'On the Couch': Cartoonists Aim Ink at Shrinks Passive-aggressive, dysfunctional, in denial -- these phrases were once uttered only in the sanctuary of a psychotherapist's office. Now they're often the punch line of a good joke, and a new book showcases some of the best psychiatry-related cartoons.
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'On the Couch': Cartoonists Aim Ink at Shrinks

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'On the Couch': Cartoonists Aim Ink at Shrinks

'On the Couch': Cartoonists Aim Ink at Shrinks

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Psychiatry is supposed to be a way to deal with some of life's deepest issues. But really, Austrians with beards, lying on a couch, and a debate where the choices are cigar or cigar? This stuff is funny.


Which brings us to On the Couch. It's a book of New Yorker magazine cartoons about therapy. You can see some of them at our Web site, NPR.org. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates visited an exhibition of the On the Couch drawings. It opened this week in Los Angeles and she has this report.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: It's a cool, late summer evening and after a full workday, a couple hundred people have struggled through rush hour traffic here in L.A. to get to the Skirball Cultural Center. They've come to this modern building that overlooks the city for an exhibition and lecture about New Yorker cartoons that gently lampoon psychotherapy. This is a joint project of the museum and the Austrian Embassy, a way to recognize the 150th anniversary of Sigmund Freud's birth.

Mr. BOB MANKOFF (Cartoon Editor, New Yorker Magazine): Psychoanalysis deals with people's unhappiness, and unhappiness is the root of all the things that we find funny. It's a way for us to cope with what I think Freud calls sort of the pathology of ordinary life.

GRIGSBY BATES: That's Bob Mankoff. He kind of looks like a cartoon himself. He's tall and lanky with shoulder-length silver hair, Ichabod Crane dressed in Armani. Mankoff is the New Yorker's cartoon editor, a professional cartoonist and a former experimental psychologist, which makes him uniquely qualified to curate this exhibition.

I asked Mankoff whether the American preoccupation with therapy - who's in it, who needs it - isn't a New York/L.A. thing. I mean, can people in other, presumably more sensible parts of the country even relate to this exhibition? Here's his professional and completely facetious opinion.

Mr. MAKOFF: A recent study has shown that people in Kansas City and Dallas are just as nuts as people in New York and Los Angeles. So I think they will.

GRIGSBY BATES: One of the visitors is Roberto Donato, a psychiatric intern. He stops in front of one cartoon that shows the patient on the couch and the doctor in his chair; both are fast asleep.

Mr. ROBERT DONATO (Psychiatric Intern): That's one of the tough things about being a psychotherapist. Sometimes the stuff you hear just goes on and on and on. And that's the challenge, and I think this cartoon, where you see the psychiatrist and the patient falling asleep, it's classic.

GRIGSBY BATES: Another Donato favorite has a gangster in pinstripes on the couch. A psychiatrist calmly reassures him that doing terrible things does not necessarily make him a bad person.

Mr. DONATO: That's what the therapist tries to tell their patients, even though you know that the therapist is thinking you are a bad person. But I'm trying my best to not be judgmental, which is very, very difficult sometimes.

GRIGSBY BATES: In addition to practitioners, the exhibition draws what Bob Mankoff cheekily refers to as the practiced-upon. I follow a whoop of joyful laughter to find a still chuckling Sergio Stubrin. What was making him laugh out loud was a drawing that shows the patient asking her analyst, When you die, can I have your couch? Stubrin, himself a former analysis patient, says this definitely strikes a chord.

Mr. SERGIO STUBRIN (Former Psychoanalysis Patient): Your psychoanalyst's couch is very special because you cannot find that in any place.

GRIGSBY BATES: You've invested a lot of time in this particular piece of real estate?

Mr. STUBRIN: Probably about six years of my life, yeah. It's worth every penny.

GRIGSBY BATES: That's a lot of hours, and a lot of pennies. And, Stubrin says, he wouldn't hesitate to return to therapy.

Mr. STUBRIN: I will go anytime. I still want the couch.

GRIGSBY BATES: On the Couch will be at the Skirball until early December. For people not in L.A., the companion book has just been published.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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