An Interview with Bob Mankoff

For the past few years, Bob Mankoff, Cartoon Editor for The New Yorker, has taken a weekly flight to Ann Arbor to teach a mini-course on Humor at the School of Art & Design.
Rose Jaffe (BFA '11) is an aspiring illustrator who took Mankoff's class last semester. She sat down with Bob to ask him about the psychology of humor, the art of making comics — and how to get your work in The New Yorker.

 

Rose Jaffe: First of all, having a class in humor is a bit strange in an art school.
Why here?

Bob Mankoff: I think everything can influence art and art making, including humor. Looking around this building at all these art works and sculptures... well, I think it all could be a little funnier. You know there’s this idea that art must be solemn – why?

 

There are some people who would argue that comics aren’t a legitimate art form.

That’s shifting with graphic novels and the influence of humor as a way of looking at the world. But I also think humor has been a disparaged form because... well, it it can be very, very cruel. Cruelty is one part of its basic nature.

How so?

We even see it in class. We’re here at this very politically correct university and the students are immersed in that and part of them buys into that ethos. But the other part rebels against it and you get jokes about how annoying Jesus is or something like that.
It's transgressive.

Right, sometimes you need to access that rebellious spirit and maybe as creative art students they’re more in tune with that.

Yeah, partly that's what art students want to do. They want to be...

Unique, different.

I mean, you can't very well be an artist and embrace the system.

For me, I'm interested in the psychology of humor. I am a failed psychologist, having left the doctoral program in City University in Psychology in 1974.

After years at The New Yorker, I became interested in what I was doing – this whole idea of selecting humor, creating humor – it started to fascinate me. What are the actual processes? Humor is like the air we breathe. It’s everything, it’s how we interact with each other, it’s part of persuasion, our fashion, the way we communicate...

 

Going back to you as an artist, when did you start drawing cartoons? Did you ever go to art school?

I did. I went to a high school of music and art in New York City. It's now called LaGuardia. It was part of the school that was in that movie Fame a long time ago and I went there.

I liked drawing and comics from a very early age. Originally I drew Donald Duck and Bugs Bunny. Like a lot of kids, you start off copying these forms and taking a certain delight in it.

Did you always think of yourself as a funny person?

Well, I can see it now-- you know when you look yourself in old home movies at eight or nine years old and you see what you're doing – you're mugging, you're acting funny. You don't know exactly why but clearly that's who you are.

And then once I got out of high school, I went to college in Syracuse. That's really where I developed my whole comic persona – the idea of myself as being funny. That's how I began to identify myself.

You told us you drew comics for The New Yorker for 20 years before you were actually an editor. And that you would draw 15 cartoons a week and maybe one would get in. Were you ever deterred by the rejection?

Yeah, I submitted a couple of thousand cartoons to The New Yorker before I ever got published.

Clearly it did not deter you.

Well, one of the things I say is – it's good to have one clear talent and be inept at everything else. That is my formula for success. Your back is to the wall and you're either going to do this or end up living in a cardboard box.

So, have all your eggs in one basket.

I was determined. It's not that you're not discouraged. Everybody gets discouraged in a freelance life.

I think most people can't take too much rejection. Especially because they're talented and so they've actually experienced very little rejection. That’s the case for most of the students here because they got into this school. Once they get to New York or LA, everybody there is good. I think the other thing is – can you take that punch in the stomach, which always happens when you show your stuff?

Is there any way to prepare for that?

I don't think there's any way to prepare. You're going to find out whether you can take it and not personalize it. A lot of people personalize it – it’s not them, it's the idiot editor, or someone or something else. There's also persistence involved. But there's a lot more ways not to succeed than to succeed.

I say that you will never know unless you absolutely give it everything you got – everything you got. Most people aren't willing to give everything they got. Most people aren't really giving everything they got. They still want to go to the party. They want to do this and that and everything. You're not going to succeed unless you give it everything that you got, because giving it everything you got is how you develop what you actually have.

Yeah, that's a really good point.

You know what I mean? You're going to develop during those thousands of hours that you put in. You're going to find your real identity and you're going to be given this ultimate stress test as to whether you can really succeed.

And so my advice is to get out into it. There will always be some sort of job and if you really want to do art then go out and do what you want.

Okay, I’m ready.

Good.

 




COMMENTS

Great interview!

Posted by sarah diehl on September 28, 2011

Wow. Thanks so much for posting this. I am so inspired, especially since I am "inept at everything else." :) "You're not going to succeed unless you give it everything that you got, because giving it everything you got is how you develop what you actually have." Just beautiful.

Posted by Nick Sweeney on September 28, 2011

Great interview. I do have a nagging question for Mr. Mankoff though - and that's about the Caption Contest. Why is it that the finalists always seem to be most obvious and (in most cases) redundant captions? I'm sure they get funnier entries than the ones that get finalized. How could an entire readership who submits simply go for the cheap plot exposition captions? In what seems to be every case, the captions undo any humour that may inherently be in the images. If this is the best we can can come up with then I fear we have more to be concerned about than whether contemporary art is funny enough.

Posted by Chris McNamara on November 10, 2011

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