Most readers of The New Yorker would probably be lying if they claimed they’d never picked up an issue of the magazine, only to pass over all the hard-hitting investigative features and nuanced cultural criticism to focus exclusively on the cartoons. Maybe it’s a little like going straight to dessert, ignoring dense reportage on legalized euthanasia in Belgium in favor of reading punchlines about “faith-based tuna casseroles.” But at their best, these simple captioned drawings can say as much about the state of our modern world as a 10,000-word article can.
Very Semi-Serious: A Partially Thorough Portrait of New Yorker Cartoonists, a new documentary by Leah Wolchok, offers a behind-the-scenes look at the workings of the magazine’s 90-year-old cartooning department. It follows New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff through the process of selecting just 15 comics a week from a pile of hundreds. “Rejection is not always fair,” Mankoff tells Hyperallergic. “You might have done something great, and someone stupid like me doesn’t see your greatness.”
The film illustrates the precarious, changing state of print cartooning in the digital age, highlighting how Mankoff and his department are adapting. And it puts faces and stories to names you might have seen scribbled hundreds of times — from the legendary Roz Chast, who since 1978 has published more than 1,270 cartoons featuring such characters as her famous trembling nail-biters, to newbies like Edward Steed, a soft-spoken, self-proclaimed “country boy” who seemingly appeared out of nowhere several years ago and whose bizarre characters now regularly grace the magazine’s pages.
Very Semi-Serious debuts on HBO tonight (and will be available on HBO Go & HBO Now). For the occasion, we caught up with Mankoff to discuss about the future of cartooning, the terribleness of the words “monetize” and “counternarrative,” and how to cope with all those rejections of your submissions to The New Yorker’s weekly caption contest.
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Carey Dunne: There’s a lot of talk among creative professionals about dealing with rejection. But you don’t often hear about being on the other side of that exchange. As The New Yorker’s cartoon editor, what is it like being the rejecter, rejecting thousands of cartoons a week?
Bob Mankoff: Well, it’s easier rejecting than being rejected. Everybody knows that. But you do understand what’s happening on the other side of the desk, having been on the other side of desk for many years. So, it’s difficult. But from the perspective of everything that happens in the world, it’s not the end of the world if someone rejects your cartoon. That’s what it means to be a professional in a creative field. You have to not just put up with rejection, you have to embrace it. Just like an athlete embraces pain — you can’t run away from it, you play through it — it’s the same thing with rejection. On a professional level, you have to learn from it. So that’s kind of a difficult balance — to not let it eat you up emotionally, not personalize it, and then learn from it.
The broader lesson to learn is that rejection is not always fair. You may have been rejected unfairly. You might have done something great, and someone stupid like me doesn’t see your greatness. You have to be able to put up with other people’s failings, because this is a very subjective enterprise. You have to understand that sometimes your best work won’t be accepted, and it’s actually really good work. That’s all part of the mix of living in the real, professional creative world.
CD: In Very Semi-Serious, the older generations of cartoonists talk about the good old days, when all the magazines published cartoons. But now The New Yorker is one of the only cartoon-filled magazines left. If The New Yorker folded next week, what other publication would continue this tradition? What does the future look like for cartoonists of this ilk?
BM: It better not fold. I don’t think The Economist is gonna jump into the breach. Cartooning is vital. It’s actually vibrant online. The New Yorker as a print medium is the primo place, there’s no question about that. There are other magazines with cartoons — Barron’s, Harvard Business Review — but nowhere has the same pride of place. But cartooning, both short-form panel cartooning and long-form cartooning — it will survive. People will keep doing it; they can’t help themselves, really. Will it survive as a vocation? We’re in a gig economy where there are a lot of vocations now that may become avocations. That’s a problem in general: how are you going to make ends meet? It’s hard to make money just as a cartoonist. A lot of New Yorker cartoonists have day jobs — Zach Kanin writes for SNL, Bruce Eric Kaplan writes for Girls. Others supplement income with things like advertising. But I think The New Yorker will survive. At least it’s gotta survive as long as I survive. After that, I don’t care.
CD: What is the role of the single-panel printed cartoon in the digital age, when there’s this emphasis on higher tech content and a million frames per second? How does this old-school medium survive as everyone freaks out about the death of print?
BM: It survives by adapting, and because it’s very consumable. When you’re reading through The New Yorker, you might say, “Oh, I’ll get back to this article.” While you might not like a cartoon, you’ll never say, “Oh, I’m gonna get back to this cartoon, let me put it on the night table to pick up later.” It’s a very simple form. But I think the simplest forms are often the hardest to bring off, because we feel so justified, and correctly so, in judging them and saying, “I like it, I don’t like it, it’s funny, it’s not funny.” Whereas with a bigger form we say, “Wow, that’s a whole opera; I don’t know if I’m qualified to judge that.”
CD: In Very Semi-Serious, one new cartoonist, Liana Finck, describes being a loner as a kid, then realizing “I wanted to be human but I didn’t know how.” Are cartoonists a particularly alienated bunch?
BM: They’re more varied than that film would suggest. Obviously, Liana is very compelling, partly because of her apparent quirkiness. And there’s no doubt that’s a slice [of the cartoonist population]. But there are other cartoonists whose quirkiness completely comes out in their work, not in their outward personalities — and that’s why they’re not in the film.
