The following is a script from "The Cartoonist" which aired on March 23, 2014. Morley Safer is the correspondent. David Browning and Jonathan Schienberg, producers.
Now for some laughs. For nearly 90 years, the place to go for sophisticated, often cutting edge humor has been The New Yorker magazine. The very first cover in 1925 featured a caricature of a snooty New Yorker of the day, right down to his monocle. They called him Eustace Tilley, an imaginary twit, mocking the self-importance of both the magazine and its readers. And despite the excellence of the articles -- from a long list of legendary writers -- those readers usually turn first to the cartoons. We've ventured behind the scenes to see how the drawings are selected. As for the man who picks them he could be a cartoon character himself.
If there's an intersection that screams "New York, New York," it's 42nd and Broadway. Times Square, the Theater District. The greatest show on Earth: New Yorkers of every stripe rubbing elbows with tourists and each other. The face in the crowd is Bob Mankoff, New York-born and bred, headed to work around the corner, to a place where laughs are born and also laid to rest.
Bob Mankoff: I had this idea for a cartoon. This was basically a verbal cartoon. OK, people love to go to Tuscany. And I had to sort of figure out, OK, that's good. Tuscany is great. And what do they rave about in Tuscany? The food and the people and everything. I thought of this woman on the phone saying, "We loved Tuscany. The cell reception was fabulous and the WiFi was to die for." That's a badda-bing, badda-boom cartoon.
Mankoff is cartoon editor of The New Yorker. To say he knows his stuff is an understatement. He's studied every cartoon the magazine has published.
From the roaring twenties to the present day, they form a stunning reflection of American mores and manners. The haves - the have nots. Fashion, art, big business, kids, pets, television, trends. And this being New York, psychiatrists, of course. All told, 80,000 published cartoons.
Morley Safer: What are your -- if you had to choose -- the five or six best...
Bob Mankoff: Well, you know, I honestly, it's not just tough, impossible in a way because you would choose different ones in different ways. Here are some great cartoons. The Charles Addams cartoon is classic.
Addams' ghoulish family is about to pour boiling oil on some Christmas carolers.
Bob Mankoff: The Michael Crawford cartoon.
It's the French army knife. All wine corkscrews.
Bob Mankoff: That's a perfect cartoon. There's a Michael Shaw cartoon where there's a couple looking at the TV.
He's saying: "Gays and lesbians getting married. Haven't they suffered enough?"
Bob Mankoff: Then there's a classic Peter Steiner from 1993. The two dogs in front of the computer saying "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog." The Peter Arno cartoon where the plane is crashing...
In Arno's 1941 drawing the pilot has bailed out, and the engineer is saying
"Well, back to the old drawing board."
Bob Mankoff: That phrase originates...
Morley Safer: With that cartoon?
Bob Mankoff: With that cartoon. And that's true of the earlier cartoon in which the mother is saying, "Eat it, it's broccoli, dear."
And the kid answers: "I say it's spinach, and I say the hell with it." The year was 1928.
In those early days - of bathtub gin and backstage musicals -- it wasn't long before the magazine - and the cartoons - took hold in the national consciousness.
In the 1933 film classic "42nd Street" the New Yorker had a short product placement role.
[Pontiac Film: Then there will be 13 pages in the New Yorker, the smart, sophisticated weekly...]
Advertisers took note. Outlining its plans to sell the new 1935 Pontiac, General Motors targeted the magazine's upscale readership.
[Pontiac Film: ...Just the people for whom a Pontiac would serve as an ideal second car.]
The magazine still draws an affluent crowd, numbering a million subscribers. Surprisingly, just roughly 10 percent live in and around New York with the other 90 percent spread around the country, pockets of sophistication in the boondocks mapped out in Saul Steinberg's famous New Yorker cover.
[Bob Mankoff montage: Hey. How are ya? Paul, Robert. Well, I suppose you came in here to show me cartoons?]
Every Wednesday, a nervous band of ink-stained wretches gathers at Bob Mankoff's office. Hoping against hope to sell him a cartoon.
Sam Gross: How many have been accepted? I really don't know.
There's the grizzled veteran Sam Gross, who figures he's submitted 30,000 cartoons, give or take.
Many consider this his masterpiece: a dog at heaven's gate, asking: is there any chance of getting my testicles back?
Sam Gross: I still have to push the envelope.
Bob Mankoff: Sam has always pushed the envelope. Things that you couldn't quite do.
[Bob Mankoff: How ya doing?]
There's always a little preliminary chit chat.
[Bob Mankoff: How ya been? Alright. Farley...]
Farley Katz specializes in the far out, in both cartoons and facial hair.
Bob Mankoff: So what's going on with that moustache? Are you still entering that contest?
Farley Katz: No, I retired from the circuit. This is all like a recreational moustache.
And then, Mankoff speed-reads the rough sketches.
[Bob Mankoff: This is just too awkward a drawing...]
Most get set rejected. He's seen the idea in one form or another before.
Carolita Johnson: You know how whenever they open your bag at an airport...
Carolita Johnson has an airport security cartoon, with the TSA guy saying: "You can pack this back up now." Emily Flake has a joke featuring both King Kong and Godzilla.
[Emily Flake: The two heavy hitters in the monster world.
Bob Mankoff: It's as simple as that. ]
Maybe it's just the day for facial hair, but Joe Dator seems to be a contender with a Tarzan cartoon.
[Bob Mankoff: The apes are saying: "We found you and raised you as one of us. So we were just wondering at what point did you learn to shave?"
Joe Dator: Can I say I have researched this? There is no iteration of Tarzan in literature, comic books or the movies in which he has facial hair. It makes no sense. ]
This is just stage one: thinning out the candidates to take to the magazine's editor.
