Robert Mankoff is the cartoon editor at the New Yorker, one of the nation's more venerable magazines. As funny as Mankoff is - and he is funny - he's very serious, even philosophical, when it comes to talking about what makes people laugh.
Mankoff, who'll be in town Thursday for a lecture at Colorado College, recently discussed his new memoir, his work as cartoon editor, the caption contest everyone wants to win and the role of political satire in the election.
Question: Tell me about the title of your memoir, "How About Never, Is Never Good for You?"
Answer: It comes from one of my cartoons. A guy is looking at his appointment book saying, "No, Thursday's out. How about never, is never good for you?" It's probably my best-known cartoon.
Q: Did you have any sense of it as being one of your best?
A: I sometimes say that the difference between a professional and an amateur is that the amateur is absolutely certain about what's good; a professional never knows what people are going to really like. I've had about 900 cartoons that appeared in the magazine, and I've probably drawn about 20,000.
Q: You've said that humor doesn't want the whole truth, but it does need a grain of it.
A: Humor is an exaggeration that hits home. The jokes contain an element of truth and absurdity, and it's the combined form that makes them funny. The guy in my cartoon sounds like he's making an appointment, but no one would make an appointment to never meet. There's a grain of truth in the cartoon, but if it gets too "truthy" - to use Stephen Colbert's term - it gets depressing.
Q: What about the "Seinfeld" controversy?
A: It wasn't so much a controversy - there was an episode where Elaine doesn't get a cartoon. A New Yorker cartoonist, Bruce Caplan, actually wrote the episode. It's not necessarily a bad thing. In some cases, there's no joke to explain but a comic sensibility you're going to enjoy.
We recently ran a cartoon by Peter Kuper showing a couple of explorers in quicksand up to their waist. One says to the other, "Thank god for the elephant." Obviously they're sitting on the elephant. Not everyone got that and when I explained it, they asked if the elephant was dead. I had to reassure them there were no cartoon animals harmed during the making of that cartoon.
Q: Any advice on how to win the New Yorker cartoon caption contest?
A: We get about 5,000 entries a week, and now people can vote on all the captions - not just the final three. It's a difficult contest. You have to solve a comic problem, and solve it in a way that no one else has solved it.
Q: What do you think of the current election and comic opportunities it presents?
A: A lot of people say it's like shooting fish in a barrel, but sometimes you just have to shoot those fish. Right now it's an important moment for satire; it's like a slow drip that eventually moves the needle. People ask, "Why aren't you going after Hillary?" I tell them, "As soon as she gets in."
Hayward is the National Endowment for the Humanities Distinguished Professor at Colorado College.