New Yorker Caption Contest Documentary in the Works

Filming has begun on Made Funny, a documentary web series about The New Yorker’s caption contest.  Davis Chambers, who is producing and directing, tells Ink Spill that he’s  been “working hard at finding caption contest winners and academics to contribute to the project.” New Yorker cartoonists Bob Eckstein, David Sipress and Joe Dator  have sat in front of the cameras thus far.

Anatomy of a Cartoon: Robert Leighton on His Escher Cartoon in This Week’s New Yorker


The last time Ink Spill singled out a particular New Yorker cartoon it was Bob Eckstein’s  terrific 3-D Thanksgiving drawing in the issue of November 26,  2012.  There are always a good number of drawings in each issue of the magazine that should be applauded, but every so often one of them deserves a standing ovation.  Robert Leighton’s drawing (above) in the February 4, 2013 issue is one of those.   I’m sure we’ll be seeing it in New Yorker anthologies for years to come.


Robert, whose first New Yorker cartoon appeared in the issue of December 9, 2002,  is a puzzle writer as well as a cartoonist.  He, along with two partners founded the puzzle-writing company, Puzzability, which authored The New Yorker Book of Cartoon Puzzles and Games (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2006) with introductions by Will Shortz, and Bob Mankoff.


I asked Robert if he’d mind telling us about the Escher drawing, as well as giving us an idea of how he came to be a New Yorker cartoonist.  He was kind enough to provide an early rough drawing of the piece as well as the sketch he sent in to the magazine as part of his weekly batch.


So here’s Robert, first on his journey to becoming a New Yorker cartoonist, and then, following the rough sketch (Fig. 1) and submitted drawing (Fig. 2), he talks about how the Escher drawing came to be:


I owe my New Yorker career to Ping-Pong.

I had submitted cartoons in the early 80s, but only got rejection slips—never even an encouraging note. I had no idea what I was doing, and was submitting cartoons about businessmen and cocktails parties that I myself understood only about as well as I understood most of what I saw in The New Yorker.


I might never have even submitted again. But one day 20 years later my phone rang and Bob Mankoff was on the other end. Fortunately he explained who he was—I didn’t know the guy with the dots was the cartoon editor.


Every week, Bob explained, he plays Ping-Pong (I believe it’s technically table tennis) with Will Shortz, the New York Times crossword editor. Will and I go way back to when I was an assistant editor (and resident cartoonist) at Games magazine in the 80s. Now, Bob was thinking it might be nice for the New Yorker’s 2002 Cartoon Issue to have some sort of interactive cartoon-centric puzzle. He mentioned the idea to Will, who said, “You should speak to Robert Leighton—he’s a cartoonist and a puzzle writer.”


So Bob brought me in to talk about puzzles, not cartoons. I showed him a number of relevant puzzles that I had done for Games, including one in which eight captionless gags had their visual “punchlines” removed and placed elsewhere on the page. Bob said “These are good cartoons. Who did them?” I told them I had, and he encouraged me to start submitting regularly. I don’t think I’ve skipped a week since then.


P.S. Some years later my partners and I did an entire book, “The New Yorker Book of Cartoon Puzzles and Games,” in which the drawings, captions, and history of New Yorker cartoons are all turned into puzzles. The introduction is a very interesting conversation between Bob and Will, discussing the juncture of puzzles and cartoons. (The “Aha!” moment and the “Ha!” moment, essentially.)


 (Below: Fig. 1. the rough sketch)



( Below: Fig. 2.  the submitted drawing)


The Escher cartoon just popped into my head all at once–caption and picture. If there was any “inspiration” for it, then it might be because my main job (if you can call it that) is puzzle-writer. So my visual side is as predisposed to optical illusions as my verbal side is to wordplay.


Looking at my first rough sketch of the idea again, the main difference I notice is that if I had submitted it like this, it probably would have been too subtle.  People might not have noticed what was going on. Before I tightened it up to submit it, I lengthened the “trick” beam so that it crossed in front of one of the verticals. Now it’s instantly clear that there’s something wrong. (I like the shouting guy in the rough version a lot better, though—he’s got more energy than the finished version. Although maybe he’s a little too cartoony. I never know with these things.)


