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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)

The episode was funny because sometimes New Yorker cartoons really are baffling. It was even funnier if you knew that the script was written by Bruce Eric Kaplan, a TV writer who also draws cartoons for the New Yorker -- cartoons that he signs BEK. Brilliant cartoons that are sometimes, if truth be told, a bit baffling.

Mankoff, who has been cartoon editor at the magazine since 1997, knows that sometimes people are befuddled by New Yorker cartoons. "We don't do focus groups. We don't find out ' Does everybody get it?' " he says. "And sometimes people don't get it. Sometimes it's because we made a mistake. Sometimes it's because the reference is very elusive."

Picking cartoons isn't as easy as it looks. "The funniest cartoon is not necessarily the best cartoon," says Mankoff. "Funnier means that you laugh harder, and everybody's gonna laugh harder at more aggressive cartoons, more obscene cartoons. It's a Freudian thing. It gives more relief. But is it a better joke? To me, better means having more truth in it, having both the humor and the pain and therefore having more meaning and more, uh, uh . . . " He searches for a word, then finds it: "poetry."

Mankoff, 62, is a cartoon philosopher and a cartoonist. He's the guy who drew the oft-reproduced classic of a businessman looking at his datebook as he talks on the phone, saying "No, Thursday's out. How about never -- is never good for you?"

He is also a cartoon entrepreneur. He's the creator of the Cartoon Bank, which sells New Yorker cartoons in every conceivable permutation. You can buy books of New Yorker cartoons about cats or golf or baseball or business or technology or teachers or shrinks. Or you can buy "The Complete Book of New Yorker Cartoons," a massive tome that includes two CDs that, taken together, contain all 68,647 cartoons that had run in the magazine before the book was published in 2004. You can also buy framed prints of every New Yorker cartoon, plus T-shirts, notecards, games, even a shower curtain, so you can look at cartoons when you're naked, wet and soapy.

"Bob is a marketing genius," says Sam Gross, who has been drawing cartoons for the magazine since 1969. "He sells those cartoons on everything but mint jelly."

"Let's look at yesterday, " Mankoff says. He swivels his chair and taps on his computer. The screen fills with the record of yesterday's sales at the Cartoon Bank. "Yesterday we did $26,000," he says, happily.

And the cartoonists get a cut of the action. "On a framed print, an artist might get, say, $60," he says. Some artists have made as much as $100,000 from a popular cartoon.

"Your cartoon that appears in the New Yorker has a life after life," he says. "We pay you for the cartoon and you get royalties. Are you going to be a millionaire? I don't think so. But you can make a decent living."

Rejection Perfection

Looking a tad cartoonish with his scraggly gray hair and his hangdog face, Mankoff flips through a huge pile of cartoons.

"No," he says, tossing one aside.

"Nah," he says, rejecting another.

"Not funny enough," he grumbles, flipping faster. "Definitely not . . . No way . . . Not here . . . Not now . . . Not on my watch . . . Not your day . . . No . . . No . . . For God's sake, no! . . . A thousand times no!"

This isn't real life, thank God. It's a movie, a short called "Being Bob," with Mankoff playing himself as The Rejecter, killer of cartoonist's dreams. It debuted at a New Yorker event last year and now Diffee's showing it at Politics and Prose, the Washington bookstore, where he's promoting "The Rejection Collection."

When the movie ends, he opens the floor to questions.

"Does Mankoff ever laugh?" somebody asks.

"I've never seen it happen," Diffee says, lying about his pal for the sake of a laugh. "He has snickered. But that was because the cartoon was bad and he'd seen it before."

He tells the story of the year he sent in 700 cartoons and sold four.

"And for some reason, I kept doing it," he says. "Some people don't. They have other options, maybe."

A kid comes to the microphone and asks, "Do you get frustrated a lot?"

"How can you tell?" Diffee asks.

That gets a laugh.

"Yes, I get frustrated a lot," he admits.

But that's not necessarily a bad thing. "If you have a pessimistic outlook on life, you'll probably do better," he tells the kid. "If you think nine out of 10 of your ideas will be rejected, you'll work harder."

It's the power of negative thinking -- the perfect philosophy for New Yorker cartoonists and any other poor souls who are frequently clobbered by rejection.

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