Q&A With The New Yorker’s Gatekeeper Of Comedy, Bob Mankoff

Iconic cartoonist and comics editor Bob Mankoff on what makes stuff funny, the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and more.

Bob Mankoff was on the cusp—the “world’s longest cusp,” as he puts it—of earning a PhD in psychology. But when he looked out at the end of that cusp, he instead saw himself getting into standup comedy or cartooning. After choosing the latter, Mankoff estimates he submitted 2,000 cartoons to The New Yorker from 1974 to 1977. Now, as cartoon editor for the lauded magazine, the Briarcliff resident is the decider—the one who picks them all. In his role as gatekeeper of the publication’s funny bone, Mankoff evaluates some 1,000 cartoons a week. We recently spoke to Mankoff about what makes something funny, the future of cartooning, Charlie Hebdo, and more.

Q:  Do you publish your own cartoons every issue?

A:  Oh no, no. I was a player, then I was a player-coach, and I’m more of a coach now. To be a good cartoonist, you really have to have a fire in your belly. And you know, I have slight indigestion in my belly. I am doing so many things, and when you are a cartoonist, you have to devote a whole awful lot of time to it. 

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Q:  What do you look for in the cartoons you evaluate?

A: Things that combine the ridiculous with the sublime. I’m looking for jokes, and jokes can be explained in a lot of different ways. I’m looking for ideas—sometimes they are whimsical, sometimes observational, sometimes fantasy, sometimes they deal with reality. We’re not looking for one thing—and humor isn’t one thing, and that’s what’s wonderful about it.

Q:  The Charlie Hebdo attack. The cartoons in The New Yorker are a lot more politically sensitive and not so outwardly critical…

A:  The cartoons are not editorial, and the criticism is directed back at ourselves more than others; our cartoons are satirical of the class that reads the magazine. But in no way does that mean criticism should not be directed at others. I’m a big advocate for free speech. The whole point of free speech is for the speech you don’t like. You don’t need free speech for the speech you like. Nobody is in a position to judge absolutely what is the right speech and what is the wrong speech, or the wrong expression or the wrong joke. 

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Q:  How did the Charlie Hebdo attack affect you at the magazine?

A:  Everybody is affected by the threat of violence—somebody might not like what you say, and they can try to kill you for what you draw. That’s why there is a problem in publishing the [Charlie Hebdo Mohammed] cartoons. Because above any other concerns you might have, people might not publish them because it might actually put people in real danger. That needs to be addressed by the media. It should have been the obligation of the New York Times or the media to publish the cartoons. This was news. It didn’t make sense to say, ‘This is not our taste.’ That’s irrelevant. To some extent, what was needed was for everyone to publish them so there wouldn’t be one target. 

Q:  We’ve seen journalism change so much because of the Internet. Has cartooning been co-opted by the digital age?

A:  My answer to that is yes, no, and maybe. Does that cover it? The New Yorker has a paywall now. So a good deal of The New Yorker energy—the cultural energy, the writing energy, the comic energy—is going online. It’s a change in environment, and I think cartoons will change just like everything has changed [with the Internet]. 

Q:  But will they survive?

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A: Cartoons will be okay. They’re natural; they can quickly be consumed and understood as a single image. That’s my prediction. But predictions are really difficult.

Q:  So cartoons will be successful in the digital age because they’re so universal?

A:  I think they are going to replace Bitcoins. I was talking with those twins, and we were trying to figure out how to make cartoons the universal currency. It would be a better world.  

Q:  What do you think makes cartoons so universally appealing?

A:  They’re compressed ideas. They immediately go through both our cognition and our visual nature, and they affect us. They appeal to us directly and immediately. They either work or they don’t. That’s the nature of them. It’s like saying, ‘Why do you think people like music so much?’ It evolved, human beings figured out that this is a good thing.

Q:  If you were going to make a cartoon about Westchester, what would your premise be?   

A:  Probably this transition: You lived in Manhattan, and now you are in Westchester. And somehow you have to rationalize why you are still cool. Something like, ‘I don’t live in Westchester, I live on the Upper, Upper, Upper West Side.’ It is the contradiction between, they love the city, and they still want to be identified as that, but they are actually pretty happy up here in Westchester. I know I am. 

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