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New Yorker cartoon editor evaluates humor for Colorado College lecture series

October 26, 2016 Updated: October 27, 2016 at 6:21 pm
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Bob Mankoff. (Kristi Fitts/HBO/TNS)

You're probably familiar with Bob Mankoff's work even if his name doesn't ring a bell.

He's the man behind the famous and often quoted The New Yorker cartoon that pictures an executive on the phone as he sits at his desk and looks at his calendar. He's saying, "No, Thursday's out. How about never? Is never good for you?"

"How About Never - Is Never Good For You?: My Life in Cartoons" is the title of The New Yorker cartoon editor's 2014 memoir. Mankoff will talk about his life in cartoons Thursday at Colorado College as part of the Journalist in Residence Lecture Series.

"What I say about New Yorker cartoons is we don't punch up, we don't punch down, we elbow to the side," says Mankoff, 72. "Making fun of yourself and by extension your own group or class is the deepest, most interesting humor. Then there's humor that's clever or obscure that shows a mind at play. Those are the kinds I like."

Mankoff was 8 when he drew his first cartoon - a crazed robot minus a caption - and knew he had a good sense of humor. Pairing the two only made sense. After graduating from Syracuse University in 1966 he eventually found some success publishing his cartoons, but there remained one nut he couldn't crack - The New Yorker. He sent thousands of cartoons, he says, only to hear absolutely nothing. And then it happened - one landed in the late '70s and by 1980 he had a contract and bragging rights as an official New Yorker cartoonist. In 1997 he took it one step further and took over as the magazine's cartoon editor.

The numbers are daunting - during any given week he receives upwards of 1,000 cartoons and 5,000 cartoon caption contest entries.

"When I'm looking at a thousand cartoons or judging the caption contest evaluating means making judgment," he says. "It's separated from my natural response to it. That doesn't mean you can't evaluate it correctly. For example, if you were on a film committee and taking notes about the film you wouldn't be enjoying it, you wouldn't be entertained by it, but you could still make a judgment about it. You can make a judgment about it for other people. That's my job. It's an interesting, enjoyable job but it's not a job where I'm being entertained. It's for me to entertain you with a selection of cartoons."

After being in the business for so long he's noticed his own sense of humor has evolved.

"When you're very young and especially male a lot of it's cruel," he says. "It's fueled by testosterone. Usually you grow out of it. A guy like Trump never has - he's a good example of adolescent humor, especially male humor. Girls have their own version of meanness. Although I'm a free speech absolutist, generally I'm not turned on by gratuitous cruelty - the fun of putting somebody down. You see it on the internet or in TV shows. I can do without that. It's almost like a regression to the worst forms."

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