The New York Times is dropping its political cartoons. Well, what a surprise! Making people laugh has never been easy. I’ve been supporting ex-wives and making a living from banging out cartoons since 1953, God help me. I started with selling drawings to the British music magazine, Melody Maker. They printed them and paid me two guineas a time, which was worth £2 and 2 shillings, or about $5.50. You could buy a house for five quid then, and you could afford to get married, God help me!
There were lots of magazines and newspapers around then and I worked for most of them: Lilliput and Tatler are still going but jokeless. Punch’s editor Malcolm Muggeridge said that if I kept sending my work in I’d soon become a regular, (then, added ‘God help you!’). I worked for them for about 35 years. I also worked for many women’s magazines. I did a strip called ‘Nelly Know-all’ giving advice to housewives on how to save money by mending your own shoes with cardboard and never throwing anything away. This was of course before plastic and everybody was happy boiling their old socks and eating them. I also drew everything for Honey magazine, the first magazine for teens before teenagers were invented. Then, there were lots of cartoonists around. People wanted to laugh then. They don’t now.
The New Yorker was always the holy grail for me. How I came across it I’m not quite sure, but it must have been through my mother who had a ‘male friend’ who managed to get hold of it in the war.
The cartoons in it made me want to be a cartoonist. I couldn’t read or write so I managed to laugh at the gags with the aid of my mum. I now knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a cartoonist, a show-off, and make people laugh. I loved the cartoons of Charles Adams and Peter Arno. And so I became a cartoonist. It was exciting. It was fun. Of course, it sent you mad, but that was OK as you could drink.
In 1958, I sold a cartoon to the New Yorker. They paid me $50, which is equivalent to more than $400 today! Mind you, it was only the idea they bought, not the drawing. It was redrawn by a cartoonist called Soglow. I never managed to sell them another, so I gave up sending. I’m not bitter you understand.
About a year ago I came up with an idea that I thought the New Yorker might like, which you can see at the top of this article. I emailed them and they were kind to say that they didn’t want said gag but if I wished I could email five ideas a week and they could give them a look. Wow! Now you must understand that I don’t ‘get’ many of the cartoons in the New Yorker but I put that down to not being very knowledgeable on what was going on in America, clothes, TV etc. So I went on sending five a week until it got to about a hundred, and I then gave up. I never heard anything.
That’s OK; it was good for me. I’m not whining. I’m really not. I still don’t get the ‘jokes’ they run in the magazine but I’m just an outta towner, a hick.
Now the business of selling humor is looking bleak indeed. Cartooning is out of fashion. Few can do it – young snowflakes can’t. Maybe I should try reality TV, God help me!
Michael Heath has been cartoon editor of The Spectator since 1991.