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New Yorker Cartoonist Asher Perlman Explains How His Work Became a Meme

He's a performer, comic and Emmy-nominated writer for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

asher-headshot-1
Asher Perlman is a writer, performer and cartoonist based in New York.

This story is part of I'm So Obsessed (subscribe here), our podcast featuring interviews with actors, artists, celebrities and creative types about their work, career and current obsessions.

Years ago, Emmy-nominated writer, comic, cartoonist and self-described "hyphen-hunting-multi-hyphenate" Asher Perlman knew The New Yorker magazine as a respected source for in-depth stories, fiction and humor. The iconic weekly zine dates back to 1925 and is still widely read both online and in print. Typically drawn in black and white with a brief caption, cartoons are one of The New Yorker's most beloved facets. Lee Lorenz, Françoise Mouly, Pete Holmes, William Steig, Helen E. Hokinson and James Thurber are among a long list of talented people who contributed cartoons to The New Yorker over the years.

Perlman grew up drawing, influenced by his father who's an artist. During the pandemic, he decided to pursue cartooning beyond just a hobby. But it took The New Yorker rejecting Perlman for him to realize how he could get better. He focused on something that longtime New Yorker cartoonist Jeremy Nguyen told him over a cup of coffee.

"The best piece of advice was draw the cartoon you want in The New Yorker, not what you think The New Yorker wants you to draw," Perlman said during an interview on CNET's I'm So Obsessed podcast. "And that feels like good advice for any kind of creative pursuit."

Perlman, whose "day job" is as a staff writer on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, explained that many of his early submissions felt predictable, which is likely why they were turned down. But he kept drawing and writing and used his skills as a comic and writer to improve.

"If you break down the science of a joke down to the math of it, they're all setups and punchlines," Perlman said. "Sometimes, the image is the setup and the caption is the punchline. Sometimes, the caption is the setup and the image is the punchline. And sometimes, the line is more blurry than that, but it's still fundamentally the same idea."

Over time, The New Yorker started publishing his work, and Perlman shared others on social media and his website. His cartoons often focus on modern life's awkwardness and faux pas. For example, one has two Godzilla-like monsters towering over a smoldering Chicago skyline. Both monsters have a hot dog and one adds ketchup on his. The caption reads, "You can't do that, Scott -- this is Chicago."

Last year, one of his creations went viral. The cartoon shows a man wearing a Phish T-shirt holding cash as he walks toward a jukebox in a bar. The rest of the patrons look worried with one of the bartenders jumping over the counter and another person diving toward him. The caption reads, "Oh god, he's going for the jukebox!"

One of his friends saw the cartoon in a Facebook group for a different band. The person who posted it changed the name of the band on the guy's T-shirt. And a lot of other people did the same, turning Perlman's work into a meme.

"It actually made its way to all these little niches on the internet where some of them were better known bands like Aphex Twin or the Grateful Dead," Perlman said with a laugh. "There were bands putting their own logo on the guy's shirt and sharing it ironically. That was a wild experience and I loved watching it take on a new life."

You can listen to my entire conversation with Perlman in the podcast player above. He discusses the first time he walked into the Ed Sullivan Theater working for Colbert, being nominated for an Emmy Award and about the time he worked at an Apple Store at the "genius bar."

Subscribe to I'm So Obsessed on your favorite podcast app. In each episode, Connie Guglielmo and I catch up with an artist, actor or creator to learn about their work, career and current obsessions.