During this Facebook Live, Bob talks about his time as The New Yorker Cartoon Editor, about his creative process, and how to stimulate yours.
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…I’m going to tell you in this segment of, I don’t know what we’re going to call it, the Bobcast or whatever, about my life in New Yorker cartoons and about New Yorker cartoons. You’ve got a lot of questions you entered and I’m going to answer all of them. Not today, though, over time. Anyway, there’s no point to stay tuned. We’re live and we’re moving now.
A Little About Me
Now, the title of this talk is the title of my book. How About Never Is Never Good For You? My Life in Cartoons. This was a book that came out in 2014. It was an instant bestseller, which meant that it was a bestseller for an instant. Actually, it did pretty well before it was knocked off by one of Malcolm Gladwell’s very interesting books, but not funny books. I would like you to go buy it, but I know you’re not going to have enough time to do that, so just for those who are not going to buy it or don’t want to or whatever, just a very quick review.
I can save you about $19.95. About the author. If you saw that thing in the first part where it says, I’m not arguing, I’m Jewish. I am Jewish, and I’m not arguing right now. Hopefully, I’m being funny. I just want to make the story clear. To be funny, you certainly don’t have to be Jewish, but if you’re Jewish and not funny, that’s what we call a shonda. It’s a shame.
The other thing, I love the questions and we have decided at random, actually, not the questions, anybody who has signed up for this, thanks a lot. What I’m going to do for you, you lucky person, I guess, or maybe even unlucky, here it is. That’s the shadow of my GoPro. I absolutely need the GoPro for these adventurous things like signing a book. Usually, there’re people skateboarding down a mountain. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to draw for the person that we select at random. I’m going to draw a cartoon for them, maybe something like this. I do want to say that, hey, I am the cartoon editor. By drawing this cartoon, the book that you get becomes more valuable. I’d like it back. Thanks.
Okay. The cartoon that the title of the book is, that’s the cartoon. “No, Thursday’s out. How about never– is never good for you?” I’ve done thousands of cartoons, almost a thousand for The New Yorker. Is this my best cartoon? I don’t know. Probably not in my opinion, but in terms of the opinion of people who pay for things, I guess it is, and it is the cartoon that put my darling daughter, Sarah, through Barnard, so I’m very, very grateful for it.
Somebody asked a question about humor theory and do I pay attention to it. Well, I’ve taught psychology of humor. I’ll give you a five-second course why this is funny. First of all, it is a little bit mean. That’s a little bit, but just being mean doesn’t mean it’s funny. What it does is it combines something right and something wrong with something good and something bad, and a little bit of a surprise. When we look at the language, the syntax, whatever you want to call it, the grammar of it, it’s polite. Very polite. No serious face out. How about never?? Is never good for you? The message is rude. That kind of thing usually generates a laugh, and in the case of this cartoon, generated money. That cartoon, I am very proud to say, got me in the Yale book of quotations. There I am. Robert Mankoff. U.S. cartoonist. 1944, the year I was born. There it is. I’m really proud of being along with the other very well-known humorist, Mao Tse-Tung.
We’re all going through a hard time. Life itself tends to be a hard time. One of the hardest things about life is you get older. The train only goes in one direction. We all know what the final stop is. Now I’m 77. My birthday is on May 1st. Thank you in advance for the presents. When I made 70, I had to cope with it. That’s a big thing. Here are the three jokes I made up about being 70. First one is, I’m 70. The good news is it could be worse. The bad news is it will be. I’m 70. The good news is 70 is the new 50. The bad news is dead is not the new alive. Finally, when you’re 70 and you’re a guy, you wake up stiff everywhere but where you want to be. Those are the jokes, folks.
Now, interesting thing about how you earn money as a cartoonist. The New Yorker paid me money for that cartoon. Not enough. Then, you make no money at all as people rip you off. See, now I have a trademark for this. How About Never? Is Never Good For You? So, I can go after these people who did that t-shirt, but when I didn’t have a trademark, they ripped me off. I couldn’t get any money. Then, of course, the thong industry jumped all over my cartoon. All they offered was three thongs. Honestly, how many thongs do you need?
I did have a long career at The New Yorker from 1977 all the way to 2017. The neat thing about The New Yorker is they kept a record of every single cartoon. Now, they don’t do this anymore for a while. It was lovely. They had a scrapbook and little old ladies would cut the cartoons out and paste them in the scrapbook. Over time, you would build up the scrapbook and there were just all these volumes of all The New Yorker cartoons, and you were in it, and you could go to The New Yorker library and you could look at your cartoons and said, “Ah, here I am. This is Valhalla. This is my resting place.” Actually, when you die, that puts your other part of that little dasher on. But I’m not dead yet.
Some Other Cartoons of Mine
In my time at The New Yorker, I did some cartoons other than Thursdays. Here’s a few of them. I think you’ll get my humor and my cast of mind and what kinds of things I find funny both as a creator and both as an editor and as an enjoyer and a consumer of humor. “I’m sorry, dear. I wasn’t listening. Could you repeat what you’ve said since we’ve been married?” “On the one hand, eliminating the middleman would result in lower costs, increase sales, and greater consumer satisfaction; on the other hand, we’re the middleman.” I realized I was looking at another screen and maybe it wasn’t as funny because of that, but now I’m looking directly at you. So now, all the humor will be potentiated. “As a matter of fact, you did catch us at a bad time.” “And, while there’s no reason yet to panic, I think it only prudent that we make preparations to panic.” “A billion is a thousand million? Why wasn’t I informed of this?”
