If you like to laugh, you’d love interviewing Bob Mankoff. Sure the cartoonist gave well-thought-out answers to serious questions, but then, without even coming up for air, he tossed out a zinger — a full-blown joke, quip or one-liner. Not all rated guffaws but every one was at least smile-worthy, and when a reporter listened to the recording of the interview, he was struck by how much time he had spent laughing.
Actually, he might well never have become a cartoonist, said Mankoff, 75, whose book, “Have I Got a Cartoon For You! The Moment Magazine Book of Jewish Cartoons,” was just published. When he left graduate school in 1973, he started writing stand-up comedy. A friend suggested that he go to the Catskills and try out his routines. He wasn’t sure how to get a tryout; he did know, however, how to submit cartoons, so he took that route.
“I was a little ahead of the curve. If I had been born 10 years later, I think I might have gone into stand-up,” says the former cartoon editor at The New Yorker (he “was kicked out for appropriate behavior”) and Esquire. He was 30 and “there wasn’t a huge standup scene at that time, not many opportunities.
“The other part of it was I had always wanted to be a cartoonist, I had gone to the High School of Music and Art. I had drawn cartoons, and it was the easier thing to do.
“In some sense, I regret it a little bit, I think I could have been successful at it [stand-up comedy].”
Nice answer, right? But then, “Now, I could still do it. I could go to the old age homes and the people there would say of me, ‘He’s so spry, so young, so funny at 75.’ ”
Mankoff writes that his interest in comedy was sparked as a youngster by seeing comedians
perform in the Catskills. Among the comics he remembers most from the late 1950s are Jackie Mason, Rodney Dangerfield, Buddy Hacket and Jerry Lewis. Early on, Lewis’s madcap comedy most influenced him, Mankoff said, but when he became a cartoonist, it was Woody Allen’s “intellectual, clever Jewish humor” that inspired him.
“What influenced me most was the idea that you could be funny for money,” he says.
“Humor almost was a Jewish cottage industry — performing and writing comedy.”
But it wasn’t so easy to get started as a cartoonist either — especially if you aspire to have your work published in the Rolls Royce of cartooning — The New Yorker. The handout that came with the book says he submitted 2,000 cartoons to that magazine from 1974 to 1977, before one was published; Wikipedia claims it was 500. Well, which was it?
“I have no idea how many I submitted, but it was many,” Mankoff said. “Besides, I’m an unreliable narrator who never lets the facts get in the way of a good story.”
For “Have I Got a Cartoon For You!,” Mankoff asked his fellow cartoonists (“Jewish and non-Jewish, some of my best friends are not Jewish”) at The New Yorker and elsewhere to submit cartoons with Jewish themes. Many were done especially for the book, others had
He said he chose the funniest of the submissions; he should know what’s what after having approximately 950 published during his career.
Take a look at the cartoons, he suggested. If you like them, you’re a connoisseur; if not, “you don’t know from funny.”
He never considered political cartooning because that would require being a true believer, knowing what’s right. I’m a skeptic, Mankoff insisted.
“I’d rather be on the sidelines, be a humorist, and be able to change my opinion,” he continued. Besides, being a political cartoonist “is a kind of cheerleading,” not really humor.
Despite all that, he did delve into politics, sort of, by talking about two contenders for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president — Elizabeth Warren, Democratic senator from Massachusetts, and Bernie Sanders, independent senator from Vermont.
“I think it would have been better if instead of having 1/1064 Indian ancestry, [Warren] would have had 1/1064 Jewish ancestry. I think she would have a better chance. She needs to be a little funnier.
“Bernie could be a little funnier, too. After all, he is Jewish. Everyone knows Bernie Sanders is Jewish but he comes off as a cranky Vermont guy.”
A more general question that Mankoff dealt with in the book is: What makes people laugh? “Humor feeds on contradiction, ambiguity and absurdity.” he wrote. “What could embody all those qualities better than the qualities of Jewish chosenness and persecution?”
When it comes to self-deprecating humor, no “other tribe” can match us, Mankoff believes. It may be caused by the conflicting messages we receive. “To some extent, the world is saying ‘You’re no good’ but God is saying, ‘You’re very good,’ ” the cartoonist stated.
This duality “is the reason you end up on the psychiatrist’s couch, but maybe it’s also why you end up on the pages of The New Yorker,” he quipped.
Mankoff also believes that his outsider status in relation to Judaism — an assimilated Jew who is not completely assimilated, one who is not a believer and doesn’t take part in Jewish ritual — also has helped him hone his comedic instincts.
“It would be a huge disadvantage to be an insider,” he believes, “because then you don’t see the duality of your existence. There’s no great Chasidic humor. You’re totally in that world.”
His humor is buoyed by his “skepticism, by questioning.”
One of the great things about Judaism, compared to Christianity, according to Mankoff, is that a Jew can have doubts “whereas if you look back at the history of Christianity, if the people had doubts it could get them killed. … We never burned our own at the stake. I think that’s an admirable part of our religion.”
But, of course, there is a caveat. “If we do burn people at the stake in the future, we’ll be doing it with solar power.”
Bob Mankoff will speak at Politics & Prose on Sunday, Oct. 6 at 6 p.m. The cartoons in the book can be found by going to cartooncollections.com, and punching in “shpasik.”
Aaron Leibel is an area freelance writer.