By: Deanna Duxbury
My parent’s weren’t big “art” people but they were obsessed with the news. Every story my mother saw or read (really, even on Breakfast Television) became an excuse to tell me to be careful, stay in and put on a sweater. I used to think it was a strange and depressing thing to obsess over- of course, she reminds me it is now incredibly ironic that I pursue a passion in journalism.
The point being, whenever my brother and I saw the paper we didn’t actually pick it up to read (of course not, that’s crazy), we flipped immediately to the comics.
The New Yorker is famous for their daily cartoons. It’s a great chuckle in-between movie reviews, international relations and large-scale scandals. Their political pundits, social satire and comical characterizations are uniquely entertaining and Trump has appeared in it so many times I’m surprised he hasn’t made it illegal.
Much of the work of this comedic genius stems from the vision of a uniquely qualified Cartoon Editor, Robert Mankoff. His reign began in 1977 and he is retreating from the position to continue producing rather than pick-and-choosing comics. Therefore, I feel it is the duty of the art community to sing the praises of this hero in a proper farewell address. It’s also a fun excuse to feature a bunch of comics.
In a recent New York Times article he told Andrew Chow (when speaking of resigning as editor and continuing contributing instead) that, “Now I have to throw myself back into the mix. Those are muscles that can atrophy, but I think they’re still there. I have to do more and more reps each day”.
The Boston Globe once wrote that Robert Mankoff’s humour invokes a “smile of the mind” rather than a “belly laugh”. It’s so perfectly witty it’s hard not to enjoy.
But to truly understand his success, we must begin at the beginning.
Mankoff graduated from Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences in 1966. He began a PhD in Psychology, but soon thought better of it. He realized humor must be shared and refers to that time as having completed an “undocumented” PhD (having never completed his dissertation). He taught at the University of Michigan for a little while before the fame and fortune of magazine, editorial work.
He lives in Briarcliff Manor New York, with his wife, Cory, and their daughter, Sarah, lives in Bushwick Brooklyn “with all the other cool kids trying to figure out what to do with an expensive liberal arts education,” as he puts it. He writes often of his Jewish roots and humor, keeping up a strong belief in his heritage with the ability to step back and chuckle at the quirks he’s picked up along the way.
I admit that this kind of biographic introduction seems rather nosey and only benefits those with the privilege of realizing, “he went to my school! He lives in my hometown! I never finished my PhD either!” But if it was good enough for the New Yorker contributor’s page, it’s good enough for Fridge Door Gallery.
The Life of an Artist
Over the course of his career he has contributed well over 900 comics to the New Yorker and made the art a real commodity for the publication- now producing daily comics. He is actually responsible for one of the most famous cartoons in the magazine, reading “No Thursday’s out. How about never- is never good for you?”
After hundreds of failed submissions, Mankoff hit gold- the wit of this comic made it into the Yale book of quotations, into an official comment of the 2012 elections, and came to entitle the memoir of the cartoon master. He’s done talks (he is, in fact, at the TED Talk level), written/edited cartoon compilations and went on to be the subject of an HBO Documentary in 2015.
The New York Times actually reached out to him for an interview about the documentary after it released. Ana Marie Cox asked Mankoff, “Are you familiar with the theory of the universal New Yorker cartoon caption: that there’s one caption that could work for every single cartoon?” – I was not familiar with this idea until reading this just now and became incredibly intrigued.
“Oh, am I ever”, replied Mankoff, “One recent suggestion was, “I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn.” I have a meeting every week with David Remnick (Editor of the New Yorker) and he makes the final decisions on the cartoons. For the first 10 I showed him, I printed the LinkedIn caption on all of them. David said, “What the [expletive] is this?”
To be fair, this is the same David Remnick that later said, in Chow’s New York Times article, “[Robert Mankoff] has brought everyone’s best work to the table and managed a complicated balancing act with grace,” It’s true. In a “nice note to the New Yorker staff, he cites Mankoff for “bringing new artists into the mix, including more diverse voices and views of the world.”
More careers I learned about during the research for this article: Cartoon Fact Checker, and Professional Newspaper Grammarian. Mankoff told Cox that, “We check [all our cartoons] against all 80,000 cartoons that we’ve ever published. People produce the same ideas all the time. They’re also checked for logical inconsistencies. Then you have to say, Yeah, I know lemmings don’t actually commit suicide, but for the purposes of cartoons, they do”.
Ethan Gilsdorf (in a Boston Globe article, 2014) recorded how Mankoff actually went about choosing the comics that were lucky enough to appear in the New Yorker throughout his career.
In an event sponsored by the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Gilsdorf wrote that Mankoff presented “with a cartoon-punctuated, slideshow-cum-comedy routine at a sold-out Brattle Theatre”.
Mankoff looks for specificity and thought, he observed. Mankoff insisted that, “humor needs a target…but [that] the target is ourselves”: the intellectual, urbane, self-aware New Yorker reader. Humor is also about something gone wrong. “There are no cartoons about happy marriages,” he said. “Each cartoon needs the right amount of wrong.” And while the New Yorker idea of funny can be satiric or provocative it is never offensive.
How To Laugh When It Isn’t Funny
Unfortunately, there is nothing without cost. Mankoff’s success, while monumental as a cartoon legend, was tested with a deep personal loss in the midst of his fame. Budd Mishkin wrote, in a One On1 Profile, “this notion of laughter through the tears was put to the test most personally for Mankoff in 2012, when his son committed suicide”
Mankoff commented that, “We were making the movie at the time, Very Semi-Serious, and I was writing this book. Everything stopped…for us, of course, it was like 9/11. Nothing is funny then. Everything is horrible.”
But he found humor, in a way, also became a method for healing and recovery.
“I always could make my little daughter Sarah, who is going to be 25 now, laugh where I twitch my muscle, and she always thinks, ‘Oh dad, that is so disgusting.’ And we all laugh,” Mankoff says. “In a little way, it’s like that Leo Cullum cartoon, that if we are going to go on with our lives, we were actually going to have to live our lives and breathe and laugh.”
It’s about learning to recognize joy again. “I don’t think you can cope with tragedy completely unless you can find some little part of joy in your life that has to do with seeing the absurdity of it and laughing about it,” Mankoff says.
It’s always nice to give the subject of your article the last word, and I feel (in all politeness) that the best source I could direct you to is Mankoff’s website.
If you go to the “About” section (because I take pride in proving I get information from the source), you’ll find a lovely description of his life’s work. Also, you may laugh at some jokes at your own expense.
Look up his short video segments, other reputable (though not as reputable as Fridge Door Gallery) articles written about his life and work or just flip through a gallery of his cartoons.
almost forgot- Here is What’s Going to Happen Now
Short version? Here’s what the New York Times is telling us:
Emma Allen, another editor at the magazine, will assume his position at the end of April. She will be responsible for making the Daily Cartoon go viral.
And there you have it.