New Yorker Cartoon Editor Explores What Makes Us Get It
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. If you love New Yorker cartoons, you'd probably love the view from Bob Mankoff's desk. As the cartoon editor of the magazine, he evaluates more than 500 cartoons every week. He became the cartoon editor in 1997, 20 years after selling his first cartoon to the magazine.
I'll describe the cartoon he's most famous for. An executive is at his desk, on the phone, looking at his calendar, saying no, Thursday's out. How about never? Is never good for you? The title of Mankoff's new memoir is taken from that caption. It's called "How About Never - Is Never Good For You?" Bob Mankoff's book is filled with cartoons and insights about them. We spoke last March after the book was published.
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GROSS: Bob Mankoff, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So do you remember how you came up with the idea of how about never? Is never good for you?
BOB MANKOFF: I absolutely do, which is unusual, because, you know, as I told people a lot of times, people think you get one idea for a cartoon every week, and that's not the way it works. You usually get 10 or 15, and you're - certainly when I was a cartoonist, before I was a cartoon editor - you're rushing to do what is called the batch. When I was doing that, I liked to have, in general, about 10 cartoons.
And people say, well, why, you know - new cartoonists especially ask me why do - why do you want me to do 10 cartoons every week? I say because nine out of 10 things in life don't work out. So I had done nine cartoons, and I was looking to do one more. I was on - I was trying to get on the phone, and I did get on the phone with a friend of mine - quote-unquote "friend" - who I wanted to see. And somehow, that person didn't want to see me, it seemed.
And, you know, I kept saying, well, could we do it this time? Could we do it that time? And then I just got exasperated with him and said how about never? Is never good for you?
MANKOFF: So it was really a snotty line. And when I look back on it, on my Queens and Bronx and New York Jewish background, it's sort of like, hey, if I never see you again, it'll be too soon. The underlying structure is that. So I do remember it. And, you know, it turned out to be the most - one of the most reprinted cartoons in, I think, New Yorker history - we don't have records going all the way back - and certainly my most reprinted cartoon. And certainly - yeah, it's a little macabre. And I don't think most people know what's going to be in their obituary, but I do.
GROSS: Oh, yeah, but not on your tombstone, right?
MANKOFF: Not on my (laughter) - well, Johnny Carson had I'll be right back...
MANKOFF: ...Which seemed very optimistic.
MANKOFF: Yeah. So, yeah, not on my tombstone.
GROSS: So what are some of the ways that how about never, is never good for you has been appropriated over the years?
MANKOFF: Well, you know, just to get this right, I'm going to look in the book to see what Nancy Pelosi actually said. But when she was on the Jon Stewart show, she said, just talking back and forth to Jon Stewart, when the Republicans came in, they said to the president how about never? Does never work for you? (Laughter) The other ways it's been appropriated is, of course, just being reprinted in and of itself. It's on coffee mugs. It's also been ripped off. It's on panties.
MANKOFF: Yeah. So, there, you know, and I - really, no higher praise.
MANKOFF: And - but, you know, my lawyers are after it. We've recalled all those panties, and...
MANKOFF: What do you want to do with recalled panties, really? They sound...
GROSS: Well, no, if it's a copyright infringement, it's a copyright infringement. Do they ask for your permission to reprint it on...
MANKOFF: No, they don't, and a lot of these things are...
GROSS: And they were really more like thongs, judging from the photo in your book.
MANKOFF: That's right. You know what? You're right - thongs. That's right. (Laughter).
GROSS: Just to be precise.
MANKOFF: I stand corrected.
GROSS: Slightly harder to fit it onto a thong than a full panty. Yeah.
MANKOFF: And I hope people are enjoying them.
GROSS: (Laughter) No, they're not enjoying them, because it's how about never? Yeah.
MANKOFF: No, actually, you know, it's impossible to track those things down, you know, because they're all run by the Russian mafia. No, that's not true.
MANKOFF: But they - and you really don't want to mess with them. And it's just not worth it. I think at one time, before the Internet, you sort of could do that. But now it's sort of piracy becomes the sincerest form of flattery.
GROSS: So, in your book, you write that you have to look at about 500 cartoons a week and evaluate...
