Robert Mankoff Interview: Part One

Bob: I think all cartoons - all humor in a way is a type of truth plus pain at some distance. It can't be too painful. And maybe the essence of our pain is our mortality.
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Robert (Bob) Mankoff is a cartoonist, President of The Cartoonbank, and the cartoon editor at The New Yorker magazine. I'm a cartoonist there, so he's my editor. I recently sat down with him in his office over paper cups of office coffee and a big desk covered with the scattered hopes of cartoonists everywhere. I wanted to finally get some insight into how and why they choose the cartoons they choose. I started off, for some reason, with a pretty stupid question.

Matt: So how's it feel to be the man?

Bob: I don't really think I am. I'm part of an organization here. I look at myself as a cartoon enabler and facilitator for people to do this creative work that I can then show to people in the organization, primarily, you know, David Remnick, the magazine's editor. I think I'm uncomfortable with the idea that I'm making the decision, which to some extent is causing anxiety on the other side of the drawing board.

Matt: Because you've been there before?

Bob: Yeah, I've been there. Everyone waits until the day after we've had the art meeting to see whether or not they've sold -- whether or not they're gonna get "the call".

Matt: Today is Thursday. The day that...

Bob: Yeah, today is the day that the calls go out.

Matt: Well, I could save you a call... seeing as I'm right here...

Bob: Yeah yeah, I can't remember if we bought anything form you. I sure hope not.
(Laughter: loud and kind of evil from Bob, nervous and quiet from me as my ears redden.)
Bob: (continuing) There's nothing quite as satisfying as shooting down an ascending meteoric career.

Matt: So I take it you prefer this side of the drawing table?

Bob: You know, I used to say that it's a lot better rejecting than being rejected, but being the 'Rejecter' carries it's own burden - for which I'm sure I'm getting no sympathy.
(Here, I wisely refrain from comment.)
Bob: (continuing) You just understand after being at this a while that it's somewhat subjective and rejection is inevitable. There's a positive thing with editors though. Professional humorists and cartoonists have to go through a stage in which they have to kill their own internal editor just so they can get stuff out. So whether they believe it or not they need me on the other end to do that editing for them.

Matt: Hmm.

Bob: You don't want to start editing yourself before, you know? -But then after they get rejected -- the ones that do, you have to be able to look and say "Hey, what's working? What's not working?" and adjust. You have to be able to deal with rejection. That's part of the - that's what keeps the game honest really. Anybody who ever gets themselves in a situation where they're never rejected, where everything they do is put out there -and there's some on the Huffington Post, I could name a few, but I won't... anyway, it usually leads to crap.

Matt: I guess that's probably true. So then, what do you actually do? How do you describe your job?

Bob: Well, I'm, in a way, a filter for 500 or sometimes 1000 cartoons depending on how you count. If you were to count everybody who sends cartoons in then I guess there'd be about 1000 a week and I want to try to give my best selection of cartoons to David Remnick for him to look at because he's gonna have considerations that I don't.

Matt: What are your considerations?

Bob: I'm just trying to think, first of all, "Is it amusing? Is it funny in the way that New Yorker cartoons, you know, should be?

Matt: And what's that?

Bob: Well to me, there's some degree of cleverness where there's something to put together. It's not America's Funniest home Videos in ink, you know? If you're watching America's Funniest Home Videos you never say, "I don't get it." You're not saying, "Ok, a guy fell off a chair. Can someone explain that to me again?" But if you're looking at a Danny Shanahan cartoon in which there's two praying mantises -one male and one female and the male is missing his head and the female is saying "You slept with her, didn't you?" There's something to piece together. There's a slight delay where these different sort of competing ideas come together - mesh and produce laughter.

Matt: And you also have to have a basic knowledge of the mating habits of praying mantises, or mantai?

Bob: There's a little puzzle aspect to it that doesn't feel like a puzzle. That's the difference between a cartoon and a puzzle. A good friend of mine is Will Shortz --he's the crossword puzzle editor at The Times, and his thing... Every once in a while, you'll get a slight smile in a crossword puzzle, but you had to work too hard to get that smile and the joke is usually on the other side of corny and not worth it.

