Matthew Diffee

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Print: Was there a lot of momentum and positive reaction from the first book that prompted your collecting the material for the second? Matthew Diffee: Well, yes, there was, and thanks for asking. The publisher was pleased by the sales of the first book and the cartoonists were pleased in that they got paid for a few more gags last year as a result of the book, but more importantly, they got the satisfaction of proving what they always thought: that some of the ones The New Yorker passes over are actually worth something. I also think we all enjoy doing these books because there’s a nice feeling of unity among the cartoonists involved. We’re actually a fairly tight bunch. There can be a trench mentality that comes from being in the same slightly frustrating boat for years. We’re big whiners, is what I’m saying. These books foster a kind of playful “us” against “them” feeling that is, even if not really true, is probably good for the kind of work we do.

It seems to me that artists, and maybe particularly comedy creators, thrive in an environment of rebellion—a secret clubhouse of people that “get it.” Anytime you can create or foster that atmosphere, it usually results in good work, or at least it results in fun. Maybe that’s part of it: we do good work here because we’re having fun–we’re getting the rare chance to hold the reins. And the “grown-ups” at The New Yorker have been great to let us have our fun.

Are cartoonists willfully trying to get rejected now so they can be in the Rejection Collection? Are you providing a competing destination to [New Yorker cartoon editor Bob] Mankoff’s? Hm, maybe. I have heard from a couple of them who are now going ahead and drawing up the ideas that they know aren’t right for the magazine just because they know that there is now another place for them to go. It’s not really directly competing with the magazine though, because the ones that are right for the Rejection Collection are the ones that are wrong for The New Yorker.

You expanded the photo section a lot from the first book to the second–what were the requirements? In the first book we had a wonderful professional photographer named Thomas Hand Keefe shoot most of the cartoonists’ portraits. They turned out really nice, but it proved impossible for us to send him around the country to shoot everyone. So this time I figured we’d lower the bar from the get-go and go for creativity over quality–with the current climate of ubiquitous point-and-shoot digital pics, I thought we could get away with that.

Plus, since the idea of the whole thing is to reveal the cartoonist’s individual personalities, it made perfect sense to have them shoot their own shots. I gave them a list–sort of a photographic scavenger hunt. They were instructed to take five shots: one had to be a self-taken self portrait containing at least part of their face, then a shot of their hand holding their favorite drawing tool, one of their feet, one of their workspace, and finally a shot of the inside of their refrigerator. Just as I hoped, they all brought their own creative interpretation to the assignment.

Are cartoonists funny-looking? Do you think they want to be recognized, generally speaking, or would prefer to remain anonymous, unmolested by strangers on the street?I can only answer that first question in regard to myself: yes. As far as remaining anonymous, it’s a mixed bag. Some were somewhat hesitant to show themselves while others jumped at the chance. Sam Gross, for instance, wants nothing more than to be molested on the street.

Can you foresee another era in which cartoonists are glittering celebrities and dating movie stars again, as in Charles Addams’ era? Who among the current cartoonists would be most likely to meet that description should that happen again, do you think?Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ah ah ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha…uh, no.

Who are your own favorite New Yorker cartoonists from the classic era?At the risk of sounding typical, I love Charles Addams. I admire the drawings of George Price, William Galbraith, Whitney Darrow Jr., Helen Hokinson, Charles Saxon, and nowadays, [George] Booth and [Robert] Weber’s drawings always knock me out. As far as the jokes I admire, I love all the cartoonists in the Rejection books. That may sound phony, but it’s true. There isn’t a cartoon in there that I don’t wish I had come up with. And I have to say, Gary Larson was the first cartoonist I ever remember really laughing out loud at. I guess my main comedy influences, though, come from outside the cartooning world: Steve Martin, Monty Python, Woody Allen, Emo Philips, Steven Wright, S.J. Perelman…

Do you think there’s some fundamental childhood or adolescent experience that shapes someone into a future cartoonist?I’m pretty sure it has something to do with eating Tater Tots.