GROSS: ...Because you're the cartoon editor at the New Yorker. And you say evaluating humor is different from enjoying humor. And to demonstrate, you have a cartoon with 10 possible captions. And this is what you have to do all the time for the cartoon caption contest that you run each week...
GROSS: ...Where you put a cartoon on the page, and readers have to come up with captions. And it's a contest, and you reprint the winners.
GROSS: So this cartoon that you reprint with 10 possible captions is two snakes walking side by side. And one of them, in the middle of the snake body, has a bulge that looks like two buttocks.
MANKOFF: Very callipygous buttocks...
GROSS: Oh, callipygous - what does that mean?
MANKOFF: Right. It means very well-shaped buttocks.
GROSS: Thank you.
MANKOFF: So now you can - I don't know how often you can use that in conversation without getting slapped.
GROSS: OK. So I want you to read the 10 possible captions.
MANKOFF: OK, so the captions are - did you see the look on Darwin's face? I don't like the way Adam looks at you. That happens when you eat Brazilian. Now you probably want a chair. Those Kardashians are hard to swallow. I'm telling you, the apple will be tempting enough. It's hot now, but tomorrow it'll be somewhere near your ankles. All he gave me to work with was a lousy apple. I told you silicon was non-digestible. It's not my fault that my brain is not evolutionarily wired to like that. Please stop asking, honey. If anything you look too thin. If only I had hands, Gladys, if only I had hands.
So there you have all the choices. And one of the things, you know, this book - the paradox of choice - one of the things about choice in humor and just the interference of the judgment process is it automatically is a mediating response, and it short-circuits your laugh response. Now, instead of laughing at something, as you would in a normal cartoon, you're having to judge it. And for one thing, that makes everything less funny, but you still have to - you know, you still have to judge it.
GROSS: So which did you pick? Which did you think was the funniest?
MANKOFF: You know, I thought the funniest was I don't like the way Adam looks at you.
GROSS: I thought the funniest was did you see the look on Darwin's face?
MANKOFF: But you see, you're wrong.
GROSS: Why am I wrong?
MANKOFF: No, you're not. So humor itself and your response to humor - that's one of the things that, really, I learned in doing this job and even writing this book - especially the caption contest - is very, very varied. But what we do is after we look through all 5,000 - and usually it's my assistant, and usually the assistant is someone from the Harvard Lampoon - looks through all 5,000, categorizes them in all different ways the jokes are made. Then I pick maybe these many, and I use Survey Monkey, and I send it out to the New Yorker editors.
And just like you, the response is incredibly varied. But at that point, it's sort of this - it's this crowd-sourcing. And you know what? I'll sort of tend to go with the one that the crowd likes at that point because in the end, there's another crowd who's going to pick and that's who will vote on it.
But all of these - one of the things is all of these are actually pretty good when you look at it - what the caption contest is, which is a game. So I try to evaluate it not so much as is this hysterically funny, but if you were playing this game like a board game, and you came up with this, would you think you did a pretty good job? I think for all of these, you'd think I did OK.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bob Mankoff. He's a New Yorker cartoonist and the cartoon editor at the magazine. He has a new memoir that's about his life, but also about the art of cartooning. It's called "How About Never - Is Never Good For You?: My Life in Cartoons." Let's take a short break.
MANKOFF: You see those two snakes? That might have worked for the two snakes, too.
GROSS: How about never?
GROSS: That would be funny.
MANKOFF: Isn't that? Well, see?
GROSS: That actually works for so many things.
MANKOFF: Right. And, of course, the caption contest - I won't go there, but one of the interesting things about the caption contest is that it shows, first of all, that a sense of humor, and especially a sense of humor related to cartoons, is something really that's very, very widespread. It doesn't mean that the people who win the contest are professional cartoonists, but a lot of what the Internet is showing is that talent is more disperse than gatekeepers such as myself, you know, previously restricted it to.
And the other interesting thing about the caption contest is that it spawned all forms of meta-humor so that there's an anti-caption contest where you come up with the worst possible caption. There's the universal caption contest where you come up with a caption that fits all of the contest, and one of the contenders is what a misunderstanding.
MANKOFF: And the other is - I don't know if you can have this on NPR - is Christ, what a [bleep].
