Bob Mankoff has been the cartoon editor at The New Yorker for 20 years. But he’s been a Jew for 72.
The celebrated cartoonist, who is stepping down from his prestigious perch in May, has therefore had a long time to formulate his thoughts on Judaism and Jewish humor. For example, he once wrote an essay about how Jews have become the “People of the Joke,” as opposed to the “People of the Book.”
“The Jews of the Bible aren’t funny,” he told JTA. “[Judaism] is a decent first draft of how to behave. It’s a really good try for 4,000 years ago.”
Mankoff mined his Jewish experience for many of the 900-plus cartoons he has published in the magazine, such as one with this caption: “I’m not arguing, I’m Jewish.” (His most famous cartoon might be one with a man on the phone saying, “How about never — is never good for you?”)
Born to parents who understood Yiddish (his mom spoke it fluently; his dad, not quite) on New York’s Lower East Side in 1944, Mankoff grew up in Queens in an age of Jewish assimilation into white American culture.
“Assimilation has a tension to it, to maintain who you are, but to change,” he said. “That’s a great mix for comedy because humor always has a double perspective — on what appearances are and what reality actually is.”
Mankoff, who has written a memoir and been the subject of an HBO documentary, doesn’t plan on slowing down after leaving The New Yorker next month. He will teach a class at Fordham, continue to lead the Cartoon Bank, which licenses New Yorker cartoons, and work on a new project called Botnik Studios — it aims to inspire better jokes through computer algorithms.
JTA asked Mankoff to pick his favorite Jewish-themed cartoons from over the years, and he was happy to oblige. (The first one is a Mankoff original). Read on and enjoy.