Outgoing 'New Yorker' Cartoon Editor Says 'Being Funny Is Being Awake'

Apr 14, 2017
Originally published on April 14, 2017 4:09 pm

Throughout the day, New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff jots down ideas that strike him as funny: A door lies on a couch in a psychiatrist's office, and the psychiatrist says, "You're not crazy, you're just unhinged." Or, two guys crawling through a desert encounter one of those orange cones that says: "Caution Wet Floor."

For a man obsessed with humor, Mankoff found the perfect job — he's served for 20 years as the magazine's cartoon gatekeeper. He's stepping down from his post in May, but will continue to draw his own cartoons.

Mankoff has spent decades thinking about what makes things funny, and has even taught college courses on the subject. Over the years he has edited cartoonists with different styles, but he thinks of his own style as intellectual, drawing heavily on personal experience.

"My targets are either myself, or people like me," he says. "I don't punch down, I don't punch up, I elbow to the side."

Mankoff's most famous cartoon shows a man in a suit standing at a desk, with skyscrapers in the window behind him. He's consulting his calendar and saying into the phone: "No, Thursday's out. How about never — is never good for you?"


Interview Highlights

On humor being useful

How do we engineer humor so that it is more useful in life? ... The most important part of it is not entertainment. Jokes are the pornography of humor. The most important part is: It enables us to get along with other people, to cope with difficulties, to diffuse tensions, and just simply to make life in general more enjoyable. And by having a sense of humor, it means we have a perspective on the quotidian, everyday absurdity of it all. ... Being funny is being awake.

On the process of editing a cartoon

It might be something as simple as compressing the words. I will try to suggest other ideas that might be better. For instance, let's say it's a hippo and there are two of the little birds on it, and one of the birds is saying: "We can only see so far because we stand on the shoulders of giants." That's a [Isaac] Newton quote. And then I'll say, you know, that's just sort of a word gag ... I think it would be interesting if whatever they're standing on is very, very small in itself, but they are even smaller.

[Or] I'll say: Oh, that sort of relates to other cartoons we've done in which the snail's on the turtle's back and one snail is saying: "Watch out, here we go!"

So, it's partly because I have a background of all these associations. I'm brainstorming a little bit with them and then I'll edit a word, sometimes I'll write another caption.

On making sure they don't duplicate cartoons

We check the cartoons against all the New Yorker cartoons that have ever run in the magazine so that we don't have any duplicates. ... You can't drive yourself completely crazy about it. One of the things you realize is pretty much all ideas are variants of similar ideas. And then you have to decide: Is this different enough?

On tropes vs. clichés

Life raft survivors, lightbulb ideas, lion and mouse, Little Engine That Could, Little Red Riding Hood, lover hiding in a closet ... Clichés — or, let's say tropes, that sounds better — are the engine in which you make new out of old. I mean, pretty much everything in the culture is something that's been remixed. ... Originality is not only overrated, it doesn't really exist.

On what he'd tell young, aspiring cartoonists

STOP. ... No, no, keep it up! Excuse me, I meant: DON'T stop.

You can see more @newyorkercartoons on Facebook and Instagram.

Radio producer Sam Gringlas, radio editor Jeffrey Katz and web producer Beth Novey contributed to this report.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The New Yorker magazine is famous for its cartoons. For 20 years, Bob Mankoff has been the gatekeeper. Next month, he gives up his title as The New Yorker's cartoon editor. Mankoff is a man obsessed with humor. He has written many of the magazine's most well-known cartoons. He has studied what makes things funny. He's even taught college courses on the subject.

Over the years, he has edited cartoonists with different styles - the visual gag, the one-liner. When Mankoff came into our studios to reflect on his career, he told me he thinks of his own style as intellectual, drawing heavily on personal experience.

BOB MANKOFF: My targets are either myself or people like me. I don't punch down. I don't punch up. I elbow to the side.

SHAPIRO: Mankoff's most famous cartoon shows a man in a suit standing at a desk, phone to his ear, skyscrapers in the window behind him. The caption reads Thursday's out, how about never? Is never good for you?

MANKOFF: That cartoon really comes from my own personal experience with sort of an appointment, someone trying to blow me off on an appointment constantly. And then I just sort of say this snotty line. Well, how about never? Is never good for you?

SHAPIRO: So do you actually walk around with a notebook when you have a snotty line like that, you can just jot it down and say, oh, that'll make a good cartoon?

MANKOFF: Well, now it's an iPhone with the notes.

SHAPIRO: At the risk of asking a magician to show how he does his tricks, would you pull out your iPhone and read some of the notes you've got on there for cartoons you've not yet made?

MANKOFF: (Laughter) Let me see. Let me see if - well, of course, I shut off my iPhone because they tell everybody to do that.

SHAPIRO: Of course because you're a good interviewee who does as he's told.

MANKOFF: OK. So here's one. It's a psychiatrist. And on the couch is a door, OK, just a regular door (laughter). And the psychiatrist's saying is you're not crazy, you're just unhinged.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) How long has that been sitting in the file?

MANKOFF: A long time because I really don't do much. The other one is look, honey, I don't have the time for an argument right now. Can we reschedule?

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MANKOFF: Sometimes - I just saw one of these wet floor cones you see in buildings and bathrooms.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, caution - slippery floor. Yeah.

