March 9, 2011

Of Women and Humor: New Yorker Cartoonist and TED Speaker Liza Donnelly

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Liza Donnelly is a Cartoonist who joined The New Yorker in 1982. She was the youngest among the staff and one of only three women to hold the role. Her experience led to writing and publishing the book Funny Ladies: The New Yorker’s Greatest Women Cartoonists and Their Cartoons. She is a part of many cartoon books. In 2007, Donnelly was one of the original cartoonists invited to join Cartooning for Peace, an initiative of the United Nations. In 2011, she spoke at the first TED Women conference. Though her TED Talk was short in length, only a little over six minutes, it was long in humor. Here, she shares her thoughts about these experiences and making work charged with laughter, one of the best forms of medicine:

Can you please tell a little bit about yourself? Where are you from? What do you do for a living?
I was born in Washington, DC, and am a contract cartoonist for The New Yorker Magazine, having been with them for 30 years. I also write essays and do drawings for many other publications and websites. I have taught at Vassar College, and am a public speaker as well, having spoken at TED and The United Nations. My numerous books include a history of the women cartoonists of The New Yorker, and my most recent book is a collection of my own cartoons called When Do They Serve The Wine?.

What is your statement about being a cartoonist?
Perhaps because I grew up in Washington, I love politics, and wanted to be a political cartoonist from an early age. But my cartoons now are not all political, rather, they reflect our culture as well. In my work, I like to make viewers think a little bit, as well as laugh.

What do you mean by “laughing at ourselves”?
We get caught in ruts—ways of thinking and behaving. Humor can sometimes shed light on the stupid things we say and do. Humor is a good way to expose those things, and I do it gently in my cartoons. I don’t like to hit people over the head with my humor. I think it can be more effective to quietly expose, actually.

© Liza Donnelly and The New Yorker Magazine

Writer Alissa Walker wrote an article called “Women in Industrial Design: Where My Ladies At?” Where are the Ladies in the creative fields-at-large?
Women are still not recognized as much as they should be. There are a lot of reasons for that. I don’t think that editors are actively sexist, rather, the reasons are more complicated. Perhaps women are not submitting work as much as men, perhaps the standard of the creative endeavor is still male-oriented. In my field, humor, I know there has been a bias against women being funny, and it lingers. Historically, women were not encouraged to enter the humor business, or even be funny inter-personally. That’s changing, but the effects of that still linger. And, as I said above for creative endeavors in general, the standard for what’s funny is still a male standard for the most part. We can and do all laugh at the same things, but humor has typically been the kind that men find most funny. As I said, it’s complicated, and is difficult to explain the nuances in a short interview without sounding like I am a separatist, which I am not. There is not “women’s humor” and “men’s humor” per se, but the creative approach that women take can often be different than those of men, and is not always recognized as “good.”

© Liza Donnelly and The New Yorker Magazine

What tools and materials do you use to work on your ideas and make them grow?
I use newspapers and news sites to get seeds for ideas, be they trends or specific words. I keep a notebook of these things, and sit with them and sheets of paper and doodle to see if I can work them into an idea. It is still a rather mysterious process, as you never know how an idea comes to be. You have to keep your mind loose, and listen to yourself think. Sometimes an idea comes out of nowhere, and you need to be alert for them when they do!

How does time factor into your drawing and publishing?
For my weekly cartoons, I have to be careful to leave time for the creative process to work. An open day of no responsibilities is a perfect day for creating cartoons. For publishing, my books take from several years (as in the history I wrote, which involved a lot of research) to one year to put together.

What is the most rewarding part of being a cartoonist?

Making people happy. And being able to do what I love.

Was there a part of your work that was particularly trying and how did you deal with it?
Rejection is constant in this business, and that has been and still is difficult to deal with. Almost every cartoon one creates is like a special child, and when it is not bought, you feel angry and hurt. One has to learn to just move on to the next week’s work. I still have a lot of trouble with that.

How do you stay creative? Do you draw? Or keep a journal?
Since I do a weekly batch of cartoons of about 6–10 drawings, I think I stay creative that way. It’s good to keep the wheels oiled, working every day. Taking vacations (which we rarely do) are hard to recover from sometimes. I keep my notebook of weekly idea seeds, and a journal of my work endeavors.

What are some of your sources of inspiration?
Life, in general, is my inspiration. I love people watching in New York City, and looking at cartoon collections of some of my favorite New Yorker cartoonists.

What was the experience like being part of TED’s debut TED Women conference? And any tips and lessons to be a good presenter?
Speaking at TED was amazing. It is a high-powered atmosphere, but very friendly at the same time. You are challenged to do your very best. How to do that? Practice, practice, practice... and simplify. Bring in a little bit of yourself, and don’t be afraid to show vulnerability. The audience wants to know you are human.

What is your advice to people who aspire to be a cartoonist?
Draw all the time, and don’t give up. Persistence is half the battle. Find a voice that is your own.

© Liza Donnelly and The New Yorker Magazine

How can people see your work and buy it?
People can see my work in The New Yorker, their e-commerce site, They can buy my books and visit my site and blog.

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Liza Donnelly’s books include When Do They Serve The Wine?, Funny Ladies, Sex and Sensibility, Cartoon Marriage. Stay in touch with Donnelly on her blog and on Twitter.

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Images courtesy of Liza Donnelly.

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Read more from Design Feast Series of Interviews with people who love making things.

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