Saturday, September 17, 2011

Three Cartoonists Walk Into a Bar: Bruce Petty, Ronald Searle, and John O'Brien at Closing Time

Three cartoonists walk into a bar and they each stagger out at closing time with a great idea for a gag. Their names are Bruce Petty, Ronald Searle, and John O'Brien, and in each cartoonist's case the gag is basically the same visual idea. They live on different continents so, in all fairness, it's unlikely they were in the same bar. And, to be sure, they compose their gags during different decades, but they all choose to submit them to the same magazine. That magazine is, of course, the New Yorker, the world's most prestigious publisher of gag cartoons. 

So far, nothing really unusual has happened. Far-flung cartoonists come up with nearly identical gags all the time. What is unusual is that the New Yorker, one of the best-edited magazines on the planet, the possessor of a legendary fact-checking department which even checks the cartoons, goes ahead and actually publishes two of these very similar cartoons. In addition, they are currently, through the Cartoon Bank, licensing the rights to the third, unpublished drawing. How exactly could such a thing happen?

First off, let me state that I am not writing about plagiarism, which is a deliberate act of appropriating someone else's work as your own. I am writing about three celebrated cartoonists in the highest echelon of their craft going through the creative process and arriving at basically the same gag. It is more common than you might think.  In fact, it is pretty much inevitable. No, what's really odd here, I think, is the publication history.

Exhibit A is a page from the New Yorker issue of August 7, 1965. It contains a single-panel cartoon with no caption by the talented Australian cartoonist Bruce Petty:
Bruce Petty, The New Yorker, August 7, 1965, Page 28

Bruce Petty, The New Yorker, August 7, 1965, Page 28

It's closing time in the bar, one or two in the morning according to the clock, and the very disgruntled proprietor has had to take matters into his own hands with a patron who refuses to finish his last drink and leave. This preposterous situation is executed deftly by Petty, who renders the entire seat arrangement quite plausibly with the help of all those simple but well-placed vertical lines. The broad use of wash saturates the interior space in darkness, rendering the barkeep's exhausted frustration palpable.

Bruce Petty's cartoon did not totally fade into obscurity as do so many cartoons even after appearing in the New Yorker. It was eventually collected in John Bailey's Great Cartoons of the World, Series Four (Crown, 1970). The signature was moved, possibly to accommodate a page crease, and something funny happened with the shading at the very top and bottom of the picture, but it's clearly the same drawing and it's attributed correctly to the artist and the magazine. That's where our story might have ended, but it doesn't.  

Let's fast forward to 1973 and take a look at Exhibit B, the bold cover art by Ronald Searle. The issue is dated March 31, but I don't think it's meant to be an April Fools joke.

Ronald Searle, The New Yorker, March 31, 1973

Searle's approach is far more detailed and exacting but, of note, the upended patron sits in almost exactly the same position as Petty's. Searle does not show us the proprietor, leaving us to deduce how this bar patron ended up in his present predicament. He does not indicate the time of day by color, by shading or by a clock, but rather solely by the overnight arrangement of the chairs. In fact, the white upper third of the composition renders the scene unusually bright, which is very different from Petty's conception. Searle's floor tiles are arranged in a dizzying background pattern allowing us to share in the bar patron's vertigo. The man's status as last patron in the bar is further underscored by the hat rack with its lone remaining hat. 

Petty's 1965 gag is inspired, a rendering of a totally plausible conflict with an absurdly funny outcome. Searle's 1973 cover is perhaps even more absurd, as it is conceived at a later moment than Petty's, when the inebriated soul is left alone and isolated in his logical yet physically-impossible situation.  In addition, Searle's watercolor is a compositional tour-de-force, rendering it suitable for the New Yorker's cover.  

Wait, this gets even stranger. You might reasonably assume that Searle, living in France, was unaware of the work of Petty, living in Australia. It turns out that Searle was not only aware of Petty, he wrote the introduction to a collection of the younger artist's serious work, work that recalls Searle's own example of reportage collected, for example, in Refugees 1960:

Bruce Petty, Australian Artist in South East Asia. Melbourne: Grayflower, 1962
with an introduction by Ronald Searle

Small world, no? It's a good thing I don't believe in conspiracy theories or I might suggest that the two artists could have colluded to publish similar gags in the magazine. But I don't, so I won't. Might Searle have seen Petty's cartoon somewhere, forgotten it, and then inadvertently copied it? It's possible. But that still doesn't explain how essentially the same gag got accepted and published twice in the New Yorker.

