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Robert Mankoff Interview: Part Three

Posted: 12/ 6/06 06:31 PM ET
Media News

This is the third part of a nine-day conversation I had with my editor, the cartoon editor of The New Yorker magazine, Bob Mankoff. You can find part one by clicking on the word "Pudding". Not that one, this one right here: Pudding.

Matt: OK. Now I have to ask some really tough questions. The two cartoons of mine that I included in the book - Why didn't you buy those?

Bob: They were just too funny.

Matt: Too funny?

Bob: Which ones were they?

Matt: One of them was the two pigeons on a high ledge overlooking the city and one is saying to the other, "I'd say my biggest influence is probably Pollock."

Bob: Yeah.

Matt: And the other is a big truck, which has just had a head on collision with a car and across the back of the truck it says: "Buck's Trucking. Safety third."

Bob: Right.

Matt: So what? Was it just bad timing? Other stuff was better that week? Or that was the week you were looking for un-funny?

Bob: Well, I think pigeon poop is a little lowbrow.

Matt: But isn't it balanced by the highbrow art reference to Pollock?

Bob: Well, almost. But then Pollock is pretty lowbrow himself.

Matt: Hmm.

Bob: But it almost balances it out - you know, another day and another time it might have been in and the "Safety third", Well maybe we can tear it out of the book and paste it back in the Magazine.

Matt: You didn't think it was too "gaggy"?

Bob: Well, I think it's all, you know, it violates reality for the sake of the joke. It makes you think now wait, why? David Sometimes looks at these and says; "now why would someone have that sign on their truck?"

Matt: Yeah, right. They wouldn't.

Bob: Yeah they wouldn't want to print the truth on it, so I guess it's a little too desperate a gag.

Matt: Yeah. That's fair.

Bob: It's a little too manipulative of reality and I think humor shifts sometimes and maybe that's where it's going. I mean a lot of the cartoons where people just say what they're thinking are a little bit like that too, you know? I think they work not because they're all that clever. It's just the surprise of someone saying the truth that works for cartoons like that. I personally like a little bit more indirection where there's just a little bit more of a gag. Not too much more. You know what I mean?

Matt: Yeah, so you don't actually remember pitching it to Remnick or if they even ever passed your first cut?

Bob: I'm sure I showed them. I can't remember exactly. As much as I like your work, and as good friends as we are, I don't remember every single cartoon I've ever shown.

Matt: Well it was probably only a couple years ago, come on. So how much more time do we have?

Bob: Uh, maybe five minutes.

Matt: OK, What would you say it takes to be a New Yorker cartoonist?

Bob: I think it takes a love of the cartoons. Really a desire to do it, you know, not to do it to get a cartoon in the New Yorker. These, I think, are people who would be doing these cartoons even if they weren't being accepted in the New Yorker.

Matt: Yeah.

Bob: For the most part then I think it does take a certain degree of curiosity about everything that's going on. It's not just slapstick and gags and it can't be completely "cartoon world". Then I think it takes you know, perseverance and the ability to put up with rejection.

Matt: Sure.

Bob: and be stimulated by it -well, not stimulated necessarily. It takes an ability or willingness not to be depressed by it. Most people can't take as much rejection as is required

Matt: What do you think it is about a cartoonist that makes them stay at it? Is it arrogance?

Bo: I think they have to have a talent at this and be inept at everything else.

Matt: So you have no fall back.

Bob: Yeah. So you have no fallback. Few have come to this field from brain surgery.

Matt: Hmm. Can you tell if a cartoonist is trying to do stuff that you want verses doing what they want?

Bob: Yeah, I think so and that is pretty much the kiss of death, you know. Just do--

Matt: You want people who are doing their thing.

Bob: I want them to do their thing and I want there to be an overlap with what we want. David Remnick wants that, you know? It's part of the New Yorker culture. David is a big fan of cartoons and he wants fresh and new and interesting stuff and the way to do that is by not doing what we've already done.

Matt: So let's just quickly go through the overall schedule. We come in on Tuesdays, the ones of us that are in town, and we sit down across the desk from you and hand you our week's worth of cartoons and others fax in. Do you like us coming in? ...Because I've started just dropping mine in the pile.

Bob: It doesn't matter to me. I'm here. It's my job to be here if people want that. I think a lot of it is people just want to get out of the house.

Matt: And to go to lunch with the others.

Bob: Yeah, and the lunch.

Matt: Does it ever distract you from looking at the cartoons if you have the cartoonist sitting there?

Bob: No, It doesn't matter because I'm gonna look at all of them again.

Matt: Afterwards?

Bob: Yeah, so... and you never know who is gonna come in and who you might provide that little bit of inspiration for. And I try to do that. I try to encourage people, and they get a chance to congregate with the other cartoonists, but it's not necessary.

Matt: It doesn't help?

Bob: Help you sell? No.

Matt: So then you pick a bunch of them that you like and you take them on Wednesday to meet with Remnick and Jacob?

