When a thing is funny, search it carefully for a hidden truth.
—George Bernard Shaw
Most periodicals these days, much like cable news and movies, are aimed toward a niche audience of some sort or another. On my new super-duper fiber-to-home incoming feed, I’ve tripped across some outlying cable channels I swear are targeted at aliens, since I can’t imagine a single homo sapiens who’d be interested.
We here at Your Favorite Periodical are different. Well, perhaps also in the sense of “strange,” but in this case I mean we’re not niche targeted, unless you regard literacy as defining a demographic minigroup. [Let’s leave that one aside for now.] The alumni readership comprises a stunning range of political, social, geographic, religious, dietary, and psychological members who, as far as I can tell, have but two unifying character traits: Each has a vaguely disturbing attraction to orange and black, and they all know that their personal views are correct.
Magazinishly, the odd color palette is relatively easy to deal with; the worldviews are far more challenging. Given the focus in the current issue on humor in all its forms, sophomoric to post-grad, it occurred to me that simply divining what’s funny is a challenge full of land mines, namely our multifarious and opinionated audience. One result of this obstacle is a paucity of humorous cover art over PAW’s 110 years; it’s tough to find a joke both interesting enough to deserve the cover and universally appealing enough to keep the editor from being flogged on Cannon Green.
The danger is illustrated (in both senses) by the wonderful/obscene/your choice cover of Feb. 15, 1987, when Henry Payne ’84, the crack political cartoonist, portrayed a tipsy President Ronald Reagan with his business buddies enjoying the fruits of Reaganomics.
The fallout in the letters to the editor rivaled the football losing streak to Yale, then at nine and counting. “Vituperative” was one memorable characterization, reinforcing my point about alumni literacy, at least.
So ha-ha covers otherwise have tended to be genial nudges to the orange-and-black side of Princeton alumni, upon which all can giggle. Whitney Darrow ’31 had one of his 1,500 legendary New Yorker cartoons appear on PAW’s cover in 1962.
And his New Yorker spiritual successor, Henry Martin ’48 (who recently donated a slew of his art to the University Library), took a similarly kind shot at Reunions – hardly a difficult target, to be sure – in 1987.
But first, the backstory. One of the iconic graphic images of the 20th century in the United States appeared on the cover of – as you would guess by now – The New Yorker on March 29, 1976. It was the close-to-genius inspiration of the illustrator/cartoonist/modernist Saul Steinberg, whose immigrant background allowed him to take a detached look at Manhattanites and reduce their sensibilities to a View of the World from 9th Avenue – take a good look at it, and marvel in the enthusiastic myopia.
Knockoffs of the compelling cover began as soon as Steinberg’s ink was dry; in the late ’70s, it seemed every city’s travel bureau had a hackneyed version highlighting Aunt Edna’s diner and dismissing the entire Eastern hemisphere. The original cover subsequently has become so culturally ingrained that Irish illustrator Jon Berkeley used it for a British magazine last year – 33 years after the original – to comment on current events on the other side of the globe. Take a very close look: The Steinberg drawing is so revered, you’ll be amazed to note that Berkeley’s shadows are similarly left-to-right, putting the Chinese sun impossibly in the north.
So the beauty of the idea that then-undergrads Rob Smiley ’80 and Jim Ryan ’82 dreamt up lay not in its originality, but its bull’s-eye sensibility. Princetonians’ defining loyalty lies in the obvious college activities (like legacy admissions and Reunions) to be sure, but also beyond normal bounds, to regional Princeton clubs (the St. Louis Princeton Club goes back to 1876), Princeton-in-Asia (which predates the East Asian studies department by decades), revivalist Gothic architecture, and the tireless effort to name stuff like Mount Princeton in Colorado. The students’ insight was to incorporate some of these trivia in extremis into a send-up of Steinberg’s mental state and imply with intriguing evidence that Princetonians are as fixated as Manhattanites, if not more.
And besides, it manages to include the comforting orange and black shield on the flag flying over Blair Arch to reassure the entire alumni body, Reaganomicists and Norman Thomas 1905 disciples alike, that this is indeed the One True View of the World. Dei sub numine viget.