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Bob Mankoff
Photograph: David Williams Bob Mankoff

What it’s like to be the man behind the New Yorker cartoons

Bob Mankoff, the editor of the New Yorker cartoons, talks captions, rejection and the absurdity of normalcy

By Dana Varinsky
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Becoming one of the funniest New Yorkers isn’t easy (just ask any of the standups in this month’s best comedy shows), but being the man responsible for perfecting New Yorker cartoons is even harder. Before the release of a new documentary about the magazine's cartoonists, we talked to Bob Mankoff, the editor who decides which cartoons make the cut each week.

How many cartoons do you look at per week?

Between 500 and 1000. I mean, 500 from our direct contributors and then we get around to all the stuff that comes from the outside.

You let anyone show you their drawings once a week, right?
Yeah Tuesdays is open call. We’re always looking for new cartoonists. We’re especially seeking to diversify the people who do our cartoons.

Do you have any rubric or basic guidelines that you tell newbie cartoonists?
Yeah, I do. I say first of all do the stuff that you like. We may not publish it or we may say that’s not right for us, but if there isn’t some part of it that’s coming from you, we’re not interested. My other piece of advice if a newbie comes in and says how many cartoons should I do a week, I say 10. And if they ask me why I say because 9 out of 10 things in life don’t work out.

There’s a new documentary coming out about you and some New Yorker cartoonists called Very Semi-Serious. In the film, the artists seem to indicate that they all have some outsider perspective that allows them to see things differently. Do you think that’s the case?
Absolutely. In the movie I say being funny is being awake to the absurdity of normalcy. You know, I see that previously in emails when I asked a question but it was okay, people would say no problem. Now I see everyone is saying no worries. Why did no problem become no worries? It seems like all of a sudden everyone’s a Buddhist. And my problem is, when anybody says no worries, I worry! So just being aware. Or I notice now in emails everybody is shouting. Hi Bob! Why is there an exclamation point after ‘Hi Bob’? I’m right here next to the computer. So in other words, seeing the word askew is actually seeing it correctly.

Do you have a favorite part of your job?
I just get such a kick out of seeing this new generation of people come in and in any way I can, sort of inspire them or guide them. It’s all corny and syrupy and cliché but that’s the best part, absolutely. I’m just thrilled to think of the great eulogies they’re going to give at my funeral. I’m actually asking them to compile a lot of really warm anecdotes because at the last minute you’ve got to show up and think of something, maybe you’ll forget it. Just take some notes now.

Do you have a least favorite part?
Least favorite is the communte. I live up in bryar cliff manor new york, outside of Ossining. And coming in from that is usually about an hour and a half back and forth and the good thing about is a commute like that gets you annoyed and annoyance is a really good engine for being funny. I once did a cartoon where one worker guy is saying to another guy asking how he is, oh I can’t complain but I do. And really that’s true- everything is a job so I do find that I have things to complain about. But I can also realize how lucky I am to have the job I have.

Sometimes people try to come up with these universal captions that work for every New Yorker cartoon, the newest one being the standard line from LinkedIn about adding people to your professional network. Do you think there’s any merit to attempting that? What’s your reaction?
I think there’s absolute merit to that as a meta joke. My background is in psychology- if you show someone that picture without them understanding the meta joke, they won’t laugh. But of course we played along with the joke—we actually put that [caption] in the magazine for one cartoon.

Really? That’s hilarious!
Yeah we did. And I actually played the joke on David Remnick. He didn’t know about this meme. And when I brought in the cartoons to the meeting, the first ten cartoons I just put that [caption] on. And he said—well, I can’t repeat what he said. But then when I told him about the joke he said, ‘Eh, let’s go along with it.’ I mean, with all the jokes we produce we’d be in pretty bad shape if we couldn’t take one.

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