Bob Mankoff Interview: Part Two

You can read part one here.

First, here's some special cartoonist terms you should be aware of before reading:

Batch: A week's worth of cartoons that a cartoonist brings in to show the editor. A batch typically contains ten cartoons, but may contain less or more depending on how creative the cartoonist was during the week. If a cartoonist comes in with fewer than ten, they run the risk of admonishment. If they come in with more than ten, they are setting themself up for additional disappointment.

OK: What The New Yorker calls a cartoon that they have decided to buy, as in "You got an OK this week". Meaning that of the ten cartoons in your batch, one was OK enough to buy. Notice that it isn't called a "good" or a "great", just an "OK". Wouldn't want us to get too comfortable.

Resub: A cartoon that is being resubmitted after being previously rejected. As you might imagine this is a delicate endeavor. One doesn't want one's editor to think one isn't coming up with new ideas. Some cartoonists have the temerity to resubmit a cartoon the very next week, but the common thought is to wait a while, months or years, until one's editor has forgotten about it. This sometimes works and you'll get an OK for the resub in your batch.

Kill: What they call it when they buy a cartoon, you turn in the finished artwork, and then later they decide that they didn't like it after all and that it will never run ever. This has only happened to me once with a cartoon called "The Loch Ness Goose," which I am still fond of. No one will ever see these "killed" cartoons unless I post a few on The Huffington Post at some point. Hm.

Interview:
Matt: Let's see, what else do I want to ask you. Uh... Ok, Does the order that we put our cartoons in our batch matter? Does batch order matter at all with you?

Bob: You have no idea how much it matters.

Matt: Really?

Bob: No, it doesn't matter at all.

Matt: Well, there's all kinds of theories among the cartoonists: start with funniest, end with funniest...

Bob: Yeah, yeah. I try to think that I'm a professional at this point and that I'm not gonna be affected by that. I look--before I show the cartoons to David Remnick--I look at them over and over again.

Matt: Do you? So you don't make a first impression of sorts. Funny or not funny.

Bob: Well, sometimes I make a first impression, but then from that selection I think you do have to sort of double-check your gut feelings. And also remember, if you think batch order is important, that your batch is among a lot of other batches.

Matt: Right. So it's also the Metabatch order...

Bob: Yeah, the Metabatch. And you can't control that and I imagine sometimes that can affect... let's just say it all probably evens out in the end. There are a lot of factors that can't be controlled. Just like in the weekly selection, I mean, sometimes you might have an OK on a week because that week's work was slightly weaker.

Matt: Oh, from the other cartoonists?

Bob: Yeah. Like they just didn't come up with the stuff, and that's why you should always resubmit ideas, and why in the magazine, some weeks the cartoons are better than others. Overall, it's not a perfect process, but I think it's better than anybody else's process for putting cartoons in a magazine.

Matt: Well, the one you bought from me this week was a resub.

Bob: Yeah?

Matt: You haven't seen it in six months or so.

Bob: I should go kill it.

Matt: Right. Do you think pretty much anyone can be a cartoonist if they work at it?

Bob: Humor is a talent. You can get better at it, but if you don't have that essence...

Matt: But there's also the repetitive practice of it.

Bob: It's repetitive practice, but you know, it's similar to something like juggling. If you put enough time in and you're fairly coordinated, or quite coordinated like you have to be to juggle five balls... but right away someone's gonna say, "Yeah, but you're not doing eight."

Matt: Right.

Bob: So you know right away, "Well, that's where I can go. That's my ceiling." So each person can get better. And I think the Caption Contest shows, that the ability to be funny is pretty widespread in the population. I think more now than ever before because of all the comedy shows and comedians on TV and elsewhere. It really is a way people communicate now across a broad, disparate culture, you know, through jokes. We get five, six, seven, eight thousand captions sent in and I think if people are honest and they look at what the caption contest produces, they have to say, "Hey, that's not bad." And, every week people do it, so I'm encouraged. Now I don't think those people would be professional cartoonists, because I doubt they could do it every week--ten gags a week. I think the hard part of cartooning--the heavy lifting--is actually creating the image, the set-up. Once you create that, you're really 80 or 90 percent there.