Bob: Right. I probably pick about one out of ten for each person.

Matt: Do you? For everybody?

Bob: If I can.

Matt: But if they have a weak week...

Bob: Or if someone has a really good week, I'm gonna take a lot in.

Matt: Like half their batch or something?

Bob: As many as I like -- well sometimes I'll save them. I mean if someone has a great week, they're not gonna sell six or seven on a Wednesday so I'll put some aside.

Matt: You must keep some sort of track of how - when you've bought from people to keep them coming back and to let you know how they're doing.

Bob: Yeah. We've got printouts and Excel spreadsheets depending on...

Matt: So you don't let someone go too long without...

Bob: Well, I can't -you know, we try. But people -- some people do well in a given year and other people don't. It's like baseball or anything else. People have better years and not so good years and then eventually they retire. I mean it's a pretty long run, cartooning, but it doesn't, you know, everything has its arc. Myself, I'm about done.

Matt: So then you guys haggle over the final picks?

Bob: We don't haggle really. David makes that decision. I mean he'll ask for my input and I'm usually there with Jacob Lewis, the managing editor, as well, but at that point I've looked at the cartoons so much that I'm really relieved that David's gonna make this final pass because he hasn't seen them over and over again. They're just not fresh to me. So I don't get - I'm happy to see his reaction and, you know, he's the overall editor. What he says is gonna go and that's how it should be.

Matt: What do you think you've done here as cartoon editor and what are you still wanting to do?

Bob: Well, I think my biggest thing was getting a whole new generation of people like your self to do this and I think we're well along the way to doing that. If you look at the magazine you see it's full of a variety --older cartoonists that have been doing it a while and the newer cartoonists. And the styles are sort of different and I think that I have helped and certainly David has been a big support in this -in keeping the New Yorker cartoon tradition alive. It had to go to another generation of people to do that and I don't think that is a trivial thing to do, because you know from your own personal experience it was a rather arduous task. It wasn't something that you could just jump in and do.

Matt: Right.

Bob: You had to...

Matt: It took me about three years before I sort of figured out what I was doing.

Bob: Yeah. Jack Ziegler says the same thing. It took him about a thousand cartoons before he really knew what it was. My task, that I think I was helpful at, was --there weren't the minor leagues of cartooning that there were, you know, in the Forties and Fifties.

Matt: Right -all the other magazines.

Bob: Yeah. Places to get your start, so I had to do a lot of coaching that previously was taken care of -and I developed my own ideas along the way as I progressed here. So I think that has been my main contribution --really having a new generation of people doing it.

Matt: So what else do you want to do?

Bob: I want to make sure that it continues. I really wish there would be more women cartoonists and more minority cartoonists and more, maybe as a younger generation gets into it, more people who have other influences. More gay cartoonists, more everything, but the New Yorker is very vibrant and you know we do graphic novel stuff. I'm not really involved in that, but I'm also really interested in seeing, in this new century, what sort of new types or forms of graphic humor might be appropriate. Some of the stuff I'm looking at now, you know, doesn't even look like cartoons --what people are sending in, it looks like oil paintings.

Matt: Hmm.

Bob: I'm just interested in all different ways that you can revitalize and evolve and maybe even revolutionize the form as The New Yorker did almost a hundred years ago when it started.

Matt: Let's take three minutes and talk about gazebos.

Bob: Gazebos?

Matt: Yeah. I've been thinking a lot about gazebos lately. Is there a cartoon idea in gazebos?

Bob: Uh, a cartoon from gazebos?

Matt: Have you ever done one?

Bob: Those are those little structures that are out in backyards and stuff?

Matt: Yeah.

Bob: Yeah. Hmm.

Matt: You often see little outdoor classical or brass band concerts in them.

Bob: Yeah.

Matt: You almost never see Gangsta Rap concerts. Maybe that's an angle.

Bob: Or you could just trot it around to the usual venues, like put one in the desert, or one at sea.

Matt: On a desert island?

Bob: You could see what comes from that as, uh -I sort of like the idea of a space station gazebo.

Matt: Well there's something funny just about the word, right?

Bob: Well, "gazebo?" yeah.

Matt: And the lack of real functionality to it.

Bob: Yeah.

Matt: It's an ornate shed.

Bob: And that's why if you had an ornate shed somehow out there in space with astronauts in those huge bulky space suits...

Matt: Having tea?

Bob: Yeah, or you could imagine a gazebo in some sort of emergency, so everyone has to be in HAZMAT suits, but they have to be... somehow they're missing the bucolic nature that the gazebo is intended for.

Matt: Or maybe it could become some sort of military use.

Bob: Right like maybe just the fact that North Korea is thought to be developing gazebos. And it's very confusing to Bush because he isn't sure what the word is, but he's against it. I guess that's some stuff.

Matt: Yeah there might be something in there. Good. Well, is there anything else you'd like to say to the Huffington Post Readers?

Bob: No, but there's a lot of things I'd like to take back.