Simon: You started submitting to The New Yorker in 2005. Were you submitting to other magazines before then?
Joe: No, I wasn’t. I started at the top and I’ve been slowly working my way down ever since. If my career goes really well, I’ll soon be doing cartoons for the local Penny Saver. [Laughter]
Simon: What were you doing before you were a New Yorker cartoonist?
Joe: Nothing worthwhile, to be honest. I had a pretty weird journey to end up where I ended up. I was doing cartoons and illustrations here and there. I did some writing for a comedy series in England. I was trying a lot of things, and a lot of things weren’t working out. That was due to a combination of circumstances and my own immaturity and various neuroses that I think were holding me back.
I knew Bob Mankoff [former New Yorker Cartoon Editor], having worked for him in the early years of the Cartoon Bank. He got the ball rolling on my career by emailing me and saying, “Hey, Joe, how have you been? It’s been a while,” basically inviting me to come in and start showing him cartoons. That lit the fire under me to pursue cartooning with a certain amount of commitment. It just struck a chord in me—I realized that was the thing I absolutely wanted to do.
Max: So you went to his office to meet him?
Joe: Yes, and I literally had nothing under my arm. I came empty-handed. I went in as naked as could be. My clothes were the only thing standing between me and complete vulnerability. I think I talked about my ideas for the kinds of cartoons I was planning to do. I feel privileged having been able to get away with that. I don’t think anyone’s ever done that.
Max: That’s a first.
Joe: Bob was happy to meet with me, but I was completely terrified. The first few weeks I went in there, I stood outside his office staring at my feet the whole time. I could not make eye contact with anyone else. I didn’t talk to anyone for a very long time. I give credit to [New Yorker staff cartoonist] Carolita Johnson for being first among the cartoonists to be friendly to me. She got me to open up and talk to the other cartoonists. Once I got over that, I started going in regularly.
Simon: Tell us a little about the time when you were working with Bob on the Cartoon Bank.
Joe: It was about 25 years ago, and I was one of his first employees. My role was helping catalog the cartoons. It was a very primitive operation. Bob had rented office space in Yonkers that was half studio and half office for the Cartoon Bank. He would work there on his business, but then Monday nights he would stay there all night, working on his batch of cartoons for the next day.
I’d get there on a Tuesday morning, at like, 9:00 AM, and he would be leaving to go into The New Yorker with his batch. I remember going in one day, and he had a cartoon that he had done that night. He said, “I know this is good. I know this is going to go in, and it’s going to be a classic.” It was the “How about never?” cartoon.
Simon: Ah, of course.
Joe: He knew the morning he submitted it that it would be a classic, and he was right. He may be the only cartoonist in history to have nailed it that hard.
Joe: Bob’s remarkable because he’s an artist and a creative guy. He’s also a brilliant business guy who’s great at organizing stuff. He was fascinated with databases.
“I’ve come to accept that there’s going to be a certain amount of pain in this job.”
Max: But back to you, Joe. All three of us share a favorite antecedent in terms of influence, and that is Mad magazine. Tell me about what that magazine meant to you.
Joe: Mad was big in my life. Any kid who had a sense of humor of my generation was heavy into Mad. I’ll repeat what Jerry Seinfeld said about Mad, I couldn’t put it better. He said: “When you were a little kid, and you read Mad, that’s when you realized, ‘Oh, I don’t have to put up with any of this. I don’t have to respect any of this. This is all stupid.’ Mad magazine drills that hole in your brain, where you can see through the fog.
Max: It was a subversive magazine back then.
Mad magazine drills that hole in your brain, where you can see through the fog.
Joe: Yeah, and I loved the art, of course. My favorite was Don Martin. His cartoons were funny, but they were also disturbing and grotesque. Sometimes they would be shockingly violent—gory, like piles of guts lying on the ground and limbs being sliced off.
My other big love as a kid was Monty Python. So a little bit of blood and humor was good for me. One of my heroes is Terry Gilliam, but I would be embarrassed to show him my work because I don’t think he’d be able to see how he had influenced me. In a number of my recent cartoons, I’ve deliberately made images and concepts that were a little disturbing and maybe a bit grotesque. There’s one I did revealing the origin of bubble wrap – it’s the skin of an animal.
Simon: Yes, we know that one.
Joe: The way that this relates to Mad magazine is that Terry Gilliam and I are both Mad magazine kids, and Mad always had an element of grotesquery to it.
Simon: You finally got into Mad—not too long ago, right?
Joe: Yes, only within the last year or so. It’s a great honor. I get to call myself an idiot.
Simon: One of the gang.
Joe: Yeah, one of the usual gang of idiots.
Max: That’s high praise.
Joe: It’s great company to be in. It’s elite company. I don’t deserve it.
Simon: And you’re kind of closing the circle from your childhood, right?
