What's so funny?

New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff tells all


New Yorker cartoons are a lot like what U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said about obscenity — you know it when you see it. Except, in case of the magazine’s cartoons, in a nice way.

A character dressed in a robe and with a white beard is on the phone, as an assembly line behind him churns out goofy-looking birds chirping “Moo!” — “Hello? Beasts of the Field? This is Lou, over in Birds of the Air. Anything funny going on over at your end?”

Here’s another: Horses are seated in a barn watching another steed, on his hind legs and with “arms” outstretched, as he bellows “Stella!” to yet another horse — with longer lashes to signify this one is female — up in a hayloft. A sign on the wall reads: “Horse Play.”

The successful New Yorker cartoon comes with a reputation for being smart — sometimes it takes a moment or two before your brain catches up with the joke — and usually quirky.

On occasion the jokes allude to current events. Anxiety often lurks around the corner.

In his new memoir, “How About Never — Is Never Good for You?” Bob Mankoff, the weekly magazine’s cartoon editor since 1997 and a contributor for 20 years before that, dissects what makes New Yorker cartoons funny. He offers 250 cartoons drawn by himself as well as cartoonists past and present — from Saul Steinberg, Peter Arno, George Price and James Thurber to Roz Chast, Mick Stevens, Leo Cullum and Jack Ziegler, among others — to illustrate his points.

(The book’s title comes from one of Mankoff’s better-known cartoons: A businessman is on the phone while paging through his desk calendar and says, “No, Thursday’s out. How about never — is never good for you?”)

The magazine’s cartoon selection process is far more complicated than you might think — it isn’t simply what makes Mankoff laugh, though that certainly helps.

Some 500 cartoons are submitted to the New Yorker — the longtime Promised Land of cartoon publishing — each week, Mankoff estimates. On average, the magazine has space to print a scant 17 per edition.

Mankoff’s first sale to the magazine was in 1977. But some of the other now-famous cartoonists whom Mankoff quotes in his book broke in not with a cartoon but with an idea.

For example, Michael Maslin, who had been submitting cartoons unsuccessfully to the New Yorker for seven years, recalls cartoon editor Lee Lorenz, Mankoff’s predecessor in the job, bought this line, “Nothing will happen to you.” Maslin’s accompanying sketch showed a man in a suit — male New Yorker cartoon characters almost always wear suits — dreamily reclined back in his chair as a fortune teller gazes into a crystal ball.

Lorenz paid Maslin but had the drawing executed by then-established cartoonist Whitney Darrow Jr.

Darrow’s final cartoon changes the fortune teller’s gender — to the stereotypical woman with a bandanna — and the man is leaning forward anxiously. And he now sports a more uptight bow tie rather than the wide, carefree necktie sported by Maslin’s protagonist.

The book reproduces both cartoons and, yes, Darrow’s is funnier.

So what makes a good New Yorker cartoon? For one thing, Mankoff writes, “originality is overrated.”

New Yorker readers, he contends, “like novelty in their humor, but they like it nestled within the comforting cocoon of familiarity.” So it’s OK to do cartoons about castaways on an impossibly tiny island, the newly departed wheedling at St. Peter’s gate or the oblivious being visited by Death, complete with the traditional dark cowl and scythe.

But the kick is in the caption: A man, apparently a would-be writer and with fingers on the keyboard of his laptop, says to Death: “Thank goodness you’re here — I can’t accomplish anything without a deadline.”

But the best cartoons, as New Yorker gags long have demonstrated, spring from the unexpected — or maybe they’re just silly.

Take this delightful cartoon by Danny Shanahan, also reprinted in Mankoff’s book. A drowning man shouts to a collie on shore: “Lassie! Get help!” And the next panel shows the dog in an office and stretched out on a couch, apparently relating his problems to a psychiatrist.

Wait for it .

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