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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The cartoons of The New Yorker magazine have a distinctive style - short, quippy, topical, understated. Simply put, they're smart. Maybe too smart.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEINFELD")

JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine) Look at this cartoon in The New Yorker. I don't get this.

WERTHEIMER: In its final season, the TV sitcom "Seinfeld" did a send-up of the magazine's drawings. The joke was: they don't make sense.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEINFELD")

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine) The cat is saying, I've enjoyed reading your email.

JASON ALEXANDER: (as George) It's got something to do with that 42 in the corner?

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine) That's a page number.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Confounded, Elaine finally sits down with The New Yorker's cartoon editor who admits that sometimes they don't make sense to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEINFELD")

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine) You have no idea what this means, do you?

PAUL BENEDICT: (as Mr. Elinoff) No.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine Benes) No. Then why did you print it?

BENEDICT: (as Mr. Elinoff) I liked the kitty.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Now finally, Elaine tries her hand at a New Yorker cartoon and she gets it published. But that doesn't make it funny.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEINFELD")

JERRY SEINFELD: (as Jerry) It's a pig at a complaint department.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine) Yeah, and he's saying, I wish I was taller.

(LAUGHTER)

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine) See? That's his complaint.

SEINFELD: (as Jerry) I get it.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine) Do you?

SEINFELD: (as Jerry) How about if it was something like, I can't find my receipt my place is a sty.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Well, The New Yorker is not done with this. This week, for their caption contest, 14 years later, they've used Elaine's fictional cartoon - a pig standing at a complaint department - and they want readers to re-caption it.

The man who made that decision, Bob Mankoff, The New Yorker's cartoon editor, joins us now. Welcome.

BOB MANKOFF: Happy to be here.

WERTHEIMER: So, the "Seinfeld" episode came out in 1998. Why are you doing this now? Are you getting even?

MANKOFF: That's been sticking in my craw ever since.

(LAUGHTER)

MANKOFF: And if I get my hands on the guy who wrote that - actually a guy who wrote that, we get our hands on this stuff all the time. That's Bruce Eric Kaplan who is a cartoonist for the magazine.

WERTHEIMER: Can you remember how you felt about the "Seinfeld" thing when you first saw it? I mean, obviously you thought it was funny. It was flattering to be on the show, but what did you really think?

MANKOFF: Well, I thought et tu, Bruce.

(LAUGHTER)

MANKOFF: But actually I thought it was really quite interesting because, look, for the most part The New Yorker cartoons are completely transparent - there is something to get. You know, when you see what looks like a Swiss Army knife and it's got all the corkscrews and the title is "French Army Knife," we put the things together. When you see Einstein in bed with a woman and he's saying: To you, it was fast.

(LAUGHTER)

MANKOFF: You understand. And so, but also...

WERTHEIMER: Yeah.

MANKOFF: ...he says...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEINFELD")

BENEDICT: (as Mr. Elinoff) Well, Ms. Benes, cartoons are like gossamer and one doesn't dissect gossamer.

MANKOFF: A few of The New Yorker cartoons absolutely had that sort of elusive gossamer quality, where there wasn't this really thing that you can't, you just sort of enjoy it. Roz Chast's early cartoons were a little bit like that. She once did a cartoon that was just called "Lots of Ducks." And all it had was bunches of ducks...

(LAUGHTER)

MANKOFF: ...in the middle of the drawing where the people around him saying: Boy, sure are lots of ducks.

WERTHEIMER: Well, I mean you must get mail that says I didn't understand it, it'd make any sense, it's not funny...

MANKOFF: Absolutely, all the time. Because when I think the cartoons into the meeting with David Remnick, we don't focus-group anything. And one of the things is that The New Yorker...

WERTHEIMER: Just you two guys? You...

MANKOFF: Well, just me too and actually Sylvia Killingsworth, who's the assistant editor. So we have three people really who look at it. I see a thousand cartoons a week and I bring in these 50. And, really, by the time you see a thousand cartoons you can be a little humor-loopy.

(LAUGHTER)

MANKOFF: And sometimes, things that will appeal to you that they just seem weird and funny and you can't explain.

WERTHEIMER: Now, in your blog you break down the reasons why Elaine's cartoon is not funny and why Jerry's joke is too jokey. You have like a cartoon dial that goes from normalcy to nonsense.

MANKOFF: Yeah, absolutely. And let's do the pig, OK?

WERTHEIMER: OK.

MANKOFF: The pig is that the complaint department. What could be the reason the pig is there?

(LAUGHTER)

MANKOFF: We have to accept, of course, that it's pretty crazy he's there to start with. But what type of associations? Well, he might be heavy, right? Maybe he can find nothing that's fit. Maybe can't find the truffles department.

(LAUGHTER)

MANKOFF: The thing is you have to bring it together. Jerry brings it together in the most sort of, you know, jokey way possible. And so on that dial also, you have sort of from basically corny to weird, right? We veer a little bit towards the weird.

WERTHEIMER: So, do you worry that if the three of you who are the last word on cartoons, you sit down together, if you analyze something too much that it stops being funny to you?

MANKOFF: I have the really fortunate instance of David Remnick not having to analyze anything. He's just reacting to what's funny. I do the analysis, the over-analysis, and the re-over-analysis because I'm interested in that. The other thing is cartoonists every week do 10 or 15 ideas, every single week. So we have sort of embarrassment of riches and that if we make a mistake on a cartoon, fortunately no one gets hurt.

(LAUGHTER)

MANKOFF: The only person that gets made fun of then is us and I think we can take it.

WERTHEIMER: Bob Mankoff is the cartoon editor for The New Yorker magazine. They've released a spoof cartoon from an episode of "Seinfeld" as their cartoon caption contest, and you can submit at their website.

Thanks very much for this.

MANKOFF: Oh, thank you, and I appreciate that.

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