Humor and human nature

Credit: Mort Gerberg, cartoon for the Saturday Review, 1965.

Mort Gerberg started drawing cartoons as a kid in the 1930s and never stopped. A new exhibit captures the breadth and depth of his work. It’s really funny, too.

By Virge Randall

Anyone who has waited for a bus in New York City would understand.

The cartoon by Mort Gerberg shows a throng of people staring at an obviously long-awaited bus. The sign on the bus reads “WRONG BUS.”

The cartoon, one of 125 carefully selected for “Mort Gerberg Cartoons: A New Yorker’s Perspective” at the New York Historical Society (which runs through May 5), offers a hint of the wit, insight into the human condition, and New York savvy on display in this, the first major exhibit of 50 years of work by Brooklyn native Gerberg.

Actually, the career is even longer when you consider the inclusion of his earliest works: the comics he drew in Hebrew School of “Super Baby” and Batman beating up Axis leaders.

“I always liked to draw” Gerberg recalled in an interview, “Maybe it’s DNA. My grandfather painted landscapes, and I’d watch him paint in the basement at 83rd street in Brooklyn. I never thought I’d get an exhibition in a museum.”

Gerberg was told he couldn’t make a living at it. That didn’t stop him, though. His book “Cartooning, The Art and the Business’ is still considered an industry bible. “I just liked doing cartoons,” he said, adding, “You don’t choose to be a cartoonist, cartooning chooses you.”

A Lifetime of Work

The exhibit covers a lifetime of Gerberg’s work, from the comic books of his childhood, to his cartoons for the New Yorker, the Saturday Evening Post and the Saturday Review, and cartoons for several books (he has written or illustrated 45 books for adults and children). Also featured are his sketched reportage of events like the 1968 Democratic National Convention, baseball and basketball games, concerts, tennis matches and more. There’s a video clip of Gerberg collaborating with early-1960s TV host Shari Lewis and her puppet Lamb Chop. And there is also his take on President Trump.

The sketches range from spare suggestions of form and character to fully realized images that effectively capture a person’s inner life and the larger context ... a woman watching a basketball game and mentally critiquing a move on the court, for instance. Or, in the first work he sold to The New Yorker, a full-page cartoon of the interior of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, rendered in exquisite detail. The caption? One woman thoughtfully telling the other, ”I’ve always been partial to high ceilings.”

There’s a bit of a 19th century vibe some of the pen and ink works which might remind some of Daumier, but don’t tell Gerberg that. “Oh, my God, I’m nowhere near Daumier ... but he did wonderful things with people in carriage cars ... I do the subway.”

Wit and Insight

What’s striking about this show is the wit, warmth and understanding of human nature and its foibles, drawn from everyday life. “A cartoonist is like an oyster,” Gerberg is fond of saying. “An oyster lives in the ocean, and maybe a piece of schmutz or a grain of sand gets under its shell. It’s an irritant, so the oyster reacts with a pearl. A cartoonist goes through life like an ocean, and is sensitive to irritations, it gets under his skin, and what comes out is a cartoon, like a pearl of wisdom.”

The pearls in this show are arranged in broad categories like Social Commentary, Politics, Sports, the Women’s Movement (some from his 1960s book “Right On, Sister”), Marijuana (from his book, “The High Society”). “I have a different approach to issues,” Gerberg said, “I’m a social cartoonist, not a political or editorial one. They start with the issues and then they add humor. I do the opposite. I try to get a laugh out of something and then try to get people to say ‘Maybe he’s got a point there.’”

The commentary holds up surprisingly well, with a dash of good humor and the insight that often comes from personal experience. In the Women’s Movement section, the cartoon that got a knowing laugh from the men in the crowd showed a man asking a stationery store clerk for “A Valentine’s Day card that won’t start an argument.”

“I had met my wife, Judith, in 1968 and we married in 1969,” Gerberg recalled. “I found myself being careful of what I’d say. I was a product of that whole social mess that led to the movement. And I changed my own consciousness.”

That Special City Flavor

Gerberg says he has no favorite cartoon — it’s whatever he is working on at the moment. But for many of the visitors it might be the ones in the Social Commentary section. Although some of them are universal (The butterfly telling the caterpillar “You really have to want to change,” for instance), many of them have all the city flavor of a bagel with schmear. Maybe it’s because he would often sketch on the subway while working out an idea: a snowman hailing a cab; a society matron on what is obviously her first subway trip; a theater patron defying Death because he finally got tickets to “The Producers.” These are all uniquely city experiences, but also so much more than that — there are often messages in the humor.

“Now is the perfect time for this show. We do history here, and this is a visual history of New York City life and politics, and the U.S., too,” said Marilyn Satin Kushner, curator and head of the Department of Prints, Photographs and Architectural Collections at the New York Historical Society. The wealth of material available (“Mort kept bringing bags of cartoons!” she said) allowed her to show the scope of his work.

The Best Medicine

“We’re doing it now because we need to laugh,” said Kushner. “It’s great to see people look at the works and laugh. It’s so important. I had a great time doing this. I laughed so much. That’s the gift of this show, Mort’s gift. He can take something that irritates the hell out of us and make us laugh about it.”

If you need more Gerberg, Fantagraphics Underground has just published “Mort Gerberg On the Scene: A 50 Year Cartoon Chronicle.”