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