Here's what I believe may have happened on the New Yorker's end, but it's only a conjecture. As described in Lee Lorenz's The Art of the New Yorker 1925-1995, art editor James Geraghty announced his retirement in 1972. After some time, Lee Lorenz was chosen to be his successor, and there was a three month transitional period in which Lorenz worked with Geraghty while Geraghty reported on his progress to editor William Shawn. Lorenz took over at some point in 1973 and so it's just possible that Geraghty never saw the Searle cover that was run in late March. Lorenz may not have been familiar with the Petty drawing, and perhaps Shawn and others had forgotten it as well. Anyway, my unsubstantiated guess is that this happened as a result of the transition in the art department. 

Our story is not yet ended. Exhibit C is on the Cartoon Bank's website. It's a drawing by John O'Brien that was never published in The New Yorker. There are relatively few unpublished drawings by New Yorker artists on the website available for licensing, and this is one of them. Perhaps many more are planned.

John O'Brien, "Finish up! We're closing."
Penthouse, c. 1999-2003
Image modified November 8, 2012

O'Brien's bar patron is sitting at the bar, not a table, and he has been upended without a seat, thereby distinguishing his drawing from the other two examples. Also, there is a word balloon with "Finish up! We're closing," which to my ear sounds a little superfluous after the two previous wordless gags.

In conclusion, this visual gag seems to have unusual staying power over at the New Yorker, where the editorial staff apparently closes a lot of bars. Petty's gag for some reason is not listed on the Cartoon Bank's website, which seems a significant slight since he started all this. Searle clearly got the most mileage out of the idea, getting published on the coveted cover of the magazine. John O'Brien got to the party last and his cartoon was not published in The New Yorker, but he still gets to license his version of the gag with the Cartoon Bank, which could be lucrative in a small way.  If nothing else, this unusually recurrent gag shows us how three superb cartoonists can approach the same subject just a bit differently, each, so to speak, bringing his own bottle to the table at closing time.

By the way, if anyone should have any additional information on the history of these three related cartoons, or possibly other examples of similar cartoons, please let me know. I can be reached at docnad (at) aol (dot) com.

Ronald Searle, The Last Customer,
Original artwork for The New Yorker, March 31, 1973
 Ronald Searle in Perspective. Boston: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1983, Page 143.

October 31, 2011 Update:  The Cartoon Bank's website suddenly has disappeared and a new but dissimilar Condé Nast website has taken its place. The content has changed in unpredictable ways. I am no longer able to find the unpublished John O'Brien closing time drawing on this site, leaving me with only the tiny thumbnail I was able to copy before. The flash version of the drawing seems to be gone, at least for now, and I was never able to copy it, only to link to it. If anyone reading this has a serviceable file of the drawing, I'd love to be able to repost it to its full advantage.

January 24, 2012 Update:  I have been informed that John O'Brien's closing time drawing was published in Penthouse, probably after 1998 and by the early 2000's. If readers wouldn't mind searching their personal archives, strictly in the interest of scholarship, I'd love to know which issue carries it. It would also be really great to get a good, clear scan of the cartoon so I don't have to keep showing that inadequate thumbnail image.

Again, you can contact me at my email address: docnad (at) aol (dot) com.

November 8, 2012 Update: I am pleased to note that after a year's absence John O'Brien's closing time drawing appears once again on the Cartoon Bank's website. A keyword search for guyNice will bring you to seven of Mr. O'Brien's drawings including one with a nice guy finishing last, which is a very fine cartoon in its own right but all in all having the keyword apply to six other O'Brien cartoons doesn't say much for the Cartoon Bank's understanding of search functionality.

May 11, 2013 Update:  On the Cartoon Bank's website, a keyword search for skittish dog will bring you directly to Mr. O'Brien's bar stool drawing. This is especially odd because the keyword must be intended for a famous drawing by George Booth.

October 29, 2013 Update: The above-mentioned skittish dog keyword no longer works. The guyNice keyword still works at

Notes:  My previous post on Ronald Searle is here.

John O'Brien appears in my post on The World Trade Center in Pre-9/11 New Yorker Covers here.



  1. Great article- top detective work Steve! I've long considered examining Searle's recycling of his own gags-such as last years' deck-chair design and the New Yorker cat cover.

    Bruce Petty is a new discovery for me-I must find that book.

  2. Thanks, Matt. I've never myself seen a copy of Petty's book, but I certainly wouldn't mind having a look. You might also want to take a look at Petty's current work, which has gotten a lot looser and wilder.