"Now," began Ron Wolin of the Cartoonists Guild who was serving as moderator during the contest. "I need the name of the zaniest and kookiest place you can think of."
Up shot the first hand: "Washingto, D.C.!"
"Please, no proper names," returned Wolin.
The game was "stump the artist" and the event was "Funny Business in America," a four-hour symposium Tuesday sponsored by the 10-year-old guild for the purpose of a serious discussion of humor, something which Guild president Mort Gerberg said was a "precedent breaker."
"We're always breaking precedents," said Gerberg. "That's what cartoonists are for."
Held in the auditorium of the New School for Social Research, the humorous celebrities on the panel included New York Times satirist Russell Baker, cartoonists Jules Feiffer, Lee Lorenz, Ed Sorel, Charles Saxon and author Herb Gardner. Others who sat in the audience included Gahan Wilson, Charles Addams, George Booth. Rowland B. Wilson and Michelle Urry.
A standing-room-only crowd packed the auditorium, some to see the stars, others to try and understand humor.
"I'm sort of curious as to what's funny in America," said Daniel Golden, a New York psychiatrist who came with his wife. "I want to know so I can laugh."
During the "stump the artist" contest the audience was invited to suggest a place, a verb and an occupation for drawings to be sketched by each of the well-known cartoonists attending. Bill Woodman drew the most applause when, after being given "closet," "skydive" and "shepherd," he sketched a picture of an angry frump who has caught her husband cuddled with a sheep in a closet, and captioned it: 'Would you believe me if I said I was skydiving?"
When the panel discussion began the humorists couldn't resist making light of the situation.
"Here we are being very Greenwich Village," said Baker, "having a panel discussion on humor. Next thing you know we'll have a humor problem."
Well, the next thing you knew Michelle Urry, the female cartoon editor of Playboy and Oui, was fulminating about "the" humor problem.
"There are no women in this panel because women have been suppressed too long," said Urry. "Women have gone underground with their humor. The typical woman's joke use to be 'What are you doing after the prom?' Now it's 'What are you doing after the rape workshop?"
The last part of her statment clearly brought a few chuckles, mostly muffled under neckties. But the mood remained somber while Baker lamented the loss of gaiety in humor.
"Nobody does anything for pure fun anymore," he said. "If you do something fun for fun's sake people ask you what you're doing."
Another woman was brought to her feet when a member of the audience suggested that a good picture of humor is a lady in a wheelchair rolling down a hill into a brick wall.
The alarmed woman was Marilyn Goldstein, director of The Voice of the Handicapped.
As the discussion came to a close, the freedom and the future of cartooning and satire was hashed over. Ed Sorel lamanted the censoring power of pressure groups and advertisers in magazines like The New Yorker, but gave a cheer for The Village Voice, in which "Jules and I can say anything we want."
Lee Lorenz, cartoon editor of The New Yorker, wasted no time in his expected riposte, assuring everyone that the editorial and advertising departments at The New Yorker are completely separate. As for the future of humor, Lorenz said, "Humor doesn't go anywhere, it just treads water."
As the discussion was about to sink, everyone headed for the sculpture garden for a stand-around, informal talk with the wits.
George Booth was caught by young admirers trying to make appointments to show their work, and Russell Baker had walked only a couple of steps through the auditorium aisle before fans stopped him. Asked for a final comment on tht merit of such an evening, Baker replied dryly, "Once you've come downtown to talk about humor, you've dug your own grave."