Do most New Yorker cartoonists also try to sell elsewhere as well–Playboy, Reader’s Digest? Who else buys single-panel cartoons? And what are the advantages and disadvantages of each? What would a Playboy Rejection Collection look like? There is Playboy, which is, I understand, the next place to go with your stuff if it happens to be Playboy-type stuff…but they don’t pay as much as The New Yorker and I think they buy all rights while The New Yorker only buys first printing rights, and the copyright goes back to the cartoonist after 90 days. That is, if I understand the legalese of my contract properly. Also, cartoons in The New Yorker have a prominent standing, and respect whereas Playboy cartoons are not what you first think of when you think of the magazine. I’m told they have pictures of naked ladies in there.

As far as other mags, I’m not really sure, there may be people who send their rejects other places and some have probably found comfortable places in second-tier markets. Personally, I’m not organized enough for all that and also I never really wanted to be a cartoonist in the general sense, I just wanted to be a New Yorker cartoonist. Before I die though, it might be nice to get a cartoon or two in Cat Fancy.

Are there regular New Yorker cartoonists who don’t want to be associated with the Re
jection Collection? Is it also a chance to showcase some cartoonists whose work rarely gets bought? If you’re asking if any of the cartoonists have rejected the Rejection Collection, yes, they have. Some didn’t want to show their racier stuff in fear that it might jeopardize their children’s book work, some just didn’t want to wallow in what could be seen as past failures. I’m guessing here, but for some artists, admitting that an idea was ever actually rejected could shatter some sort of necessary confidence or denial that keeps them at it. Others just realize that their type of cartoons don’t really fit in this kind of collection. These books are about out-and-out funny gag cartoons of a slightly inappropriate nature. Some New Yorker cartoonists’ work is in a richer, deeper, and more artful vein than that, though maybe not as funny. In some cases, this has left spots open for some of the younger cartoonists whose careers at The New Yorker are just beginning.

As far as showcasing the not-often- or even the never-accepted cartoonists, we’ve thought about that, but so far haven’t gotten there. The real point of the books has been to showcase the rejections of the contributors whose work is recognized as being regularly accepted, now that we’ve gotten most of those names represented, there might be room for something like that. In the end, the most important criterion for me is whether or not the work is funny.

Does Bob Mankoff reject some cartoons not because their subject matter is offensive but because the drawing style isn’t “New Yorker-y” enough? I think so. I’ve heard Bob say that he wants cartoons in The New Yorker that look like they couldn’t go anywhere else. Which I’ve always understood more easily in the inverse: your cartoons won’t appear in The New Yorker if they look like they belong in any other niche of cartooning–like a newspaper strip style or an editorial style or a graphic-novel style or an animation style. It’s hard to define what a New Yorker-y style is apart from it being different from other styles. There’s also a wide range of styles in the category of “New Yorker-y.” It spans the chasm from Roz [Chast] to Gahan [Wilson], or [James] Thurber to [Lee] Lorenz, so you can’t just copy the style of one of the other New Yorker cartoonists. I think uniqueness is what it’s all about.

But I wouldn’t think that Bob would accept an idea just because it visually fits either. That’s only one of the parts that make a cartoon eligible for consideration. The gag or the idea is much more important. Bob is fond of saying, “It’s the think, not the ink.” Again it would be hard to define the humor style of the New Yorker cartoon, except to say you sort of know it when you see it–and also when you don’t see it.

What you publish in the books are roughs rather than finishes, right? Or does it vary? Do most cartoonists submit roughs as their batch?They’re finishes. Some cartoonists’ finished drawings and roughs are pretty close to each other, but most people sent me roughs and then redrew finished versions of the ones I eventually selected for the book.

