Cartooning for Life

Robert Mankoff was always funny, but that doesn’t mean that his path to the New Yorker was an easy one - he submitted 2,000 cartoons to the magazine before being published. He charts his cartooning career and explains the unique struggles of being a cartoon editor.
  • Transcript


Question: Were you funny as a child?

Robert Mankoff: Yeah, I think I discovered sort in the sixth grade about that in some way I was funny, and both this gave me a power I did not have before – a type of attention, and so I can sort of remember at that time you know saying oh you know I’m looking at the world a little differently, I’m funny. And this is a little bit like a lot of research that’s going now on in terms of this idea that talent is overrated. There’s a difference you know that you suggest hey I’m sort of good at this whether it’s shooting baskets or maybe being funny, and then you start to work at it; then becomes something you consciously and unconsciously practiced. You know so by the time I was in high school and stuff you know I was scanning the horizon of every social situation to see the incongruities to process it to see if I could make some sort of joke.

Question: What was your first published cartoon?

Robert Mankoff: I do. That was 1974, and it was in The Saturday Review of Literature, and it’s interesting how dated all the parts of it is. It has Superman at a personnel office, and the guy is saying fastest than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound; what no steno. Steno now you know what no steno. Now that was funny you see the rhythm of that is funny. You know just even saying steno, and in a way that actually when you’re talking about one of the constituents of humor is that in humor you know when one script changes to another in humor like here it’s Superman he’s great, but the script changes to always diminishes what previously had exist; where art elevates it. I’ll give you another example. You know so when you draw a cartoon just the setting is a type of default script. If I draw a cartoon in a doctor’s office or another cartoonist does, you see a doctor. Ah, it’s a doctor. Doctors are not legible. They know a lot about medicine. They’ve been trained. They care about you. Your welfare is very important to them. Now of course it’s a cartoon that’s the script the in the back of your mind, but you know that can’t be the script. That creates the tension there.

What is gonna happen here? It can’t be saying oh, let me really help you Mr. Ferguson. Instead, he starts off continuing that script in a way because it seems solicitous. It said you’ll be awake during the entire operation. The anesthesiologist is on vacation. Now all of a sudden that becomes very, very horrible, but it diminishes the script of the doctor. And that’s one of the things humor does. It always diminishes. It’s one of the problems people you know have with it, and it’s one of the certainly problems that teachers had with me because being a wise guy I like to think of myself as the class satirist, but you know they probably thought of me as the class jerk you know causing trouble because for instance let’s say I would do a cartoon in class you a drawing script of not paying attention, not doing what I was supposed to do. You know and then the teacher – the way teachers would certainly when I was growing up; their enunciation patterns when they didn’t like you were to split your name Mike and my name Robert at that time not Bob into two syllables and say Ro-bert if it’s so funny maybe you’d like to share it with the rest of the class. Drawing a cartoon I’d say yes I would, so just that type of thing which in a personal way I found a power in humor.

You know going back to high school and college really I think was really almost a transformative event for me, also not a good student and not going to class really, and so there was a sociology class at Syracuse University. I had attended the first class. This was during the 60s and stuff where there was huge lecture halls, and I’d come to the final, the last class, after having read the text book, and so I came in late and the teacher comes up to me and there’s a hushed silence ‘cause I haven’t been there. And he says who the hell are you, and I waited a beat and I said you know I could very well ask you the same question, and that burst this whole exam, blue book filled thing into ****. So I think early and throughout that I felt that humor was sort of my thing; my way to shift the balance of power that matter what situation is in; no matter what how the power seemed to range that humor could at least temporarily put the banana peel under their shoe.

Question: How many cartoons did you submit to the New Yorker before you were published?

Robert Mankoff: I submitted 2,000 cartoons to The New Yorker, and no one I think will ever go through that again. Although actually some people probably are, but I was selling cartoons to certainly other magazines at that time but doing lots of cartoons. I was doing like 35 cartoons a week, but I think at that point I was just all over the lot. I hadn’t really developed my own particular voice, and see that’s interesting because in The New Yorker cartoons are particular in that way, and it really goes back to the idea of between high and low humor. Most people in terms of their sense of humor have no aspiration. They don’t want better sense of humor. Their sense of humor is what funny is; they know that; they’re absolutely certain. The New Yorker it’s whole ethos is to look for originality and creativity and authenticity, so The New Yorker even if your cartoons applied these criteria that we would usually apply to other art forms you know like music and the novelty humor itself, and we still do. David Remnick who’s the editor and makes the overall decision in what goes in the magazine even the cartoons, and you look at that and is it something new; is it original. It doesn’t always have to be that, but that’s almost the holy grail. I would say that most are best characterized by someone like Roz Chast who in her pieces first appeared in the New Yorker they didn’t look like any cartoons that had ever appeared before.

