Humorist Bob Mankoff Weighs In On What's Funny In 2018

Jun 29, 2018

Bob Mankoff, the former cartoon editor for The New Yorker, will be the featured speaker at an event celebrating the magazine's cartoons Saturday at Southern Vermont College in Bennington.

Mankoff was a cartoonist himself for The New Yorker for nearly four decades before becoming the humor editor for Esquire magazine.

He says most of what passes for funny today doesn't interest him because, like political discourse in America, humor has become too one-sided.

"I think humor has become so polarized and weaponized that it's not funny anymore; it's just cheerleading for your side," Mankoff says. "I'm a skeptic, and you can't be a skeptic if you're also a believer."

A screening of the 2015 documentary on The New Yorker cartoons called Very Semi-Serious will follow Mankoff's talk, and there will also be a panel discussion with The New Yorker cartoonists, including Danny Shanahan.

Mankoff is also aware of Vermont's strong cartooning credentials, with White River Junction being the home to the Center for Cartoon Studies and two The New Yorker cartoonists who call Vermont home: Ed Koren and Harry Bliss.

Mankoff also created what's become The New Yorker's popular cartoon caption contest, which debuted in 1998 and became a weekly feature in the magazine.

Each week, readers are asked to submit a caption for a cartoon and three finalists are culled from the average 5,000 entries the magazine receives. Readers then select the winner.

(Editor's Note: VPR's Mitch Wertlieb took second place for one of those contests and still frequently mentions how bitter he is about not coming in first. You can see if you agree with that assessment by checking out his caption here.)

Mankoff also says he understands why The New Yorker hired Emma Allen in 2017 to be the magazine's new cartoon editor, while he headed to Esquire.

"They wanted to solve a kind of problem, and the problem was more diversity. And one way to have more diversity is to have a young woman, Emma Allen, who's doing the job now. And I think she'll do a fine job," says Mankoff, calling the decision to replace him "perfectly reasonable."

As for what makes a great cartoon, Mankoff says that's unknowable.

The cartoon he's most famous for — a businessman on the phone saying "No, Thursday's out. How about never—is never good for you?" — is one he said he did last in a batch of 15 he'd drawn up, and he didn't think it was anything special.

Now, it's emblazoned on mugs and T-shirts. 

A Celebration of Cartoons From The New Yorker takes place at 1 p.m. on Saturday, June 30, at Southern Vermont College in Bennington.