Bob Mankoff was enrolled in the doctoral program in psychology at the City University of New York. No, it wasn’t an M.D. degree; but, still, Mrs. Mankoff would be able to say, “My son, the doctor.”
Until Bob decided he wanted to become a cartoonist.
Now, more than four decades and 2,000 or so published cartoons later, stints as cartoon editor at the New Yorker, Esquire, and now at Air Mail, Graydon Carter’s new online magazine, Mr. Mankoff is making the trek from the Upper West Side (where else?) to the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades. There, on November 24, he’ll give a talk called “The People of the Joke: How the Jews Became Funny.” (See box.) Oh, and he also might mention his new book, “Have I Got a Cartoon for You: The Moment Magazine Book of Jewish Cartoons.” (It’s Jewish cartoon from Moment magazine, and it has a forward by another brilliant Jewish cartoonist, Roz Chast.)
Mr. Mankoff was born in the Bronx and grew up in Queens, the only child of a housewife and the owner of two linoleum and carpet stores on Long Island. “I grew up as a spoiled Jewish prince in the 1950s,” he admits in a telephone interview.
His parents were funny, but each in a different way. “My mother, you might say, had a mouth on her. She would mimic people. She was vulgar, which is kind of funny.
“My father was more cerebral and wry in his humor. Once I was looking at the V-mail he wrote my mother when he was in the war.” That was World War II. “He wrote: ‘I found a very stylish handbag in Paris. It’s a big hit in Paris. It should be okay in the Bronx.’ They were both very funny.”
Mr. Mankoff thinks he was, too. Not in a class clown kind of way, although he did that, as well. “I was a skinny kid. I felt like I looked like Jerry Lewis, so I could be funny physically. I have 8 mm movies of me in Miami making faces for the camera.”
He felt his humor was more cerebral than was typical of the comics of the late 1950s and early ‘60s. And while he was interested in a career as a standup, aside from the Catskills, there weren’t a lot of opportunities to pursue that career, he said.
But he had another way to scratch that itch. He was talented enough as an artist to get into Manhattan’s prestigious High School of Music and Art — the “Fame” school, now LaGuardia H.S. — as an art student.
“I drew cartoons from an early age,” he said. “It was something that was always in the background. Something I always wanted to do. Even when I was at Syracuse [University] I’d send cartoons to editors. They were encouraging, but they didn’t buy. They didn’t recognize my genius — so I did those other things.”
And by other things, of course, he means pursuing degrees in psychology. Until he didn’t.
“I think they were supine, laid low,” he says of his parents when they heard the news. “My father said they already had enough cartoonists, so I said one of them might die.”
Asked what his situation was at the time, he replied: “I was married to one of my three wives.” This is not a joke. “Marie, my second wife, was working, and my parents were very helpful. They gave us $200 a month.”
It took awhile, but eventually Mr. Mankoff sold his first cartoon, to the Saturday Review. It showed Superman being interviewed by a personnel manager:
Humor, of course, is hard to define, but Mr. Mankoff tried. In part, he said, it’s the “incongruity to frames of reference. Things that don’t normally go together, a French army knife made up of all cork screws.”
He offered another example: “I’m 70. The good news is that it could be worse. The bad news is that it will be. I’m 70. The good news — 70 is the new 50. The bad news — my dad is not the new alive.”
He adds: “I can’t tell you how to make a joke. A lot of it is just giving yourself over to being playful.”
For instance, he read about the fire threatening the Reagan Library in California and said, “It would be a terrible thing if they lost that book.” Pause. “I actually came up with that yesterday.”
In addition to his own cartooning, occasionally lecturing on the psychology of humor (see mom, it wasn’t all a waste) and his editing at Air Mail, Mr. Mankoff also is the founder and head of cartooncollections.com, an agency for cartoonists that licenses their work for use on mugs, T-shirts, and ads.
It’s a busy schedule, but he’s up to it. “I used to be youthful,” he said. “Now the best I can hope for is spry. Spry is a backhanded compliment. It means I’m marking you on a curve for old people.
“I just made that up.”
Who: Cartoonist and cartoon editor Bob Mankoff
What: Will talk about “The People of the Joke”
Where: At the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades,
412 East Clinton Ave., Tenafly
When: On Sunday, November 24, at 5:30 pm.
How much: Tickets (including a copy of his new book) are $30 for members, $36 for everyone else. Tickets for couples, including one book, are $45 for members, $55 for nonmembers. Mr. Mankoff’s appearance is funded by the James H. Grossmann Book Endowment Fund.