Bob Mankoff picks his favorite New Yorker cartoons

To accompany a TED talk by cartoonist Bob Mankoff, the TED blog reproduces Mankoff’s eleven favorite New Yorker cartoons of all time. (He’s currently the magazine’s cartoon editor as well.)

Be sure to watch Mankoff’s hilarious 21-minute talk on “The anatomy of a New Yorker cartoon.” The summary:

The New Yorker receives around 1,000 cartoons each week; it only publishes about 17 of them. In this hilarious, fast-paced, and insightful talk, the magazine’s longstanding cartoon editor and self-proclaimed “humor analyst” Bob Mankoff dissects the comedy within just some of the “idea drawings” featured in the magazine, explaining what works, what doesn’t, and why.

I’ve chosen six of my favorites from Mankoff’s choices. His analysis of each cartoon and its artist is given in the captions.


“This is how humor works, by bringing together two different things that usually don’t go together,” Mankoff says. “Usually, revolutionary Che Guevara is the T-shirt, but it turns out he admires another icon, Bart Simpson, a rebel in his own way. There’s a tiny bit of disparagement here; Che is a little downcast. But Bart wearing Che wouldn’t be funny.” Matt Diffee, February 2, 2004.


“This is a wonderful example of bringing together two different levels of association, with a tiny bit of disparagement against the French, which is always enjoyable,” says Mankoff with a wink. “Normally it’d be a Swiss army knife but here it’s French so it’s all corkscrews. It’s saying they like wine, which isn’t too bad. It’s not saying they’re inveterate alcoholics. For the viewer, there’s the little cognitive thrill of putting things together.” Michael Crawford, September 10, 2001.


“If you read The New Yorker, you must know a little about something,” says Mankoff, who submitted his first cartoons to the magazine in 1974. “So you know that’s Einstein, you know about the theory of relativity, you know about sexual relations between men and women. And when you know all that, you know it’s funny.” Eric Lewis, November 13, 2000.


“You can’t go wrong with stupidity,” says Mankoff wryly. “When in doubt, make fun of an idiot.” He relents: “But this is done in a lovely way; it’s a lovely drawing. The guy who’s doing this stuff is dumb, but the cartoon is clever.” Jack Ziegler, July 11, 1988.

And of course we must have a cat:


“This takes an empty-headed cliché and adds a little bit of scatological reference. The two associations make this a great cartoon,” says Mankoff, who adds musingly, “We definitely don’t want cats to think outside the box.” Leo Cullum, November 30, 1998.

Finally, my favorite, by  the inimitable Roz Chast. If you’re of a certain age you’ll immediately resonate with its bittersweet humor:


“This is a great cartoon, really, because it’s humor that is meaningful and absolutely true,” says Mankoff. “If we look at the obituaries and see our own age there, it’s chilling.” Roz Chast, October 25, 1993.

h/t: Grania


  1. Marella
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 4:53 am | Permalink

    LOL. You definitely picked the best of them.

  2. lanceleuven
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 5:16 am | Permalink

    That Bart Simpson one is brilliant! Cheers for the chuckles.

  3. tony bryant
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 5:45 am | Permalink

    My first reation on seeing the cat cartoon was ‘what has this got to do with Scrodinger’s cat?’.
    Now I get it!

    • Dan McPeek
      Posted July 24, 2013 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      Schrodinger’s cat?

    • Posted July 24, 2013 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      Does Scrodinger’s cat have something to do with testicles?

  4. Posted July 24, 2013 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    If you liked the cartoons, you’ll love the video.


  5. Edward Hessler
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    I had no idea TNY received so many cartoons a week. I was pleased to find a cartoon that is among my favorites (thinking our of (or not) the box). The French Army Knife is great. And I love the way “To You It Was Fast” pushes ideas and people together.

    • Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

      I drew a series of cartoons some years ago of improbable gadgets and one was a Swiss Navy Knife – no blades at all.

      I think it antedated Crawford’s. (Notice that as he worked around the knife clockwise, he soon gave up on trying to draw spirals.)

  6. Diana MacPherson
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    I believe TNY has a weekly contest where they supply the cartoon and you add the caption. I forget the URL for doing it.

    The Che one was hilarious and fits in with the whole Theory of Humour – see Wikipedia here

    I have to say that I must be really dark because I’ve always had the reaction of the guy in the last cartoon with obituaries/grave stones even as a child. Maybe it’s a side effect of being a life long atheist.

    • Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

      Punch does that, recycling old cartoons, then they reveal the old caption along with the winner. A famous one was of two hippos up to their ears in water.

      Old caption: I keep thinking it’s Tuesday.

      Winner: I keep thinking it’s Thursday.

      (I did one of a mother and child hippo:

      “Of course you have bad breath, dear. Nobody we know has good breath.”)

  7. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Unfortunately my cat has reached an age where she does sometimes “think” outside the box. Fortunately, not very far outside, so an absorbent pad underneath catches it.

    I wonder if this is related to the old condundrum about whether cats know when their hindquarters have crossed the threshold.

    • Posted July 24, 2013 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      Actually…not to be alarming, but it may well be a sign of painful urination. Best to discuss it with Teh Ebil Doktor and be prepared for urinalysis and treatment.


      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted July 24, 2013 at 11:39 am | Permalink

        Yes, we’ve dealt with urinary infections in the past, so we know what that looks like. Usually that takes the form of complaining loudly while trying to pee in all kinds of inappropriate places (shipping cartons, newspapers, bills stacked on my desk, and so forth).

        Occasionally stopping one step short of being fully inside the box is, I think, just clumsiness, and happens even when urine cultures come up negative.

        • Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

          Could be…but a call to the vet and possibly a quick exam still might not be a terrible idea…”change in litterbox habits” is one of those things vets generally want to be kept in the loop about.


          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

            Trust me, we’re on excellent terms with our vet, and urinary habits are a regular topic of conversation.

            • Posted July 24, 2013 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

              Good! For far too many, that’s not the case….


    • Diane G.
      Posted July 25, 2013 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for posting that link GK! Somehow I missed that thread the first time!

  8. BilBy
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    I’m a Brit and my partner is a New Yorker born and bred – she gets the magazine and the first thing I do is skim through for the Roz Chast cartoons

  9. HaggisForBrains
    Posted July 25, 2013 at 2:00 am | Permalink

    Brilliant selection – I laughed out loud at every one.

    On the other hand, reading the expert analysis was a downer. I just hope he is better at dissecting frogs.

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