Matt: So you're saying a New Yorker cartoon is funnier than a crossword puzzle and a little easier?

Bob: It's a lot easier. And I hope it's a lot funnier.

Matt: Ok, So funny is what you're going for?

Bob: Well, I think funny is just the foundation. I don't really think, to some extent, funny is the absolute most important thing. It should also communicate some idea through the medium of cartooning. Just to be funny is... You know what, the things that you laugh hardest at aren't cartoons.

Matt: Yeah.

Bob: It's the things that happen with your friends. The funniest things in your life aren't cartoons and the funniest things you laugh at often will be fairly gross or crude because they pull those triggers. But when you're trying to be funny and do something else, like in an editorial cartoon or even a New Yorker cartoon, then it's... What's nice is this combination of meaning and something funny. So let's say, you know, Roz Chast's cartoon where the guy's looking at the obituaries and they say things like "Two years older than you", or "Three years your junior" and then, "Your age on the dot" -yeah, that's funny, but you're gonna laugh a lot harder at other things, but those things might not have the poignancy - the helping us sort of understand our existential plight. I think all cartoons - all humor in a way is a type of truth plus pain at some distance. It can't be too painful. And maybe the essence of our pain is our mortality. Whether it's derivative morality: getting fired, or ill, or, as in this case, actually dying, we're always dealing with dualities of the fact that we're conscious we're mortal, but for the most part we need this elaborate cultural façade to protect us from looking into the abyss.

(I didn't hear the next part because I was fiddling with my Blackberry.)

Bob: (continuing) We don't want to see what's right in front of us because we want to feel safe or, also we want to be polite. We want to be nice. So cartoons can surprise us simply by saying the truth. Like your cartoon with the waiter saying "Careful, these plates are extremely dirty." You know, you're just actually saying the truth. Or Harry Bliss's cartoon of the parent teacher conference where the teacher is telling them "Your daughter is a pain in the ass." Or Michael Maslin's boardroom cartoon where the guy is saying. "And now at this point in the meeting I'd like to shift the blame away from me and onto someone else." It's just actually saying the truth of a situation and a cartoon can punch through the - we don't realize, but cartoons constantly tell us, and humor tells us that our lives are a performance. We think we're just living our lives but we're actually actors in our own thing and we do act. We act all the time and cartoons can bring us back to the reality underneath all that acting which is our humanity, our desires, our foibles, and also our fears. That's why so many of them are also about bad things happening to someone else. But the cartoons remove the moral dilemma. In real life if something really bad happens to someone, even if you don't like them, you're probably not going to laugh -- unless it's say, Dick Cheney, but in the case of cartoons, the moral dilemma is eliminated because there is no individual. They're just generic types. It's just "a boss". There's a sense that what we're enjoying in a way is aggression towards stereotypical characteristics and the main characteristic that the characters in cartoons have is that they're idiots, which makes it easier to laugh at them. But it's not, at least in The New Yorker, a particular person. They're not pointed, you know?

Matt: Yeah, let's see... Do you have some favorite rejects that you still remember? Either from before or after you became editor?

Bob: Yeah, I think a number of them are in your book. Especially the suicide bomber stuff which I thought, you know, there's some morality in ridicule and maybe The New Yorker wasn't the right place for it, but...

Matt: You're talking about Alex Gregory's and Danny Shanahan's?

Bob: Yeah, Gregory's where the guy is strapping a bomb on the other guy and he looks up and asks him "too snug?"

Matt: Yeah.

