Here’s a cartoon that’s so funny you don’t even need the drawing to appreciate it. There’s a business guy on the phone, trying to get his schedule to align with that of his caller, so they can both take a meeting that possibly neither one of them is all that excited about. “No, Thursday’s out,” our guy on the phone says, his free hand holding open an appointment book on his desk. “How about never. Would never work for you?”
That was the classic New Yorker magazine cartoon published on May 3, 1993. The cartoonist was Bob Mankoff, a freelance contributor then, who four years later became the cartoon editor of the New Yorker.
As important as that editor’s position has been, reviewing 500 cartoons a week to winnow them down to a field of 50 that in turn would be cut back to 17 by the managing editor, Mankoff is still as well known for that single cartoon as any other. The line got ripped off by merchandisers, showing up on a thong of all things, and was quoted in various pieces of fiction and nonfiction as if it were some clever piece of original repartee. In 2012 House Speaker Nancy Pelosi quoted it during an interview with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, when describing how the Republican Senate responded to President Obama’s requests to work together.
In 2014 Mankoff wrote his bestselling memoir, titled, naturally, “How About Never — Is Never Good For You?” A few weeks ago, still hawking copies of his book but also looking ahead to his retirement on April 30, literally on the eve of his 74th birthday, Mankoff shows up for a lecture and book signing at the Present Day Club in Princeton. I am there, taking notes and ultimately buying a copy of the book, which re-affirmed a long-held opinion: When you want to take a serious measure of the world around you, it pays to listen to the joker in the crowd.
At the Present Day Club, a women’s organization founded in 1898 by wives who were tired of sitting around at home while their men were hobnobbing at the Nassau Club up the street, Bob Mankoff is practically a stand-up comedian, a profession to which he once aspired, as you discover in his memoir.
He begins with a sight gag, taking a selfie with the audience in the background. Then it’s on to a serious word about comedy and laughter, which were not always viewed the same way they are today. Even now, Mankoff says, “in some places when women laugh they cover their mouths.”
Humor at its best, Mankoff says, provides people with “a broader sense of perspective.” For example (and we in the packed room all lean forward in anticipation of a great New Yorker cartoon moment), earlier in the day the longtime New Yorker cartoonist Jack Ziegler died. Not the example we expected but Mankoff pushes on, explaining his last thought to his ailing friend, who had more than 1,400 cartoons printed in the magazine, dating back to 1974. When a rough cartoon idea is accepted and the cartoonist is asked to do the final drawing for publication, Mankoff explains, that cartoon is known as an “OK.” So just a few days earlier Mankoff called Ziegler’s home and directed the caregiver to pass along his greetings. “But be sure to tell him: Jack, you can’t die. You still owe me two OKs.”
Bob Mankoff is a wise guy, in more ways than one.
Growing up in Queens, New York, where his father had a thriving business selling wall-to-wall carpeting and his mother doted on her only child, young Bob quickly became the class clown. As he wrote in the memoir, “acting outrageously makes it that much easier to think unconventionally.”
After beginning to show his artistic capability at New York’s High School of Art and Music, Mankoff went off to Syracuse University. Flipping to a slide showing himself as a hirsute undergraduate, Mankoff tells the Present Day audience he “majored in hair” in college. He did major in psychology but was not always a great student. In one course he attended the first lecture, skipped all the subsequent classes, and then only appeared for the final exam. Even then he overslept and arrived an hour late. The professor came over to him and demanded “Who the hell are you?”
Mankoff responded: “You know, I could very well ask you the same question.” The professor and the class broke out in laughter, and Mankoff learned a lesson: Part of the success of humor “is in challenging authority.” (He still flunked the course.)
When Mankoff told his parents he wanted to be a cartoonist for the New Yorker, his father noted that the magazine already had a lot of people doing that. “Maybe someone will die,” Mankoff rejoined. In fact he submitted several thousand unsuccessful ideas before finally getting published in 1977. He then submitted thousands more (with a better success rate) and earned a contract with the magazine. In the year 1990 the magazine bought 34 of his cartoons and Mankoff earned around $30,000 — $50,000 in today’s dollars. He was a king of cartooning.
