At one point last December, I found myself in an ersatz California restaurant in Virginia, unable to smoke. Michael Bolton was on the public address system, and Christmas right around the corner.
In response to this crisis, I was rushed to a friend's house to receive an early Christmas present, The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker, (Black Dog & Leventhal) a giant volume accompanied by two CD-ROMs containing all 68,647 cartoons published in the magazine between 1925 and 2004.
Like an adult version of a kid looking up dirty words in a new dictionary, I typed the word "insurance" into the CDs' search engine, hoping to find an entry or two on the subject. Surprise! The first disk, containing cartoons from 1925 to 1964, contained 69 references; the second (1965 to 2004) had almost 30. Until that moment, it had seemed to me that I was alone in finding humor in insurance.
The New Yorker insurance cartoon portfolio addresses both the timeless aspects of the business--agents, exclusions, costs--and topical issues of the day. In a supreme example of the first category, a Charles Saxon effort from 1961 has an executive at a small party, saying to a beatnik artist, "Indeed, I do understand. An insurance broker has fallow periods, too."
Family wealth protection, financial planning, and motor insurance appear frequently, as do home and accident insurance. But if one underlying topic can be identified among 80 years' worth of insurance cartoons, it would be what we now call health care, specifically in the United States.
The subject first appears in a raft of cartoons in the '40s, in the guise of fringe benefits, specifically the new Blue Cross program. In the '70s, the arrival of Medicare produced a wave of related contributions. In the '90s, the cartoon humor was largely aimed at HMOs and dental insurance. A Michael Maslin cartoon from 1999 provides a sample: A doctor says to the patient he is examining: "Unfortunately, you have what we call 'no insurance.' "
The New Yorker is a weekly, able to respond with relative alacrity to current affairs. Issue-based humor ultimately dates, however, and the gems in the magazine's insurance portfolio are those that relate to the whole idea of insurance, rather than to any particular aspect. Many of the jabs at insurance agents have also retained their zing down the years.
Thus a George Price cartoon from 1957 of a man pushing a wheelbarrow full of money bowls into a patient's room in a hospital. "Here I am, Johnny-on-the-spot," the fellow says, "your friendly insurance agent."
Inside humor is always piquant, so I especially enjoyed Robert Weber's 1975 cartoon, in which a puny little guy in an ill-fitting sports coat says to a woman at a party, "In a way, I am kind of famous. But you've probably never heard of me unless you travel in insurance circles."
Of the 68,647 cartoons, I have two special favorites. In George Booth's 1974 contribution, one of his trademark rumpled ordinary men sits in his shrink's office, his body contorted. "Today, I'm not going to talk about my goddam mother. I'm going to talk about my goddam insurance company," he says. Best of all is Jack Ziegler's 1993 "My Insurance Dad," in which a new father cradles his son for the first time in the maternity ward. "Hey, little fella," he says, "welcome to the risk pool."
a Bermuda-based writer, editor and former accountant, is a regular columnist for Risk & Insurance®.
February 1, 2005
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