After these many decades as an elegant magazine of literature, politics, and culture, The New Yorker harbors one vestige of its origin as a humor magazine. That, of course, is the New Yorker cartoon. Droll and wry rather than laugh-out-loud funny, The New Yorker cartoon is not for every taste. Once that taste is acquired, however, the cartoons lurk amid the gray columns of text like miniature tableaux from a darkly winsome sideshow.
“If you find anyone who laughs out loud, we take that cartoon out of the magazine,” laughs Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor of The New Yorker since 1998, and a veteran cartoonist himself. Despite the mirth in his voice, he doesn’t seem to be kidding. The psychology of humor is such, he says, that looking at a cartoon alone seldom incites laughter. “If you see a comedy in a movie theater you laugh, because other people laugh with you,” Mankoff says. “A lot of factors cause laughter, but being by yourself is not one of them.”
Mankoff has found at least one way to get around the solitary nature of magazine reading, and that is the public cartoon caption contest. Since 2005 (really, only 2005? Didn’t you think it was forever?), The New Yorker has conducted a cartoon caption contest on the very last page of each issue. It quickly became one of the most popular features. The late film critic Roger Ebert famously entered the contest 107 times before winning.
Now anyone in South Florida can play a local, interactive version of the contest in anticipation of Mankoff’s appearance at the Festival of the Arts Boca in March. To enter, go to the Festival’s website to enter between now and Feb. 10. The winner, to be announced Feb. 20, will receive two VIP tickets to any event during the festival, March 2-12, but of course the gracious thing is to attend Mankoff’s appearance at 4 p.m. Saturday, March 4, when he will talk about the contest entries, humor, and the New Yorker cartoon.
The idea for the public contests, Mankoff says, came from his pocketbook. “I charge extra for the contest,” he said. “It’s something people like. I give a lot of talks, and the contest makes the talk a little more interactive. I get to share my sense of humor, and they do, too.”
The New Yorker cartoon is a tricky critter. It appears in an essentially serious magazine. As a result, Mankoff says, the cartoons “have to be benign.” On the other hand, appreciating the cartoons, he says, is a part of understanding The New Yorker itself. “Just the fact that it has cartoons makes it what it is,” Mankoff says. “Can you imagine ‘Foreign Affairs’ with cartoons? It goes back to its origins as a humor magazine. The cartoons got grandfathered in.”
The New Yorker cartoon very often makes fun of the kind of person who reads the New Yorker. “Our cartoons don’t punch up or down,” Mankoff says. “They elbow to the side.” This is especially true of Ben Erik Kaplan, who works under the byline BEK. “There’s almost a desire to be unhappy among New Yorkers,” Mankoff says. “Your life objectively is what most people want. Your glass is 99 percent full, but you are still bitter.”
As a young cartoonist, Mankoff submitted 500 cartoons before his first acceptance in 1977. He went on to produce one of the magazine’s most emblematic cartoons. A man stands at a desk, the Manhattan skyline at his back, consulting a datebook while speaking into the phone. The caption: “No, Thursday’s out. How about never — is never good for you?”
Since his arrival at the New Yorker, Mankoff has focused on the development of cartoonists in their 20s and 30s. “Humor has to be refreshed by each new generation,” he says. “Now, these are the cartoonists doing most of the work in the magazine.” But it hasn’t been easy. Once other publications, like Collier’s, regularly printed cartoons, too. The New Yorker treated them like a “minor leagues,” poaching the better cartoonists. “The process is more complicated now,” Mankoff says. “I almost had to train this new generation. Humor has changed. Humor today has a shock value. Our young cartoonists have to become acclimated to our audience.”
The cartoon caption contest began in 1998 as a yearly event. Mankoff and his colleagues knew it would be a logistical nightmare — and it was, with more than 5,000 entries — and yet by 2005 they decided to try a weekly caption contest. “How could we possibly judge all these captions?” Mankoff asks. “We get 5,000 to 10,000 every week. We wouldn’t have time.”
One solution is to stagger the process, spreading it out over a four-week period. To further reduce demands on the staff, Mankoff uses crowdsourcing. “Anyone who’s entered can judge,” he says. “Then we get a ranking. We don’t strictly use it, but combine it with what we like.” To determine a winner from among three finalists, the voting is thrown open to anyone. In the week I talked with Mankoff, more than 26,000 votes had been cast in the magazine contest. Approximately 7,800 captions were submitted, 560,000 judgments rendered.
For a magazine that maintains some allegiance to traditional editorial values, perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the contest is the role of digital technology. “I work with people at the University of Wisconsin,” Mankoff says. “We developed an algorithm to sort through the judgments. It shows the popular ones more and more as it goes, the less popular ones get shown less.”
The cartoon for each week’s caption contest is chosen from 10 or 15 cartoons that almost but not quite made it into the magazine. “We always pick a cartoon that has some incongruous element. For example, an apocalyptic landscape with a man and a woman.”
Judging is strictly blind. Mankoff had no idea he was judging captions submitted by Roger Ebert until the film critic won. Ebert was so delighted he wrote an essay about the experience, while Mankoff went back to look at his other entries. “Generally, he was pretty good,” he says. “It’s hard. The most successful contestant has won seven times. His name is Lawrence Underwood, a great guy. He’s a surgeon. He keeps a diary of his humor thoughts.”
Pausing, Mankoff adds, “But remember, he’s entered 500 times.”