Wheels Within Wheels

Many years ago there was a decidedly low-tech device, invented, I think, by a cartoonist and entrepreneur named Lo Linkert. It was in the form of a series of laminated cardboard disks of decreasing size pinned together on top of one another with a rivet through their centers. On each disk were colorful, piece-of-pie-shaped segments printed with the names of objects, people, animals, and possible cartoon situations. The disks were designed to be spun around one another so that the words and phrases would end up aligned in chance juxtapositions. The result after a spin might have been, say, two nuns and a banana on a desert island. Then, of course, you merely added a caption. (The last step not unlike the NYer caption contest. Those of you so inclined might even give this one a try).

To a degree, of course, the wheel imitates the mental process some of us go through every time we sit down to work out ideas. We all probably have a version of the joke-wheel up there in our cartoonist’s brains. One wonders what James Thurber or Saul Steinberg’s wheels were like. They were probably very sophisticated machines compared to those of some us who have come after them. Many of our wheels have segments which bear descriptions of those handy standard clichés like the office, the playground sandbox, or the ubiquitous desert island. As our disks continue to spin around one another, it’s amazing how inexhaustible the supply of new ideas based on those old situations seems to be.

Every once in a while someone redesigns the wheel. For instance, take the cartoons of Jack Ziegler and Roz Chast, the subjects of which have created new segments for all our mental joke-wheels. There were no toasters or strip malls on the original joke wheel as I recall, not to mention ice-cream cones or small grand pianos falling from the sky. No segments with labels like “Anxiety about Appliances” or “Existentialistical Funnies”.

So what is the future of the joke-wheel? Will the newer cartoonists begin to add or subtract segments or will they just ignore the wheel and, like Erik Hilgert, draw amorphous figures who speak or dream in stream-of-consciousness prose? Will there come a day when cartoon businessmen stop wearing suits and ties, kids leap from their sandboxes, and desert islands sink permanently from view?

We’ll need to consult the Big Cosmic Joke-Wheel to find that out.


One comment

  1. Paul Karasik says:

    I had one of those years ago. Rather than the “joke-wheel”, it was called the “Gag Finder”.

    This name indicated that there were gags out there simply waiting to be found, like a metal detector at the beach trolling for quarters and lost cell phones.

    Frankly, the damn thing was not much use in divining gags, but I remember using it once as a template to draw a perfect circle to represent the sun in a cartoon about two nuns and a banana on a desert island.

    -Paul Karasik

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