New York cartoonist David Sipress smiles through pain in new memoir

(New York Jewish Week via JTA) — David Sipress didn’t sell his first cartoon to the New Yorker until 1997, when he was 50. Playboy and the Washington Post, and he had some success as a sculptor. But The New Yorker represented the kind of career high any good son would want to share with his dad — especially a Jewish dad who never considered art a viable career.

Nat Sipress lived long enough to hear the good news from David, but not long enough to see the cartoon in print – a wry, tongue-in-cheek twist that looks like, well, a David Sipress cartoon. The cartoonist’s new memoir, “What’s So Funny?” explores the strained relationship between demanding parents and a son whose dreams didn’t match theirs.

The book is also a portrait of New York City in the 1950s and 1960s. Sipress grew up on West 79th Street, attended Horace Mann High School, and spent summers with his family on the beach in Neponsit, Queens. . Nat Sipress, who immigrated from Ukraine as a child, ran an upscale jewelry store on 61st Street and Lexington Avenue. David’s mother, Estelle, spent her days making sure her husband had nothing to worry about outside of his business. “Like many Reform Jewish families on the Upper West Side in the 1950s,” writes Sipress, the family celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas, singing what sounded like a young David as “decorating the halls with branches of challah”.

The book is profusely illustrated with cartoons, including one that could serve as a Sipress family crest: a father tells his adult son, “I never said I was proud of you because I didn’t want to you have a swollen head. »

David Sipress answered four questions from New York Jewish Week about the process of writing such a moving memoir and his deep connection to his native New York.

1. I expected your book to join the long list of “behind the scenes New Yorker” memoirs, but it’s really an exploration of how your parents – especially your father – shaped your sense of humor and sense of identity. Is this the book you originally wanted to write?

Sipress: I wrote “What’s so funny?” by a long-standing desire to put on paper the family stories that have been swirling around in my head for as long as I can remember. Every time I sat down to write, my mom, dad, and sister were there, demanding to be talked about. I spent a lot of my life obsessing over their secrets and why I knew so little about them, making cartoons about them, discussing them in therapy, thinking about all the ways they have shaped who I am – my worries, my ambitions, my sense of humor and much more – despite the physical and emotional distance between us. So yes, that was the book I intended to write.

Of course, unexpected avenues have opened up along the way. It quickly dawned on me that I couldn’t tell my family stories without also writing about my creative process and my career as a designer. As I say in the book, “the line between my life and my work is fragile at best”.

And I’ve always been interested in the prospect of combining autobiography and cartoons, but it wasn’t until I finished my first draft that I realized that including my cartoons could add some insight and, most importantly, a healthy touch of humor, whatever story I was telling. Like almost everyone, my family history has not always been happy. When I started writing the book, I wondered how to write about painful, even devastating experiences, without sacrificing the overall tone of the book, a tone that reflects who I am – an artist for whom humor is the form of most natural expression. The incorporation of cartoons was the key to my resolution of this dilemma.

(Courtesy of David Sipress/Mariner Books)

2. Your book is so demanding in researching the details of specific Jewish life in New York. (I’m thinking of what you wrote about your father and Sandy Koufax: “Strictly secular Jew in the religion department, [my father] became a strict observer in the baseball department. ”) How did growing up in New York shape your view of the world, and would you have been a different person or artist if you had grown up, say, in the suburbs?

The first cartoon in the book depicts a father and his children strolling through Central Park. The sun peeks out behind the tall apartment buildings of Central Park West. The father explains, “The sun rises on the Upper East Side and sets on the Upper West Side.” I think that sums up my New York-centric worldview. Growing up here always made me feel special, and the city has been an inspiration to me all my life, filling me with a sense of possibility as an artist, constantly sparking ideas for cartoons and for my writing. One of the pleasures of writing “What’s so funny?” explores my memories of the city I love and recalls the different ways I experienced it at different times in my life. I can’t imagine growing up anywhere else.

3. You describe the generational gap between you – born here, relatively well off, protected from hardship – and your father, whose journey you describe as “from a poor immigrant with a fifth-grade education to a successful businessman “. For any child who dreams of being an artist — and risks disappointing their parents — what advice do you have?

I’m always hesitant to give advice to anyone on the big choices in life. Everyone’s journey is different. I only know that for me, as I say in the book, not defying my parents and turning my back on my dream of being an artist would have meant being “trapped in the bad life”. I guess I’d say to that kid who shares my dream, if you feel as strong as I do, you really gotta listen to this.

“Are you leaving school? After all we’ve sacrificed for you? (Courtesy of David Sipress/Mariner Books)

4. I love the story you tell about how one of your drawings – a guy in a bar, with the word “BAR” in the window spelled backwards – sat forever until that you find the right caption. I know “Where do you get your ideas?” is a baffling question, but what do you tell other budding cartoonists or designers about finding inspiration?

I’m only talking about my own process. My ideas mainly come from paying attention to what I experience on a daily basis, noting what people say and how they say it, thinking about what makes me happy, what scares me, what makes me angry, always keeping a part of my brain actively on the lookout for cartoon ideas, never giving up on an idea like with the cartoon you are referring to. If writing my memoir has shown me anything, it’s that there’s very little I’ve experienced that I haven’t made a cartoon of at some point. So, when people ask me: “Where do you get your ideas?” I can honestly answer: “Everywhere. All the time.”

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