Now, when I do cartoons, for the most part, sometimes I do really silly cartoons. But usually, I have an idea and a meaning and something I want to convey, and usually criticism, sometimes of myself or my thinking or sometimes of others. I would say for the most part, my humor and The New Yorker humor, certainly when I was there, is not punching up, not punching down, but elbow into the side. Making fun of the class or the group that you are a member of. I personally think that’s the deepest kind of humor. The humor in which you make fun of the other, yeah, it’s fun. But it’s not very revealing. Remember, to someone else, you’re the other.
This is a cartoon that I did in 1980, one of my most reprinted cartoons. It’s probably not really funny in any way, but I think it means a lot, and it means a lot to me. I got a lot of great responses from this, from philosophers, sociology teachers, all sorts of high brows who put it in their textbook because it’s really an explanation in some way, or it’s certainly my view of how the world works.
“Now, that’s product placement.” People ask you how you get ideas. Well, for a long time where I was in The New Yorker, when it was 25 West 43rd Street, we looked right out of the Empire State building and the idea came to me. I actually thought, well, this would actually be a great ad.
Then, of course, I will just do a dumb joke that’s funny. This is Hamlet’s Duplex: to be or not to be. I remember when I showed that at the meeting with David Remnick. Remnick said, “That’s dumb.” But I said, “Well, David, that’s funny.” Then he said, “That’s dumb.” Then I said, “That’s funny.” Then he said, “It’s funny.” Often meetings would go like that.
The How and Why of Cartooning (for Me)
People ask me, how do I come up with ideas for my cartoons? I say I think of them. It’s interesting. To get this idea, you actually have to know just a little bit about the history of art, of sculpture. That August Rodin is the guy who did this, did The Thinker, and also did The Kiss.
But what made me think that I could even be a cartoonist? Well, I grew up in Queens. There were specialized schools in New York City, Brooklyn Tech, Bronx High School of Science, and the High School of Music and Art, which is not called that anymore. Now it’s called LaGuardia High School because they thought that would be a catchier name. Anyway, I went for art. You could go for either music and art. This is the school that really made me famous, the way they combined it with the performing arts and the movie thing.
Anyway, I went for art and here I am in my graduation picture. Robert Mankoff, 1962. But look at that dude next to me. Look at Edward Burak. He’s got a pipe. It’s 1962 and he’s 18 years old and he’s got a pipe. When I was researching my book because I came across this in my album, the music and art album, I said, I wonder what happened to Edward Burak. Through the majesty of the internet, I could find out.
The Art of Edward F. Burak, Dean of American Pipe Designers. Is that amazing? Is that ridiculous? Is that funny? I know you think it’s funny and there’s no theory of humor that’ll actually tell you why that’s funny, but it is funny. I thought, man, I missed my calling. I missed my calling. Edward F. Burak edged me out. Think what I could have accomplished. I could’ve been the Dean of American Pipe Designers, but no, no. What did I do?
Well, that’s me in 1962 in one of those great pictures from high school albums from that year. Everything was whited out and everything. It looks like they gave me a nose job. That’s nice. There I am, 1962. I go to Syracuse University where I major in hair. Look at that. That’s me in 1966, and people from the middle of the ’60s and people ask me when they see this picture when I give talks in person. You’re probably thinking of the same. Did he do drugs? When I’m asked that question, I say, “I did, but really not enough.” I’m sorry. I’m looking at the wrong screen. I promise you in the next one, I will be looking at the right screen all the time. If I had a time machine, I’d go back and I’d do a little bit more drugs. It’s too late for me now.
Okay. After that, I went to graduate school in experimental psychology where I almost got a PhD. I was on the cusp of my PhD, but it was the world’s longest cusp. It went on forever and ever and ever, so I quit. I quit on the cusp. I do plan to go back and get it posthumously. I quit to become a cartoonist. I’d always wanted to be a cartoonist. Here in 1974, at the age of 30, I said, “Well, that’s it. I’m going to give it a shot.” I told my parents this. I’m laughing and you’re laughing too, my Jewish parents. I said, “Okay. Mom, Dad, I’m not going to be a psychologist.” They would love anything that had -ologist at the end of it. “I’m going to be a cartoonist.” My father looked at me very sternly and said, “They already have people who do that.” Couldn’t argue with that. I said, “Yeah, but one of them might die.” I just told them I’d watch the obituary. I was very careful.
I started cartooning and this is the first cartoon I ever had in any magazine, the Saturday Review of literature. Here is the caption. “Faster than a speeding bullet … More powerful than a locomotive … No shorthand?” Did shorthand even exist anymore? Look at that style. That style had nothing to do at all with the style I later developed, which you can see, which is pointillism. Dots, dots, dots, dots, which you can see very clearly in another cartoon that I sold to them. This is probably from ’74 or ’75. “Please tell the king, I’ve remembered the punch line.” I think that’s a pretty great cartoon and a pain in the ass to do. There are thousands of dots in that cartoon that I did with a rapidograph pen. At one point, to try to do this, I attached it to an electric toothbrush, but that never worked out.
