Arts and Entertainment

A Night at the ̶O̶p̶e̶r̶a̶ Cartoon Improv

At The New Yorker Festival, cartoonists engaged in an hour of lively, competitive, and time-constrained cartooning as comedians spurred jokes at the audience.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

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By Somerset Seidenberg

“The prompt: Taylor Swift, belly button, and Festivus. You have exactly three minutes to create a cartoon,” hostess Emily Flake declared at the Cartoon Improv of The New Yorker Festival on October 8, 2023 (Festivus is a secular holiday originating on Seinfeld season nine episode 10: “Festivus for the rest of us” [aired December 18, 1997]). Four cartoonists from The New Yorker—Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell, Drew Dernavich, Sarah Kempa, and Jeremy Nguyen—scrambled to produce their cartoons while two comedians, Jay Jurden and Zach Zimmerman, hurled jokes at the audience. The cartoonist with the best entries for the night would win the unofficial title of “Cartoonist of the Festival.” 

Cartoons have been an indispensable part of The New Yorker since its founding in 1925, providing lighthearted social commentary in a humorous and easily digestible manner. Readers typically peruse the cartoons before progressing to the main articles, and through them, young readers are often first introduced to the magazine. The Cartoon Improv is one of the most sought after events at The New Yorker Festival, a welcoming occasion for readers to be introduced to the cartoonists and experience the creative process first-hand. This October, the Cartoon Improv was held in the intimate, 266-seat Beatrice Auditorium at the SVA Theater in Chelsea.

At the three-minute mark, Dernavich presented his piece. Depicting three people standing around a belly button with the caption “I was celebrating Festivus and I accidentally shook it off,” the comic’s subtle reference to Swift’s chart-topper “Shake It Off” (2013) was missed by some audience members. Campbell presented a neatly drawn piece with Taylor Swift telling the Seinfeld characters “You need to calm down” as they celebrated Festivus. Kempa’s piece showed Swift onstage and joked about her love songs and signature crop tops. Nguyen’s cartoon displayed two women at yoga, one saying she had “navel gazed so hard [her belly button] turned into the beautiful, talented, and not-problematic Taylor Swift.” Both Kempa and Nguyen’s cartoons failed to acknowledge Festivus. The artists’ drawings were accompanied by playful shots at Swift from the comedians, who seemed surprised that she was included in the prompt considering the average audience member’s additional 25 years on the average Swiftie. “You think there are Swifties at the New Yorker festival? You think they read [The New Yorker]?” Jurden remarked.

For the next prompt, Flake interviewed a lucky audience member in the front row to be the subject of the next cartoon, unknowingly hitting comedic gold. When asked what she did for a living, the young woman explained that she is unemployed at the moment but recently graduated from Gallatin (the School of Individualized Study at NYU). She proceeded to tediously explain what Gallatin is, who goes to the school, and why she did not really have a major, labeling Gallatin as a school full of rich kids. “Are you a nepo baby?” interjected one comedian. The young woman continued to extraneously express a passion for journaling, describing in great detail irrelevant anecdotes and why she was famous for taking notes at the dinner table. The entire theater was tickled by the young woman’s quirky rambling and tone-deafness, which aligned with their perception of Gallatin students. When asked by the host what she would be for Halloween, she painstakingly spoke about her costume indecision, finally deciding that perhaps she would be a “slutty Wizard from Shrek 2.” Jurden, the comedian, scoffed: “A C-list costume in Shrek 2?… If you want people to understand the costume, do you want to have to explain it as much as Gallatin?” The line of the night, the crowd roared at the comeback.

The best of the resulting cartoons was Nguyen’s, a mockery of Gallatin. Captioned “I went to Gallatin,” the picture portrayed the young woman as a homeless adult holding a sign that said, “Help me build my major.” Another crowd favorite was Campbell’s, which depicted the young woman at the dinner table as her parents fought, saying “Mom, if you could repeat that last line for my future therapist? Something about human rights?”

The festival concluded as Dernavich’s Taylor Swift cartoon, along with a few other audience-hits, earned him the crown for the evening. The last event of the night, the Cartoon Improv served as a humorous close to the Festival, bringing to life the drawings that every New Yorker reader loves.