Matt: Yeah, but that's assuming that cartoons all start with an image. I personally think it's the idea that comes first.

Bob: Yeah, right, but for this particular type of cartoon--the incongruity cartoon...

Matt: OK.

Bob: For the most part, I don't think you do this type of cartoon by starting verbally... the latest Caption Contest up there is a modern woman talking to the caveman. The caption we picked as one of the finalists was something like, "I'm sorry. I want to date other types of man". Now you'd never come up with that line first; you'd almost have to have seen the image first. Or you would never say, for that cartoon, one of the other ones we picked was, "The fire went out." You know what I mean? Also I don't think the cartoonists often realize how the image is there in some way, or the setting is there in some way, you know, in their heads maybe, attached to the verbal part of the idea. Even for cartoonists who work generally from a verbal place like yourself. I think a lot of your lines tend to be... no, this is interesting because we sort of evolved together. I think you're still pretty much a type of standup artist.

Matt: Yeah.

Bob: You know? You're saying a line and then you're illustrating it, but more and more I think the visual is integrated.

Matt: I've tried to get better at that.

Bob: Yeah.

Matt: That was the big lesson for me.

Bob: Yeah, you don't want to just have a person saying some wisecrack.

Matt: Yeah, just draw someone saying it.

Bob: I think you're integrating it much more, but other people do it more or less and there's many different types of jokes. I mean guys tend to do pretty much gags. There's usually nothing in a guy's joke in which we have to understand what's going on in someone else's mind.

Matt: In a guy's cartoon? Really?

Bob: Yeah, very rarely. In other words there's no theory--what I call "Theory of Mind" cartoons. Now in a guy's cartoon, let's say a funny Leo Cullum cartoon where the doctor is saying to the patient in his office, "You'll be awake during the entire procedure. The anesthesiologist is on vacation". There's nothing in their minds that we have to know about. There's just a joke, but, you know, with a Barbara Smaller joke where the high school girl is saying to the guidance counselor "My first choice college should have lots of closet space."...

Matt: Hmm. Yeah.

Bob: You have to understand the whole, complex...

Matt: It's more about character.

Bob: Yeah, it's character-based. There's a human being behind it. If you go back to these older New Yorker cartoons in which we're looking in on people and seeing... in those cartoons they aren't just saying the joke.

Matt: Yeah.

Bob: See, now we have much more of a...

Matt: Tolerance?

Bob: Yeah. Almost a sitcom influence, but let's say you have this very old Barney Tobey cartoon where the couple are playing tennis and the woman has just volleyed and the guy is behind the net. The ball is way up in the air and he's, you know, he's getting ready to slam it, and she's saying, "Harold, you promised." Now it's a very sweet cartoon. It's absolutely not a gag. She isn't saying something funny and we have to understand...

Matt: The dynamic of their relationship?

Bob: Exactly. There are other minds at work that we have to understand, and I think we actually process these type of cartoons differently. I think if we expect to see one type of cartoon, a funny gag type cartoon, and instead and see another, we almost don't really think it's a cartoon.

Matt: Hmm.

Bob: I personally think there should be a lot more of those cartoons. I think there should be a mix really, but...

Matt: What did you call this type?

Bob: "Theory of Mind." It comes from psychological experiments where we have to know cognitively what another mind is thinking and also empathically what they're feeling. And of course, in general, that's always the case, but it's often very generic. Like with Leo Cullum's doctor, it's just the fact that people in general are cruel and insensitive. But in the Barbara Smaller cartoon, we understand it's this particular person or this specific sub-class of person and her particular needs and desires, and that's different than a pun cartoon in which it's just semantic.

Matt: It's phrase based.

Bob: Yeah.

Matt: So would you say it breaks down between gag cartoons and these what you refer to as theory of mind, or character based cartoons?