Anyway, that’s where I developed that style. I’ve really done these kinds of drawings going back to the High School of Music and Art, but it was a very, very difficult style. But it served me well in a way when I finally got into The New Yorker because it certainly grabbed your attention. Basically, if the guy is doing this much work to do a cartoon, it might actually be funny. Or else, why waste all that time?
Then, I had some success at Saturday Review and other magazines, and then I kept trying to get into The New Yorker, and I kept getting rejected from The New Yorker, rejected, rejected, rejected. I didn’t know what the number is. Sometimes I say 2000, sometimes I say 500. It was a lot. It was a couple of years of doing it. It was definitely more than six. I definitely submitted more than six cartoons. I submitted probably well over a thousand. All I got back was the normal New Yorker rejection. But eventually, after years and years, in 1977, this rejection changed to this. Okay. I’m not going to read it. Of course, they didn’t send me that. If you’re offended by that word, just lie down for a while. You’ll see you get over it. But that was the emotion. Part of the emotion was, after submitting all these cartoons, oh, well, I made it now. I can quit. I can go now work for my dad’s carpet store. It’s interesting because this is the contract.
Now, three years later, after actually getting a lot of cartoons published in the New Yorker, I got a contract. I’m blurring out all the parts because at that time they used to actually, as perks, give you drugs. Not true. I don’t know who’s in the audience. I figure you’re all intelligent, but there might be somebody who’s not, and will take that literally. December 15, 1980, I get a contract from The New Yorker. What did that mean? They owe some money? No. What it meant was that they’d pay you a higher price, there would be some bonus system, but there was no guarantee that they would buy anything. For every week, you never knew. You never knew whether they would buy your cartoon or whether your cartoon would appear in the New Yorker.
Being Cartoon Editor
Well, from 1980 when I got a contract, in 1997, I became Cartoon Editor. That was a whole different world, and that world was somewhat captured in a 60 Minutes that was in 2014. I’ll play the video and you’ll get some idea about that.
Hey, how are you? Paul, Robert. I suppose you came in here to show me cartoons.
Every Wednesday, a nervous band of ink-stained wretches gathers above Mankoff’s office.
Let’s see what you got here.
Hoping against hope to sell him a cartoon. For what they’re paid, no one’s talking.
How many have been accepted, I really don’t know.
There’s the grizzled veteran, Sam Gross, who figures he’s submitted 30,000 cartoons, give or take. 30,000.
Many consider this his masterpiece, a dog at heaven’s gate asking, “Is there any chance of getting my testicles back?”
I still have to push the envelope.
Sam has always pushed the envelope, things that you couldn’t quite do. How you doing?
I’m very well.
There’s always a little preliminary chit-chat.
How’ve you been?
Farley Katz specializes in the far-out in both cartoons and facial hair.
What’s going on with that mustache? Are you still entering the contest?
No, I retired from the circuit. This is all a recreational mustache.
Then, Mankoff speed-reads the rough sketches.
This is just too awkward a drawing.
Most get rejected. He’s seen the idea in one form or another before.
You know whenever they open your bag at an airport?
Carlita Johnson has an airport security cartoon with a TSA guy saying, “You can pack this back up now.” Emily Flake has a joke featuring both King Kong and Godzilla.
The two heavy hitters in the monster world.
It’s as simple as that.
Maybe it’s just a day for facial hair, but Joe Dator seems to be a contender for Tarzan cartoon.
The apes are saying, “We found you and raised you as one of us, so we were just wondering, at what point did you learn to shave?”
Listen. I have researched this. There is no iteration of Tarzan in literature, comic books, or in movies in which he has facial hair. It makes no sense.
This is just stage one, thinning out the candidate to take to the magazine’s editor.
That’s a little bit too straightforward.
He’s largely non-committal. Pleasant, but blunt.
It won’t look right in our magazine.
But a drawing simply isn’t good enough.
We’re not that impressed. Okay, next. It doesn’t have enough charm.
Wow. There. Pleasant but blunt. I don’t know if everyone actually felt that, but that was interesting. There’s two things wrong in there. Sam Gross has done 30,000 cartoons. He didn’t submit 30,000 cartoons to The New Yorker. Of course, the great Sam Gross still going strong at 90 or maybe not quite as strong, but still as funny as ever at 90. Has done cartoons since the 1950s. Also, the interesting thing about that thing, Morley Safer saw that cartoon then thought it was so funny he could never get the line right and they had to paste it together.
Now, the actual job of cartoon editor was, I met with people every week. Anybody really could come in and meet with me at least once. The door was open in that way. But basically, what I did was look at thousands of cartoons. Here I am looking at thousands of them. That is actually not that great a job because it’s really easy to lose your sense of humor. Any of you who have voted on the caption contest over and over again know how numbing that could be, but still, you have to have some other perspective. That’s a tough, dirty job and someone’s got to do it and I did it, and it’s a good gig. I’m not really complaining, but I’m trying to give you a little bit of insight into what it’s like because people would always say, “You must be laughing all the time,” and you’re not really because you wouldn’t even have the time if you kept laughing and had to look at a thousand cartoons. You’d never get done.
