For cartoon editor, a New Yorker state of mind

Bob Mankoff does more than like ping-pong. He is a man in efficient and focused motion as his paddle smacks each reply with the precision of a punch line. Bap. A forehand sharp as a verbal half-volley. Boop. A backhanded ball cut as thin as a slice-of-life joke. Bam. The clean put-away that requires an almost silly degree of exertion on what he says is a laughably small field of play. But then, this is what Mankoff has been doing most of his comedic career, too: Creating inventive angles and sly spins and rhythmic tricks with relentless attention to detail, as if necessity were the Jewish mother of invention.

Mankoff is a professional funnyman, and games call on many of his sharpest instincts. He has spent a life with his lanky frame hovering over a table, flicking his hand to deliver each sharp point. As a cartoonist and cartoon editor of the New Yorker magazine, humor has been a source of joy — and how he keeps score.

“You need chutzpah, whether you’re Jewish or not,” Mankoff says by phone from his Manhattan office about being an effective practitioner of laughs. “Humor levels the playing field. I understood that early on — that was something I had.”

Mankoff’s deep understanding of humor, both its power and its practice, is the live wire that crackles through his new book, “How About Never — Is Never Good for You?”, savvily titled after his most famous cartoon-turned-catchphrase. (The artist will come to Washington’s Politics & Prose next Wednesday not only to promote the book but also to illuminate how he decides “the funny” each week for his magazine.)

What ripples through this stipple master’s memoir — subtitled “My Life in Cartoons” — is that Mankoff approaches the art of getting laughs, both as craft and career, like an ongoing series of calculations. His is a scientific mind that came “thisclose” to getting a PhD in experimental psychology. And, as he writes, his doting mother came this close to being able to say, “My son, the doctorate.”


’How About Never — Is Never Good for You?’ by Robert Mankoff. (Henry Holt and Co.)

But then, when it comes to his mom, the issue was always one of closeness. The cartoonist says Mollie Mankoff, as an ever-loving presence, was not a Jewish mother — she was a Jewish smother.

“ ‘Doting’ is probably too mild a word to describe my mother’s obsessive attention to existence,” writes Mankoff, noting that her hypochondria proved to be contagious — a strain of worry so virulent that it turns up in his cartoons. (One Mankoff caption in the book has an attending doc saying: “Well, Bob, it looks like a paper cut, but just to be sure let’s do lots of tests.”)

Dad was off fighting the war for Bob’s first two years of life, and later was mostly off laying carpet and linoleum all day, so the boy needed to develop techniques to combat his mother’s solo obsessiveness and onslaught of Yiddishisms. He became the Boy Gevalt, developing a mouth as rapid as Mom’s. “Yiddish excels at . . . combining aggression, friendliness, and ambiguity,” he writes, “a basic recipe for humor that my mother was excellent at cooking up and on which I was spoon-fed.”

Mother and son had a less-than-ideal personal relationship, he says, but the dynamic was perfect for honing his humor: She was not an audience but a target, and comedy thrives on conflict. “I am a ‘made’ cartoonist,” he says, “but I was born a comic.”

Beyond his parents’ walls, Mankoff soon became the quick-quipping kid from Queens. He went to New York’s High School of Music & Art, but his draftsman’s hand didn’t match the best in class; it was the gags that gave him an edge and a niche. By his calculation, it was humor that leveled the playing field of life.

After years of developing his technique as both artist and gag writer, he found the Holy Grail, getting a cartoon published in the New Yorker in the late 1970s. By 1980, he was offered a contract and could officially call himself a New Yorker cartoonist. But that alone wasn’t enough to support a growing family a decade later, as the magazine market for cartoons was withering. Out of need, Mankoff’s latest career calculation kicked in.

The New Yorker was rejecting the vast majority of cartoons it received; why not publish some of these online? The Web was in its infancy, and Mankoff was a quick study as he sired a Web site. Soon, the Cartoon Bank was born — a visual vault of thousands of New Yorker creations, as well as a secondary source of revenue for the artists.

With this sort of vision, Mankoff was named the magazine’s cartoon editor in 1997, inheriting the lofty office of the man who had hired him. “Lee Lorenz handed me a plane on automatic co-pilot,” Mankoff says of the established roster of talent. “People were ready to do this forever.”

But as the comedy zeitgeist shifted, Mankoff came to a realization: He needed to cultivate a new crop of cartoonists.

“I had to change the approach and get new talent,” says Mankoff. “Now they are doing the majority of the cartoons. It’s the humor of today — it’s more absurd, more meta. When they use a cliche, they almost destroy it.”

Window into magazine

Mankoff, 69, says he wrote “How About Never” because he thought it wise “to do my memoiring while I still had plenty of memory to memoir with.”

He also wrote it because he was signed to write a book about the history of humor, but that project flailed and the publisher wanted its money back. “I couldn’t do that,” Mankoff says. “Because both the publisher and I were each partly to blame. . . . And because I had spent my book advance.”

“How About Never” is more than memoir, though; it’s also an enormous window into the mystery and alchemy behind the creation and selection of New Yorker cartoons. Mankoff even dissects the famous “New Yorker Cartoon” episode of “Seinfeld” to shine a light on all the intellectual rigor and comedic criteria that go into accepting a cartoon.

“How About Never” also reflects Mankoff’s gift for pacing and storytelling as he intercuts text with strong supporting visuals.

“That’s the world we live in now,” Mankoff says. “I’m pretty adept with computers and Photoshop for my blog, and I found my style with a conversational voice and an image-ready column.”

Mankoff also emphasizes that he wrote the book because “five years from now, nobody knows. Hopefully I’ll be above ground.”

Or, as he illustrates in one cartoon, Death comes to Mankoff’s door. In a reprise of his famous caption, the cartoonist asks the Grim Reaper: “How about never — is never good for you?”

Death gets the last laugh, the cartoonist says. Mankoff just wants the next-to-last laugh.

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Bob Mankoff does more than like ping-pong. He is a man in efficient and focused motion, as his paddle smacks each reply with the precision of a punch line. Bap. A forehand sharp as a verbal half-volley. Boop. A backhanded ball cut as thin as a slice-of-life joke. Bam. The clean put-away that requires an almost silly degree of exertion on what he says is a laughably small field of play. But then, this is what Mankoff has been doing most of his comedic career, too: Creating inventive angles and sly spins and rhythmic tricks with relentless attention to detail, as if necessity were the Jewish mother of invention.¶ Mankoff is a professional funnyman, and games call on many of his sharpest instincts. He has spent a life with his lanky frame hovering over a table, flicking his hand to deliver each sharp point. As a cartoonist and cartoon editor of the New Yorker magazine, humor has been a source of joy — and how he keeps score.

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