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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, November 26, 2009

Going Out to learn about laughter
Mankoff says, “Cartoons are teaching the general public to play”

By Forest Byrd

GUILDERLAND — Only a few times in life will you see an image of a man holding a snow shovel, growling, trapped in a snow globe. This cartoon has, like many others, danced through the pages of The New Yorker. Readers usually laugh for a second, and then turn the page.

On Dec. 4, Robert Mankoff, cartoon editor for The New Yorker magazine, will be visiting the Guilderland Public Library, keeping us on the page a little longer, giving us a glimpse into why we laugh.

Cartoons we’ve seen in print over the years were practically invented in The New Yorker. For over 80 years, cartoons have evolved, or perhaps, devolved, from complicated illustrated conversations to simple line drawings with a single caption. This simplicity in the cartoon takes less time for the reader to absorb and therefore tends to be funnier.

As cartoonists feed off each other, their work over the years cultivates a mountain of ideas. Mankoff has put over 70,000 cartoons from 1924 to 2006 — every cartoon published in The New Yorker — on a single DVD. However, he says he didn’t want a book with 23,000 pages, and had to choose the most emblematic for a hefty volume. The book is an appetizer for the DVD; cartoons are richer on a page.

“What was created with ink on paper,” Mankoff writes in the book’s introduction, “looks best with ink on paper.”

This mountain of ideas creates a full body of work that is never complete. The cartoon’s thin black lines and dots outline a clear image of culture without pointing the finger at any particular person.

Mankoff distinguishes between an editorial cartoon, which points a finger, and New Yorker-style cartoons, which are more reflective and take a broader stance. These cartoons reflect on all of us yet we’re not offended. Instead, we feel refreshed as we take them in.

In the typical New Yorker cartoon, the topic matter changes drastically, even within a single issue. There could be board members in a meeting, or lawyers in a courtroom. Two people could be in a rowboat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean or someone could be sunbathing in a prison yard. The picture is usually illustrating absurdity and the caption hits the point home.

In 2002, Mankoff wrote the book, The Naked Cartoonist. Effectively describing his creative process, the book takes you away from everything that you think you know about creativity and puts you in the seat of a New Yorker cartoonist.  Creativity is a constantly changing universe for Mankoff, and most people give up before grasping it.

Mankoff says that you cannot grasp anything. Creativity flows through every one of us and it is a cartoonist’s job to record it on paper.

The moment we try to pin down the creative process in a definition or a concept, it changes face and no longer seems like the same thing.

“The basic process is to change something, then change it again and again,” Mankoff writes in The Naked Cartoonist. “Eventually, the ball bounces back in your court, and the game goes on.”

Even his writing in this book takes the shape of the art. That last thought — the words themselves arc — is written on top of his drawing of a human brain.

Change breeds strength and can elevate our minds and our everyday existence, making even a mediocre cartoon timeless and very funny.

Laughter is usually associated with joy; when we are happy, we laugh. Mankoff thinks of laughter a bit differently. Through misery and suffering comes humor, he says.

He describes it this way: When a cartoon strikes a chord, it is usually because there is a serious subject with which we can identify, and the cartoon puts it into a ridiculous reality. This takes the responsibility out of laughing at something serious, and disguises it into an absurd joke. Even though we are the joke, this is what makes it truly funny.

Mankoff rejects quick one-liners and instead focuses on thoughtful jokes that speak to larger issues, ranging from divorce to corporate corruption. In the cartoon, though, the issue is small.

Mankoff describes a cartoon as a reflection of The New Yorker; he calls it self-reflection. Once a cartoon is on the pages of the magazine, it becomes just a small part of the larger body of The New Yorker and, over time, describes the body of a magazine that is a snapshot of our era.

By keeping things simple and pure, like the illustration in a cartoon, The New Yorker keeps its austere and pompous attitude in check. The entire magazine has become a cultural icon because at its core is astute observation in good writing and cartoons.

Mankoff has been doing simple yet sophisticated cartoons since before joining The New Yorker in June 1977.

He says it doesn’t matter that he was published in other magazines before; getting in The New Yorker was his Holy Grail. He consistently, for two years, sent in 10 to 15 cartoons a week to The New Yorker and felt like he was in purgatory before one was accepted.

That first cartoon has no words. It shows a businessman in a suit jacket seated as if at the breakfast table, reading his newspaper as it, literally, rolls off the press.

Mankoff has since had over 600 cartoons published in The New Yorker and became its cartoon editor in 1997. As the editor, he sifts through hundreds of submissions each week and sorts them in Yes, No, or Maybe bins for final say.

Mankoff has opened the door for many cartoonists by creating the cartoon bank. He and his friends had so many rejected cartoons, they developed the cartoon bank in 1990 as a way to sell the cartoons to textbook publishers, institutions, greeting-card companies — really, they sold to anyone who would pay money for them.

Now, the bank is an online vault where anybody can buy licensed prints from New Yorker artists; Conde Nast Publications, which owns The New Yorker, bought the rights in 1997, keeping Mankoff president.

Mankoff also started a caption contest at The New Yorker, held on the back page of the magazine every week. In the contest, the readers send e-mails with captions for a cartoon; each week The New Yorker web server gets up to 10,000 submissions from all over the world.

Mankoff sees the struggle people have to come up with the perfect caption. They grapple with the difference between a quick one-liner and a caption with sophistication.

Mankoff looks at this caption contest as something that opens a much larger audience to “humorous thought” and having more fun.

“People spend most of their time trying to find the right answer,” he said. “That’s wrong. The best way to find a great caption is to play. Cartoons are teaching the general public to play.”


Robert Mankoff will speak at the Guilderland Public Library at 2228 Western Ave. on Dec. 4 at 7:30 p.m.; the main talk is free but tickets must be obtained from the library.

A dessert reception and book-signing will take place before the talk at 6:45 p.m. Tickets for the fund-raising reception are $25 each or $40 for a couple. Reception attendees will get reserved seating for Mankoff’s talk.

Mankoff is in good company with the other speakers who have been part of the Carol J. Hamblin Notable Author Speaker Series, which has hosted, among others, novelist Joyce Carol Oates; biographer Joseph E. Persico; Ela Stein Weissberger, a holocaust survivor; and artist Will Moses.

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