Joe: Yes, I was very excited when I saw my first cartoon published in Mad magazine. I think I may have been more excited than when I saw my first cartoon published in The New Yorker. I told that to a friend of mine, and he said, “That’s because you didn’t read The New Yorker when you were eight years old.”
Simon: You read Mad in your formative years, and those memories are the strongest.
Max: Well, obviously it prepared you for being a New Yorker daily cartoonist.
Joe: I was the daily cartoonist for eight weeks.
Simon: How did that routine work for you? That’s a heavy schedule.
Joe: It was very good because it meant that I would get some work done at least once every day. Sometimes one thing a day is a goal that I fail in. I was sort of forced to do topical cartoons, which I never do. Some were successful, some were just plain terrible, and some made sense only to me. If you ever meet an artist that’s consistent, maybe that’s not the greatest thing for an artist to be.
Max: Did you find ways to be more efficient as the daily cartoonist?
Joe: No, I haven’t found any way to be more efficient. I’m even less efficient than I ever was. [Laughter] There were a few times where I had a great idea the night before, and it was really easy. I kept thinking, Why can’t it be like that every day? But it just can’t. After all these years, I’ve come to accept that there’s going to be a certain amount of pain in this job, and that’s my lot in life, that’s my burden.
Max: It reminds us of your famous cartoon feature about a week in the life of a cartoonist, “How We Do It”.
Joe: That’s 100 percent accurate.
“I have no confidence whatsoever. … I have a fear of being left out of things. That’s my motivation, usually.”
Max: What gave you the confidence to approach The New Yorker with a full pager?
Joe: Oh, I have no confidence whatsoever. They solicited full pages from all of us, as they would do on a yearly basis when preparing the now deceased annual cartoon issue. It was absolutely no initiative on my part. It was a question of I don’t want to be left out. I have a fear of being left out of things. That’s my motivation, usually.
Simon: Have you been tempted to do more topical or political cartoons these days?
Joe: No, I find myself wanting less and less to think about current events. I like working, and I enjoy my work. The idea that my work involves sitting down and then turning on the news makes me not want to work at all. I have found it very soothing to just turn it the hell off.
It certainly is going to come to no surprise to anyone that I am someone who is very much against Trump. I’m sickened by it all. I wonder how effective it is to make jokes about it. When he was inaugurated, I started out on the attack. Then I just ran out of things to say about it. Then I realized maybe I just want to do cartoons that give people a break from it, and that’s what I’ve done.
More and more I’m of the mind that making fun of his typos and his tweets and his goofy hair, that it doesn’t actually hurt him—it actually kind of makes him a little more acceptable every day. That worries me. But I also don’t want to participate in this circus of memes and jokes about “Oh, he has tiny hands.” He doesn’t have tiny hands; he has normal sized human hands, and they are choking the country to death.
Simon: Moving on to more pleasant subjects. I wanted to ask you about a fictional man: the balding guy with the mustache and glasses who is one of your go-to characters.
Joe: You mean, Walter? Let me introduce you to Walter. [Brings out cardboard cutout to much laughter.]
Simon: Tell us about Walter’s origin story.
Joe: Walter was inspired by a guy I use to work with when I had a regular job. This was a guy who I thought was the most boring man I had ever met. I started drawing pictures in my sketchbook of him. I thought maybe I’ll use him as a character at some point.
He struck me as the kind of typical, middle-aged, maybe suburban guy, who works in an office, and has basically given up. He’s reached a point in life where his life is so suffocating and restrictive that the only thing he can do to give it any interest whatsoever is grow a mustache. If anything, he represents the guy I didn’t want to be, when I was working in that office. This would have been around 2004, right before I started getting into The New Yorker. Then I started to like Walter a lot. It’s always funny to put him into situations. I wanted to do a cartoon a couple of years ago about this very New-Yorky phenomenon, which is the “it’s showtime” guys.
Joe: In New York in the subway, there are these groups of young men, usually African American, and they will come onto your subway train. Someone will put a radio down, and then one of the guys will announce, “Hey, everyone, it’s showtime.” Then they will do this show of a combination of dancing and acrobatics in the subway car. Generally, people love it, if it’s the first time they’re seeing it on the subway. By the second or third time, you just roll your eyes and think, “Okay, guys, please, I don’t need to hear this now.”
I wanted to do a cartoon about that phenomenon. I started drawing it, then I very quickly realized there’s nothing funny about me making fun of a bunch of African American teenagers. That’s a classic example of punching down, and making fun of someone who doesn’t deserve it. It occurred to me if I take out those guys and I replace it with a bunch of middle-aged, white businessmen doing this, then it becomes funny.
It was kind of a revelation to me, switching out the people I would not want to satirize— because they’re not targets—whereas, a doughy, middle-aged, white guy in a suit is always going to be a good target.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Joe Dator Interview