Question: Were they right to reject you so many times?

Robert Mankoff: Let me just say I think it worked out.

Question: What was your first cartoon the New Yorker published?

Robert Mankoff: Yeah, a very strange cartoon actually and I was very much influenced by Eastern European cartoon and by Saul Steinberg. All of my original maybe seven or eight cartoons I had published had no caption at all which is strange because I sort of have this whole verbal gag component. It was a very careful stipple style and with my dots but lots more dots than you see now, and there was a guy at the end of a big newspaper printing press, very elaborate machine, so the press coming off this long newspaper. And he’s turning up the very end of it like he’s at a breakfast table where he’s has some scrambled eggs and some orange juice, so it was just sort of very sweet visual stuff, and I was very much influence by Saul Steinberg you know in that not soon after that I did a cartoon, so the cartoons were very intellectual in a way. And I did this cartoon, and this cartoon also you know shows you that got published in The New Yorker why humor although it may have its roots in fear and aggression; some humor can seem very far from that. It shows a water girl holding buckets you know coming down from the well, but there aren’t two buckets they’re three buckets, and two of them are labeled H and one of them is labeled O, so a really superiority theorist says exactly what is it; what do we feel superior to chemistry or that water girl. What I will say well you can go back and really look at some of the roots even from the most primitive part is a lot of what happens in humor is that there’s a cognitive ship from unknowing to knowing, from not understanding to understanding, and when we look at our evolutionary past, we can see that a feeling of unknowingness, of tension, of I gotta figure this out would have been fearful, would have been problematic, so one of the things jokes do is they build this thing is I’m telling you with the centipede you are in that state of unknowingness of tension. You know you’re thinking am I gonna understand this; what that, is it gonna be funny, and then all of a sudden there’s this feeling of mastery, and with humor different than a puzzle, the mastery is instantaneous when the joke works.

Question: How many cartoons have you published?

Robert Mankoff: Oh, I think somewhat over 900 and done thousands, and that’s interesting also. People like Roz Chast, Jack Ziegler or Sam Gross – people think you do one idea a week. Well, you do five, 10, 15 ideas a week. Someone like Sam Gross who’s a classic gag cartoonist is 26,000 something cartoons. Every time Sam hands in cartoons on the back I can see the number, and I say Sam what is this you’re handing in like 8, 468th cartoon; you’re resubmitting this, so he keeps track, and so the amount of work and effort going into this is much, much greater than people think. And that work is necessary because the difference between a professional and a amateur I think in any field is an amateur thinks pretty much everything they do is good, and a professional thinks most of what they do is crap.

Question: What’s the most difficult part of being a cartoon editor?

Robert Mankoff: There is something about seeing a 1,000 cartoons a week that is somewhat inhibiting or put you in a difference mindset. An evaluation mindset is not a creative mindset. Also, I have to be very careful about not using anybody else’s ideas and not being influenced, so I think that’s it. That all of a sudden even more than ever before you have to say what is my own particular voice, and your voice changes over time in that you know one of the things that I like to do now is try to you know connect cartoons to some emotional truth; so I might look at the present situation. You know I might take a quote like Scott Fitzgerald like living well is the best revenge, and I might have a guy at a party saying I know living well is the best revenge, but right now I want to do better than my brother in law; getting it back to how we actually feel about events or thoughts that you’re happening rather than simply being in a cartoon universe. And yet the truth is I find that the thing that people often funniest are just the most simple things you do that you think you throw away. In a couple of cartoon issues, I had a label it was called Hamlet’s Duplex, and it just has two doors in an apartment setting 2B be and the other doors says not 2B, and so there is just me fooling around. It has no meaning at all, but within this joke universe, it’s wonderful. You get these e-mails saying I love that cartoon; that was the greatest cartoon.

Meanwhile, you’re struggling to get to emotional truth, so it’s a little bit like the Sullivan’s Travels movie by Preston Sturges where Joel McCray does comedies, and he wants to do something important. He wants to go out into the world, and then you know he goes through all these travails, and in the end you know he’s in some sort of prison where some horrible situation where a Charlie Chaplain movie comes on and everybody’s laughing and laughing with tears streaming down their face, so maybe I should get back to that.

Recorded on:  September 21, 2009