The New Yorker cartoonist David Sipress endeavors to answer that oft-asked question of how a cartoonist gets his ideas in his memoir What’s So Funny?; he masterfully accomplishes this by showcasing a sampling of his cartoons and their backstories in this entertaining, poignant, and sometimes painful book.
David grows up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side during the 1950s and 1960s with his father who is the proud owner of the prestigious Revere Jewelers, his migraine prone mother, and his moody, mean-spirited sister, Linda. They challenge his sense of self and shape his views. Sipress finds solace in his drawings during his childhood. He delights in his innate talent and knows instinctively he will one day be a cartoonist.
Sipress’s featured cartoons resonate with insight and wry humor and the images complement his powerful storytelling. In a straightforward and engaging manner, he relates his tender and distressing memories with truly laugh out loud repartee.
The author relates stories of his father’s constant lessons, and how he divested himself of his immigrant status to forge a new life. His mother, once an independent woman, now lives only to serve her husband and seems to be in a state of constant worry and angst. His sister antagonizes and bullies him. It is a house of secrets, rules, and taboo subjects. Laugh and cry through the narratives of toys going out the window, absurd “Safety Songs,” The JFK assassination, a Harry Belafonte birthday party, dealing with elderly parents and a challenging sister, and so much more.
His life experiences push David to find his own ways to persevere and rebel, but also give him inspiration for his drawings. David aces the Hunter College Elementary School admissions exam, graduates from Williams College, and attends Harvard as a Russian Scholar. Yet he seeks independence and attempts to distance himself from his difficult family in order to succeed and realize his ambitions. Sipress drops out of Harvard to the great dismay of his parents, and pursues his cartooning, struggling in his field for years before getting his first New Yorker cartoon published. He achieves success, but too late to placate his doubting father.
What’s So Funny? is an honest and enjoyable read by a brainy, often self-deprecating, author. Sipress discusses overcoming his anxieties, calming his mental “fluctuations,” and letting the reader into his artist’s mind by disclosing how the insights gleaned from his life find their way into his perceptive cartoons. He uses cartooning to temper and clarify the tragic and bizarre events of his life and everyone else’s lives. As Sipress says, when he creates the perfect cartoon and caption, he experiences an “Intense physical pleasure that feels like pure joy.”
Renita Last is a member of the Nassau Region of Hadassah’s Executive Board. She has coordinated the Film Forum Series for the Region and served as Programming and Health Coordinators and as a member of the Advocacy Committee.
She has volunteered as a docent at the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County teaching the all- important lessons of the Holocaust and tolerance. A retired teacher of the Gifted and Talented, she loves participating in book clubs and writing projects.