what­ever, we’re like, “Ray­mond!” Then she added: “And I like Ray Ro­mano.”

DANNY SHANA­HAN, THE NEW YORKER

NEW YORKER CAR­TOON

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