“They Laughed for Six Months. That Was Dangerous. Two of These People Died. ”

An Interview With New Yorker Cartoon Editor Bob Mankoff

Every week, mailboxes across Harvard fill with shame. It is a shame that comes with a glossy cover—a shame that goes unread night after night because there is too much homework to do. The shame piles up by the side of the bed, staring us in the face every time we accidentally wake up in the morning. The shame’s name is The New Yorker; the shame is a reminder of our intellectual impotence and poor time-management skills. The cartoons are the only thing we read; we do it even though it makes us feel bad.

FM got to interview the New Yorker’s cartoon editor Bob Mankoff when he guest-lectured at Harvard Medical School Professor Nancy Etcoff’s Psychology 987i: Science of Happiness lecture. We talked about God, Summers, and laughter, which, in Mankoff’s words, is the one “reflex which immobilizes us, which prepares us to do nothing and actually inhibits us from doing things.” FM must be laughing really hard because nothing is getting done and we just feel really trapped right now. It was a nice interview, though; here are some things we discussed:

FM: What’re your thoughts on the Danish cartoon business?

MANKOFF: To me, the idea of ridicule as a capital offense, you know, is something I am not willing to accept. Part of the freedom of humor is the freedom to be wrong—to be, even, stupid, and sometimes, even to be insensitive. I don’t think humor can properly operate within the line if it can’t cross the line…I guess I think more harm has been done by respect in the world than disrespect.

FM: Do you think comedians should avoid things like religion? Do you think it’s okay to mock things that some people consider “transcendental” and holy?

MANKOFF: That which is put forward without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. I mean, you know, people are building these incredible superstructures, whether it’s Judaism, Christianity, Islam—I was totally taken aback when I found out that limbo no longer existed. That something that never existed was now eliminated. I’m astounded by religion in general…It’s all silly to me. I’m confused how God made the beetles. Did he make all the beetles? Is it like a workshop? Has he got elves? Did he just make one beetle? Anyway, he makes everything? And then, out there is 14 billion miles of space, right? With nothing. Is it a screensaver? Is that what God did? He made the rest of the universe as a screensaver for Earth?”

FM: I asked my mother what she thought I should ask you.

MANKOFF: …

FM: I moved here from Russia when I was five, so my mother’s been in America for 16 years. She told me to ask you why it is that every year she understands fewer and fewer New Yorker cartoons, even though she presumably knows the culture better and better.

MANKOFF: I don’t think that’s true of the present cartoons in The New Yorker if you look at them. I think the cartoons used to be a little bit more insular. But they’re pretty accessible now…We don’t do a demographic on it to find out if everybody gets it. We just, you know, if we like it, I like it, Remnick likes it, we publish it. Any cartoon your mom doesn’t get, please have her give me a call. It’s a service. 1-800-GET JOKES.

FM: What do you think about the Summers resignation?

MANKOFF: Yeah. Well, I mean, I just think he shouldn’t have drawn those cartoons. I think it was an enormous mistake for Larry Summers to draw those cartoons. First of all, he’s not that good at drawing.

FM: …

MANKOFF: Look, I think that whoever comes in, in my opinion, I’m sure will build on the magnificent foundation of this institution, to take it into the 21st century, and even beyond. I think what I want to say overall about it is that I don’t care. I’m pretty sure that’s the point I’m making.