This is an interesting drawing by William Hogarth, “The Laughing Audience, 1733.” Everyone’s having a good time here, really good time, except this guy. He’s the critic. He’s evaluating it. That is a little bit what it’s like to be anybody who is evaluating humor for commerce. You’re really not laughing. You’re thinking, does this work for the magazine? Does it work for our audience? All of that. Generally, you can be a little bit of a sourpuss. When I was doing this job, I had to make sure that didn’t really happen to me. I had to really guard against the fact of just looking at lots and lots of cartoons and often realizing that you don’t think it’s funny because you’ve looked at 500 cartoons. It’s like, hey, I’m eating bonbons and the thousandth one doesn’t taste as good. You had to factor that in.
Here were some of the rules I had in my own mind. Where else would those rules be? There were only six rules. If I had to write them down and couldn’t remember it, it wouldn’t speak well of my memory.
The Six Rules
Rule one: If you’re being funny for money, originality is overrated, which means people like what they’ve seen before in some sense. That’s why you have all these clichés. They like something new within a cocoon of the familiar. That’s just the formula. That’s why jokes have certain formulas, and that’s why you’re watching movies that you’ve watched before, listening to the music you’ve liked before. This is the very first desert island cartoon that ever appeared in a magazine. “I claim this island.” Let me look at the right monitor. “I claim this island for the U.S.A. and the Alfred R. Whipple Real Estate Company of Muscatine, Iowa.”
By 1951, 20 years later, there’s a different theme here. It’s about the freedom of the desert island to be freed from the constricts, especially involving sexuality of society. “Gosh, Mr. Maxwell! With all those other girls on the boat, I never thought you’d give me a tumble.” Now, this cartoon in 1951, we’d never publish a cartoon like this. It’s too sexist. It’s too whatever it is. It’s just basically to 1951. Look at the cartoon from 1997 by Robert Weber. “What’s our immigration policy?” Now you see the desert island being used as trope with cliché used to speak about other issues, issues that are just as relevant today.
Very quickly, one of these clichés becomes meta, which becomes about itself. I did this cartoon in 1980. It has a guy. The island has disappeared. At the very beginning, the island has been up to at least in a fanciful way support life. By 1980, it’s a tiny island and the cartoon is, “No man is an island, but I come pretty damn close.” It’s The New Yorker. We’re playing up the people’s idea that they know who John Donne is, that they may have heard this poem. No man is an island entire of itself. Each is a part of the continent, a piece of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the last. Honestly, really, Europe? A clod was washed away by the sea? Get over it. It’s just a clod. Anyway, we play up to the fact that most people who’ve read The New Yorker have been to college.
Rule two: it’s been done. It’s been done means it’s very likely to have been done. When we accepted cartoons, we would evaluate them against all the cartoons that we had done before. Not all the cartoons in the history of the world. That would be impossible, but we didn’t want to print things that had been done. I did this cartoon, “Let me through — I’m the victim!” Which, actually, is a really good cartoon because that’s the world we’re in now. Everybody’s the victim, except maybe the victim. David Sipress, great cartoonist, submitted when I was cartoon editor the exact same cartoon. He didn’t plagiarize it. He came up with the idea independently. That’s just something else that’s really interesting, also reflected in the caption contest, which I’ll talk about in the next time we do this together. People come up with similar ideas. Here are similar cartoons submitted exactly the same week on Waldo. We picked the second one because it was marginally more subtle.
Rule three: Play favorites, as in favorite cartoonists. This goes back to the thing that people like what they’ve liked. You not only like this particular cartoon by Roz Chast or me or someone you’ve seen before. You like them. You like your favorite comedians just like you like to hear the singers saying what they’ve sung before. Just from a psychological aspect, you’re going to think something is funnier. Whether it actually is in a completely objective way is not the case. Then, when you’re familiar with not only the person and the cartoonist, but their style and their outlook.
Here are three cartoons by three different people about insomnia. Insomnia Jeopardy. This is from Roz, and it’s very Chast-y. Wonderful thing at the end keeping her up, ideas for a screenplay. Everything else is bad and that’s good. This Drew Dernavich, one of the great cartoonists really that I brought into the magazine, fantastic artist, and just wonderful really in every way as a cartoonist. Here’s his cartoon. “When I can’t sleep, I find that it sometimes helps to get up and jot down my anxieties.”
Rule four: Play favorites, but not so much that nobody else gets to play. During my tenure at the magazine, I brought in all these cartoonists who hadn’t been there before, and that continues to go on. There’s a little bit difference, I think, and we can get to that in the question about what it used to take to get into a cartoon in a magazine when I was a cartoonist, then when I became cartoon editor, and now. But it is important to bring new people into the magazine and have more diversity in the magazine. Certainly, that happened. I’m very proud of what I did there. Now, people often ask, how do cartoonists get ideas for cartoons? Here’s this video of Liam Walsh, one of the young cartoonists that came in when I was cartoon editor, explain all that. Listen to him and learn.
