MY EIGHTH RULE OF INFORMATION:
PAY ATTENTION TO THE JOKES
by Marylaine Block
Newspaper circulation is declining among the young, and so is the audience for network news, but that doesn't mean they aren't getting news about current events. They're just getting it from Jay Leno and Jon Stewart. Take it from the Pew Research Center, which found that 21 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 cited comedy TV shows as places where they regularly get their news; another 13 percent cited late night TV shows [see <http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=200>]. So what are these viewers learning there? Do we, as information professionals, know? Shouldn't we? There is, as it happens, a source that has tracked late-night jokes from Leno, Letterman, Conan O'Brien, and Craig Kilborn since 1998. It's NewsMax.com's Late Night Joke Archive, [<http://www.newsmax.com/liners.shtml>]. I sure hope it doesn't disappear (and no, I don't believe the Internet Archive is the complete solution to the preservation issue).
For the generation that devours graphic novels, I suspect political cartoons are another key source of news delivered with an attitude. Back in 1992, I used a couple of bulletin boards in my library to post political cartoons tracking the political campaign; by November of 2002, the board portrayed a complete history of the campaign, with all its issues, all its crudities, all the popular understandings of each candidate's themes and quirks. Fortunately, there are some repositories of political cartoons. Several magaazines routinely run round-ups of them, including The Week, Newsweek, and World Press Review. Daryl Cagle also maintains a nice repository called The Professional Cartoonists Index, hosted by Slate, which also includes reviews of the year in cartoons for 2002 and 2003 [<http://cagle.slate.msn.com/>].
As I once explained in a column called "Drawing with a Skewer" [<http://marylaine.com/myword/cartoon.html>], political cartoons don't just reveal issues. Their jokes play off of, and therefore reveal, generally understood cultural knowledge -- witness the many cartoons about Martha Stewart showing people how to decorate a jail cell with exquisite taste. Cartoonists believe that we will know both what Martha is famous for, and that she's been convicted of a crime.
In fact, all cartoons rely on widely shared cultural knowledge. How else could cartoonists choose a topic to make fun of, if they weren't sure their audience would get the joke? In what year do you suppose the editors of the New Yorker were sure enough that their audience understood at least something about the internet that they ran the famous "On the internet, they don't know you're a dog" cartoon? (Did you guess maybe 1997 or 1998, like I did? Surprise! It was 1993.)
Jokes and cartoons are information sources, though less about events than about people's knowledge and understanding of events at a given time. And what do they all have in common? They are only preserved in our formal information databases when Acrobat format is used to capture each page of an article. Nor has anybody systematically preserved them online prior to 1998, though the Library of Congress has digitized several collections of political cartoons, such as Herblock's History [<http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/swann/herblock/>].
Which means that you have to make a conscious effort to remember that jokes and cartoons may be valuable information for your purpose, and make a conscious effort to go outside our normal resources to search for them. You could go to your physical backfile of New Yorker or, for an international perspective, World Press Review, for the weeks and months following the event in question. Or you can go to the New Yorker's selective online Cartoon Bank [<http://www.cartoonbank.com/>], which is searchable by keyword or caption. Or you could just try your luck on a search engine, adding the term "joke" or "cartoon" to your search statement.
What would we learn about our history if we tracked it in cartoons? Here's a column I wrote for Fox News Online in 1998, in which I did exactly that.
The stock market has been rollercoastering lately [September, 1998]. I would know that even if I didn't watch the news, because the New Yorker just ran a cartoon about "broker-assisted suicide."
In September, 1998, the New Yorker editors also expected us to be amused by jokes about phone tag, the internet, voice mail (a minister intones to bridal couple: "Please listen carefully to the available options.").
Cartoons are funny because they poke fun at what is going on in our world. Which is why you can tell by looking at cartoons what editors assume their readers know at any given time. Intrigued, I went back and looked at old New Yorkers, from 1951, 1961, 1971, 1981, and 1991, to ask "What did we know, and when did we know it?"
In 1951, we were only just becoming a TV nation, but already there was a cartoon of a deserted bar, and a TV repairman asking "Did someone call about a TV on the blink?" One cartoonist suggested an abstract artist's inspiration was very bad TV reception.
In 1951, women were mostly shown cooking and spending money. In one cartoon a woman surrounded by an amazing number of small appliances, has a framed degree on her wall from the American Society of Electrical Engineers. In another, a woman laden with packages exclaims "Darling! I had no idea you were such a good credit risk!"
Even in 1961, women were still shown as more decorative than useful -- a woman at a cocktail party says "What do I DO? I'm a woman. Isn't that enough?"
By 1961 television was no longer a fad but a fixture. A man sits watching four separate TV sets, while his wife says proudly "He has an amazing zest for life."
There were also jokes about newly emerging African nations (an African woman sewing a new national flag inside a grass hut), the space program ("But General, what real difference to your over-all objectives could it possibly make if the first man on the moon smoked Devons?"), IBM mainframes, and a hospital clerk demanding an insurance card from a man on a stretcher.
By 1971, Earth Day has affected us all -- as an umpire is being bombarded with cans and bottles, a woman says "They will all be recycled, I hope." A little boy asks a wino, "When you're finished, can I have your empty bottles?"
In 1971, there were jokes about hijacking, Ralph Nader, new math, and the cost of postage stamps -- the man at the post office window says "I suppose when these go up to a dime we can expect a Jesse James commemorative?" TV was still a running joke -- a father says "You see, son, I'm afraid the real world out there isn't much like Sesame Street."
By 1981, several irritating trends had arrived -- wine and cheese parties, "I'm Hilda, tonight I will be your waitress," and corporate sponsorship of major events ("Sylvan Lake: the official water of the New York City Drought."). By 1981, local news teams were exchanging annoying chitchat on the late news, and baseball players were free agents (Pitcher: "I am a little nervous. It's the first time I ever pitched to two millionaires back to back").
In 1991, there were jokes about corporate downsizing, choosing long distance carriers, TV daytime talk shows, and Thelma and Louise. The little Dutch Boy was not sticking his finger in the dike, he was bottling the water and selling it.
But over all these years, some jokes are eternal -- men lust after pretty girls, husbands ignore wives, machines befuddle us, and cats do what they damn well please (the cartoon in which a man tells the cat sitting in his chair, "I feel I've earned the right to your respect" could have come from any era).
Having lived through all these events, and sea-changes in attitudes, it's kind of comforting to know there are some things that never really change.
I'm left with two questions: will we, as information professionals, remember that this repository of social history exists, and use it? And will any of us, or our vendors, make a conscious effort to make sure it gets preserved?
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A cartoon cannot say "on the other hand," and it cannot be defended with logic. It is a frontal assault, a slam dunk, a cluster bomb. Journalism is about fairness, objectivity, factuality; cartoons use unfairness, subjectivity, and the distortion of facts to get at truths that are greater than the sum of the facts. Good cartoonists are also the point men for the First Amendment, testing the boundaries of free speech. If they are doing their job, their hate mail runneth over.
Doug Marlette. In Your Face: a Cartoonist at Work. Houghton-Mifflin, 1991.
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