[Bob Mankoff: This is a little too straight forward.]
He's largely noncommittal. Pleasant. But blunt...
[Bob Mankoff: Well it won't look right in our magazine.]
...When a drawing simply isn't good enough.
[Bob Mankoff: We're not that impressed. OK, next. It doesn't have enough charm.]
The arithmetic is simple. Hundreds of cartoons are submitted every week, by mail, email or in person. And every week, there's only room for 17.
Bob Mankoff: We're picky.
Ben Schwartz: We cry afterwards. Just loads of tears.
We assembled a roundtable of veteran New Yorker regulars to talk about rejection. Ben Schwartz, who gave up being a doctor to draw cartoons. David Sipress, Roz Chast, and Charlie Hankin, the new kid on the block.
David Sipress: We all probably do probably 700 or 800 cartoons a year we hand in. And it's, we're lucky if we sell 30 cartoons a year. So that's a lot of rejection.
Roz Chast: When I do a cartoon and I think, "This is, they're gonna love this one. It's a classic."
David Sipress: That's the one that gets rejected, right?
Roz Chast: That, right away that goes in the garbage.
Charlie Hankin: I was addicted to the rejection before I got addicted to the, you know, actually making the sales.
Morley Safer: Addicted to the rejection?
Charlie Hankin: Kind of. It makes you feel alive.
Bob Mankoff: I know what it feels like. It feels a little bit like a punch in the stomach. It always feels bad.
Mankoff should know. Starting out, he submitted about 2,000 cartoons to the magazine, before making a sale.
This is one of his greatest hits: "No, Thursday's out. How about never. Is never good for you?" He's lifted the line as the title for a memoir he's written, about his rise from the Bronx to the big time.
Morley Safer: You write of your mother, Molly. "She wasn't really an audience for my jokes. She was a target." What do you mean, that sounds cruel?
Bob Mankoff: Well, it's Freudian. My mother was this sexy, flamboyant, annoying woman, to me. And also I loved her.
Like many an only child he got smothered with love and pierced with sarcasm. Fertile ground for his New Yorky neuroses.
Bob Mankoff: She thought I was lazy. I was lazy.
He talked back a lot, and developed a talent for one-liners and imitating Jerry Lewis.
Bob Mankoff: You know, I would do the Jerry Lewis thing, "Hey lady." And I did one of the things Jerry Lewis did, he had a mobile mouth. So I also had a mobile mouth. One of the first comic things you do is imitate.
David Remnick: I have to say when it comes down to it, he takes humor very seriously.
David Remnick is editor of The New Yorker, the man who makes the final decision - the decider - on which cartoons get published and which don't.
[David Remnick: That's kinda nice.
Bob Mankoff: I'd go with that one.
David Remnick: Just hang on.]
David Remnick: He is always trying to figure out what makes the little time bomb work, meaning the joke, meaning the cartoon.
[Bob Mankoff: You don't get it?
David Remnick: No.]
David Remnick: He's very smart. The shell, the outward schtick is -
Morley Safer: Weird?
David Remnick: Comic. But there's a real mind at work there.
Morley Safer: One of his chapter titles in his book is: I'm Not Arguing, I'm Jewish.
David Remnick: Bob's Jewish? I had no idea.
[David Remnick: That's sweet. Oooh. That's a great drawing.]
This time the cartoons that make the cut include Joe Dator's beardless Tarzan.
Bob Mankoff: I like the Tarzan one, it's crazier.
David Remnick: Crazier is better.
Carolita Johnson's TSA problem.
David Remnick: I think this one is better.
Emily Flake's King Kong and Godzilla, "I'm telling you, Manhattan is over".
Bob Mankoff: Brooklyn is very big.
David Remnick: In it goes.
And a cat and mouse joke by Sam Gross: "Have you no shame?" Don't get it? You're not alone.
David Remnick: At least five times a week somebody'll come up to me and say "I didn't get such and such a cartoon."
Morley Safer: Including me.
David Remnick: Well, and here is the deep secret: including me once in a while. I will pick a raft of cartoons. And then later it'll come time to run this cartoon. And I'll look at it, and I won't quite get it anymore. Because sometimes the grenade goes off in the moment and then it doesn't repeat down the line.
Morley Safer: Well, a friend of mine who's a New Yorker writer maintains there's at least one cartoon in every issue in which you're not meant to get it.
David Remnick: I'm gonna keep that myth alive.
One more thing about the mad Mr. Mankoff. Ping pong.
While New Yorker readers are relaxing with the cartoons, Mankoff pings and pongs, often with Will Shortz, the noted crossword puzzle editor. Mankoff's moves are half Wile E. Coyote and half scarecrow from "The Wizard of Oz."
Bob Mankoff: Ping pong itself, there's something a little bit funny about it, in that so much aggression is spent on this tiny little ball. So there's a pillow fight aspect to it.
We end -- as everything does -- with the Grim Reaper. He's turned up in the New Yorker countless times over the years.
David Sipress: OK. So we have Death...
In this recent David Sipress cartoon, the Reaper's latest acquisition is saying: "Thank goodness you're here - I can't accomplish anything unless I have a deadline."
Bob Mankoff: Honestly, if it wasn't for death. I don't think there'd be any humor.
Bob Mankoff believes humor is really our way of coping with anxiety. Anxiety about death, about work, relationships, the state of the world, the state of your health. So here's a prescription from the cartoon doctor.
Bob Mankoff: Illness and death, primary sources of anxiety. One way of dealing with anxiety -
Morley Safer: Is to laugh at it.
Bob Mankoff: Grim Reaper's gonna get the last laugh. Until then, it's our turn.
How much do the cartoonists make? Editor Remnick will only say: nobody's becoming a millionaire.