I’m going to explain a cartoon that was popular, made the rounds of Facebook, and seems to have struck a chord with people, which was this one of a guy wearing a dog cone around and saying, “It keeps me from looking at my phone every two seconds.”
I was looking back at some of my old notebooks, and the way it seems to have started was I was in an airport at one point and wrote down an idea for meditation with a shock collar. So I think that was the first time that I had the idea of crossing some sort of pet training device with humans, and with attention, I guess. Up to then, the shock collar idea sort of worked its way through my brain for a while, and I started playing around with the idea of RCA victor dog who sits next to the gramophone.
I was using the cone of the gramophone as the cone around his neck. The onlt thing I came up with is he’s saying to another Dalmatian, “Don’t ask,” so it’s probably better that you don’t either.
The next page is a dog wearing a lampshade around his neck, and the dog is saying, “Oh, Melville, you crazy party animal.” It was a trope in Garfield when I was growing up that a party animal always wears the lampshade on his head.
Then that was all. Nothing else, then the rest of this book, nothing else came of that, until a few weeks later it just pops up out of nowhere. I guess I’ve been thinking about dogs because I have a guy using a remote to turn a dog on and off, or to make a dog sit. It says, “Dogmatic.” Then out of that, suddenly I have, “It’s supposed to keep me from compulsively checking my phone.” Unfortunately, I was playing around with the idea, seeing where I could go with it, and unfortunately, it also says, “Licking my scab and licking my butt hole,” so you can edit that out.
There it is, he’s at a party. He has the cone around his neck. He’s talking to a woman; that was basically the idea. It looks like it just appeared out of nowhere, but I think that it all started sifting through my brain. So out of each notebook, sometimes I’ll have three or four cartoons out of each notebook, and sometimes there will be notebooks that are just vast barren deserts of terrible ideas, that may someday become better, I guess.
Actually, it’s, I think, wonderfully insightful of Liam, and absolutely true. You need the vast barren desert to get the great ideas. In other words, you need bad ideas. You need to go through them to get good ideas. The difference between an amateur and a professional is an amateur thinks their ideas are good.
Rule five: New news is good news. That means that people like topical cartoons, and that they don’t have to be that funny, or humor, or jokes in general. They don’t have to be funny, as long as they become very quickly, contingent upon the event. So here you saw they had this idiotic thing, the scientific seven-minute workout. Yet, all the scientists who did this are now in hospitals.
When I look at this, I thought, “Yeah, this really should be labeled how to hurt yourself fast.”
I mean, this is something that I don’t know, I think if you force people to do this, and they didn’t want to, it would be violating the Geneva Convention. Okay, so Roz, when this came out, did this cartoon. The seven-second workout. It was a very simple cartoon; Roz is a genius cartoonist. But this is an ordinary cartoon, for her, certainly. You know what I mean? But it comes out at that moment, and you link it to that, you love Roz, and it’s funny.
Rule six: Location. Location, location, location. Depends on the audience, depends on where it appears, whether something’s funny or going to work. There are all kinds of jokes and humor. The secret humor, the stuff that goes on in your head. You can think anything you want, and it can be terrible, and that’s fine, okay? Then there’s private humor. There’s something that you say to your friend, and you’re not going to share it with anybody else. Of course, that no longer exists, because you don’t know who’s your friend, and everybody shares everything, so you better just keep that private thing, that joke that is incredibly funny but also offensive, you better lock that in your head.
You also should have stuffed your ears full of cotton so somehow you don’t tilt to the side, and that joke come out, and someone cancel you for it. Okay. Here, I ranted a little bit too much on that. Please, please, forgive. But, okay, The New Yorker is a really serious magazine. It’s very empathetic. It cares about everything and everybody in the world, and the planet. Caring that much and being funny is a little bit incongruous. It’s hard. To be funny, you have to extract yourself. You have to move away from caring a little bit.
Ari Bertson said, “Humor demanded a temporary anesthesia of the heart.” You just can’t care about everything or you won’t laugh about anything. Here’s a good example. This cartoon actually appeared in The New Yorker in 1998, and it would never appear now. It would never, and it’s a great cartoon. Jack Ziegler, the late, great Jack Ziegler, New Yorker magazine, 5/25/98. So yep, it’s a gallows with a ramp for the handicap. It’s not making fun of handicapped people. It’s confronting the ambiguity on the feelings that we have as human beings, and the conflict that we have about what we want to do in a society that we think is both just and practical and makes sense.
Maybe even the ambiguity that we might feel, that we might feel resentment. Actually feel resentment against someone who is handicapped who’s inconveniencing us. We can say that’s the wrong thing to feel. It might well be. But to deny completely that people feel it is ridiculous. Now that cartoon, 1998, hey, David Remnick selected that. Would he select it now? Absolutely not. Would I select it now? I still think it’s just as funny as it was. But I don’t have the same worries that I would have had then as cartoon editor or Remnick would have had.
But here, subversion of the cartoon that’s the exact same idea, that is completely offensive, even though it’s the same idea. I modified this. I actually asked Jack, “Okay, let’s make it offensive.” This was not published. But it shows you just how tricky it is, right? How to make something that might offend people less offensive. One way is simply by the kind of drawing. This was asked, it’s a fanciful drawing. The more realistic this drawing is, the more macabre it would be. Here it’s just funny because, first of all, Jack Ziegler’s fantastic artistry as a cartoonist, drawing just what you need to have and no more.
