DePaul University College of Communication > Faculty & Staff > Faculty Focus > A Week in the Life of a New Yorker Cartoonist

A Week in the Life of a New Yorker Cartoonist

On Jan. 29, 2015, the College of Communication hosted Dimensions of Communication, an opportunity for faculty members to share their latest research in an engaging manner. The event was “powered by PechaKucha” (say pe-chahk’-cha), a presentation style created in 2003 by a group of Tokyo architectural designers as a concise way to showcase work among peers. During a PechaKucha event, presenters speak on a particular subject while showing 20 images for 20 seconds each.

Five faculty members entertained the audience as they discussed their research subjects and interest areas. Ken Krimstein, an instructor in the public relations and advertising program, is an award-winning copywriter and creative director who also happens to be a cartoonist for The New Yorker magazine. During his presentation, he walked the audience through a week in the life of a New Yorker cartoonist, providing insight and laughs along the way.

Every Tuesday before my classes, I climb Mount Everest—with people standing on my fingers, tearing my gloves from the ice and trying to throw me off the side of the mountain. That’s because every Tuesday, I get 10 cartoons together, scan them in and email them to the most demanding cartoon pinnacle there is…

…The New Yorker magazine. Since they invented the modern gag cartoon in the late 1920s, everyone from John Updike​ to James Thurber​ to David Mamet​ wished they could get in the magazine as a cartoonist. Of those three, Thurber is the only one who made it in.

What’s so special about a New Yorker cartoon? Here’s what: It’s one frame, one idea, the perfect combination of picture and words—or not words, as in the case of this Charles Addams cartoon. I think Leonardo da Vinci would have cursed himself for not thinking of this one.

According to cartoonist Matt Diffee​, every week, the 50 or so regular New Yorker cartoonists submit 10 cartoons each. Then there are the submissions from cartoonists whose work appears irregularly and the thousand or so weekly unsolicited gags that come in by fax, email and foot. Of all those, maybe 12 get into the magazine.

And who gets to judge what cartoons get in? My friend Bob Mankoff​, cartoon editor and overall nice guy. You might remember Bob’s cartoon: “Thursday’s out, how about never, is never good for you?” That kind of gives you a sense of his character.

Come Wednesday, with the ghosts of Thurber and Addams sitting on my shoulder, and the specter of Mr. Mankoff​ staring me in the eyes, I face the blank sheet of paper. Here it is on my light box. See how quiet and peaceful it is? It’s not. It’s a raging, screaming maniac saying … write, draw, write, draw!

By Thursday afternoon, I really want to start drawing already, but I can’t draw unless I have an idea. One thing my mentor, Sam Gross​, says is that when it comes to cartooning, “It’s not the ink, it’s the think.” So I think. This scribble says, “It’s very serious, it’s very expensive and it’s covered…” Hmmm…

I turn to my notebook, try to fill the pages. Boy do my ideas suck. I want to run in front of one of those gigantic articulating buses that snake up Michigan Avenue. I want to become a bank teller. I want to curl into a fetal position and eat myself to death on Cheetos. But I keep scribbling.

By Friday, I’m frantically looking everywhere for ideas. Here’s the corner of a notepad with a scribble from my life. I tried to write a confirmation number down—see how it swirls so long it has to snake down the side of the page? 75044351 etc. Hmmm???

By Saturday, I figure maybe if I start making pictures, an idea will pop. Here’s a drawing of a couple of scientists that really never went anywhere. The brown folder in the upper left holds clips of New Yorker cartoons I’ve saved that date back to the 1980s. It’s really depressing for me to look at. So I look at it, a lot.

By Sunday morning, I’ve usually managed to eke out a pile of lambs to slaughter. In front is one of a bunch of Gypsy fortune-tellers in a boardroom. The Gypsy CEO is angrily pointing to a depressing graph that’s a line on a palm. She’s not happy. Neither was I.

Here’s another visual that popped up—I’ve been wanting to do a cartoon about panda infidelity for a long time. Don’t ask me why; it’s a topic that obsesses me. This visual was sticking around, but it needed a caption. By Sunday night it was still in the race, and it was still sans caption.

With the clarity of predawn, pre-class Monday morning, this caption was in play: “And then—boom—you’re not cute anymore.” Or should it read, “And then—boom—one day you’re just not cute anymore.” Sometimes the difference between a sale and a kill is one word. Did I mention what a pain Mankoff is?

Monday evening, I’ve got a solid nine in the mix. The panda didn’t make the cut. I’ve got a wedding. A pantomime of a sea of cubicles that is also an egg crate. Others still vying to make the trek to the top of Everest. I stare at them. They stare back. But I only have nine! And I need 10!

Mankoff told Terry Gross​ that it’s just a rule in life that one out of 10 things are good. And if that’s Mankoff’s rule, that’s my rule. 

The confirmation number had morphed into a drawing of a Roman etching his confirmation into a wall in Roman numerals. It just needed the right caption with no extra words … or else.

I really liked that egg crate cartoon. It was fun to draw and sometimes that’s all I do—just have fun with the drawing. I have found, just like in advertising when I was pitching campaigns, it’s pointless to handicap the winners or the losers. Sometimes, just having fun is the best answer. By midnight Monday, I’ve tortured myself into a final 10 and compose an ornate cover letter to send with my batch.

Here’s the note. Flowery prose isn’t called for. It’s either in the gag or it’s not. So I scan the 10 in and send them out to Bob and his assistant, Colin Stokes​. When I lived in New York, I used to go in for a live meeting, but that’s the subject of another PechaKucha. I push the send button.

Then, I drink coffee. I teach. I try not to think about my little lambs in that big pen in New York City braying and baaing with all the other lambs from the likes of Gahan Wilson​ and Roz Chast​ and who knows who. It usually takes them two to three days to get back with an answer.

And this week, two days later, I check my iPhone and there’s a note from Bob. His copy is not flowery either: Ok. You can see the winner. I finally settled on the caption, “Could you repeat that confirmation number?” O and k. No question, those are the best letters in the English language.

When they asked Sir Edmund Hillary​ why he climbed Everest, he famously replied: “Because it was there.” When I asked the other Chicago-based New Yorker cartoonist Pat Byrnes​ why we do it, we agreed—it’s a disease.

But it’s already Thursday night and I’ve got a lot of work to do by Tuesday—so I better get out my gear and get going.