New Yorker Cartoonmeister Bob Mankoff

Article excerpt

When The New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff isn't thumbing through submissions--trying to choose what's funny and what's not (and why)--he's in his studio, drawing cartoons. More than 900 have been published in The New Yorker in the past 30 years. Mankoff, editor of The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker and author of The Naked Cartoonist: A Way to Enhance Your Creativity, also founded the Cartoon Bank, the world's largest digital archive of magazine cartoons. Armed with life experience and what he calls an "undocumented" Ph.D. (he never finished his dissertation) in psychology, he teaches a course called The Art and Science of Humor at the University of Michigan.

Mankoff lives in Westchester, New York, with his wife and children but grew up in Queens. His parents held his bar mitzvah party at Manhattan's posh Hotel Pierre. "It was about showing how well you had done," he recalls, adding that he still has his bar mitzvah photo album, which he reviews periodically at his wife's suggestion. "I'm in a tuxedo, and I'm reading a book called What I Know About Women." Although Mankoff doesn't consider himself religious, he is proud of what Jews have accomplished and created. "I value all of it," he says. "I'm 'pro-Jewish' especially with anyone who's anti-" Moment editor Nadine Epstein talked with Mankoff about the psychology and history of Jewish and American humor.

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What makes Jewish humor unique? When you look at Jewish humor, for the most part, the jokes are layered--they build up and eventually show some sort of logical inconsistency, either in the world or ourselves. In the broader culture a majority of jokes have an aggressive component, a scatological component or a sexual component, but Jewish jokes work through understanding our shared vulnerabilities as fallible human beings.

How did it get this way?

Jewish humor is based on a mindset that looks at things from many different angles. The more viewpoints you have, the more ways you have of looking at things and the more complicated your worldview will be--and your humor. The habits of mind acquired by studying the Talmud--discussing things seriously and quickly switching perspective--are applied to other subjects.

How does this complexity of Jewish identity play out in the humor itself?

A lot of Jewish humor deals with identity: Jews developed an insider/ outsider sensibility in the countries that they came from. If you were Polish, you were Polish-Jewish, or if you were Russian, you were both Russian and Jewish. Then you came to America, and now you're American and Polish, and you're American-Jewish and Polish-Jewish.

Here's an example of a joke that deals with Jewish identity: A Jewish man goes to a rabbi and asks the rabbi, "Rabbi, what should I do? I raised my boy to be a good Jewish boy and he became a Christian. What should I do?" The rabbi says, "Funny you should ask. I'm a rabbi and I too raised my boy Jewish. My son went to yeshiva and he went and became a Christian." The man asks the rabbi, "What did you do?" "I asked God." "What did he say?" "God said, 'Funny you should ask ...'"

Were Jews always funny?

There's no evidence, looking back to ancient times, that Jews were funny. There aren't any jokes in the Bible. When Elijah gets mocked by two children for being bald, she-bears come out of the woods and maul them. That's not the sort of thing that encourages laughter. There is a unique experience, an engagement--sometimes a troubled one--that the Jews have with God. They've got to figure out how to obey the rules, but also how to get around them. On Shabbas, for example, many observant people hire a Shabbas goy--to perform forbidden acts such as turning on the lights, or the stove. Getting around the rules is intrinsic to the comic vision. If there's no wiggle room, then there's no giggle room. There's a New Yorker cartoon that nicely sums this up where a CEO is talking to boardroom members and says "Honesty is the best policy. …