I read the New Yorker every day. I'm a little obsessed with it.
I read the daily email article dispatches, the print articles, the short fiction, the political analysis, the satire and Daily Shouts, listen to the podcast but most importantly, I read the cartoons.
One freezing November morning in 2014, I was awoken by a message from fellow cartoonist telling me he was flying in from Seattle to submit cartoons to the New Yorker and asked if I had time to catch up. The text conversation quickly escalated from “Let's catch up!” to "I dare you to put ten cartoons together and come submit with me on Tuesday!”
I’d been wanting to submit to the magazine forever but never knew how, let alone where the hell it was. I'm also a huge coward when it comes to showing cartoon ideas to have them rejected in person. A fear I had to face eventually.
Dan had been submitting cartoons to The New Yorker among other gag cartoon publishers for years. I figured it would be a big help if I had someone who’d done it before to join me through the terrifying process.
“Why not!” I replied nervously, then sunk back into my pillow to realise what I’d just agreed to. I'd been beaten into submission.
I trudged through the snow to my local diner and guzzled enough coffee to reanimate Elvis. I scribbled down every idea I had and workshopped each one into a workable gag. All of them, garbage.
I got about 35 gags down -6 of them remotely usable. This wasn’t going to be easy. It was Sunday, and I had to have 10 of these things ready to pitch by Tuesday!
That night, I stared up at the ceiling. All my brain could do was think of gags. I got up and tried to calm my nerves. Everything my eyes fixed on became a possible cartoon. My couch became a psychiatrists lounge. My toilet tank became a water cooler. The sneakers dangling off the power lines outside became Manolo Blahniks. I didn't sleep at all that night.
I spent all of Monday madly scribbling and honing each cartoon to within an inch of breaking my pencil. I wrote and re-wrote punchlines, deleted words, re-jigged words within the gag, agonised over punctuation. I was a hot mess.
It was still far from finished when I had to throw my hands up and commit to the final 10 to submit in the morning. I settled on 6. It was also 4am. I didn't sleep that night either.
Tuesday morning I squeezed on to the F-train and hurtled North to 42nd St, Bryant Park. I emerged from the warm subway to a swift whip in the face from a -6°C wind. I was afraid to touch my ears for fear they'd snap off like peanut brittle.
I made a brisk sprint through the park to the towering Conde Nast building at 4 Times Square. As it turned out, this would be one of the last submission mornings at 4 Times Square before The New Yorker moved downtown into the new One World Trade Centre. (Conde Nast had been here for 15 years after spending over 50 years at 20 W43rd Street.)
I clambered into the lobby and told the grumpy gentleman at the security desk I was submitting cartoons to The New Yorker and he broke from a grimace into a smile. He asked if he could see them while he printed out a security pass for me to get in. I showed him - he laughed at three out of six.
The giant lift was crammed to the brim with a colourful mix of lawyers, journalists and fashion models elbow-to-elbow, eardrums popping as we zoomed to the 20th floor.
The doors opened to reveal a giant thick glass entrance framing the famous New Yorker logo carved out of a giant wall of redwood. I waited for someone to buzz through and purposefully strode down the hallways as if I worked there. The walls were full of old New Yorker cartoons and covers- framed artwork on every surface imaginable. Blitt, Steig, Getz, Addams and of course, the great James Thurber. They all lined the corridors like a time capsule of great moments in New York history.
Woefully lost, I bumped into a girl who mercifully showed me through the labyrinth of cubicles and hallways to the cartoon department.
Having just arrived himself, the Assistant Cartoon Editor, Colin Stokes was standing at his desk, taking stock of the enormous pile of mail submissions in the in-tray. His computer bleeped, probably telling him he had another ten billion-odd email submissions of cartoons and caption-competition entries to wade through.
Colin politely told me I was really early, and being first to arrive I’d get to go in to see Bob first. He wasn’t in yet, so until he was I was directed to get a coffee somewhere within the labyrinth and wait in ‘the Lounge.’
I grabbed a massive cup of well-needed caffeine and went back through the glass doors to wait in the lobby, thinking that was “The Lounge” Colin had told me about.
Thumbing through old New Yorkers on the coffee table eased my anxiety before I had one last look at my submissions, wondering if they were even close to good enough to submit.
