Very Fine Lines
What Makes a Cartoon New Yorker-Worthy? Draw Your Own Conclusion.

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 24, 2006

Two plumbers working on a sink with an alligator coming out of the faucet?


Two drunks brainstorming about starting the Drinking Network?


A guy with his hand chopped off pointing the way to the Islamic court?

Ahhhhhh . . . maybe.

It's Wednesday afternoon and David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, is picking cartoons. A few minutes ago, Bob Mankoff, the magazine's cartoon editor, entered Remnick's office carrying three wire baskets and 81 cartoons. The baskets are labeled Yes, No and Maybe. The cartoons are the ones Mankoff chose from the nearly 1,000 he received since the previous Wednesday's meeting. Now, with the help of Managing Editor Jacob Lewis, Remnick will decide which ones the magazine will buy.

He picks a cartoon out of the pile. It's by Roz Chast, the New Yorker's queen of modern neurosis. This cartoon is a gallery of fictitious "Excuse Cards." Smiling in anticipation, Remnick starts reading.

"You know, some of these are not great," he says, sadly.

"I like the concept of it," says Lewis.

"I'm not sure this is working," Remnick says and the cartoon goes into the No basket.

He picks up the next cartoon. It's another Chast: a mock front page of a tabloid newspaper, the "Arctic Enquirer," with headlines about salacious doings in Santa's workshop.

Remnick laughs. "Okay, let's take that," he says. It goes into the Yes basket.

He keeps going. No. No. Yes. No. Now he picks up a cartoon that's labeled "Good Shrink, Bad Shrink." A guy's lying on a psychiatrist's couch with a shrink on each side of him. One shrink is saying, "Face your demons." The other says, "Take a pill."

Remnick cracks up. "That'll be on every refrigerator in America," he says. laughing. It goes into the Yes basket.

No. Yes. No. No. Remnick picks up a cartoon of a corporate boardroom with a bunch of guys in suits sitting around a conference table with one chair occupied by a brain in a jar. The caption reads, "But first let's all congratulate Ted on his return to work."

" Ewwww!" Remnick says, half groaning, half laughing. "Bob!"

"It's great!" Mankoff says.

"It's horrible!" Remnick responds, laughing.

"What? A little brain in a jar?" Mankoff replies. "No animals were hurt in the making of this cartoon."

Remnick laughs. But he doesn't change his mind. "Not here," he says. It's a No.

Hey, wait a minute! Did you catch that? The guy laughs at the cartoon, but he still rejects it! It's good the cartoonists aren't watching. This would drive them crazy. Well, craz ier. Constant rejection has rendered these geniuses half nuts already. In about 20 minutes, Remnick rejects 48 cartoons and buys 33 -- that's 33 out of nearly a thousand that came in this week! It's hard out here for a cartoonist.

Just ask Matthew Diffee. At 36, he's one of the New Yorker's star cartoonists, creator of the classic drawing of Che Guevara wearing a Bart Simpson T-shirt, which has become a hot-selling T-shirt itself. But the man is practically punch-drunk from repeated rejection.

Every Tuesday, like most of the New Yorker's four dozen regular cartoonists, Diffee submits a batch of about 10 cartoons.

"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.

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.

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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