But I do think that even if, in outward appearance, a cartoonist seems completely normal — versus, let’s say, me — in their heads, there’s something different going on. They’re looking at the world in a different way than most people. There’s a liveliness in their imaginations that’s always there. In the end, that’s where the quirkiness counts — in your head, not in your outside behavior, because the only thing that exists in the magazine is your cartoon. It’s not an adorable headshot of Liana.
CD: When you were growing up, did you feel any of that alienation a few of the featured cartoonists describe?
BM: Yeah, I think I always felt different, had something going on. [Cartooning is] sort of a nervous passion. Early on, I was funny, and I identified as funny. Everybody’s dealt a hand in life, whether it’s charm, good looks, whatever. I always felt one of the cards in my hand was humor. And that could get me through a lot of things. When I felt ill at ease, I would always turn to that, and I turn to it even now.
I once did a cartoon with the caption, “While there’s no reason yet to panic, I think it only prudent that we make preparations to panic.” I always feel that. I feel very comfortable talking or on stage, but everything else in my life I’m nervous about. Every airplane trip I take, I’m both finding and losing my ticket about 15 times. I’m always imagining all the things that could go wrong — not all disastrous things, but things like, “What happens if I lose my wallet in the airport? Do I just become a non-person?”
CD: When you create cartoons yourself, what’s your process like? What goes on in your head?
BM: They often come out of little fragments of experience in my life. I’m always taking notes, whether it’s on an iPhone or notepad. Maybe something will be bothering or annoying me — like, I’ll be at a meeting and keep hearing this word “monetize”: “How do we monetize this?” And I riff on that: “How do I monetize my marriage?” “Money is nice, money is the one thing you don’t have to monetize.” I’ll try to come up with a joke for that. Or, I’ll take pictures of things that seem a little funny to me — it could be in a hotel, say, of how they hung up bathrobes in the bathroom angled together so it looks like the bathrobes are in love.
In the movie, I say, “Being funny is being awake.” What I mean is in situations where you’re usually numb — traveling in the airport, going to a hotel — I’ll always try to focus on what’s going on, find things that are strange or a little annoying. And I riff on that.
CD: If “being funny is being awake,” are people who aren’t funny asleep?
BM: I think they’re asleep to the world around them. They’re doing fine, but asleep to all the natural absurdity. It’s about being open to comic experience. Why don’t people do funny things? They’re scared. They’re worried. They’re embarrassed. Especially as I get older, I think, if you have a joke, tell it. Leave no joke un-joked. Here are all these human beings around us, all the time, who we have no interactions with. You can interact with them with a very robotic politeness, or, in some little uncomfortable situation, like in an elevator, you can try to be funny. It’s one of the ways to connect.
CD: Do you have any advice for people, like this one friend of mine, who have submitted a million captions to The New Yorker’s weekly cartoon contest and been rejected every time? Can the kind of punchline-y, visual humor needed for these cartoons can be taught, or is there no hope for people who don’t have a natural knack for it?
BM: Well, maybe we missed your friend’s captions. We go through 5–10,000 captions every week. We’re trying to develop a better system. It’s always harder for people who aren’t getting any real feedback. I think you can get better at pretty much everything, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be good. It all depends what your initial talent level is. Everyone who makes a living being funny — whether it’s stand-ups, sitcom writers, cartoonists —didn’t start off great, but they got better. They probably just started off from a higher level of ability than average.
CD: Do you think there’s something more embarrassing or cringe-inducing about a failed joke or someone trying to be funny and failing, as opposed to, say, a bad painting or a flop of a dance performance?
BM: There’s a lot of different ways jokes can fail. They can fail by your telling them badly. They can fail by offending the other person. They can fail because the other person doesn’t get it. There are lots of ways for a joke to fail and be embarrassing. But on the other hand, just by being not serious, humor has a nice fallback position of being like, “lighten up, it was only a joke, I didn’t mean it.”
But I do think what you brought up is an interesting point, and it’s probably why a lot of people won’t tell a straight-out joke, because they’re worried about it failing. Let’s say I tell about a “really interesting book” I read. You can say ,“oh, that sounds interesting,” and even if you didn’t find it interesting, I couldn’t tell either way. But if I told you a joke, right away I’d know if it didn’t work, and it would be embarrassing. Because laughter is the litmus test.
CD: Do you think contemporary New Yorker cartoons will still be funny in 20 years, 50 years, 100 years?
BM: A few will. They won’t be funny the way they’re funny now, just like the music you’re listening to now won’t be listened to in the same way. But because of the age we’re in, we’re actually more acquainted with and resonate more with the past more than people did at any other time. Because everything is available. You might like a certain comedian, you might also be watching on YouTube an episode of I Love Lucy. We have published books of the complete cartoons of The New Yorker, and people do find delight in much of the stuff from decades ago. Whatever’s happening 50 years from now, I hope someone’s doing what I’m doing, providing whatever I’m providing to whatever generation is there.
Very Semi-Serious: A Partially Thorough Portrait of New Yorker Cartoonists airs December 14 at 9pm on HBO.