But people can be really sensitive. That you might have objections to. What about this cartoon? Yeah, we all get old, and we lose a little height. Look at the response we got to this. “Ha ha. Another joke on old white males. Ha, ha, the wit. It’s nice to be young and rude, but someday you’ll be old, unless you drop dead as I wish. Cordially, Robert Byron.” The guy who wrote this real name is not Robert Byron. I just wanted to clear it up.
But man, you can’t get more cordial than old Bob Byron. Actually, he’s being funny, because he’s really being ironic. He’s not being cordial, and that’s sort of one of the ways we can be funny. We say one thing that means another. Sometimes it’s sarcasm — when it’s verbal and very blunt, and when it’s irony, it’s a little bit more sophisticated. Sometimes a lot more sophisticated.
Let’s look at this cartoon. Discouraging data on the antidepressant. Okay, the object here is not people who commit suicide, but drug companies. People have very varied response to this. As a psychologist or someone still hoping to get off the cusp of that PhD, I did some online experiments. So here, most people thought this was funny. Some people, they could rate it from one to 10. “I like animals. I don’t want to hurt them.” That doesn’t seem very funny to them. Some people really like it. The person over here said, “I don’t like to see animals suffer even in cartoons.” I called this person up, and I said, “They don’t suffer. They can’t suffer. It’s a cartoon.” Then they weren’t reassured, so I told them that we use anesthetic ink.
So humor can have an edge to it, a little bit of danger. Maybe what we call edgy, and it conceivably can make people feel uncomfortable or even excite them. When you look at old-fashioned zoos, what’s a zoo about really? Yeah, the tiger is beautiful, but it’s dangerous, and it could kill you, and that’s why we have the bars. So humor enables us to get excited and maybe misbehave a little, but be protected by the bars of the fact that it is a joke, which is less and less likely as a defense these days. So there, that’s a zoo. It is exciting. You go up to the tiger. It can’t kill you because of the bars, and you could have a completely safe zoo. Okay, just let’s remove the tiger. No tiger, and just imagine the tiger. No chance at all. So that’d be a pretty bad zoo. On the other hand, this would be a worse zoo.
So The New Yorker audience is very sensitive. Probably much less sensitive to people who are handicapped or disabled in any way than people who are gluten-free. We did this cartoon in which a woman is saying, “I’ve only been gluten-free for a week but I’m already really annoying.” Here’s a message we got. Okay, it’s not about people who have celiac disease. It’s about people who have celiac disease envy. You couldn’t have rows and aisles of gluten-free stuff. There just isn’t that many people with celiac disease. Don’t get me wrong. Or do get me right. I’m okay with people gluten-free. My daughter’s gluten-free, her boyfriend’s gluten-free. Our dogs are gluten-free …
Okay, so let’s see. The first one is, for a cartoonist, what usually comes first? The cartoon or the caption?
Well, it’s different kinds of cartoonists. There are two kinds of cartoonists, I think, basically, and there’s ones in the middle, and there are people who are doodlers, and there are people who are writers. My great friend Jack Ziegler was more of a doodler. It was almost like he was… [phone ringing in background] Now you’re pissing me off! Who the hell is that call me? [exits frame]
The real behind-the-scenes look at life with a New Yorker cartoonist.
[returning] I thought they outlawed landlines. So Jack was more a doodler. He was almost like he was creating his own caption contest. Matt Diffee is more of a writer, in that he writes it. There’s all stuff in between in which you have sort of an idea for a cartoon, a line, and then it becomes another line, and you’re usually at a drawing board, so you’re doodling. So it goes sort of back and forth in that way.
I might, well, a lot of it comes in a combined process. But you do have really the different poles between Matt is a writer who’s a fantastic artist. Jack was always, his cartoons were wackier because they were being generated by the drawing. Writers tend not to generate wacky drawings. Someone, for example, like Bruce Eric Kaplan, who is a comedy writer. There’s nothing really weird in the drawing usually. It can be a boss saying, “I like things done my particular way by someone else.” He’s got a fantastic style. It’s dark and realistic, but he thought of the line. He didn’t draw the boss first.
For me, it went back and forth. Of course, there are visual artists like Seth Fleishman, who I brought into The New Yorker who don’t even have a caption. So it’s a combination that way. Okay, go ahead.
The next question is, has cancel culture changed your sense of what’s funny and what’s acceptable?
It hasn’t changed my sense of what’s funny. It’s certainly changed my sense of what’s acceptable. Because acceptable means, what are going to be the consequences of making the joke in terms of affecting your job or affecting your life, if a social mob comes after you for a joke they don’t like? So I think, for instance, Jack’s cartoon is absolutely funny. People ask me, one of the things, what do I think are the funny cartoons that we didn’t publish in The New Yorker?
Certainly after 9/11, there were really funny cartoons that are still funny. Same goes for the fantastic cartoon, there’s a suicide bomber all blown up in heaven, and the figure, I won’t mention who the figure is, saying, “You get the virgin when you find your penis.” That’s funny. If you don’t think that’s funny, then you don’t know what funny is. Anyway, so okay, next question.