Just as my anxiety peaked, and I was ready to call the whole thing off and go back down the elevator and leave, my friend, Dan McConnell appeared from the lift, portfolio in hand. He was the one who had texted me. “Why you sittin’ out here?” he asked. “Bob’s not in yet.” I replied. He looked confused, but went on to say was pleased I’d accepted the challenge, but appropriately reminded me that I hadn’t seen it through ‘til I’d sat with the big man himself and had my cartoons reviewed and rejected in front of me.
As more people poured out of the lifts and through the doors, Dan opened his portfolio and showed me the hefty slew of way funnier submissions he’d prepared, causing me to heavily chug down on the remainder of my coffee and eye off the exits. It still wasn’t too late to bail.
Just then, the lift doors opened to reveal a tall, curly grey-haired gentleman wearing sneakers, jeans and Google Glasses. It was him. It was the New Yorker’s Cartoon Editor of almost 20 years moving purposefully towards the giant glass doors.
As he entered the building, Colin Stokes came out and asked me where I’d been. I didn’t realise by ‘the lounge’ he meant ‘the Cartoon Lounge’ which is the famously designated room for all the submitting cartoonists to sit and anxiously wait their turn to see the Bob.
Dan and I quickly jumped up and wound our way to what looked like a small doctor's office full of neurotic gagsmiths sitting around familiarly nodding and talking down to their work.
When one cartoonist mentioned that Conde Nast was moving downtown to One World Trade Center over the coming months, one young cartoonist from Toronto rolled his eyes and said “Great, I can’t wait to hate going down there.”
I sat in the corner and eavesdropped on the conversations while nervously ordering and re-ordering my cartoons from least-funny to funniest. After what seemed like 20 minutes, I turned and looked across the room to see a grey-bearded man in his early 80s sitting calmly in an armchair, a framed cartoon on the wall behind him.
I squinted up at the cartoon of a cat dragging a small car by a string with a mouse inside of it. His mouse friend looking on saying “For God’s sake, think! Why is he being so nice to you?”. I looked below the drawing to see it was signed S.Gross.
Just then, Dan walked in and greeted him “Oh, hey, Sam. Good to see you! Jason, this is Sam.” I then realised I was looking at the prolific New Yorker cartoonist, the great Sam Gross. I had no idea! Before I could say anything, Colin had poked his head in the door and said “Jason? You were first in, so he’s ready for you now.”
My stomach sank... I panicked. I broke into a sweat and darted a look at Sam. He raised his eyebrows at me. He said “It’s ok. I’ll go.”
“Yeah!” I blurted, “You should go first, I mean, that’s crazy, how could I go before you? Thank you. Sam Gross.”
I sank back into my chair and nervously pawed my cartoons with my sweaty fingers and re-ordered them, mixing them from funny, to not-so-funny, to surprising, to absurd, to finish big on funny with the vain hope it would make any difference.
A few minutes later, the door to Mankoff’s office slid open and Sam walked out. He nodded at me and said, “You’re up, kid!” I tried not to look like I’d just swallowed my own face, picked up my meager pile of scribbles and nervously walked into the office.
“Jason, is it? ” he said, “Is this your first time?”
Between the handshake and the distracting Google Glasses, I just nodded silently and gulped as I sat down for the process to begin.
He told me there are two kinds of New Yorker cartoonist; the Word-Firsters and the Doodle-Firsters. Then he asked, “Which one are you?" I answered "I guess I'm a word-firster. I write the gag first, then draw the doodle."
There was a GoPro camera strapped to his side of the desk pointed right at me as I reluctantly handed over my batch of cartoons.
I stared straight at the GoPro, confused. Was it on? Was he recording everyone’s submission meeting? Where would it be used? Was this going into some kind of archive? Was this a new reality TV-show I didn’t know about? (Turns out it was for a film called “Very Semi-Serious.” which went on to win Best Documentary Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival.)
My thoughts piled up on top of each other to the point where I missed the first minute of what he was saying to me before he even looked down at the cartoons. He asked me what I did and I answered “Ehh.. um. Cartoonist. I’m a cartoonist!”
He seemed pleased, but then I realised that raised the stakes. He was going to expect much better work than someone who didn’t do this for a living. Giant beads of sweat started a party in my armpits.
The moment arrived, the moment of truth. He picked up my first cartoon and studied it. Nothing. The next one. Picked it up, studied it, said “Hmm.” then put it down and moved onto the next.
