David Sipress is in just about every cartoon he draws.
Often, he said, he’s obvious; he’s the fairly bland-looking middle-aged guy mumbling at you from the pages of the New Yorker. At other times, his identity is a bit less clear, but if you look, you’ll see him, not necessarily in the drawing but in the caption or the general gestalt of the thing.
So he’s there and not there.
And it makes sense. Mr. Sipress has had a highly specific life, where he’s been both part of something and distant enough from it to be able to see it. From those specifics, he can make cartoons general enough for all of us — even those of us who are not fairly bland-looking middle-aged guys. (As he, by this point, is not either, as time continues its grim march.)
To answer the title question, the book is very funny; it’s charming, touching, at times troubling, and an almost infuriatingly quick read.
Mr. Sipress was born in the late 1940s and grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, overlooking the Museum of Natural History, to parents who preferred spending their time on the more chi-chi Upper East Side, and moved there after he and his sister were grown up and out of the house. His father was a jeweler to the wealthy, blessed with a wonderful eye, impeccable taste, perfect manners, and little love to give his children in any obvious ways. (That would have been vulgar.)
His parents were Jewish, but not clearly so; they celebrated both Christmas and Chanukah,and went out for the most treif feast possible as soon as Yom Kippur ended, but not during the day itself. “My father’s and mother’s ambiguity about their Jewishness trickled down to me, and confused the hell out of me,” Mr. Sipress said. “It seemed like it was the same as being New Yorkers, or Democrats, or Brooklyn Dodgers fans.” Immutable and inexplicable.
The memoir moves in a logical arc as it traces Mr. Sipress’s relationship with his father as the son first does everything expected of him — Hunter for elementary school, because he was so smart and such a good boy, and that showed up on his entrance test; Horace Mann for high school, because he continued to be so smart, and back then Hunter High School was all girls; Williams College for his undergraduate degree, and then Harvard for a masters in Russian history.
“Russian history interested me,” Mr. Sipress said. “It fascinated me ever since I was a kid. A lot of it probably had to do with the history that was woven around my father’s immigrant past, and my desire to know about that mysterious past that he escaped from.”
But that wasn’t enough. “Russian history has amazing stories,” he said, but he wanted to tell his own. With drawings.
So he broke with everything expected of him, left the program — the memoir, told by a master storyteller, does a wonderful job with his exit from Harvard, onto his bike, and into the path of traffic in Harvard Square — and eventually became a cartoonist, ending up in cartoonist heaven, aka the New Yorker. His relationship with his father suffered, was almost entirely severed, and then regrew, particularly after his mother died.
But the arc that logically would connect Mr. Sipress with his father’s story ends in a stub just inches off the ground. He never learns much about his father’s background, aside from one dramatic scene at a funeral, and is not interested in pursuing it. There are more avenues back to our families’ pasts now than there used to be, thanks to 21 and Me and other such services, but Mr. Sipress is not at all going to stroll any of them. This is not a sentimental memoir.
He always wanted to be a cartoonist, Mr. Sipress wrote; perhaps it’s more accurate to say that he always was one, even before he realized that it could be a profession, and that he’d be happier as a cartoonist than as a Sovietologist. There are a few reasons for that — he’s naturally funny, he’s naturally an artist, and the kinds of cartoons he draws aren’t always laff riots. They elicit different kinds of laughs — chuckles or grins or winces as well as the occasional laugh-out-loud peal.
That makes sense, given the kind of artist Mr. Sipress is.
“I don’t go into my studio every day and draw a funny joke,” he said. “I go in every day and think about my life. I think about what worries me — like upcoming doctors appointments — and that’s what I make my cartoons about.”
Although he’s in them, he’s learned to open up his world to people less like himself, he said. “Years ago, in 1991, I did a book called ‘Sex, Love, and Other Problems.’ It was a collection of cartoons; I showed them to my wife, and she said, ‘David, the man is speaking in every one of the cartoons.’ I said, ‘Ohmygod, she’s right.’ So I went in and turned half of them around,” so that it was the woman who spoke to her silent male companion.
But still, “there’s a little of me in every cartoon,” he said.
It took him years of drawing, submitting those drawings, and having them be rejected before he got his first cartoon into the New Yorker, he said. That was 22 years and about 700 cartoons ago. Now, his work looks quintessential New Yorker, as if they could illustrate a dictionary definition of a New Yorker cartoon.
He has improved both his drawing and his writing during his time at the New Yorker, he said. He explained the process. “Cartoonists come up with 10 or 12 rough drawings every week. We used to bring them in in person, but now we just email them. The cartoon editor probably goes through 1,000 a week and selects a small number of them. And then there is an art meeting with David Remnick, the editor, who makes the final decision.”
In his book, Mr. Sipress describes the joy he feels when the idea that lives inside him decides it’s incubated long enough and starts to emerge.
“When an idea comes to me like this, it’s as if it happens to me, almost as if I had nothing to do with it, like it came out of nowhere — a gift from the cartoon gods,” he wrote. “And I know this sounds over the top, but every time it happens like that, I get this rush — an intense physical pleasure that feels like pure joy, and it’s like fireworks go off in my brain — starbursts behind my eyes.”
His memoir dances over complicated emotions, and sometimes stops and dances with them. And then sometimes, when it comes to cartoons — which are silly and profound and funny and deep, sometimes all at the same time — it’s just plain joy.
Mr. Sipress will talk about all of that — and answer questions too! — at the Kaplen JCC next Thursday.
Who: New Yorker cartoonist and memoirist David Sipress
What: Will talk about his new book, “What’s So Funny?”
When: On Thursday, November 10, at 12:45 p.m.
Where: At the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, 411 E. Clinton Avenue, Tenafly
Why: As part of the JCC U series
How much: $38 for JCC members/$45 for nonmembers for the full-day program
What’s the full-day program: After coffee and conversation starting at 10:30, Columbia Law School lecturer Jess Velona will talk about “Vietnam and the Road to Watergate.” That talk goes from 10:45 to noon. After lunch, which participants bring or buy on their own, the afternoon presentation begins.
For information or reservations: Go to jccotp.org, and click on Adults at the top menu bar, and then on Lectures and Learning. (It’ll get you to jccotp.org/programs/author-events.) Or Call (201) 820-3918.