Sure, sure. It’d be fun to hear you talk about how to write humor in cartoons in 2021 versus writing, for say, the 1990 reader. How is different?
Yeah. Well, I think the cancel culture becomes very much about it. In 1990, I think one of the things is, okay, you have to worry really about topics you’re not allowed to talk about anymore. If this would be the New Yorker, that’s absolutely the case. So in the 90s, it would be much more free-wheeling about you could criticize and you couldn’t or who you’d make fun of. So certainly for The New Yorker, when Donald Trump was elected, there could be lots or even prior to being elected, there were lots of cartoon making fun of him, none making fun of Hillary Clinton. You know what I mean?
If I look back at a bigger span of time, what I’d see is that the cartoons from the 40s and 50s, people within the cartoons don’t make the jokes. So in that gluten-free cartoon, the woman is making the joke.
She’s saying she’s annoying. You look at a cartoon from 1947, there’s a woman at a baseball game, she’s looking at her watch, and she’s saying, “Why didn’t they tell us there’s going to be an extra-inning?” She’s not making a joke. That could be a joke that you would make, but she’s not making it. They’re making fun of women a little bit, in sports, and whatever. So that humor constantly changes and there’s just one part of it is this offensive part.
The other part is people are more interested and like humor that they relate to. They feel this expresses how they feel. I’m not saying there’s anything bad about that. A cartoonist like Liana Finck is like that. A progenitor versus Roz. We know something.
Jack, who’s fantastic, Jack Ziegler, your dad. You knew nothing about Jack from his cartoons. They were wacky. Jack was not wacky. You thought he was high on drugs. He was not high on drugs. He was that. You know a lot about Roz from her cartoons. A lot. So that’s how humor has changed, in a way, and that pretty much is a male/female difference, but not entirely. But for instance, you know a lot about David Sipress from his cartoons. You know a lot about William Haefeli from his cartoons. There are all sorts of people that you know something about. The cartoons that overall you do have a sense of maybe something about me.
But for me, what you would sense about me is more abstract, about how what I think. From Roz and from Liana, and Liana Finck is further along the continuum from Roz. This is how she’s feeling. It’s not a persona here, how she’s feeling. This is how she’s feeling. So that’s really interesting.
Okay. So since you retired from being the cartoon editor at the New Yorker, do you feel the selection standards have been lowered?
They’ve changed. They’ve changed. It’s much easier to get into the cartoon. They’ve changed because there’s another criterion that is needed, which is diversity. That has been at least initially at the expense of quality. That’s my opinion. That’s a lot of other people. It may well be well a choice that you make. You make, say, that well, in order to immediately have diversity, we have to make the sacrifice, quality, which no one’s going to say they’re sacrificing the quality, of course, but that’s my opinion because the people who are contributing are often not professional cartoonists. They’ve not cartooned before.
So going back to your dad, Jack said he didn’t think he got it right till he had done 3,000. Okay? In other words, there was a craft. It takes a long time. The very first cartoons you’ll do, they’re okay. You’re just imitating somebody else. You’re just imitating somebody else. You’re whatever. So we’re in that situation now, where we wanted more diversity, which basically meant more women, and many women came in. Emily Flake, Liana, Carolita, all came in when I was a cartoonist.
But the idea that you needed a 50/50 representation. For that, I think that the standard has, and I will say this, it’s clear that the standard has, in my opinion, in that it’s people who have never had a cartoon published anywhere before have gotten cartoon published. Well, I would say that’s pretty much an objective test of whether standards have changed. So anyway, that’s my opinion, and that’s what you’ll get from me here. Just my honest opinion about things.
Because you see, here’s the thing. Here’s the thing about, you can’t get fired twice. I don’t have to worry about that. Next question?
How do you jump-start your ideas and know when you have a terrific one?
You never know when you have a terrific idea. That’s the difference between an amateur and a professional. When you have an idea, you’re in a completely biased state. Because you’ve gone from the state you’re usually in, which is, “I have no idea. Oh shit. How am I going to get ideas? This is terrible. I don’t have any ideas. Oh, man, what am I going to do? Whoa, I got an idea. This is so great.” So you’re biased. You just went from not having an idea, and feeling like you shouldn’t be a cartoonist. You have no business in this business, to feeling, okay, I can still do it. So you over-evaluate that idea.
Or you might undervalue it. Usually, you see that the idea is good sometime later, in which your opinion can change. You can go from thinking, “That great idea wasn’t so great,” or, “That lousy idea actually is good.” But I will see in terms of jump-starting it, I need to be annoyed. You can tell, I’m often annoyed.
So in other words, you got to care about something. You got to think about something. What is bothering you? It could be just the language. Just the things you hear. There’s the hype or whatever. So that’s what I would be thinking about today. What is bothering me? What is annoying?
Then try to make that funny and interesting and memorable. If you can do all of that, you’ve got a good cartoon. Often you just have to settle for one of the things, and then what Liam said was interesting because it’s not simply, so you can do a cartoon that’s okay that can later become a great cartoon. So I would say for anyone that wants to do this, nurture any idea that you have. Any little idea you have.