Tell me about the cover design of the books—did you deliberately stay away from the classic Rea Irvin typeface, from a specific New Yorker association? How do you walk the fine line, typographically, between making sure people understand this is New Yorker-related and yet not New Yorker-endorsed? Yeah, that’s an important thing. It is a balance. We wanted to make sure people realize that the book would have the same cartoonists and quality cartoons that readers have come to expect in the pages of the magazine, but also communicate that this is a rowdier collection coming straight from the cartoonists—that the inmates have taken over the asylum, so to speak. I personally pushed more toward the latter, which I’m sure would have resulted in fewer sales.

Are people buying the rejected cartoons on the Cartoon Bank? Are any particular cartoons emerging as clear favorites in the vein of your Bart Che t-shirt? They are buying reprints from the first book. As of right this moment, we haven’t got the cartoons from the second book up there yet, but we will soon. And I’m not sure if there is a standout yet.

Does the magazine indeed get letters about cartoons? Do they get forwarded to the cartoonist? Do you ever reply? Yes, they get letters. They have a lot of retired readers with time on their hands. I personally have seen some of the ones that refer to my work, but I don’t think that’s the normal protocol. I haven’t had the guts to respond yet, mainly out of fear that they would respond to my response and it would all end in gunplay or fisticuffs. A lot of people don’t like any jokes about things that are important to them. Like someone who spends their life rescuing neglected animals might not laugh at a cartoon that shows anything bad—no matter how exaggerated or silly—happening to an animal, but they’ll laugh till they cry at a joke about religion because they themselves are not religious. And then across the street from them, there’s a devout Catholic who got bitten once by a hamster…

If you couldn’t risk doing a joke about anything that someone is sensitive about, than you’d be working with handcuffs on. It’s hard enough to come up with something funny when your options are wide open. We certainly aren’t setting out to hurt or offend anyone. It just inevitably tends to happen.

What did you learn about your cartoonist colleagues from the questionnaires you’ve given them that you didn’t know before? Were there any surprises? I knew coffee was a big part of my process, but the questionnaires have revealed that that particular vice is almost a prerequisite.

There must be thousands of past rejected cartoons, from some of the most beloved New Yorker cartoonists in the magazine’s history. Are you considering publishing some of the gems of all those batches past?

Yeah, if I could find them. Trouble is though, sometimes the really old ones don’t quite work today, at least not in the crude, rude way that fits this particular series. Kids today, right?

What do you think of the various parodies of New Yorker cartoons that have come out over the years (and more recently in, say, Gawker)? What’s the difference, ultimately, between the Rejection Collection cartoons and New Yorker parodies?I’m all for ‘em. And The Rejection Collection has the privileged opportunity to be both “outsider” and “insider” at the same time.

Are cartoons less risqué than they were 50 years ago? There seem to be a number of cartoons featuring sex and/or nudity in books one and two; the same is true in the very first New Yorker cartoon collection, covering the magazine’s first 25 years. Have magazine readers gotten more prudish? Would some of these cartoons passed muster back in the day? (After all, there’s profanity in the magazine all the time!) Boy, I don’t know. You’d have to ask someone old that question. Either that or I’d have to take a trip to the library. I will say that the rejected ones we’re putting in this series, though surely a little more rowdy and racy than what would normally appear in The New Yorker, hopefully still exhibit the same subtlety and intelligence that New Yorker cartoons are know for. That may not be true in every case, now that I think about it… what I’m saying is there are a lot of collections of profane, crass, and tasteless cartoons out there, but I like to think that this stuff is maybe smart in addition to being dirty. I like to think that, anyway.

As far as what The New Yorker used to run in the golden years: I know a lot of types of cartoons that have died away. There are a lot less bimbo secretary/gold-digger-type cartoons, and that’s the context that a lot of those earlier sexy gags existed in. There are also fewer gags involving topless cannibals cooking white explorers in a big pot. I think we’d all agree those changes are for the best.

