Friday, June 28, 2013

The Anatomy of a New Yorker Cartoon

From the Desk of Bob Mankoff.

Hey, everyone, my air-conditioning went out, and it’s just too hot to write. Fortunately, I don’t have to fling my sweaty fingers around the keyboard doing my usual cartoonologizing shtick, because courtesy of the good folks at TED, that shtick is personified, in the person of me, in a talk called “Anatomy of a New Yorker Cartoon.” Go enjoy it, while I try to find an electrician.


From the TED blog:

Bob Mankoff picks his 11 favorite New Yorker cartoons ever

We asked Mankoff to do the unthinkable and reveal in public some of the cartoons he finds perennially delightful. With typical good humor, he not only did so, but added his own wry commentary on why exactly he deems these cartoons perfectly New Yorker-worthy. Here, in chronological order, his top eleven. Enjoy.

Chon Day, December 14, 1946.

“This is a simply perfect cartoon; it’s perfectly constructed,” says Mankoff. “We have no empathy or sympathy for the pain-in-the-ass old biddy. Then there’s this guy, this shoe salesman, bringing out hundreds of shoes. We think he’s reaching for another black shoe and it turns out he’s reaching for a gun. But this is important: we know he’s not going to kill her. If he shot her, it’d be horrible. This is fantasy, not reality.”

Mick Stevens, December 17, 1979.

“This is so poignant, and I picked it to show off the range of New Yorker cartoons,” Mankoff explains. “It doesn’t work like the others, it really has mixed resonance. Mick is a saxophonist, and the cartoon shows off a barren landscape which is broadly symbolic. It’s not funny, but to me it’s about life without art. This is something that could only have appeared in The New Yorker.”

Jack Ziegler, July 11, 1988.

“You can’t go wrong with stupidity,” says Mankoff wryly. “When in doubt, make fun of an idiot.” He relents: “But this is done in a lovely way; it’s a lovely drawing. The guy who’s doing this stuff is dumb, but the cartoon is clever.”

Roz Chast, October 25, 1993.

“This is a great cartoon, really, because it’s humor that is meaningful and absolutely true,” says Mankoff. “If we look at the obituaries and see our own age there, it’s chilling.”

Charles Barsotti, November 21, 1994.

“Cartoons are either in the realm of reality or fantasy. Everything about this can’t possibly happen; it defies logic and reality and yet it leads to hilarity,” says Mankoff. “‘Fusilli’ sounds like an Italian piece of pasta, but they’re both crazy, because they’re pieces of pasta. Is that ‘Rigatoni’ calling? I don’t know, but it’s one of my all-time favorite cartoons.” 

Eric Kaplan, October 26, 1998.

“This is about the unbridgeable gulf between what each of us wants and how to interpret another’s feelings,” says Mankoff. “It’s a wonderfully complicated sentence, and we understand it transfers to the very complicated psychological dimensions that separate the two characters from each other.” Bruce 

Leo Cullum, November 30, 1998.

“This takes an empty-headed cliché and adds a little bit of scatological reference. The two associations make this a great cartoon,” says Mankoff, who adds musingly, “We definitely don’t want cats to think outside the box.” 

Eric Lewis, November 13, 2000.

“If you read The New Yorker, you must know a little about something,” says Mankoff, who submitted his first cartoons to the magazine in 1974. “So you know that’s Einstein, you know about the theory of relativity, you know about sexual relations between men and women. And when you know all that, you know it’s funny.”

Michael Crawford, September 10, 2001.

“This is a wonderful example of bringing together two different levels of association, with a tiny bit of disparagement against the French, which is always enjoyable,” says Mankoff with a wink. “Normally it’d be a Swiss army knife but here it’s French so it’s all corkscrews. It’s saying they like wine, which isn’t too bad. It’s not saying they’re inveterate alcoholics. For the viewer, there’s the little cognitive thrill of putting things together.”

Matt Diffee, February 2, 2004.

“This is how humor works, by bringing together two different things that usually don’t go together,” Mankoff says. “Usually, revolutionary Che Guevara is the T-shirt, but it turns out he admires another icon, Bart Simpson, a rebel in his own way. There’s a tiny bit of disparagement here; Che is a little downcast. But Bart wearing Che wouldn’t be funny.” 

Michael Shaw, March 1, 2004.

“This is just a wonderfully constructed cartoon,” Mankoff explains. “You don’t know what the guy will say and it’s all a surprise.” Subversion is at work here. “Of course it’s good that gays and lesbians are getting married, but the reference is to marriage itself, which is a fertile source for humor,” Mankoff continues. “Not when it’s a good marriage; there are no cartoons about good marriages, but there sure are a lot of cartoons about bad marriages.”

