Monday, August 17, 2015

My Phi Beta Kappa cartoon controversy

In 1998, upon revisiting my bucket list, I began drawing single-panel cartoons (aiming for 10 a week) with the sole objective of selling one to The New Yorker. At least 2,000 cartoons later, I haven’t (and in fact haven’t tried since about 2003), but I hope to resume that pursuit one day. In the meantime, I ended up licensing cartoons to more than 100 other publications including The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Harvard Business Review, Barrons, Good Housekeeping, the iconic Punch (in the UK), and the venerable Saturday Evening Post.

Another was The Key Reporter, the magazine of Phi Beta Kappa, the university-level national honor society for academic achievement, of which I am a member.

The first time TKR published one of my cartoons was in its spring 2001 issue, which was also the first time the magazine published any cartoon.

The summer 2001 issue ran a second cartoon of mineand also a three-page article entitled “Do Phi Betes Have a Sense of Humor? Some Philosophical Thoughts about Jokes.”

I found it intriguing (and, at first, strange) that the traditionally staid publication would run a cartoon and a treatise on humor in back-to-back issues. Then I realized that this defense of the value of laughing was because of me.

A 1972 alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania had sent TKR a letter in which he stated:

As a member of Phi Beta Kappa and Professor in a University School of Medicine and a practicing physician, I was distressed by the cartoon on page 16. This derogatory, abusive and near-slanderous depiction of the physician as buffoon is inexcusable and deserves an apology.

My first controversy! Well, my first “controversy.”

I was surprised that TKR had not told me about this before the issue went out. (More so, I was surprised that someone would have such a reaction to a particularly innocuous cartoon.)

But I was thrilled at the sly way TKR chose to address the criticism. Rather than stop running my cartoons, or place any parameters on the cartoon topics I submitted, they published a thoughtful analysis on the nature of humor itself. Looking back, that seems like the only approach an esteemed organization like PBK would take.

More than thrilled, I was proud that my little cartoon (indirectly) took up so much real estate.

And it wasn’t over yet.

In the fall 2001 issue, under the headline “That Cartoon Critique,” two letters were printed. Excerpts:

letter 1:

I am a retired professor of surgery and pediatrics, and I’d like to twit my fellow PBK for being so exercised over a cartoon which depicted a physician as a buffoon.

letter 2:

I found the quote from the Phi Beta Kappa alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania regarding the Reporter’s Spring 2001 cartoon rather unsettling.


The inability to find humor in the Spring 2001 cartoon conveys to me an elitist state of mind. As in, “I am a physician AND a PHI BETA KAPPA dare you poke fun at me or anyone like me.”

Both in law school and now professionally, people feel a need to share lawyer jokes with me. And you know what? I like them. I usually have the ability to top them with some of my own.

No one is above being the target of good-natured humor.


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