Syracuse University Magazine

Laughing All the Way to the Cartoon Bank


New Yorker cartoonist Bob Mankoff has parlayed his liberal arts training into a successful career in ‘cartoonology’— and it’s serious business

Bob Mankoff ’66, cartoon editor of The New Yorker, rarely went to class at Syracuse University, so sometimes he only saw his professors during finals. “Once, I overslept and arrived half an hour late for an exam,” says the former psychology major from the College of Arts and Sciences. “While grabbing the exam book, I caught the professor’s eye. He came over to my desk and said loudly, ‘Who the hell are you?’ The class giggled.

“I replied, ‘You know, I could very well ask you the same question.’

“He laughed. The class laughed harder. I flunked. Lesson learned, but not the one he was teaching.”

Mankoff has come a long way from being a self-described “wise-guy—as in Jewish from Queens,” devoted to the aesthetics of his hair. “It was the ’60s. What can I say?” he says. After spending 20 years as a cartoonist for The New Yorker, he succeeded Lee Lorenz as cartoon editor in 1997. Since then, Mankoff has overseen the production of more than 14,000 cartoons and founded the online Cartoon Bank, which contains approximately 64,000 others published by the magazine. Mankoff has also written and edited multiple books, including the memoir, How About Never—Is Never Good for You?: My Life in Cartoons (Henry Holt and Company, 2014), whose title comes from the caption of one of his best-known cartoons.

Syracuse University Magazine contributor Rob Enslin recently caught up with Mankoff to ask him a few questions: 

I love the Alex Gregory cartoon in How About Never. You know, the one where the one caveman says to the other: “Something’s just not right—our air is clean, our water is pure, we all get plenty of exercise, everything we eat is organic and free-range—

“—and yet nobody lives past 30.” [Laughter] One of the main functions of satire is to have fun making fun of people. There’s a lot of silliness in the world, and, for my sake, I hope it never goes away. 

In your memoir, you discuss the difference between “playful incongruity” and humor.

There are classic gag cartoons—you know, jokes for the sake of jokes. Then there are jokes for the sake of communicating that have value above and beyond the joke. With The New Yorker, I want a mix of both. People often ask me what my most favorite cartoon is. I tell them it’s like trying to name your favorite Beatles song. It’s impossible because there are so many of them and your tastes change from moment to moment.

So context is important. 

Something that might be funny in one context or with one type of reader might not be funny with another. When you communicate with your audience, you have to be thinking about who they are and what’s going through their minds.

At The New Yorker [which is a weekly publication], the next issue we work on is called the “A” issue. We select cartoons for the “A” issue about one or two weeks in advance. Some of the cartoons are topical and have a very short shelf life—maybe a week or two—while others have an evergreen quality. Occasionally, we have a cartoon that starts out being topical, but, for one reason or another, we don’t end up using it, but it can still work, when transposed to another issue.

You get approximately 500 submissions a week. They must add up after a while.

The New Yorker has a fairly large bank of purchased cartoons, from which we select 16, 17, or 18 per issue. Also, I’ve founded the online Cartoon Bank, which has every New Yorker cartoon since the magazine was founded in 1925. 

The important thing is that our cartoons don’t promote or refer to anything in the magazine, itself. They live in a sort of parallel universe—one that informs and is informed by The New Yorker, while giving the layout some breathing room. The cartoons are also designed to lightly poke fun at our readers. We try to let them be in on the joke.

It sounds like you and David Remnick [editor of The New Yorker] are continually evaluating humor. 

There’s a strong overlap between what David likes and what I like, but no two people have the same sense of humor. So there’s some discussion, some conflict, but mostly lots of fun.

An important aspect of my job is nurturing and mentoring the next generation of New Yorker cartoonists. When I was coming up, magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post were doing away with cartoons, so opportunities were already few and far between. It’s gotten worse since then.

How has your psychology training made you a better cartoonist?

Psychology and philosophy were the only classes at Syracuse University in which I got A’s. I like to think that my best cartoons are influenced by the reflective nature of these disciplines. 

Syracuse University taught me that humor requires chutzpah—that you have to have the guts to do something, instead of just thinking about it. It also helped me develop my intellectual side. I went from studying psychology and philosophy to “cartoonology.” Looking back, my time at Syracuse University formed the core of whom I am today.

In addition to being well-educated, you’re a remarkable stipple artist—which you don’t see a lot in cartoons. 

In high school, I became influenced by the Impressionist Georges Seurat, who painted in a style known as pointillism. Originally, I thought it was a crazy way to paint or draw, but when I enlarged photographs in magazines and newspapers, I saw that they, like Seurat’s paintings, were made up of tiny dots. So I started using dots to make my own distorted versions of photographs. Then I applied it to cartoons. Over the years, I’ve gone back and forth with stippling. Lately, I’ve returned to it because it forces me to be at the drawing board.

Stippling must have a Zen-like quality to it, having to make all those tiny dots. 

It’s a nice contrast to emailing and tweeting people all the time.  … By the way, I never use emoticons, especially smiley faces. Either something is funny or it’s not. You don’t have to point it out to the reader.

Well, humor is serious business. 

As a species, we’re always cooperating and competing with one another. It creates tension, with which we use humor to deal. Let’s face it, a lot of things in life aren’t too great. There are no good jokes about fun vacations and healthy marriages.

And laughter?

It’s important. Studies show that laughter helps us function better, especially when we’re trying to solve serious problems.

What’s the secret to winning the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest?

You’ve got to be in it to win it. Give it an hour, and write down your ideas. Start off by writing the worst captions you can. This will help you to free-associate because ideas come from ideas, even bad ones. … Shorter is better. Put the punch line at the beginning. And please don’t put “LOL” or a smiley emoticon anywhere in your caption.

I always tell cartoonists to submit drawings in batches of 10 because in cartooning, as in life, nine out of 10 things never work out. All you need is one good idea. «