Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#17, October 14, 1998


by Marylaine Block

The stock market has been rollercoastering lately. 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, 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?” Abstract art was coming into fashion, and one cartoonist suggested the 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 is 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 machines, 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 shelled with cans and bottles, a woman says “They will all be recycled, I hope,” and 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.”

Even as late as 1981, we were all still watching the exact same shows on network TV —- in one cartoon, a sign says “Welcome to Wheelersville! Excellent reception on all channels.”

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 (“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 of a man telling the cat 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, I’m glad to know there are some things you can always count on.

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