I was confident enough of this idea to put it at the top of the batch I submitted that week. They skipped it the first time they saw it but I resubmitted it three months later and that’s when it sold.


I remember debating with myself whether or not to use a ruler when it came time to ink the final version. I prefer my drawings to have a more casual feel, so I often use a ruler when I’m working out the perspective but then I ink over those lines freehand so they have more life. (I’m awful with perspective and struggle to make my drawings feel at all solid.) There are so many long, straight lines in this drawing that I decided if I did the whole thing freehand it would look sloppy by the time I was done. And this had to look solid to give the sense that, yes, he really built it that way.

New Yorker Cartoonists Turn Out for Holiday Party


 New Yorker cartoonists turned out in time honored fashion to celebrate the holidays last night.  Corey Pandolph gets a heap of credit for procuring a corner of the Upper East Side Hi Life Restaurant where nearly two dozen contributors came together in good cheer.  Among those attending, including Mr. Pandolph: Joe Dator, David Borchardt, Liam Walsh (who brought and shared a tray of cookies), Andy Friedman, Liza Donnelly, Robert Leighton, Bob Esmay, Emily Flake, Drew Dernavich, Farley Katz, John O’Brien, Avi Steinberg (celebrating his first appearance in the magazine), Barbara Smaller, Felipe Galindo, David Sipress, Bob Eckstein, Eric Lewis, Ward Sutton, Christopher Weyant, Ben Schwartz, and Karen Sneider.

Liza Donnelly has posted on her blog  a handful of photographs taken at the event.

Bob Eckstein Talks to Ink Spill About His 3-D Thanksgiving Cartoon in this week’s New Yorker




There are two firsts involved in this interview.  This the first Ink Spill interview of a New Yorker cartoonist and it was prompted by what I believe to be the first 3-D cartoon in the magazine’s history.  The cartoon, appearing in this week’s issue, dated November 26, 2012, is by Bob Eckstein.  Bob has graciously consented to my prodding him with a few questions about himself, and the cartoon.


 Bob, would you give us a mini-history of how and when you came to be a New Yorker cartoonist?


 In 2007, for my birthday, Sam Gross invited me to the cartoon Tuesday lunch.  I had befriended him, and the Cartoonbank staff, as I bought a bunch of cartoons for the Intermission section of my book The History of the Snowman.  I was a fan of Sam’s (I wrote for National Lampoon while he was there), Charles Addams, and Danny Shanahan,  who all appear twice in my book, but I didn’t know about the lunch nor was I a cartoonist, per se.  I did occasionally come up with cartoons for the Village Voice, SPY and other magazines but only where I wrote humor columns and only because I would never allow outsiders to illustrate my work.  It was a condition I started at Newsday back in 1980s when I realized I needed both incomes to make enough to live on.  But I had no interest to cartoon until that lunch and at this point I did not read the NYer except when I needed a filling at the dentist.  I did enter the caption contest once, which at the time was once a year (It was a Danny Shanahan with Quasimodo as a doctor.  My, “The name rings a bell.” got runner-up.).  Only after I ran out of money to spend on the book, which probably exceeded $25,000+ in reprint and quote permission fees, did I fill two empty spaces with two of my own snowman cartoons for my “Intermission” on the nudging of my editor.


So, anyhoo, I enjoyed the lunch, and in retrospect being there the week that Gahan Wilson happened to show up was significant. I grew up laughing to his cartoon collections and meeting him was a big deal.  At the end of the fancy exciting lunch I asked Sam about coming back and how to get in on this “thing.”  He just said, “Come back next week with 10 sketches.” 


Well, I didn’t return. First, I found it too difficult to come up with that many ideas in one week.  I didn’t know what I was doing and I decided to call Danny Shanahan, who was and still is a favorite of mine and I spoken to a couple of times before but strictly for business.  I (incorrectly) felt after sending some money his way it made it somehow okay.  I told him I was contemplating gag cartooning and now looking back, I just wanted him to say, “Oh, how wonderful, you’re going to do great, welcome aboard, etc.”  Instead he basically said forgot it, it’s a very difficult profession.  That was the extent of my pep talk. 


