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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)

Diffee started drawing cartoons in the late '90s, when he was living in Boston and failing to make it as an artist or a stand-up comic. His first cartoon won a contest sponsored by the New Yorker, and Mankoff encouraged him to submit more. For a year, Diffee submitted 15 cartoons a week, every week.

"I sold four," he says.

That's four out of about 700.

The next year he did a little better. He sold eight.

Now, Diffee lives in Brooklyn and has a contract with the New Yorker, which buys about two dozen of his cartoons a year. He won't say how much his contract pays him -- and Mankoff won't reveal what the magazine pays for cartoons -- but he's getting by.

"I'm not saving money," he says, "but I'm paying my New York rent."

On Tuesday mornings, Diffee goes to Mankoff's office to drop off his latest batch and schmooze with the other cartoonists who've come to drop off their batches. A dozen or so will go to lunch at a restaurant called Pergola des Artistes and talk shop.

"If you expect a lot of one-upping each other in a Gag-o-Rama, you'd be disappointed," he says. "We have serious conversations on how to draw duck feet or whether a duck is funnier than a penguin. And there's a level of bitterness that we're not selling as much as we should."

He pauses. "Sometimes somebody will say something funny and you'll see a bunch of people do this -- " He reaches into his pocket for a pen and paper. "And somebody'll say, 'I claim it!' "

Do You Get It?

Remember the "Seinfeld" episode about the New Yorker cartoon?

Elaine doesn't get the cartoon, so she shows it to Jerry and George, and they don't get it either. Somehow she buttonholes the editor of the New Yorker and demands that he explain it. But he can't.

"Cartoons are like gossamer, and one doesn't dissect gossamer," he says, lamely.


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