MANKOFF: And I just say wet floor cone in Moses' desert - or, you know, in other words - or maybe it's guys crawling in a desert.

SHAPIRO: Just a germ of an idea that you can turn into a...

MANKOFF: Yeah. It's a germ of - you know. And they'll all think of a line, can I call you back? My desk is away from me. And then I'll just have to figure out how to make it work.

SHAPIRO: You know, I think I would worry that if I studied what makes things funny that I might lose the ability to be funny. But you've proven that not to be the case.

MANKOFF: Well, Ari, you definitely would.

SHAPIRO: I would. Well, thank you. Thank you, Bob.

MANKOFF: (Laughter) And that's why...

SHAPIRO: You just have this...

MANKOFF: ...I want you to keep studying accounting or whatever it is that your back up is.

SHAPIRO: Go back to covering wars and revolutions.

MANKOFF: The truth is it is - the study of it is actually inhibitory towards the production of it. But so what you have to do is sort of like move just from one completely different personality to another.

SHAPIRO: So there's one Bob Mankoff who studies humor and a different Bob Mankoff who creates humor.

MANKOFF: Yeah. There's one Bob. And then it would be - I would think it's the same thing as that people let's say who study English grammar or really know the grammar completely, you know, and they can tell you why...

SHAPIRO: They will never be James Joyce.

MANKOFF: They will never be James Joyce but maybe they switch. But the - part of my studies is dedicated to the idea that how do we engineer humor so that it's more useful in life?

SHAPIRO: I thought the whole point of humor was not to be useful.

MANKOFF: Yeah, but it is. In fact, the most important part of it is not entertainment. Jokes are the pornography of humor. The most important part is it enables us to get along with other people, to cope with difficulties, to defuse tensions and just simply to make life in general more enjoyable. And by having a sense of humor, it means we have a perspective on the quotidian everyday absurdity of it.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

MANKOFF: The everyday absurdity. Otherwise we're just - I mean, one of the things I often say is being funny is being awake. It's just being awake to partly not let yourself get upset.

SHAPIRO: I think I understand what goes into editing a typical New Yorker article. I have no idea what goes into editing a cartoon after you've said yes or no.

MANKOFF: Well, it might be something as simple as compressing the words. I will try to suggest other ideas that might be better. For instance, let's say it's a hippo and there's two of the little birds on it. And one of the birds is saying, we can only see so far because we stand on the shoulders of giants. And that's a Newton quote.

And then I'll say, well, you know, that's just a word gag on this. I think it'd be interesting if the - whatever they're standing on is very, very small in itself but they are even smaller.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

MANKOFF: And I'll say, oh, that sort of relates to other cartoons we've done on which the snail's on a turtle's back and one snail is just saying, you know, watch out, here we go. OK.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MANKOFF: So it's partly because I have a background of all these associations. I'm brainstorming a little bit with them. And then I will edit a word. I - sometimes I'll write another caption, always with the cartoonist's consent. And then we check the cartoons against all the New Yorker cartoons that have ever run in the magazine so that we don't have any duplicates.

SHAPIRO: Wait, really? You - do - you have a database that can do that with, like, a hand-drawn sketch?

MANKOFF: Yeah. Well, we have it because right from the very beginning, The New Yorker kept a record of every single cartoon by, in effect, tagging it.

SHAPIRO: So how often do you say, oh, this is a great cartoon - shoot, we did it in 1952?

MANKOFF: Often.

SHAPIRO: Really?

MANKOFF: Often because every week that information comes in. And not only - it's become very, very hard now also even in terms of - because we also search on the Internet now. And, I mean, you can't drive yourself completely crazy about it. One of the things you realize is pretty much all ideas are variants of similar ideas. And then you have to decide is this different enough so that if two people look at both of them, they say - different. Or even if knowing of the previous one, would you laugh at this one?

So desert island cartoons are like that, all the cliche. I recently sent out an email with us about, I don't know, a hundred and - I'm actually looking at a list now here of cliches. Just in the L - in the L word - life raft survivors, lightbulb ideas, lion and mouse, "Little Engine That Could," "Little Red Riding Hood."

SHAPIRO: These are all cliches?

MANKOFF: Yeah, lover hiding in a closet.

SHAPIRO: But there's not a prohibition against them because I've certainly seen some of those in The New Yorker recently.

MANKOFF: There's not a prohibition. In fact, cliches or let's say tropes - that sounds better - are the engine in which you make new out of old. In fact, I mean, pretty much everything in the culture is something that's been remixed. You know, every Bob Dylan song is based on some melody he heard in other folk songs or whatever. So originality is not only overrated, it doesn't really exist.

SHAPIRO: Before I let you go...

MANKOFF: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: What advice do you have for a cartoonist starting today?

MANKOFF: Stop.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Bob Mankoff, thank you very much.

MANKOFF: No, no, no. No, excuse me, I meant don't.

SHAPIRO: Don't stop.

MANKOFF: Don't stop.

SHAPIRO: Bob Mankoff, the outgoing cartoon editor of The New Yorker magazine. It's been a pleasure. Congratulations.

MANKOFF: Thank you, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW BIRD SONG, "TRUTH LIES LOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.