MANKOFF: And so - and I think the interesting thing about that - the interesting thing about this is people will laugh much harder often at these than they will at the actual caption. And that shows something about the shifting character of humor in our society. It's become much more ironic. It's become much more humor about humor. And I don't think there's ever been as much meta-humor, jokes about jokes, sort of ironic stances from humor than there has been, and that's partly what I talk about in the book.
GROSS: It's time to take that break, so let's take a break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bob Mankoff. He's been a cartoonist with the New Yorker since the late '70s. He's also been the cartoon editor for many years. Now he has a new memoir called "How About Never - Is Never Good For You?: My Life in Cartoons."
You know, in giving advice to - about cartoon humor, you mentioned, like, if you're doing a list or mentioning alternatives, there's got to be at least three - that two isn't enough. And I've heard comics - stand-up comics talk about the law of threes. So what's the magic of three?
MANKOFF: I think the magic of three is sort of what I talked about before in terms of surprise. You need a sequence for surprise. So let's, you know, look at a joke by Alex Gregory. You know, it's two cavemen, and, you know, they're saying, I don't understand it. The air is pure, everything we eat is organic, and yet, we only live to 30.
MANKOFF: Or another one - this is a great cartoon by Alex Gregory, which also really shows this thing that in professional comedy is called a triplet, which is one, two and then boom - the punch line. A woman is saying, I started my vegetarianism for moral reasons, then for health concerns, and now it's just to annoy people.
GROSS: (Laughter). How have New Yorker cartoons changed since you started cartooning for the magazine in around '77?
MANKOFF: I think they've changed, and for one reason they have become sort of meta. You know, so when you look back at desert island cartoons, which we've had forever, you know, you might have, you know, a cartoon with - well, it's interesting. The very first desert island cartoons were rather big. You've got to live on that island, OK?
By 1984, I have a cartoon where the guy is pretty much - he's a regular-sized guy, but he's the size of the island. He's saying no man is an island, but I come pretty damn close.
MANKOFF: And then maybe a few years ago, I have a cartoon by Farley Katz where there's Superman on the island, and he's saying wait, I can fly. So...
GROSS: Oh, I get it. OK. That took a second. All right.
MANKOFF: Wait, I can fly. So that's really sort of more meta. It's a cartoon about cartoons. When you look back at the older cartoons, they're very much more observational cartoons. And the cartoon - the people in the cartoons are not making the joke. They're not making the joke. So in an older cartoon, you might have - and this is based on more stereotypes than we would have had then - you might have a woman at a baseball game. She's looking exasperatingly at her watch. And she's saying why didn't they tell us there would be an extra inning, you know, because baseball...
MANKOFF: OK. She's not making a joke. She is saying this. She's saying this. We're observing the joke. In these later cartoons it's like sitcom, right? There's no way that she's not aware that this is a joke. And I think one of the reasons that humor changes is because of the humor that the generations are exposed to. So the generations that were exposed to sitcom have the people actually saying the line, saying the joke, whereas sort of before that you have much more observational humor.
But I think one of the things, one of the things I enjoyed in writing this book is really showing the very, very widespread type of humor that happens in New York. You have completely silly cartoons, but then you have cartoons that are satiric. But it's interesting because they're - they do deal with issues that are in the public mind, but they're never really about the public figures. So if they're cartoons about same-sex marriage - I'll give two examples. One is a Michael Short (ph) cartoon where it's a couple looking at TV, and the guy is saying gays and lesbians getting married - haven't they suffered enough?
MANKOFF: And then I did a cartoon where there's a couple in bed, and the guy is saying to the woman, what's your opinion on some-sex marriage?
MANKOFF: So it's refracted through the personal, and I think the interesting thing about New Yorker humor is that it's basically benign. I know everybody wants humor to be subversive and speak truth to power. I don't think power has been listening, incidentally. But the humor in the New Yorker is the jokes are directed back at the class that's reading the magazine. And for me, personally, that's the most interesting type of humor.
GROSS: Bob Mankoff, it's been great to have you back on the show. Thank you so much for talking with us.
MANKOFF: Thanks so much, Terry.
GROSS: Bob Mankoff is the cartoon editor of the New Yorker. Our interview was recorded last March, after the publication of his memoir "How About Never - Is Never Good For You?" If you'd like to catch up on interviews you missed, check out our podcast on iTunes. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
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