Bob: Yeah, it's character or gag, but even within that, you have other things. You have what I call, the element of out-and-out ridicule, or a sort of mock aggression in cartoons. Leo Cullum's cartoon with the psychiatrist saying to the patient, "Would it be possible to speak with the personality who pays the bills?" You know? Or ridicule in the opposite direction where the patient in a Bruce Eric Kaplan cartoon is saying, "Well, I do have this recurring dream that one day I might see some results." That's just sort of ridicule. It's making a jab. Then you have what I call the ludic cartoon. Ludic meaning playful. Some of Roz Chast's early work, Jack Ziegler's stuff, it's just fooling around. I mean if you look at Kliban from the 80's and 90's. Look at some of his books, the title might be "Two Guys Fooling Around With the Moon" and that's what it is--two guys fooling around with the moon. There's nothing to get, particularly. No one is being ridiculed. Or another title is "The Biggest Tongue in Tunisia." Well, that's just sort of funny and silly.

Matt: It's sounds funny

Bob: Yeah, it sounds funny just to say it, and it's part of the comic impulse just to play and fool around. Like an early Roz Chast cartoon where the woman is opening the front door and dinosaurs are coming in and she's saying, "Oh no, the Jurassics." Roz was just fooling around. I mean, why? You say, "Hmm, what did you mean by that? What point were you making? What are you satirizing?" Really nothing. To some extent, I think what it's satirizing is just, what I call, the hegemony of rational thought. Just lighten up. Stop trying to be so smart. And then a lot of other cartoons are just a clash of context. Many of the cartoons we have set in heaven, you know, it's just a clash of context. It's heaven but it's not. It's an executive. It's a hotel.

Matt: Right.

Bob: And that clash of contexts leads to the gag.

Matt: Another type, not really in The New Yorker, is the political cartoon. Maybe we should say something about political cartoons and what you can accept in The New Yorker and what you can't use.

Bob: I think The New Yorker's cartoons aren't very political because the people who do the cartoons aren't awfully political people, and they aren't paid to be political. I think editorial cartoonists are. That's what they do. They probably have a great natural interest in politics, and then they are paid to do it, so they sort of have to hunt out these ideas. I admire editorial cartoons, but I'm also sort of happy that I don't do them because I'd hate to have to label things and I'd especially hate, more than anything, to label something Dennis Hastert or Mark Foley, you know? It's just the idea that you have to write something in the drawing to label things is antithetical to The New Yorker type of cartoon. When we do a cartoon, even though it's political, it's ambiguous. Like the Michael Shaw cartoon where people are looking at the television and they're saying, "Gays and lesbians getting married? Haven't they suffered enough?" That doesn't really say where he is.

Matt: It's about the issue, but it doesn't...

Bob: It's about the issue, but it's not on any side of the issue.

Matt: Yeah.

Bob: And I don't think that's false. I think that's the natural way that most people feel about issues other than the ranters or crazies on the radio.

Matt: And then you wouldn't use a cartoon that had a picture of Bush or...

Bob: No. But also we can't draw well enough.

Matt: Hmm, yes. Let's see... Do you make "to do" lists? And if so, what are some things on your "to do" list for today?

Bob: I'm more into making "To Don't" lists.

Matt: Well, what are some of those things, then?

Bob: No, my "to do" list for today is... we're preparing for the Cartoon Issue, so I'm gathering a lot of material to show David Remnick tomorrow for that. I'll be going out to California to do a seminar about how humor can function in business. I'll teach executives and creatives, not so much how to be comedians, but some things about how, like this conversation we're having, how humor works. And how, once you know how humor works, you can see how creativity in general works. We're gonna have a lecture there by me and also a psychologist who deals with humor and then we'll do a caption contest.

Matt: And so what about groceries?

Bob: What?

Matt: Don't you have milk to pick up on the way home?

Bob: That's sort of a sore point between my wife and I. My wife could aptly say to me the line from the Kaplan cartoon where the guy's sitting on the couch and the woman is saying, "You know, in some cultures the male does things."

Matt: Yeah.

Bob: And I'm always saying to my wife, Cory, who is also Vice President of the Cartoonbank, "You knew I was lazy when you married me."

Matt: I wouldn't call you lazy.

Bob: No, not lazy. I'm lazy for chores. I'm very bad at doing chores.