As far as nudity goes, I wonder if there is actually less. It might be that the early nudity is just more often reprinted in collections of the period or in historic collections now. I wonder if you looked at the mag week-to-week back then, if it would differ that much from now. Maybe it’s just that drawings of naked people aren’t as risqué as they used to be, and therefore there’s less to gain by doing it. Or it might have more to do with the changing comic voice. Seems to me the older jokes were more subtle about sex or other hot topics, whereas you have to be a little more blunt about the joke for it to work with current readers. We’re probably pretty anesthetized. There’s an artful elegance to some of the earlier subtle jokes involving nudity and sexual matters that has become lost as things have become free to be more explicit.

On the profanity issue: I’m not usually very big on profanity. I hardly ever use it in my own conversation, but I’m boring in that way. I also don’t usually like its use in captions, especially if it’s just for the sake of being outrageous. It’s a little too easy. In standup it can become a crutch almost, and people overuse it because it still somehow works in a live context. It frames the performer as outspoken, or confident, or aggressive, and, in some ways—as much as we’ve gotten used to it—it still makes the audience slightly intimidated or nervous which helps induce a laugh reaction, not to mention the rhythmic potential it provides. In written jokes, like a caption, I find it actually hurts a joke more often than it helps it. There’s something about seeing the actual letters as you read them that can lend the words too much attention.

That being said, there are some cases in which the profanity is pretty much essential to a gag. Comedy writers of any kind work with words in a much more precise way than people probably realize. The closest type of writing to joke or caption writing is poetry. The sounds and rhythms and patterns of words are crucial. There is a cartoon in the first volume of The Rejection Collection by Sam Gross that makes good use of the F-word. I think it’s absolutely essential. There was some second-guessing of the word’s usage, but Sam and I both felt that we’d rather drop the cartoon entirely from the collection than change the word. It just didn’t work if you switched it to “screwed.” Some of you know which cartoon I’m talking about, the rest will have to go buy the book.

Has your own cartooning style or idea generating changed at all since starting the Rejection Collection series? Do you now consciously or unconsciously shy away from the themes you’ve identified in your own weekly batches, or is there a hint of mystery to why a given cartoon gets a “no,” regardless of how scientifically you’ve analyzed the process?I don’t think it has changed the type of ideas I end up doing. The New Yorker is great because it gives us complete freedom to do whatever we think is funny. Hopefully they will occasionally agree with us, but I don’t think any of us would be doing this if we had to limit our imagination to doing only what they want. (That’s assuming falsely that we can know what they want.) For me, and I think most of the others, we are just so relieved when we come up with any kind of personally pleasing funny idea that we can’t afford to be too picky; they’re so hard to come by. I mean, if I have an idea that cracks me up, I’m going to draw it up even if I doubt The New Yorker will go for it. I don’t know what else to do. I don’t expect other people to like everything I do–I don’t like everything I do, but I think following my gut is the healthiest way to treat this career/pursuit/art/craft.

The books have changed the actual way that I work, though. I’ve had less time to do my own stuff lately. As a cartoonist, I’m not used to being busy. There are so many phone calls and emails involved with coordinating these books, not just with the 30-plus cartoonists involved, but with all the various departments at the publisher and the promotional stuff. I catch myself sometimes thinking, “Ah, so this is what it feels like to have a real job.” I’m realizing more and more how much the creative life needs down time and hours to while away. I miss that.

Cartoonists have to avoid the temptation to analyze Mankoff and [David] Remnick’s decisions too much. There are way too many things involved in the decision that the cartoonist isn’t privy to. I have had my share of theories over the years, but they all crumble at some point, and you’re left in a Beckett-like landscape where life has no reason and we’re all just plodding along under some absurd burden of our own making…

Seriously, though, what I like about cartooning, at least the way it’s done at The New Yorker, is the independence I have. There are very few creative endeavors that you can actually make a living from where you have complete freedom and control of every aspect. I mean, I’m the writer, the director, the props person, the costume designer, the stunt coordinator, location scout, and even the caterer. I’m very fortunate to be able to do whatever I want and then have a top-notch market like The New Yorker occasionally like it enough that they pay me money for the right to show it to others. Why would I want to ruin that by worrying about it?