As cartoon editor of The New Yorker, Bob Mankoff simultaneously warms and breaks the hearts of cartoonists on a weekly basis. In the documentary Very Semi-Serious: A Partially Thorough Portrait of New Yorker Cartoonists from director Leah Wolchok (which premieres tonight on HBO) we see Mankoff engage in this weekly routine as cartoonists — some whom have up to 300 or more cartoons published by The New Yorker, others who are waiting for their New Yorker debut — bring their work to Mankoff to potentially be published in the magazine. We see Mankoff sift through their work, in a face-to-face critique of their wit and artistic skill. Veterans, like Mort Gerberg, engage in friendly debate. The emerging and youthful, like Liana Finck, explain their whimsy. And others, like Ed Steed, sit quietly accepting Mankoff’s eventual praise.
Mankoff has been the cartoon editor since 1997 and prior to that was a freelance cartoonist for the magazine. His first published cartoon for the magazine was in 1977, which came after a couple years of rejections from then editor Lee Lorenz. While Very Semi-Serious gives us an understanding of the work involved in Mankoff’s role, it also shows a more personal side of Mankoff, going to his home life and introducing us to his wife and daughter. We also get a glimpse of the home and work life of the cartoonists we have read but perhaps knew little about prior, like Roz Chast, Emily Flake, and Sam Gross, and how their unique viewpoint of the world inspires their work.
I interviewed Mankoff about opening up for this documentary, the philosophy of humor, and how his bar mitzvah shaped his future in the comedic arts.
When you were approached about this documentary were you always on board with the idea? Were you at any point ambivalent?
I certainly wasn’t on board from the start because Leah had just gotten out of Stanford film school. It really goes back to 2007. And Leah’s main interest, as I ascertained it at that time, was the caption contest. So I don’t really think she knew all that much about The New Yorker and she didn’t necessarily have a plan. And really, furthermore, it wasn’t going to be up to me. It’s a big organization, The New Yorker’s part of Condé Nast, so basically I sort of blew her off because even if I wanted to do it they wouldn’t do it because you’ve just gotten out of film school. Why is The New Yorker going to choose you to make a documentary about New Yorker cartoons? But Leah was really persistent, she got to really know the cartoonists, she really got to know the heart and soul of cartoons within, and over the years she became deeply knowledgable and deeply sensible to everything about the cartoons and that’s why she ended up making a great documentary. But we didn’t have any creative input into it. It’s all her. We opened up and gave her access.
Was it ever hard for you to have your family filmed, or for your wife and daughter to have a camera around at home?
It was hard because of the fact that my stepson died during the making of the film and that became an unavoidable part that had to be included. The film basically stopped after that period, after my step-son died. He was a young man, he was only 28. In a way the film is a lot deeper than people think because it’s not just a color piece about The New Yorker. It is funny, it’s got a lot of jokes, it’s got great cartoons, it’s got quirky and interesting people but there’s an underlining poignancy about it and I think that’s probably due to the fact that my family experienced a tragedy during the making of the film.
Learning more about the individual cartoonists was very interesting. When you watched the film were you surprised, did you learn more about the cartoonists as well?
Well, yes, I think so. Although I know a lot of them very, very well for many years, decades even. But I think there was a whole layer because even though you’re friends with people, you meet them primarily in a professional setting and in a professional setting everyone acts professionally so you don’t see sometimes the other side of them. So I did learn, I certainly learned about Liana [Finck], even more [Mort] Gerberg who I’ve known for many years, I learned things about him. Ed Steed, so yeah, of course I learned things or learned things layered onto things I knew about them already. And I get a greater feeling, I mean I have enormous amounts of empathy for the cartoonists anyway. I come from being a cartoonist. But to some extent when you’re in the business of choosing you tear down your empathy because you have to make these choices. And the choice of rejection, it’s not intentionally hurtful, but it’s always a little bit hurtful to the person receiving it. So I felt bad a little bit more keenly. Now I have to ignore that again.
So watching yourself reject people brings you back to feeling empathetic.
On one level I know it because I’ve experienced it. I started cartooning for The New Yorker in 1977 so I’ve certainly been on the other side of that desk and I know there’s a little knot in your stomach, when you’re showing anybody your work it’s a little uncomfortable. Unless it’s your mother maybe. But maybe they’ll get even more uncomfortable. But showing someone who, to some extent, determines whether or not you can pay the rent, that’s a whole other level. But one of the nice things about the film is you’re looking at a situation from two years ago and now Liana, the young woman in the film, and Steed, the young man in the film, and Emily [Flake], who’s got the baby, they’ve all flourished in the magazine, so that’s very satisfying.
When you were starting out, and being in the position of the cartoonists we see in the film, how did you feel? How did you keep the motivation to continue after rejection?
Motivation to keep going, it’s multi-determined. Part of the motivation is financial. This is how you try to earn a living. If you don’t keep doing it then you’re going to have to try to earn a living in something much more boring. You might end up, as I did at one point in my life, working for the welfare department. So I had a number of crappy jobs and talent to do this, so that was the motivation. And then part of the motivation wasn’t even a motivation. I was obsessed with doing it, I love doing it. My brain was on fire with the ideas. So after the rejection, that would be blanked out by the desire and the compulsion to create new ideas. So you feel the rejection for a day, or an hour, or a couple hours. Then the next day you go to work and that alleviates. The only thing that can really alleviate rejection eventually is acceptance. And the only way you can get to acceptance is by doing work. So you can’t be successful at this if you focus too much on the rejection. You have to learn to control that.
You mentioned in the film that humor has a cruel nature to it. How essential is cruelty to humor? And what’s your overall philosophy on humor?