In 1997 Mankoff was appointed cartoon editor. In an brief piece in the New Yorker referencing his 2014 memoir, Mankoff said that he had two accomplishments of which he was most proud.
One was the creation of the New Yorker Cartoon Bank. In one of the more improbable aspects of Mankoff’s life, the class clown, joker, cartoon artist, and all around wise guy also turns out to have an early interest in computers and the databases that computers can manage. Knowing that the New Yorker alone was getting 500 cartoon submissions a week, and printing only 17, Mankoff figured there must be some fairly saleable pieces in the reject pile. By scanning them and storing them in a database organized by subjects, genres, cartoonist’s name, etc., and then making it all accessible on this new thing called the Internet, Mankoff envisioned an online cartoon bazaar. As revealed in the memoir he came up with the idea in the early 1990s and then experienced the kind of rejections only a cartoonist could appreciate before seeing the idea become a reality in 1998.
The Cartoon Bank. Now I can finally explain what happened to the delightful cartoons that used to grace the pages U.S. 1, as graphic elements that broke up the rivers of gray ink in the Survival Guide section of the newspaper. The cartoons were all by the great William Hamilton, whose specialty was whimsical but cutting portraits of the very wealthy and very established. Mankoff has a Hamilton cartoon in his memoir: A couple of fat cats and their wives are sitting at a table in a fancy restaurant. One guy says to his adoring lady, “Money is life’s report card.”
One day in the early 1990s (I’m guessing at this date) we got a solicitation from some syndication service offering us batches of cartoons from various artists. We chose Hamilton, and soon began getting monthly mailings. We might have paid $10 a cartoon (another guess).
All of a sudden that changed. A new service took over Hamilton’s cartoons and price per cartoon jumped by a factor of 10 or so. I’m guessing again but a check of the Cartoon Bank shows that to reprint a Hamilton cartoon today would cost a paper of our circulation $120. So our stock of Hamilton cartoons ran dry, and a few people asked me when they would resume. How about never, I said in effect.
Mankoff’s other major accomplishment was the addition of more than 125 new cartoonists to the ranks of those published in the New Yorker. “There’s still not enough racial diversity,” he tells the Present Day audience. “But we are doing outreach.”
What makes a cartoon a New Yorker cartoon? If anyone can cop the old cliche line that he doesn’t really know how to describe it but he knows it when he sees it, that would be Mankoff. But he doesn’t. Instead the guy who communicates chiefly through drawings puts it in words.
Mankoff favors cartoons that are “original, or show a bit of originality,” he tells the Present Day audience. Cartoons that catch his eye have “a good drawing” and suggest that the cartoonist “has a voice.” He elaborates on the “bit on originality,” saying that “originality is over-rated. People like novelty within a cocoon of familiarity. Most creativity is really a remix of other things.”
In his memoir he notes that he takes cartoons “very seriously,” but he strives to keep the process uncomplicated. Advising readers on how to perform well in the New Yorker’s weekly cartoon caption contest, instituted under his watch as editor, Mankoff advises that winning captions are “short, novel, don’t restate what is already in the image, and don’t use too much punctuation.” Humor, he writes, “is the antidote to over-thinking.”
So will the next generation of New Yorker cartoonists keep the legacy alive? They will be led — post-Mankoff — by someone who has never been a cartoonist but nonetheless may be considered one of the next generation’s own. Emma Allen, born and raised in Manhattan, is a 2010 graduate of Yale, where she majored in English and studio art. She contributed to ARTnews magazine and the New York Press, and joined the New Yorker as a writer and editor in 2012.
In an interview with WWD (as Women’s Wear Daily is now known since its print edition only appears once a week), Allen said she looked forward to “finding new ways to highlight our exceptional (and growing) team of cartoonists and comedically inclined writers and performers, in print, on the web, on the radio, and beyond.”
Can “the kids,” as Mankoff refers to them in his memoir, carry on the tradition? Mankoff ends his memoir on this note: “The fact is that this new generation is showing what it means to be true to the New Yorker cartoon tradition while also changing it, and sometimes even mangling it, but still managing to keep the DNA of the New Yorker cartoon alive and endlessly replicating even as it evolves. When will all of this stop? How about never? Never is good for me.”