In the business of being funny: documentary looks at cartoonists - 27 East

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In the business of being funny: documentary looks at cartoonists

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author on Jul 15, 2010

From her grandmother, Lyda Ely absorbed a deep love of Southampton. From her mother, she inherited many things, not least among them a particular fondness for the New Yorker magazine, and especially its cartoons.

Ms. Ely’s grandmother was Lyda Barclay, who reigned over real estate in Southampton from the Main Street offices of Barclay & King for almost 50 years. Her mother, Susan Barclay Ely, who raised her children amid stacks of old New Yorkers, was an aspiring cartoonist whose lifetime dream was to publish in that quintessential showcase for the cartoonist’s art.

That dream remained unfulfilled at her death but, as Ms. Ely explained in a recent interview over iced tea at the Village Cheese Shop in Southampton, the passion with which her mother had pursued her dream and the way it had influenced and enriched her life seemed to demand exploration. Having worked in the television industry as a writer, director and producer since 1992, Ms. Ely was well positioned to conduct that inquiry by making a film, one in which she would seek out the cartoonists who had influenced and befriended her mother and find out just what it was about them and their work that had so captivated her.

The result of that exploration is “Funny Business,” a documentary featuring some of the New Yorker’s most celebrated cartoonists, including Roz Chast, George Booth, Ed Koren and Sam Gross. It will be screened at Southampton’s Parrish Art Museum on Thursday, July 22, at 7 p.m.

Ms. Ely had many questions that she set out to answer five years ago when she initiated the project. She wanted to know what it would have taken for her mother to succeed as a cartoonist and, beyond that, she wanted to know, “Why did my mother love these people so much?”

She had known cartoonists, of course, even before she began interviewing them about their influence on her mother.

“Charles Addams was a friend of my grandmother and my mother adored him,” she said. The famed creator of the ghoulish Addams Family and Lyda Barclay were in art school together in New York in the 1930s and he remained a family friend through the generations, visiting often, to everyone’s delight.

“He was very unassuming,” Ms. Ely recalled, “and very funny.”

Her mother met other cartoonists through her membership in the Long Island Cartoonists Society and they, in turn, introduced her to fellow members of the cartoonists’ cohort.

That is the way it worked for Ms. Ely as well.

“They were very nice to me,” she said of her subjects, who were generous with their introductions.

As she progressed, Ms. Ely found the thrust of her film subtly changing. She was finding out more about her mother, she said, “but the dream itself became less important than the company of these people.”

The more time she spent with the cartoonists, the more captivating she found them and the more amazed she was that no one had ever done what she was doing before.

“A lot of people had done profiles of the New Yorker magazine,” she said, “but nobody had spent time with cartoonists, getting a sense of who they are. Each one has his own approach to his art, and that is what makes their cartoons so appealing,” she said. “They each have a different voice.”

For example, noted Ms. Ely, a cartoon by Roz Chast—known for her uncanny ability to enter the minds of overwrought Americans and portray their anxieties with side-splitting accuracy—is unlike any other.

“This is the stuff she thinks about,” said Ms. Ely. “It’s an extreme version of herself—herself for laughs.”

One of the things Ms. Ely said she tried to do with all of the cartoonists was to get them out of their studios at some point to get a better sense of “the people they are and how that shapes their art.” She interviewed George Booth in a coffee shop, Arnie Levin outside with his motorcycle and Mort Gerberg in the room where he plays his piano.

Whether by design or chance, she didn’t say, but her outing with Roz Chast was particularly revealing. With Ms. Chast at the wheel, they were “navigating the back roads of Connecticut” and Ms. Chast was noticeably nervous.

“She learned to drive at 38,” explained Ms. Ely, “You see the relationship between her driving and the cartoons.”

While each of her subjects has a distinctive voice, Ms. Ely found some characteristics that were common to all.

“They are just really nice people,” she said, adding that they all love cartooning and they all have great respect for the cartoonists who came before them—to the point that the shelves of their bookcases are all lined with the same cartoon collections, books that she recognized from her mother’s library as well.

Coming from the very competitive field of television filmmakers, she said she was most amazed to find that there is no such tension among cartoonists.

“Cartoonists are all at each other’s book-signings and lectures,” she said. “They turn out for each other.”

“Funny Business” has been successfully previewed in New York at the Morgan Museum and the Museum of the City of New York. Ms. Ely said that she is especially pleased that the film is to be shown at the Parrish, given her family’s longstanding ties to the area and Mr. Addams’s familiarity on the local scene.

“My goal is for it to be seen,” she said of the film. “I don’t have any dreams of fortune. No filmmaker should.”

She has called it “a labor of love” though, in the end, “Funny Business” turned out to be less about her mother per se and more about the cartoonists who enriched her mother’s life and inspired her dreams of success.

“I want people to meet them,” she said. “The film is a tribute to the work they have done and the people they are. I have been fortunate to hang out with them.”

“Funny Business” will be screened at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton on Thursday, July 22, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $7, or $5 for Parrish Art Museum members. For more information, visit parrishart.org, or call 283-2118.

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