Ninety-five percent of it is ridicule. Just look on TV or on the internet, it’s people making fun of other people. It’s not nice. It might be necessary but it’s not nice. Maybe your mother and father said to you, “If you can’t say something nice about someone don’t say anything at all.” Well if you’re a humorist you better be able to say something not nice about people. So there’s that but the thing about it is to make it more general and abstract so we’re mocking, to me anyway, general traits, foibles, failings of people. My particular philosophy of humor, and humor can be really anything, you can make fun of terrorists that’s fine. I don’t think it’s going to change their behavior much. But for the most part that’s not my kind of humor. I think humor is best directed at our flaws and foibles. The things you wouldn’t put someone in jail for. That’s what we have a criminal system for. So that’s my philosophy though I’m sort of a free speech absolutist, personally. For the magazine I don’t control that at all. I feel people can say anything, nobody has the right not to be insulted. They can be offended, they can write about it, they could say you shouldn’t do it, they can shun you and everything. But they shouldn’t be able to say, “You can’t tell this joke or we’ll put you in jail.” No.
Yes, and it was mentioned in the documentary, that the cartoons are making fun of the people who read The New Yorker.
It tries to take the readers down a notch from their pompous self-righteousness. Whether it’s about what foods you can eat or even global warming. Humor doesn’t mean that just because you make fun of someone who advocates climate science and global warming or whatever, it doesn’t mean you actually disagree with them. It’s because you find them tiresome.
You really see that idea with the post 9/11 cartoons. How was the response to those particular cartoons? Because it was a more sensitive time did you get any feedback from readers about them? Was anyone unhappy?
I don’t think they were unhappy because they really were quite gentle cartoons. Although some of them were dark. They were cartoons that tried to buck us up really quite a bit, while not focusing on the horrible tragedy but on some of the absurdities that were going to happen in terms of a guy at TSA telling a woman she’s going to have to de-claw her cat before she can get on the plane. The one where the woman says, “I never thought I’d laugh again till I saw that jacket.” So I think it’s the way we use humor to cope. There’s a lot of talk now about our values. We don’t want to ban Muslims from coming into the country because that’s not our value. Our value is tolerance, our value is not this type of oppressive totalitarian regime. But one of our values is also humor. That’s a pretty distinctive value that the American public has.
When you’re looking at a cartoon, there’s the cartoon then the caption, which is more important or are they of equal value? Could you be a sub-par artist but as long as you have the ideas and the wit that’s necessary, be able to make a great cartoon?
It’s 67.31 percent caption. No, there’s nothing like that. A cartoon’s a cartoon, right? Sometimes you’ll find the drawing is so whimsical and funny in and of itself that you can be more forgiving on the caption. And other times, because the line is so witty, it doesn’t have to be the world’s greatest drawing. So it’s really a case by case basis. But overall you want the drawing to suit the idea. You can have a drawing that’s too good for an idea. It’s too carefully worked out, it’s too fussy, it’s too perfect, where the idea is very whimsical and silly. And then you can have a drawing where you don’t want very expressive, almost accurate drawing in a way because the cartoon is one that is realistic itself. It’s observational about how human beings really behave rather than in the realm of fantasy. So you have to mix and match in the right way and if you do this eventually, you get good at it, or better at it, I hope. You can’t over think it too much, I wouldn’t go in with any type of formula.
Do you notice a change in humor, or a difference between the various generations of cartoonists?
Yes definitely. Humor changes just like music changes, always changing. Often from day to day, month to month, you couldn’t notice it. There’s some hook, there’s some melody, there’s some beat, there’s some essential rhythm in music that makes it music rather noise. And there’s some essential melody, there’s some essential hook in humor that makes it jokes, that makes you understand it. If you look at humor from the ’40s in The New Yorker you see that the people are not making the joke, they’re not saying the line, we’re observing them. By the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s, because people have been so exposed to sitcom, people are actually saying the joke, they understand they are making the joke. Now you often have cartoons and a whole field of humor that makes fun of humor itself, that’s meta humor. I think humor keeps turning in on itself a litle bit. My own feeling is that it’s not the strongest kind of humor because it’s derivitate. We really like it because it draws us into it. There’s not actually that much content, almost all of it was you had to be there.
In the documentary we see your book editor take out the chapter on your bar mitvah from your memoir. Can you tell me about your bar mitzvah?
Oh my goodness, my bar mitzvah is so amazing because, 1957 at the Hotel Pierre. Now the Hotel Pierre is one of the fanciest hotels in the city. At that time if your parents had done well and they were Jewish the bar mitzvah was really showing off the money they had made. It was an amazing thing and one of the things in the book, that was taken out, was why the event was important to me because at my bar mitzvah there was this guy Nat Brooks. I talk about in the book growing up Jewish and especially when I was growing up the conflicting relationship you had being Jewish. There’s a certain conflict in that you were part of a community, it wasn’t an isolated community like Hasidic Jews or anything, and then you were part of this wider world. And you could go either way. You could go and you could be what everyone wanted you to be in that community, either a doctor, a lawyer, or an accountant, something like that. Or maybe you could be something else. And one of the something else you could be if you were Jewish, if you paid a little bit of attention, was an entertainer. So Nat Brooks, this Jewish guy — but all Jewish people at that time, if they went into entertainment, changed their name — and Nat Brooks was doing all this comic shtick, he was the playing piano from under the piano, he had a hot Puerto Rican wife. I put a lot of that in the book that they took out about how, oh, I could really be cool, I could be an entertainer. And one of the things I wanted to be, conceivably, was to do stand up. And that’s the path I didn’t take.