I don’t think I breathed for a solid minute ‘til he stopped on one of them and started talking about it. The cartoon was a couple of neighbours staring overhead at a pair of Manolo Blahniks dangling from the power lines...
He said, “See, this one is good, but it’s too obvious.” I finally breathed out. He continued, “You need to let the reader arrive at the punchline without writing it all out for them. Let them solve the riddle themselves.”
He stopped on the next one, raised his eyes at me and said “Hmm. Toilet humour... No.”
He looked at the final one and stacked them back together, pausing to consider what he was going to say next. It felt like a long time, it was probably a few seconds.
“Your hair.” he began, “The way you wear your hair, it’s a conscious decision. It’s a style you’ve seen somewhere, and somewhere along the line, at a party or in the streets or with your friends you’ve decided, that’s the way I’ll wear my hair so I’ll fit in or I’ll look a particular way, right?”
I nodded like I knew where I knew where he was going with this.
(I had no idea where he was going with this.)
“..When you decide how your work looks, whether it looks like everyone else’s, or it’s completely unique and distinct, you’ll stop being so preoccupied with the look of the thing and just focus on the thing itself; what it needs. You don’t need to be a great artist to do a great cartoon. There are lots of artists who work for us who aren’t great artists, but they include just what the joke needs and leave out the rest. You should work on finding that balance.”
He continued along that line before telling me he was happy I’d started submitting and asked if I intended to continue to submit regularly. He concluded, “If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice we’ve started publishing a lot of new cartoonists in the magazine.” and gave me a big smile and raised his eyebrows, before thanking me for coming and showing me the door.
I thanked him and went to leave the office. I turned back awkwardly and said, “So, wait, do I take these back?” He nodded and said, “Yes... You should take those.”
I slunk back to the cartoon lounge, rejection slip in hand. I think it’s a bit of a faux pas to tell the other cartoonists whether you got one over the net or not, so I just kept quiet and looked resigned.
Lamb after lamb went to the slaughter as we waited in the Lounge. Sam wanted to see some of my comic strip work so I brought up some Meggs Sundays on my laptop. He liked them, but later he told us his housekeeper ‘liked to rearrange his life’ so he’d left his glasses somewhere at home, so he was probably just being polite.
Eventually, Sam suggested it was time to go to lunch. I didn’t presume to be invited, so I kept quiet and packed up my things, ready to head home. Jus then, Dan said to Sam, “Hey, can Jason come to lunch?”
He turned, took my rejection slip and wrote something on the back of it. Then he put it back on the table and turned to put on his jacket and cap. I turned the paper over to find his note.
I followed the small cluster of cartoonists into the lift and descended back to the freezing street level. We ambled over to the fabled Pergola Des Artistes; a French restaurant on W46th street where the small regular set of New Yorker cartoonists met every week after submitting their cartoons. This lunch was legendary. I was honoured to be invited!
I sat quietly for the majority of the lunch, munching away on my duck salad as the cartooning greats of the New Yorker quipped and joked to each other about everything from politics to the little plastic thing on the end of shoelaces. (By the way, I learned that day that little thing is called an Aglet.)
If you’ve ever had the joy of hanging out with comedians or cartoonists, you’ll see how they analyse the world in the most incredible detail. They dissect every little part of everyday life in a forensic way, taking great joy in finding absurdity in the quotidian.
At one point, the focus shifted over to me, where Mort Gerberg (whose Arbor House Book of Cartooning was something of a Bible of mine for many years) asked me where I was from, and subsequently if I knew Glen LeLievre. Glen is a multi-talented Aussie cartoonist who lived in New York for a number of years and also submitted to the New Yorker. I said, “Yes, I do!” he said, “Oh. That’s unfortunate.” with a wink and a chuckle, “I like Glen. It’s a shame he left!”
When I mentioned I was from Perth, they all knew where it was and all of these interesting facts about it. Sid Harris lent over and asked me if I knew anything about where Perth was keeping that Malaysian airliner, saying he promised not to tell anyone. Warren Miller then told me there was a Perth in Tasmania. Even I didn’t know that. What the hell?
With that, we split the check and parted ways into the icy cold New York wind. I stood in awe of how quickly it had all happened.
I would definitely be doing this again.
PART 3: My Last Day Submitting Cartoons to Bob Mankoff.