Bob: I think a lot of that stuff I really liked. I don't know about the sexual or gross things. I mean I think those cartoons are funny. I don't think they're right for The New Yorker, and that's why they're in The Rejection Collection. I think that all humor is in a certain context. There's public humor and there's private humor and they're all appropriate in their own way and you shouldn't --just as you wouldn't have a megaphone and say certain things that you would say around your friends --things that are perfectly all right within your close social group with whom you share a certain context. That doesn't mean that those things shouldn't be said and that's what a lot of dark or black humor is about. It would be absolutely inappropriate in public when horrible things happen, but it's a way of people relieving their anxiety among friends and saying essentially that the bad thing didn't happen to me. Because only - you can never really laugh at something if you're really afraid. Partly laughter is a signal that you're maybe anxious, but you're not actually afraid.

Matt: All right, let's switch things up here. Let me run something by you. Correct me where I'm wrong, but, looking at your frantic, multi-interested life it seems to me that it breaks down like...

Bob. Yes, it just breaks down.

Matt: It seems like you spend about 40% of your time working the New Yorker Cartoon Editor job, 20% doing cartoonbank work, 10% commuting, 15% working on your own cartoons, 11% ping-pong, and 4% family.

Bob: (After a thoughtful pause) Yeah, you've got it about right. I think you may have exaggerated the family part, but... and you forgot bowling.

Matt: right.

Bob: But yeah, I mean I'm doing as lot of different things, but sometimes I'm doing more than one at the same time, like there are times when I'm playing ping-pong that my daughter, even though she's fifteen now, I'll have her strapped to my back so I can be getting in a little family time as well.

Matt: While thinking of gags.

Bob: Yeah exactly.

Matt: Really though, when do you do your own cartooning?

Bob: I just do it sometimes on the day of the art meeting and I try to be very selective because I'm seeing so many cartoons. I've seen what everybody does and I don't want to sort of overstep, so I do a lot fewer cartoons than I used to. Although I still like to do cartoons and I like to sort of be in touch with my creative side. I think what's different about how I do cartoons now is that when I was doing the cartoons like you're doing - full time, you know, it was a really disciplined thing. You really have to go at it, get a lot of ideas and now it's more like I did when I was starting out where ideas just come to me when I'm driving and I sort of think "Hey that's interesting. I like that idea, let me fool around with that." So it's - I'm almost like more of an amateur now where the ideas actually come to me and I'm always telling people if you want to be a cartoonist you have to really work at it and now I don't do it that way. I just --they just come to me.

... To be continued.

In the next segment Bob discusses, among other things, basketball, juggling, and The New Yorker Caption Contest. Speaking of caption contests: we've got our own going here on this thread and I'll be doing the judging and posting a winner very soon, so get your entries in post haste.

Read more posts on the Rejection Collection here.

Robert Mankoff has been Cartoon Editor of The New Yorker since September, 1997. In 1992, he founded The Cartoon Bank (, a cartoon licensing, syndication, and archive business, and under his direction, it grew into the largest computerized archive of magazine-style cartoons in the world. The New Yorker Magazine Inc. purchased The Cartoon Bank in January, 1997, and Mr. Mankoff serves as its President.

Mankoff is the author of The Naked Cartoonist, a nonfiction book about how to be more creative, as well as the editor of numerous cartoon collections, including, The New Yorker Book of Dog Cartoons, The New Yorker Book of Cat Cartoons, The New Yorker Book of Golf Cartoons, The New Yorker Book of Baseball Cartoons, The New Yorker Book of Business Cartoons, The New Yorker Book of Kids Cartoons, The New Yorker Book of Literary Cartoons, The New Yorker Book of Money Cartoons, and The New Yorker Book of Political Cartoons.

Mankoff is also an accomplished and much-published cartoonist himself. His own work has been collected in four books: Elementary: The Cartoonist Did It, Urban Bumpkins, Call Your Office, and It's Lonely at the Top.

Beginning in March of 2007, Mankoff will be taking on his role as the Paula and Edwin Sidman Fellow in the Arts at the University of Michigan, teaching and doing research as part of a new "Humor at Michigan" program. The program is a collaboration between the psychology and humanities departments designed to explore the psychology of humor.

Born and raised in New York City, Robert Mankoff graduated from Syracuse University. He lives in Westchester County, New York.

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