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It's a funny business

Being a cartoonist for the New Yorker can be quite profitable -- if you can handle the constant rejection.

January 03, 2007|Peter Carlson | Washington Post

Two plumbers working on a sink with an alligator coming out of the faucet?

Yes.

Two drunks brainstorming about starting the Drinking Network?

No.

A guy with his hand chopped off pointing the way to the Islamic court?

Ahhhhhh ... maybe.

It's Wednesday afternoon and David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, is picking cartoons. A few minutes ago, Bob Mankoff, the magazine's cartoon editor, entered Remnick's office carrying three wire baskets and 81 cartoons. The baskets are labeled Yes, No and Maybe. The cartoons are the ones Mankoff chose from the nearly 1,000 he received since the previous Wednesday's meeting. Now, with the help of Managing Editor Jacob Lewis, Remnick will decide which ones the magazine will buy.

He picks a cartoon out of the pile. It's by Roz Chast, the New Yorker's queen of modern neurosis. This cartoon is a gallery of fictitious "Excuse Cards." Smiling in anticipation, Remnick starts reading.

"You know, some of these are not great," he says, sadly.

"I like the concept of it," says Lewis.

"I'm not sure this is working," Remnick says and the cartoon goes into the No basket.

He picks up the next cartoon. It's another Chast: a mock front page of a tabloid newspaper, the "Arctic Enquirer," with headlines about salacious doings in Santa's workshop.

Remnick laughs. "OK, let's take that," he says. It goes into the Yes basket.

He keeps going. No. No. Yes. No. Now he picks up a cartoon that's labeled "Good Shrink, Bad Shrink." A guy's lying on a psychiatrist's couch with a shrink on each side of him. One shrink is saying, "Face your demons." The other says, "Take a pill."

Remnick cracks up. "That'll be on every refrigerator in America," he says, laughing. It goes into the Yes basket.

No. Yes. No. No. Remnick picks up a cartoon of a corporate boardroom with a bunch of guys in suits sitting around a conference table with one chair occupied by a brain in a jar. The caption reads, "But first let's all congratulate Ted on his return to work."

"Ewwww!" Remnick says, half groaning, half laughing. "Bob!"

"It's great!" Mankoff says.

"It's horrible!" Remnick responds, laughing.

"What? A little brain in a jar?" Mankoff replies. "No animals were hurt in the making of this cartoon."

Remnick laughs. But he doesn't change his mind. "Not here," he says. It's a No.

Hey, wait a minute! Did you catch that? The guy laughs at the cartoon, but he still rejects it! It's good the cartoonists aren't watching. This would drive them crazy. Well, crazier. Constant rejection has rendered these geniuses half nuts already. In about 20 minutes, Remnick rejects 48 cartoons and buys 33 -- that's 33 of nearly a thousand that came in this week! It's hard out here for a cartoonist.

Just ask Matthew Diffee. At 36, he's one of the New Yorker's star cartoonists, creator of the classic drawing of Che Guevara wearing a Bart Simpson T-shirt, which has become a hot-selling T-shirt itself. But the man is practically punch-drunk from repeated rejection.

Every Tuesday, like most of the New Yorker's four dozen regular cartoonists, Diffee submits a batch of about 10 cartoons.

"And if you're really, really funny that week," he says, "you'll sell ... one cartoon! That's a 90% rejection rate."

On a bad week, the rejection rate is 100%.

This makes for a lot of ego-battered cartoonists. It also makes for a lot of rejected cartoons, many of them very funny. Which is why Diffee recently published a book called "The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in the New Yorker."

It's a group of cartoons drawn by 31 New Yorker cartoonists and rejected by Mankoff or Remnick because they were a little too ... well, one cartoon, by Drew Dernavich, shows a doctor handing his patient a rubber glove and saying, "Give a man an exam and he'll be healthy for a day; teach a man to examine himself and he'll be healthy for a lifetime."

"It's funny to see something drawn by somebody who's in the New Yorker, but it's way too crude to ever be in the New Yorker," Diffee says. "To me, the funniest element is that this guy actually submitted this. What was he thinking?"

"The Rejection Collection" is hilarious, Remnick says. "But," he adds, "I did not find myself saying, 'I wish I took these cartoons.' Maybe a few, but very few. I think a lot of these cartoons were purposely submitted knowing they wouldn't get through, and they did it for the hell of it. They know there are certain limits. There's a language limit, a grossness limit, a juvenile limit."

Remnick hates rejecting cartoons. He really does. "There's a heaviness about it," he says, sighing heavily. "Because you're conscious that a certain number of people are waiting on pins and needles to see if they've got a cartoon in that week. It's hard. We're pretty much the only place that runs cartoons consistently, and we run maybe 15 or 20 a week. It's a really tough way to make a living."

Remember the "Seinfeld" episode about the New Yorker cartoon?

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