So I was falling asleep the other day. I think I told you, Jessica, I want to get rid of my shrink. That’s it. This has been too long, the relationship. I’ve been with him longer than I’ve been with wives. So this is ridiculous. So I started thinking about how I was going to break it to him. I thought, “I might break it to him in a cartoon.” Or I had a thought. I said, “Well, look. Eventually, the therapy has to come to an end. Either I’ll die or you will, so we know there’s an endpoint here.”
Then I thought of the grim reaper coming into the classic scenario, the guy on the couch, and the shrink saying, “He’s not done yet.” So at first, this came out of my experience of being annoyed, of saying, hey, it’s marginal now. How long can you keep … Whatever I got out of this. So I’m just saying, that’s sort of the energy that I want to generate what I feel will be real feelings. And something that someone else will respond to. Next question.
Yes. So other than firing your psychiatrist, what have you been daydreaming about?
Daydreaming is so important. Daydreaming is, I call cartooning dreaming while awake. The way we get ideas is not to look at constant stimuli, but to look at them and then dream. Daydream. So I do this all the time. So I’ll just not look at you and close my eyes, and just sit, and get bored, and have think. Then an idea will pop in. So I thought, “Ah.” Then Bitcoin comes in my mind. Bitcoin. Man, they’re using so much energy. Energy. That’s great. No, it’s bad. That’s bad that they’re using all that. It’s terrible. Oh, Bitcoin. Bitcoin. Bitcoin’s going to save the world. They’re going to use all this energy, and then they’re going to realize they need new energy, lots new energy, and they will invent nuclear fusion, because the politics. My mind just starts to ramble.
By dreaming, by letting it think, by not being restricted, and so daydreaming, so I think about that, then it’ll go to consciousness, then it will go to free will and determinism, and it’ll just go. I think we’re in a state where we’re so this [picks up cellphone] that we’re not daydreaming. We’re looking at the next thing. We’re letting something else dream for us, and you’re not going to get good ideas that way, you’re just going to get addicted. Believe me, I know this. I just had this discussion. So daydreaming, really important.
Very good. Very good. So how you would coach someone to be creative? Do you think it’s a natural tendency, or is it a gift?
Okay, everything has to do with talent. If you don’t have talent, doesn’t mean you can’t get better. But if you played any sport, no matter how much you practice, sorry Malcolm Gladwell, it’s not going to work. You’re going to plateau. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t play the sport. It just means: be realistic.
I think a great example is math. Everybody knows you can get better at math. Everybody knows there’s a point where that’s it for you. I’m out. I don’t know. That’s true of humor. So you can improve each thing. I don’t know what your base, depending on your basic talent, you become funnier. Everybody who makes a living at it learns to do it. But if they don’t have it, and I don’t know if that “have it” is when you pop out, or it’s something that happens very early, and you start learning very early.
That goes back to sports again. You can’t pick up skiing at 15. Okay? Maybe the people are really good at it, it’s very early that they learn these things and can do them. Maybe that’s the same thing with humor. It could be family. So it might not be genetic, but it might be something that happens early, and something that you keep working on constantly.
I think that’s how it was with me. At a certain point, I’m pretty young, and I’m joking. And constantly doing that, and constantly getting better at it or understanding it.
The [Facebook Live], I just want to say, is going to be on the caption contest and how to win it. Right now, right absolutely, no. You’re not going to win. I’m just hyping it. But still, I’m going to tell you all the interesting things about it that nobody else knows, and that will help you.
Meanwhile, I want you to go to CartoonStock.com, our company, to look at cartoons, and that’s what I screwed up on the slides, as it all disappears. So I don’t know. Do we still have more time or are we done?
I’ve got one more question. One more question. So what criteria does a cartoonist use to figure out if they might be crossing the line of some sort?
I think you should cross the line. That’s how you know where the line is. That’s where you know. The line is different. I think we’re in a terrible state in the world where being offended is the worst thing that could happen to somebody. I’ll leave everyone with this. When people said that I was offended by their cartoon, in my public talks, and I’ll say it to you out there …[reading comments] Put the phone back on the hook, can hear the beeping.
All right. I’m sorry about that. I’m going to go. That’s a good point. I wish I could read all of that. When people said they were offended, it’s funny. I can’t hear the beeping because I’ve lost hearing in that range. One of the advantages of being old. I say, “Okay, you were offended and then what happened? Were you able to have lunch? Nightmares?” Turns out, you were okay.
So look, everybody. This has really been a pleasure for me. I’m sorry for goofing up this time around a little bit. The next time around, I’ll goof it up in different ways, but I’ll definitely won’t goof it up in the ways I have goofed it up, and Jessica, I really want to thank you for helping is through it. Jessica Ziegler, who’s with CartoonStock and Cartoon Collection. So we do some sign-off where there’s fireworks, or what?
No, you can just say goodbye, and we’re planning on doing this probably again in two weeks. Same time, same place.
Two weeks. The same time, people.
Yep, and we’ll talk about the caption contest, and you can talk about how you developed that, because you were the one who came up with that originally. Yeah. That’s it. Thank you so much.
Thanks everybody, I hope people actually were able to see this.
They were. They were. I promise.
All right. Very good. Thanks, Jessica.