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How cartoons remind us that life goes on

November 17, 2016 at 5:56 PM EST
New Yorker magazine cartoon editor Bob Mankoff says he and his staff spend an extraordinary amount of time selecting and editing the cartoons that readers might not find funny. Mankoff offers his Brief But Spectacular take on the cartoons that strike the balance between amusing and poignant.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Now to another episode of Brief But Spectacular, where we ask interesting people to describe their passions.

Tonight, we hear from Bob Mankoff, cartoon editor for “The New Yorker” magazine since 1997. He explains the humor of cartoons.

BOB MANKOFF, Cartoon Editor, “The New Yorker”: Every once in a while, we run a joke that very few people get, and I think that’s the hallmark of “The New Yorker.”

We don’t actually do it to annoy people. We spend an extraordinary amount of time selecting, going through and editing the cartoons that you end up finding not funny.

(LAUGHTER)

BOB MANKOFF: Part of what is wonderful about cartoons is, they’re a little stupid, and they connect us with the stupidity of our own consciousness in life.

We are ribbing ourselves, our own pretensions, our own middle class. And in doing that, of course, we become connoisseurs of unhappiness.

Cartoonists’ relationship to rejection depends on the cartoonist. An amateur loves everything they do and think everything is perfect. A professional really understands that, in the end, somebody else has to judge their work.

Often something that comes out of your own real-life experience, you don’t directly use. You modify it within the form. I was on the phone and someone was brushing me off. So I just said to them, how about never? Is never good for you? Then I tweaked it to make it into a cartoon. That has the syntax of politeness, and yet the message is rude.

And that duality is really the essence of humor, that type of surprise. One that has this deep pathos of how life is, is Roz Chast. It’s a man looking at the obituary and says, “Three years older than you, two years younger than you, your age right on the dot.”

There’s one I always show, Michael Crawford, French army knife with all corkscrews, the perfect cognitive cartoon.

Bruce Eric Kaplan is just a master of a single line. These two mothers and they have their children and one is saying to the other, “They grow up so slow.”

One of the functions is coping. You can whistle past the graveyard, but I think you’re better off if you laugh. After 9/11, everybody said irony is dead, everything has changed, we’re all going to be great and good.

The Bruce Eric Kaplan cartoon came just a couple of months after 9/11. One woman is saying to another, “It’s hard, but, slowly, I’m getting back to hating everyone.”

You just need a little something to say, well, we’re living again, life is going to go on, and, if life is going to go on, humor is going to go on.

I’m Bob Mankoff, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on cartoons.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Sometimes, you need a good reason to laugh.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We do.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You can watch additional Brief But Spectacular episodes on our Web site, pbs.org/newshour/brief.

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