Despite that warning I went in on the second week since the lunch, going into Bob Mankoff’s (the magazine’s Cartoon Editor) office after Sam, who I assume put in a good word for me to Bob.  Bob explained it wasn’t necessary to write in big letters “SKETCH” on each drawing.  Nor did the captions need to be typeset.  Each sketch had a cover sheet like they were finals ready to go to print!  Most of them were moronic and too current-eventsy to be useful, like one with a cat on American Idol. 


That Thursday Bob left a message on my machine to tell me which one they bought.  I told my wife the New Yorker only bought one, sorry.  When I returned the next week with the final, I apologized for the others in the first batch being so bad–I assumed that everyone every Tuesday sold a few and I was a big loser.  I simply had no idea how difficult it was to get in or how many people submitted, I just didn’t know.  I assumed they bought most cartoons, paying like $50 or so a cartoon.  But I figured things will pick up and the following week I’d sell two or three, like everyone else.  It took a couple of weeks to quickly figure things out…and that my first sale was a fluke, beginner’s luck.  It would be almost a year of coming in every week with a batch before I sold my second cartoon.  During that time I devoured every book on cartooning and went back and looked at all the NYer issues.  My style had totally changed from that first effort which now looks inept.  I was also rethinking Shanahan’s warning, kicking myself for not taking it to heart and wondering if I was throwing away my illustration and writing career (I was. I did.).


Your drawing, titled The First 3-D Thanksgiving, is, I believe, the first 3-D cartoon in the magazine’s history (if anyone out there finds another, please bring it to my attention).  Is it actually 3-D?  If I was wearing 3-D glasses right now, and looking at your drawing, would it be appear three-dimensional?


It works, but not as well as it could, but that is by design.  When I showed it to Bob Mankoff, he asked if it worked but then quickly said, “that’s not the point” as we agreed that it was more important for the joke that it was inferred it was 3-D (after Bob shot down my suggestion of placing 3-D glasses in each issue).  It is 3-D but we reeled it back.  Knowing the reader wouldn’t have glasses, I went for the most readable degree of 3-Ding the cartoon so it still looked like a cartoon and not this heavy ominous image on the page which would have distracted from the joke.


How did the drawing come about? Do you have a special interest in 3-D drawings, movies, etc.?


I do not appear regularly as a cartoonist in the magazine (something I HAVE brought up with Bob), so I try to catch Bob’s attention with ideas that get away from the usual format and Bob has been supportive and receptive to me and my experimenting; I’ve done a lot of  cartoons with spot color, cartoons that have no punch-line. I’ve shown him captions that use the F-bomb, cartoons about The New Yorker, captions in Spanish, scratch ‘n’ sniff cartoons…and this 3-D was just one I gave a try.  Bob has called my stuff “loopy” which I think is code around the office for “nice try but doesn’t work.”  I do want to get in “regular” cartoons and not become the “Weird Al” Yankovic of the NYer cartoonist pool.


I had done 3-D illustrations for Vibe magazine and Sport magazine over twenty years ago so it was on my radar.  I don’t have 3-D glasses in my home, which I could have used because I just saw Hugo on Netflix.  I do recommend wearing 3-D glasses to get through a family Thanksgiving dinner — you eat less with them on (“I can’t eat all that!”).


We should probably give a shout-out to Norman Rockwell, whose famous 1942 Saturday Evening Post “Freedom From Want”  piece is obviously referenced in your drawing.  Did you have Rockwell’s work in front of you when you were working on your finished piece?


I had it in front of me, and underneath me, as I did trace most of the guy in the back and then glanced over to draw the rest of the set-up.  My initial sketch had the whole family shocked at the dancing turkey but it looked too forced and too different from the Rockwell iconic piece.  I realized Rockwell had it right the first time except he forgot the glasses.







And here’s a little something extra as concerns a New Yorker cartoonist and  dimensional cartoons:


After seeing Bob’s 3-D drawing, I was reminded of a terrific Otto Soglow book from 1932, Everything’s Rosy.  Somewhat “naughty”  – the inside flap text suggests the book is “probably not suitable for Sunday School use…” —  it came with a “red filter” attached to the front inside cover and the following Notice and Instructions:



The envelope in the front of the book contains one red filter to bring out the double exposure of each picture in Everything’s Rosy….


Instructions For Use of Filter

Hold book in good light.

Look at each picture first with the naked eye. Then lay filter flat on page over picture and look again.