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Couch-based comedy

An exhibit of New Yorker cartoons about psychoanalysis is a fitting present for Freud's 150th birthday.

October 29, 2006

PSYCHOANALYSIS HAS long been a staple of popular culture. Nowhere more so than on the pages of the New Yorker magazine.

In honor of Sigmund Freud's 150th birthday, the Skirball Cultural Center is presenting "On the Couch: Cartoons from the New Yorker." Covering nearly 80 years of panels poking fun at psychoanalysis, the exhibit includes about 80 drawings, most featuring couches and neurotic witticisms.

The exhibition functions as a kind of cultural timeline. Sexual mores, political sensibilities and linguistic quirks are traced through the lens of analysis, revealing that even though times have changed, our central preoccupations have not. The caption of a 1932 cartoon by Mary Petty depicts a gossiping cocktail party guest whispering, "They had her psychoanalyzed until she was going around with everyone's husband but her own, and all the time it was an infection in her tonsils." A Mischa Richter cartoon from 1953 depicts a male patient lying on a couch and looking out the window at a bikini-clad woman on a billboard. "Now just say the first thing that comes into your mind," says his analyst.

By the 1970s, psychoanalysis had merged with the counterculture. Everett Opie's 1973 drawing of a street protest shows banners announcing "Brotherhood of the Neo-Freudians" and "Sons and Daughters of the Primal Scream." In 2003, Mike Twohy drew a therapist handing out a clipboard and saying, "This one allows us to release all your information to a sitcom."

"Jokes about psychoanalysis are no different from jokes about mothers-in-law or being stranded on an island," says exhibition curator Michael Freund. "They work because they involve a high-pressure situation. Of course, a truly orthodox Freudian would probably ask me what I mean by that."

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