Drawing Room Comedy

From the porch and studio of his Rhinebeck home, New Yorker cartoonist Danny Shanahan creates side-splitting riffs on everyday life.



Drawing Room Comedy

 

From his studio in Rhinebeck, cartoonist Danny Shanahan makes the world laugh

 

by Leon Freilich

Photographs by Dyana Van Campen

 

It¡¯s not enough to be loved by your kids. They also have to think you¡¯re funny. Even more so if you¡¯re a professional funnyman who¡¯s reached the pinnacle of cartoondom, exhibiting your work week after week in the New Yorker magazine.

 

For the last 15 years, Danny Shanahan has taken on dogs, cats, children, the suburbs, doctors, and, of course, lawyers in his ¡°drawings,¡± as the magazine terms them. He harpooned the legal profession in this bartalk cartoon: A braggart says, ¡°I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die. After that, law school was pretty much a given.¡±

 

Shanahan had to explain that one to his children, Finnegan, now 10, and Render, 14. But the boys howled in laughter without need of assistance on seeing such works by Dad as these:

 

An elementary school student in front of his class says, ¡°Before I read about my summer vacation, I¡¯d like to ask that all pagers, beepers, and cell phones be turned off.¡±

 

A woman arriving at the pearly gates hears the reassuring news: ¡°Your cats are fine.¡±

A duck making its way toward a sick duck: ¡°Let me through! I¡¯m a quack.¡±

 

Shanahan, 47, comes up with these notions ¡ª he¡¯s probably drawn at least 10,000 cartoons ¡ª in his studio at the family¡¯s 1860 Federal Colonial house on a quiet tree-lined block in Rhinebeck. Surrounded by fruit trees, the house is decorated with Shaker furniture that Shanahan bought at auctions (or received as gifts) and refinished in his garage. Here and there are other auction purchases, including Bakelite items, 18th-century tools, and early baseball gloves. The walls are covered with framed original drawings by his colleagues Mick Stevens, Roz Chast, Michael Crawford, Lee Lorenz, and Michael Maslin.

 

¡°We enjoy trading work,¡± says the slim Shanahan, who with his dark wavy hair could easily be taken for a Hollywood leading man. ¡°We¡¯re not in the least competitive. If a bunch of us are together and someone throws out a gag idea that¡¯s just come to him, whoever wants it can take it. It¡¯s not fought over.¡±

 

What he calls the ¡°Tuesday Looks¡± consists of 10 to 20 contract cartoonists assembling in a small room of the New Yorker¡¯s offices with their portfolios, waiting to be summoned by the cartoon editor. ¡°We talk about movies, art shows, and who¡¯s soliciting work, for a calendar or whatever,¡± says Shanahan. ¡°When we¡¯re called in individually, we take out our week¡¯s drawings, in my case usually seven to 10 black and white line drawings. Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor, looks them over. The next day he takes his picks to an editorial meeting and they make the final pick.

 

¡°Thursday, between five and six in the afternoon, the phone rings at home and we find out if we sold anything. Ninety percent of my work is rejected; I never know why. There¡¯s never an explanation.¡±

 

And yet he¡¯s immensely successful. The past year was his best, with one of his cartoons appearing nearly every week. (Only about 15 drawings find their way into each issue.) And in the recent annual cartoon issue, he had a double spread ¡ª two full pages ¡ª all to himself. ¡°We get a new contract every year, with the right of first refusal,¡± he says, sitting pretty. ¡°Whatever the New Yorker passes on, I might sell down the road to other publications.¡±

 

Besides cartoons, he¡¯s done 10 covers for the magazine and illustrated several books, including his own children¡¯s book, Buckledown, the Workhound. His first book of collected cartoons, Lassie! Get Help!!, took its name from Shanahan¡¯s best-known cartoon. It shows a drowning boy pleading, ¡°Lassie! Get help!¡± and then has Lassie stretched out on a shrink¡¯s couch. ¡°It¡¯s my most reprinted cartoon, in magazines and on coffee mugs,¡± he says. The book version is in color. Almost all of the magazine¡¯s cartoons are in black and white, following the dictum of founder Harold Ross: ¡°What¡¯s funny about red?¡±

 

Unlike his colleagues, Shanahan has little art training. And he never went to college; instead, he graduated from soda jerk to bartender to cartoonist.

 

One of 11 children, he was born in Brooklyn and raised in Litchfield County, Connecticut. ¡°I was always intrigued by cartoons,¡± he says in his study overlooking the backyard. The room is carefully organized, utterly uncluttered. ¡°As a kid, I would have killed to be in Mad magazine. And Charles Addams was my god, along with Charles Schulz. When I was in high school, the National Lampoon made me see the possibilities of cartooning. I took some art classes and wanted to be an artist, but I was directionless.¡±

 

At 25, he moved back to Brooklyn and found work in a bar. ¡°I was playing tennis one day with a friend, a magazine editor, when he asked would I like to try my hand at a cartoon strip for his
tennis magazine. Well, I drew a young woman jumping over the net saying, ¡®Game, set, match,¡¯ and she has a smoking gun. I got $50 for that and went on to do one a month. That was terrific encouragement.

 

¡°I cut back on the bartending to three nights a week and devoted a couple of days to cartooning. Hoping to break into the New Yorker, I began bombarding them. I sent seven or eight at a time about a dozen times. Then a call came. ¡®How would you like your name on it?¡¯ Just that; nothing spelled out. But four weeks later, I got two checks, so I knew I¡¯d sold something. I went at it full time and sold 17 cartoons in five months. Five months later, they offered me a contract.¡±

 

At age 32, Shanahan felt elated to be following in the pen strokes of James Thurber. ¡°He was an entirely original cartoonist and a wonderful writer,¡± he says. And for him, as for the late humorist, the verbal precedes the visual. ¡°I consider myself to be, like him, basically a writer. I¡¯m a word man. I scratch words on a pad until something catches fire. Then I do a rough drawing; drawing¡¯s the easiest part.

 

¡°I get to work at 7:30 a.m. in my studio, once my wife or I have taken the kids off to school. I read the Times and pull out ideas, phrases, ads, fads. There¡¯s no noise, no radio; that would interfere with my thoughts. I¡¯m looking for ideas embedded in phrases, how people talk. If I¡¯m blocked for ideas, I pick a specific theme ¡ª cats, dogs, lawyers ¡ª and focus on one. For a change, I¡¯ll work on the front porch, pulling out my pad and lighting a cigar.¡±

 

Shanahan finds his muse only after hours of searching. ¡°By Friday, when I have 15 or 16 ideas, I go into the studio, turn on the radio loud, generally rock and roll, and draw away. Friday and Monday in the studio are vacation time. Eighty percent of the work week is writing.

 

¡°Sometimes I¡¯ll get an idea from life. We had some people here for dinner the other day and my wife asked a guest, ¡®Are you a vegan?¡¯ ¡± The situation inspired him to come up with the reply, ¡°No, I¡¯m a cruditarian.¡±

 

¡°I may use that,¡± he says. If he does, the cartoon will be terse and witty, Shanahan¡¯s hallmarks. His drawings, too, highly detailed when he started out, have become increasingly simple.

 

Rhinebeck¡¯s simple beauty is what impelled him and his wife, Janet, to move into their blue house in 1995. ¡°It also has a train right here, a wonderful school system, and lots of cartoonists nearby. It has everything. I love it,¡± he says.

 

His wife is the associate director of admissions at Bard College, a few miles away. ¡°Janet took me seriously from the moment she laid eyes on me,¡± he says, laughing. ¡°She thought I was a stalker. She¡¯d noticed me eyeing her on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. When she took the subway home to Brooklyn, there I was in the same car. And I got off at the same stop. It turned out we were neighbors, living two blocks from each other. Some stalker!¡±

 

Their sons use his studio when he¡¯s out, filling it with chuckles and guffaws as they doodle on Dad¡¯s drawing board. ¡°They keep me honest,¡± says Shanahan. ¡°Don¡¯t let me get pretentious or highbrow. They think I¡¯m the funniest guy around. What more could I ask for?¡± ¡ö

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