A Night of Rejection, New Yorker Style

“Humor at its highest level is a very very, rare rare thing.”
- David Remnick

 

Here’s an example of cartoon that The New Yorker rejected:
A zoo sign reads, “Please don’t feed the animals chili” and it’s hanging on the elephant’s cage.
1. Too low brow

Here’s another one: A childlike drawing of a wooden cart. Caption: Horse drawn cart. (Think about it.)
2. Too dumb.

I went to A Night of Rejection last night in SF at the Cartoon Art Museum. Kind of a roadshow for The Rejection Collection – a book of cartoons that — while funny – the magazine took a pass on.

On hand were three established contributers, Matthew Diffee, Drew Dernavich, and Chad Darbyshire, and a bonus up-and-comer in the audience (he’s sold twelve cartoons – this reads as success to me. One would read success to me. Hell, sneaking into the building would rate pretty high for me, but I can’t draw, and I live in California, so we’ll move on. Good luck Tom Toro, I’ll be looking for you in the pages.)

And there are eight other reasons why The New Yorker rejects a cartoon. But I’m not going to list them because I can’t remeber them from last night. At first I was laughing too hard, and later I had two beers and so, you know, the memory grays. I’m not even sure about the first two reasons. But there was too political, too naughty, too Dark, you get the idea.

Quick-witted doesn’t get you close enough to describing these artists. Maybe quick-witted, with strong doses of determination and humility is nearer the mark. A regular contributer to The New Yorker comes up with a portfolio of ten cartoons to submit to Cartoon Editor, Bob Mankoff, on Tuesdays. Ten cartoons a week. Every week. Week after week. And maybe they use one of them. That’s a lot of rejection. They had a picture of Mankoff which they put on the big screen. And then they spent a good ten minutes talking about how afraid they were of him while his larger-than-life photo scowled at us all. And though all of the cartoonists speak as if they have a reasonable relationship with him, the term BFF doesn’t come to mind.

 

One big question: How does the caption contest work? They told us that Mankoff uses an algorithm to sort the 11,000 weekly entries, (maybe a terminal command like diff -rq  — I’m liking him a little bit more, that’s the systems engineer in me talking) and pretty much, if fifty people came up some some version of, “take my wife, please,” then those are thrown out completely. Ah-ha! Now I know why I’m losing week after week. I come up with the same caption that everybody else does. I’m just too damn mainstream, ask anybody. But I have to wonder, is this because if one person wins with, “Take my wife, please,” then the other forty-nine who had the same entry will complain? Or is it that The New Yorker really wants that one unique zinger … even if it’s not as funny as the one I submitted? I suppose that my world is a more interesting place if a few secrets remain so.

( Update: I’ve had five comments, so at least five people have actually read this. Gratifying! But I might have to up my game. Alert reader, Ben Bass suggests a link to another discussion of this sort on emdashes – and I’m a fan of emdashes so I’ll gladly point you here: The New Yorker Festival West Cartoon Panel Discussion. And Bass himself has some quality discounted opinions on the New Yorker cartoon caption contest in a missive called, You Cannot Be Serious. Also noteworthy is that Zachary Kanin was originally on the bill for this event, and we later learned that he excused himself to instead join the writing staff of SNL. So he didn’t get any Adobe swag — hello? Fisher Space pen with Adobe logo on it — and he didn’t get his picture in my blog which has been read by, verifiably, five people, including my brother. Priorities, huh? If you’re obsessing about New Yorker cartoons, and you haven’t had enough discussion, read about James Sturm’s attempt to sell drawing to the magazine here:How Hard Is It To Get a Cartoon Into The New Yorker? )

These guys were approachable. I asked a question:
Me: Do you get calls from your family and friends telling you that they have the best idea for a New Yorker cartoon, say like, Death is at baggage claim in the airport and you see a scythe-shaped suitcase coming down the carousel and there’s a sign that reads “Departures” above his head?
Diffee: We get those calls more often than you’d think.
Me: You just did.
But the answer was obvious as soon as I said it. They can’t draw it, it’s not their cartoon. And these guys aren’t hurting for ideas, anyway. They find absurd humor everywhere. And when they don’t, they create it out of something normal.

One vanity that they let on to — and this was shared — was the sense of anticipation they felt when, by chance, they were able to watch people in the real world – like on the subway — who were reading the magazine – to see if they could distinguish a smirk or a giggle when the reader viewed their work. Diffee admitted to staying on the train past his stop while waiting for a reaction.

 

 

 

After the presentation they signed books, and magnanimously added bespoke cartoons on the front pages.

Dernavich, Diffee, Darbyshire, Simpson.

 

Chad Darbyshire

Across the street at the Grove Cafe about eight of us had snacks afterwards and talked.

Drew Dernavich with, I think, two friends he hasn't seen since high school.

Matthew Diffee wore cowboy boots.

My pen has also been used by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman. Woot.

Each cartoonist there made a scribble in my notebook, (thanks) I promised not to eBay the drawings. And I bribed them with Adobe swag to be my friend and to follow me on twitter. (@dmcsween)I think it’s working, these guys are cheap.

The Cartoon Art Museum is on my list for another visit. I’ll need a few hours to read through all the original comics on exhibit. The facilitator for the night was cartoonist Michael Capozzola, a funny man who kept things moving and elicited the responses we wanted to hear. Larger versions of these pictures and few more are being uploaded to the Cartoon Art Museum Flickr group here: http://www.flickr.com/groups/cartoonartmuseum/

The process that gets the humor out of these guys’ minds and into The New Yorker, by means of these quarter page masterpieces of instant gratification, is equal parts method and whim. Memo to Bob Mankoff and David Remnick, if you’re listening, this subscriber humbly asks that you don’t change a thing.

The artists:

Matthew Diffee
Drew Dernavich
Chad Darbyshire

 

Comments and corrections to this post, hazy recollections, cautionary tales, variorum, requests for links, and secrets revealed, are welcome. You will make my day, I swear to God, you really will.

6 comments

  1. Dan. Thanks for a great write-up and for sharing your photos from the event.

  2. Thanks Dan for the great pictures and capturing so many details of a wonderful event! Cheers!

  3. Matt (not Mac) Sweeney says:

    pics, story, humor…you got it all there man.
    cool beans bro. i am still waiting for that next short story of yours in the NewYorker.
    out

  4. [...] from the New Yorker at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco from this past Tuesday night, but Dan McSweeney has already done the job. Follow the link to Dan’s blog. Thanks to all who came out that [...]

  5. RAY WINN says:

    Thanks for taking the time to share, with those of us were not sufficiently wise/lucky to be in California this week.

  6. Ben Bass says:

    Dan, you might relate to this similar panel in Chicago:

    http://emdashes.com/2009/11/the-new-yorker-festival-west-a.php

    As for the caption contest…

    http://www.benbassandbeyond.com/2008/04/you-cannot-be-serious.html

    Cheers,
    Ben

    [Thanks, Ben, links added into the original piece.]