LAURA PHILION – COPY & DIGITAL EDITOR
Bob Mankoff spent 2020 like the rest of us — locked down, in his home in suburban Westchester County, New York. Amid pandemic life, though, he’s been cooking up new jokes.
“I went back to the city a couple of times,” he said, “and it’s still there. I was worried I might come over the bridge and it would be gone. That was the first time I was ever happy to see a lot of traffic.”
Mankoff is the former cartoon editor for The New Yorker, and currently serves as the cartoon editor for Air Mail. He will speak on his career and comics at 10:30 a.m. July 29 in the Amphitheater as part of the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Five theme, “The Authentic Comedic Voice,” a week in partnership with the National Comedy Center.
Mankoff is also the founder of CartoonCollections.com, home to half a million cartoons from major publications, including around 30,000 New Yorker images. After he retired from The New Yorker, he spent two years as humor editor for Esquire.
“I’m a mini mogul of cartoons,” he said. “It’s not enough to shoot me into space, though. I’ve been looking at ways to get my car into very low earth orbit — in that moment when you fall, you’re just as weightless as Jeff Bezos.”
Mankoff began sending in cartoons to The New Yorker in the mid-1970s, when the magazine took cartoon submissions by mail.
“When I first went there to hand one in, on 43rd Street, I had long hair and a beard — I was hippie-fied,” said Mankoff. “I accidentally walked into the Princeton Club. I got scared and left.”
In those days, when cartoonist Lee Lorenz was art editor, Mankoff remembered, “he looked at the cartoons very carefully. He cared. Most places at the time just slotted them in. (The New Yorker) fact-checked; checked for duplicates; treated cartoons like any other piece going into the magazine. That wasn’t done for any commercial reason; just done because that’s what The New Yorker was.”
After 20 years as a cartoonist for the magazine, Mankoff replaced Lorenz as cartoon editor in 1997. Under his leadership, the magazine brought notable cartoonists such as Emily Flake and Farley Katz to the department, and also founded The New Yorker’s Cartoon Caption Contest, which has become one of the enduring elements of the magazine. Participants view uncaptioned works online and submit and vote for captions to be added.
“There are 5,000 to 6,000 responses each time,” said Mankoff. He is interested in what analyzing that data means — “Who is funniest? What do they submit? Why do men submit more captions than women? We have really interesting data for ranked humor.”
Mankoff also plans to reflect on his own humor today. His most famous cartoon for The New Yorker depicts an office phone call: “How about never — is never good for you?” The best humor, according to Mankoff, is relatable.
“The humor isn’t coming from caricature or exaggeration,” he said. “You’re not trying to exaggerate as much as you’re trying to be intriguing.”
He likes poking fun, though.
“I don’t know whether I have an edge or if it’s coffee,” he said. “I was born in Brooklyn, and whenever I go to the Midwest, I think, ‘Are they ever going to let me in here?’ ”
Mankoff doesn’t set out to offend, but he says some things — like gluten-free jokes, for instance — will attract many comments.
“I don’t really mind,” he said. “I tend to ask, ‘After you were offended, what happened?’ Turns out, nothing at all.”