Visual Arts Review: Cartoonist Roz Chast Reveals Her “Theories of Everything”

For those who missed this evening, pick up Roz Chast’s Theories of Everything, which is a wonderfully huge collection of her cartoons published in The New Yorker.

By Susan Miron

Cartoonist Roz Chast

Despite being billed as a 90-minute show, the evening featuring Roz Chast, the famed New Yorker cartoonist, actually clocked in at about 55 minutes. Still, the adoring fans that filled Sanders Theatre in Cambridge last night didn’t seem to mind that the presentation was so short, even though Ms. Chast’s show-and-tell only lasted 35 minutes. That was followed by about 25 minutes of barely audible questions from the audience. Is this what the Celebrity Series of Boston (the evening’s presenter) feels amounts to sufficient face-time in a show that costs between 40 and 60 dollars?

Regrettably, I did my homework before the show on Friday night, so almost nothing this quirky cartoonist said was new. Most of the illustrations she displayed were from previous shows (check out Roz Chast’s interviews via Google, especially the one with Steve Martin in 2006), and most of her autobiographical tales have been trotted out several times before for other audiences and/or interviewers.

That said, the audience relished Ms. Chast’s cartoons, which were projected on a large screen. Most of them were prefaced by charming explanations by the diminutive, blond cartoonist in large glasses who readily laughed at her own stories and caricatures. It was a tour of Ms. Chast’s life, focusing on her years as a working cartoonist. The audience recognized many of these famous cartoons, which first appeared in The New Yorker and can be seen in her compendium, Theories of Everything.

Ms. Chast told us that The Merck Manual was an essential tome in her childhood home, where her parents were a teacher and an assistant principal. They had Roz in their 40s: “My parents did not find funny what I found funny.” For an extraordinarily anxious, phobic young girl, The Merck Manual proffered an entrance into a world in which nearly everything could go very bad, very quickly. She imagined a Big Book of Horrible Rare Diseases, with chapters such as “Everything You Always Wanted to Know on Scurvy.” In her book, What I Hate from A to Z, she catalogued her phobias, anxieties, and dislikes: “I could probably do an A to Z on my driving phobias,” she said with a wince.

Many of Ms. Chast’s cartoons have two or three panels, often featuring old people sitting in a living room, glued into a overstuffed chair from which it seems they haven’t moved in decades. She was 23 when she began her career as a cartoonist, submitting a “bundle” of 60 cartoons to The New Yorker. Her first cartoon is shown during all her talks. Some people don’t get it, or it takes a while for them to understand what’s going on. The cartoon features an extremely odd collection of 10 “weird” objects with names that mean nothing whatsoever—spak, hackeb, etc. She had been out of art school a year—not bad. Some on the New Yorker staff freaked out: did the magazine owe the Chast family money? Subscribers were appalled.

This cartoon was followed by hundreds of submissions, such as “Gifts from the House of Low Goals.” Ms. Chast laughed at the sight of this one: “We have really set the bar very low. . . There’s a cake with ‘Congratulations on your new glasses.'” There is also an award for “Participant.” In the archly “romantic” cartoon “The MRI of Love,” two people enter an MRI with a heart-shaped opening. Another fun one (a favorite of mine, a former New Yorker) is the mailbox of The Kranes, living in what looks like a rural hell somewhere. The mailbox reads 1,000,796 West 79th St. One cartoon spotlights “The Holy Trinity”: Salt, Butter, Sugar. The Chastian vision of mortality is summed up in “The Three Ages of Man,” which divides our lifespan into getting older, than being the same age as, then being older than your doctor.

Mother’s Day has its own Chast-esque cards: bitter, ironic, pitying, guilt-inducing. There’s the memorable greeting offered by “The Freelance Life”: “Honey! I’m still home!” “The Wheel of Doom” toon stars two guys carrying placards: “The End is Near,” reads one. “You wish,” reads the other.

Ms. Chast’s first New Yorker cover demonstrated, as only she can, the evolution of ice cream. In one of her more interesting projects, she takes up the Ukrainian pysanka tradition of egg decorating, though with her distinctive illustration on the eggs. She says she has always done her own “stuff” (writing), although in the ’60s there were gag men available to do the captions. As for artistic influences, she adored Charles Addams cartoons, which she discovered at the age of eight. She particularly loved his “Dear Dead Days,” and sees him as a kindred spirit. And—no surprise here—she loves the work of Edward Gorey. How does she feel about The New Yorker‘s back page caption contests? “It demeans what cartooning is, but I wouldn’t want to tell you that!”

For those who missed this evening, pick up Ms. Chast’s Theories of Everything. And listen to the Steve Martin interview, which is double fun because he is so smart and funny himself. The two later teamed up on a volume entitled The Alphabet from A to Y with Bonus Letter Z. It’s billed as a children’s book, but no doubt it serves up zaniness for all ages.

Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer.


  1. Debra Cash on January 26, 2013 at 5:22 pm

    I love Roz Chast too — my bulletin board is chock-full of torn out Chast cartoons from the New Yorker with her “Oh, Well”

    having pride of place.

    But the hostile End is Near placard saying “you wish” is almost definitely being carried by the prophet’s disgruntled wife.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts