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Talk of the Town

Cartoon life at the New Yorker.

By 4.7.14

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One of the biggest events in Robert Mankoff’s life was the day Nancy Pelosi stole a caption from his cartoon and used it without attribution. But Mankoff, editor of the New Yorker cartoon desk, was over the moon when it happened to him. “It’s my most famous one,” he trumpets on the opening page of his new memoir, How About Never—Is Never Good for You?: My Life in Cartoons.

Mankoff produced the above panel for the New Yorker showing a business executive on the phone dodging an offer for a luncheon date. The exact caption was, “No, Thursday’s out. How about never—is never good for you?” A pretty good joke, I thought, and a fine-honed caption. Pelosi adapted the line for a quip on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show: “When the Republicans came in (to control the House of Representatives) they said to the president, ‘How about never? Does never work for you?’”

It was clumsier in Pelosi’s delivery but still went down well with Stewart’s audience.

Writing of his career triumphs, Mankoff makes up for the lack of that credit line by reminding us repeatedly of his notoriety. His one-liner, besides popping out of Pelosi’s mouth, ended up on T-shirts, decals and on the crotch of ladies’ underpants. “The popularity and attention of the cartoon cemented my relationship with Tina (Brown, then-editor).… It’s by far the most popular cartoon I’ve ever done… and became part of the American vernacular.”

It did? Not my vernacular. I had never heard the quip till I read Mankoff’s unashamed version of his streetwise life in New York. The anecdote is typical of the hubris on display throughout his story. Perhaps anticipating reader reaction, he explains what this book is about: “Long story short, me. Look, it’s a memoir, and you can’t spell memoir without the moi.”

At the new New Yorker, Mankoff has been given such an unusual degree of freedom to pump up his department that the old liberal weekly seems to want to put the spotlight on its humor rather than its reporting, writing, and thinking. Standup comic Andy Borowitz also does a regular email feed under the New Yorker banner. It’s hard to avoid the emphasis on laughs.

It used to be different. Editors were invisible and readers would settle in to very long, erudite articles interspersed with a cartoon or two unrelated to the text. The cartoons were the only art breaking up the acres of grey type. Turning the pages, the reader was rewarded with some low-key drollery, like a dog biscuit, for trying to stay interested in 10,000 words on the history of Central Park. (There is more art now but the cartoons are still crucial for leavening the mix.) To hard-line intellectuals, skipping ahead to see the cartoons before tackling the articles was considered infra dig.

Now, with all our computer technology at hand, we are being encouraged to get right to the laughs. Thousands of readers sit at home and open up Mankoff’s weekly email of the cartoons from the current issue. No need to buy, much less read, the magazine. If you really get into cartooning, you can enter the magazine’s cartoon caption contest every week, which thousands do.

To borrow one of Mankoff’s cutesy locutions in a different context, this seems to me to be “wrong, wrong, wrongety wrong”.

But maybe I’m the one who is wrong. Mankoff is one of the survivors from the magazine’s shifting leadership. Tina Brown (1992-1998) and current editor David Remnick both come in for high praise. Ms. Brown is well known for loosening up the editorial formula after the departure of editor William Shawn in 1987. The sexual revolution was in full swing and “thanks to Tina it finally made its way into the pages of The New Yorker,” Mankoff tells us. Articles on a dominatrix and another piece on the pornography industry (“The Money Shot”) shocked the traditional audience. “When David took over in in 1998 he pushed the pendulum back — not all the way to Shawn’s era but out of Tina Territory.”

Apart from the magazine’s history, the main appeal of this book is Mankoff’s lifting of the veil on how cartoons are selected for publication. Beware, though, if you aspire to impress him, for your chances are close to zero. Mankoff passes instant judgment on about a thousand cartoons every week, of which 50 he takes along to his weekly meeting with the editor. Remnick whips through the pile and picks about 17 panels that he judges sufficiently benign for the next issue. Inevitably, much good work is passed over; Tina Brown’s edgy choices would never fly.

Meanwhile hopefuls turn up at Mankoff’s office every week with their batch of gems, leaving with enough rejection slips to “wallpaper the bathroom,” as Mankoff describes the early days before his talent was recognized.

The most poignant passages in the book are memories of the first sale from several now-established contributors. Roz Chast remembers being asked into the office of art director Lee Lorenz, Mankoff’s predecessor. “I have a vague memory of a lot of old guys standing around. I was very, very, very, very anxious. I went in to see Lee and he told me they were buying a cartoon. I was pretty flabbergasted.”

Jack Ziegler, another regular, remembers being paid the odd sum of $305 for his first acceptance. When his second brought only $215 he questioned it and was told payments were calculated by the square inch. The formula has changed today but Mankoff declines to reveal how it works. Just as oddly, he calls it a “proprietary trade secret.”

For our benefit, Mankoff attempts a definition of his criteria: “New Yorker cartoons are not meant to be an IQ test, but they are intelligent humor, which requires a certain amount of cultural literacy to appreciate.” Oh, so that’s why I miss the point in about half of them.

Ms. Brown was unapologetic during her reign. She once told an interviewer it would be a mistake “to be too prissy.” One that ran during her tenure shows a White House aide knocking at Clinton’s Oval Office door and saying, “Are you decent?” Ms. Brown explained: “There’s really nothing we don’t allow. It’s all about whether it’s funny.”

Mankoff, sensing the shift in the wind as Remnick took over, takes a stand: “Actually there’s plenty that we didn’t allow, still don’t and still shouldn’t.”

The New Yorker, prissy or not, has by default ended up as one of the last outlets for professional cartoonists. Other major magazines — Saturday Evening Post, Saturday Review, Esquire — folded or stopped using cartoons. Mankoff has helped rescue some artists by creating the Cartoon Bank, now a Condé Nast property, that scans and archives all New Yorker cartoons, plus its rejects, and makes them available for publication at a modest fee. One cartoonist told me, however, he still has to “scramble” to make a living, and a lot of talent goes begging.

Chip Bok, the conservative cartoonist who does four news-related panels a week for the Los Angeles syndicate Creators.com, tried a few times to crack the New Yorker but did not persevere. “It’s maddening,” he told me. “Cartoons are more popular and less profitable than ever.” He lost interest in the New Yorker after a few rejects. “It’s not something I aspire to. I’m more interested in commenting on the news.”

Personally, I miss Tina Brown’s edge. I’ll laugh at anything so long as it’s funny. I await the day that Remnick and Mankoff will creep back toward Tina Territory.

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About the Author

Michael Johnson spent 17 years at McGraw-Hill, including six years as a news executive in New York. He now writes from Bordeaux in France.