Bob Mankoff on the evolution of New Yorker cartoons
By Tuesday of most weeks, Bob Mankoff, cartoon editor for The New Yorker, has received about 1,000 submissions. About half come from his stable of regular contributors and the rest from wannabe regulars, all vying to be chosen for the next issue.
Some are classic gag cartoons; others are reality-based, whimsical or surreal, satirical or philosophical. There are those whose humor relies on wordplay and those which require no words. Some reflect impressive drawing skills, and others make an impression with their ideas rather than their artistic execution.
Then there are the classic New Yorker tropes: lone man on a desert island, couple on a date, corporate board meeting, doctor’s office, a visit from the grim reaper. But increasingly they come over the transom pushing the comedy envelope deeper into our new age.
Suffice it to say, Mankoff’s desk on the 20th floor of the Condé Nast Building in Times Square is inundated with cartoons.
“All of [which] are very, very different,” said Mankoff, 69, in a recent telephone interview. But there’s one quality that unites all that disparate doodling. The quintessential New Yorker cartoon elicits that “smile of the mind. Not a belly laugh.”
And Mankoff should know.
He’s a 20-year veteran freelance cartoonist. He’s published some 900 cartoons in The New Yorker, by turns quirky and intellectual. In 1997, he became the magazine’s cartoon editor. Now, Mankoff has written a memoir, “How About Never — Is Never Good for You?: My Life in Cartoons.” (Its title comes from an iconic Mankoff cartoon that shows a man standing at his office desk looking at his datebook and saying into the telephone, “No, Thursday’s out. How about never — is never good for you?”)
Mankoff’s brisk, jovial chronicle is part life story, part peek into the process of how the magazine selects cartoons, and part exploration of both his and the magazine’s artistic-comedic aesthetic. It also contains loads of cartoons.
In an event sponsored by the Harvard Book Store last Wednesday evening in Cambridge, he presented a cartoon-punctuated, slideshow-cum-comedy routine at a sold-out Brattle Theatre. The talk gave an overview of his book that, as Mankoff writes in its introduction, “tell[s] my story as a person, cartoonist and cartoon editor within the larger story of the extraordinary institution that made magazine cartooning an important part of American culture: The New Yorker.”
New Yorker cartoons “are part of our cultural heritage, a culture which over time has more and more seen the value of humor,” the lanky, bespectacled Mankoff said during the phone interview. “I think I’m in an absolutely wonderfully unique position to watch humor evolve.’’
After 17 years at the helm of “the Everest of magazine cartooning,” though both his goatee and curly mane of hair have gone gray, Mankoff still finds himself “eager” for the new submissions he gets each week — which is a good thing given how many arrive.
Mankoff performs the initial culling and extracts 50 keepers. These he brings to his weekly meeting with the magazine’s editor, David Remnick. From that stack, they select the 17 or 18 that will appear in any single issue.
How to decide?
For starters, “humor needs a target,” Mankoff said during his talk. “But the target is ourselves”: the intellectual, urbane, self-aware New Yorker reader. Humor is also about something gone wrong. “There are no cartoons about happy marriages,” he said. “Each cartoon needs the right amount of wrong.” And while the New Yorker idea of funny can be satiric or provocative it is never offensive.
Mankoff has put humor under the microscope. His book is peppered with his comedy theories and charts and graphs, including one illustrating the relationship between “playful incongruity’’ and humor: Too little and it’s not funny but too much leads to confusion.
“Bob does the wacky goofball thing on order — he knows how to deploy his comic self — but he is also intensely smart and a wonderful editor,” said Remnick in an e-mail interview. “I’ve been working with him for 15 years. It’s so fantastic that it only seems like 14..”
While the New Yorker has raised the bar on the cartoon, Mankoff notes that the magazine did not “invent” them. That distinction goes to the British magazine Punch, which began publishing drawings with long, mannered captions in the mid-19th century.
Under the leadership of founding editor Harold Ross in the 1930s, The New Yorker began revolutionizing cartoons. The jokes became quicker and more visual. Characters spoke informally and in the American vernacular. Ross also integrated the cartoons “into the genome of the magazine,” among the articles instead of congregating them in the back.
As for Mankoff’s personal history, he said during the telephone interview that he never dreamed of being a cartoonist. But growing up in the Bronx and Queens in a Jewish “hothouse, humorous environment” in the 1950s and early 1960s, “being quick with repartee” and “having a mouth on you” was valued — not just a facility “with insults but with a sort of humor behind it.”
Mankoff told the Cambridge audience that as a kid The New Yorker “struck a chord” with him. Reading cartoons by “uber-minimalist” James Thurber, he thought, “I could draw better than that.”
He attended The High School of Music & Art, where his artistic ambitions withered after looking at the work of more talented classmates. Mankoff went off to Syracuse University, where he developed an interest in cartooning his senior year but had his work rejected by several magazines. All the while, he kept honing his ideas about comedy.
Mankoff went to graduate school and was on the cusp of getting a doctorate in experimental psychology (“It turned out to be a huge cusp”) before deciding to drop it and follow his passion for cartooning. In the early 1970s, he began publishing his work in places like Saturday Review, but the goal of climbing cartooning’s Everest remained elusive.
Over four years, he sent in 2,000 submissions before he got his first New Yorker acceptance in 1977. As more were accepted (in 1990, he sold 34 cartoons, and made $30,000, about $882 per cartoon), he became part of a new wave of artists, including Mick Stevens, Michael Maslin, and Roz Chast, who valued authenticity over style or a quick laugh.
This generation began to replace the old guard, represented by Saul Steinberg, Charles Addams, and George Booth. Jack Ziegler, who “arrived” just before Mankoff, recalled the group of cartoonists who used to meet for lunch after auditioning their latest batches to then-editor Lee Lorenz.
“Sometimes [Bob] would speak in potential cartoon captions,’’ Ziegler said, “which I would have to point out to him. ‘Bob, that sounds like a possible cartoon to me.’ ‘Really?’ he’d answer, pulling out a piece of paper and pen from his jacket and then looking at me questioningly. ‘What did I say?’ ”
When Lorenz retired, Mankoff inherited what he called “a plane on automatic pilot” — some of the world’s best cartoonists. “But if I didn’t bring in new people and the New Yorker didn’t bring in new people, it was going to crash,” he said in the telephone interview.
Ever since, Mankoff has also made it his job to bring in “younger gag cartoonists,” said Chast, author of a soon-to-be-released cartoon memoir “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” “Even though it’s a little disconcerting to realize that you really are not the new kid on the block, and haven’t been in quite some time, it’s good to know that there are new kids on the block. Because. Well. I don’t need to spell it out.”
Mankoff is busy cultivating what he calls the “farm system,” mentoring new talent versus just outright rejecting them. The new blood is helping him continue to evolve the idea of The New Yorker cartoon.
“The crucial thing for Bob,” said Remnick, has been “to keep attuned to new artists, artists from different parts of life, with different experiences and things to say, who are also, of course, funny. And he has done that.”
As for his legacy, besides his cartoons Mankoff created the magazine’s Cartoon Bank, an online service that licenses New Yorker cartoons (and breathes new life into rejects). The famous New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest, a weekly feature since 2005, is also his brainchild.
There’s also Mankoff’s signature cartoon style, a Seurat-like pointillist, stippled technique using dots to form his cartoons. But this “dot doodling” took him a while to develop and perfect.
“It’s sort of like learning cursive,” he concluded in Cambridge. “Eventually your voice comes out. The voice is in your hand.”