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Very Fine Lines

An editor's-eye view of the New Yorker selection process: From left, Jacob Lewis, David Remnick and Bob Mankoff.
An editor's-eye view of the New Yorker selection process: From left, Jacob Lewis, David Remnick and Bob Mankoff. (By Bob Mankoff For The Washington Post)

"And if you're really, really funny that week," he says, "you'll sell . . . one cartoon! That's a 90 percent rejection rate."

On a bad week, the rejection rate is 100 percent.

This makes for a lot of ego-battered cartoonists. It also makes for a lot of rejected cartoons, many of them very funny. Which is why Diffee recently published a book called "The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in the New Yorker."

It's a group of cartoons drawn by 31 New Yorker cartoonists and rejected by Mankoff or Remnick because they were a little too . . . well, one cartoon, by Drew Dernavich, shows a doctor handing his patient a rubber glove and saying, "Give a man an exam and he'll be healthy for a day; teach a man to examine himself and he'll be healthy for a lifetime."

"It's funny to see something drawn by somebody who's in the New Yorker, but it's way too crude to ever be in the New Yorker," Diffee says. "To me, the funniest element is that this guy actually submitted this. W hat was he thinking?"

"The Rejection Collection" is hilarious, Remnick says. "But," he adds, "I did not find myself saying, 'I wish I took these cartoons.' Maybe a few, but very few. I think a lot of these cartoons were purposely submitted knowing they wouldn't get through, and they did it for the hell of it. They know there are certain limits. There's a language limit, a grossness limit, a juvenile limit."

Remnick hates rejecting cartoons. He really does. "There's a heaviness about it," he says, sighing heavily. "Because you're conscious that a certain number of people are waiting on pins and needles to see if they've got a cartoon in that week. It's hard. We're pretty much the only place that runs cartoons consistently, and we run maybe 15 or 20 a week. It's a really tough way to make a living."

Humor Percolator

Here's how Matthew Diffee makes his living: Every morning, he sits down with a cup of coffee, a black Pilot pen and some blank sheets of white paper, and he starts thinking.

"I'll think of something," he says. "I just thought of a barn. What about a barn? A barn raising? Amish people? What about Amish people? They have those beards without mustaches. What would an Amish guy who had a mustache say to a guy who didn't? Those are ideas, but they're not good ideas. So you leave the Amish and you think: corn. And you come up with some bad corn ideas. But maybe one of the bad corn ideas combines with one of the bad Amish ideas and out of the blue, something comes to you."

He's in Washington to promote "The Rejection Collection," and he's sitting in a coffee shop cranking up on caffeine and explaining how cartoons are born. Years ago, he says, he was thinking about the phrase "I was in a different place then."

"I wrote down that phrase and I thought, 'How can I make that funny?' " he says. "And months later, I was thinking about pirates: They walk the plank. They have a hook for a hand. Well, what else could they have instead of a hook? You go through the options. It has to be about the size of a hook. You can't use a broom or a canoe paddle. So it has to be a garden tool or a kitchen utensil. And I thought: A spatula is kind of funny."

Presto! He drew a pirate with a spatula for a hand and the caption, " I was in a different place then." And the New Yorker bought it.

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