Want more on the making of New Yorker cartoons? Watch the adorable TED-Ed lesson “Inside a cartoonist’s world” from Liza Donnelly, as she walks you through the stages every cartoon goes through, from idea to finish.

An interview by Ben Greenman with The New Yorker's cartoon editor:

BEN GREENMAN: Can you explain the title of your book? Why a "naked cartoonist"?

BOB MANKOFF: I wanted to expose the inner workings of the cartoonist's mind. It's more mental nudity than actual nudity.

When did you decide to write this book?

Ah, I remember it well. October 23, 1979. I was in my bathtub in the wee hours of the morning, as naked as a cartoonist. I put two and two together, and voilà! Just two decades later, my book.

Had you written books before?

Well, if you count long grocery lists, of course. Otherwise, no, although I have published four collections of my cartoons, and those were bound into hardcover and sold in stores.

Had you read books before?

I am almost done with one, assuming I'm reading in the right direction.

Let's get back to your book. It's an odd hybrid between a psychology text—there's a lot of speculation about how the creative mind works—and a cartoon collection.

Well, that reflects my personality. Before I became a cartoonist, I was on my way to getting a doctorate in experimental psychology. I have always been interested in why people think the way they do, and specifically in how ideas are generated.

Funny ideas?

Not only funny ideas. But it seemed inappropriate for me to write a serious book about, say, Thomas Edison—although, come to think of it, his most famous invention became the cartoon icon for getting a new idea. The area of creativity that I know the most about is cartooning. Interestingly, the book started as a different kind of project. There was demand for a how-to book about cartooning, which would teach readers who have followed New Yorker cartoons how to make their own.

And it evolved from there?

Yes. It evolved because I realized that you couldn't tell anyone how to be a professional cartoonist, a job that depends on being able to come up with thousands of ideas a year, unless you could figure out how cartoonists are able to do that.

Early in your book, you say that cartoonists are the most creative people around—more creative than scientists, writers, or politicians. Can you explain this a bit?

I know that scientists, writers, and politicians probably won't appreciate that, but what have they ever done for me? The essence of cartooning, and certainly single-panel cartooning, is the idea. Getting the idea is ninety-five per cent of the battle. Once you have one idea, you go to the next, and the next. If you don't come up with at least twenty new ideas in a week, you're out of a job. Not all of the ideas are good, of course. They don't all need to be good. But the consequences of a bad idea for a cartoonist aren't as severe: you don't get a long, boring novel, or an unwatchable movie, or a disastrous military miscalculation that results in the death of thousands. Cartooning is creativity stripped down to its core, because it's removed from the real-world constraints (and consequences) that complicate other applications of the creative mind. It's a form of play which depends on spontaneity and, by extension, creativity.

How do ideas come to you? Here I'm not using the specific "you" but the general. How do ideas come to people?

Ideas come from the unconscious, the part of our mind that dreams. You have to be able to dream while you're awake. There's always that moment where those deep, hidden brain processes push the magma up to the surface of consciousness and out erupts the thing that the conscious mind recognizes as an idea. The conscious mind then acts like a secretary, sorting, filing, and tweaking those ideas.

How can you tell a good idea from a bad idea?

With your own material, that's very difficult. The process of creating often obscures and contaminates the ability to evaluate. By the same token, though, the process of evaluating often contaminates the ability to create. The best way is to generate ideas and then wait. With distance and time, you are able to gradually see what's there that shouldn't be.

So how important is discipline and editing?

Well, we're talking about two separate processes. When it comes to generating ideas, editing isn't important at all. You want to have as many ideas as you can, knowing that most of them will be worthless. In the material universe, you can't actually make more matter, so you have to be prudent about how you use the matter that you have. But there's no need to conserve ideas. In the idea universe, every idea leads to more ideas.

There's a section in your book for which you asked other cartoonists to contribute single-page drawings explaining how they got their ideas. Did anything surprise you about the answers?

I was surprised by the diversity of the responses. Some cartoonists focussed on their physical surroundings—the way their desks were organized, the placement of the pencil sharpener. Others concentrated on the process; for instance, how you might be talking to a friend on the phone—or conducting an interview—and find your mind drifting toward previously unexplored territory. It's a pretty personal process, but also a universal one, so the different ways cartoonists perceived their own creativity interested me.

What about you? How do you know when to stop and turn a free-floating idea into a concrete product?

When I have a deadline. 

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