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At 90, 'Fiddler' Lyricist Tells His Story

"Any successful lyricist has to be part playwright and has to be able to put himself into the minds and the hearts and the souls of the characters," Sheldon Harnick tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

Originally broadcast April 30.


Other segments from the episode on December 29, 2014

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 29, 2014: Interview with Sheldon Harnick; Interview with Bob Mankoff.


December 29, 2014

Guests: Sheldon Harnick - Bob Mankoff

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we continue our holiday week series featuring a few of our favorite interviews of the year.


SHELDON HARNICK: (Singing) is this the little girl I carried? Is this the little boy I played? I don't remember growing older. When did they? When did she get to be a beauty? When did he grow to be so tall? Wasn't it yesterday when they were small? Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset swiftly flow the days. Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers, blossoming even as we we gaze. Sunrise, sunset.

GROSS: That's a demo recording of one of the best known songs from "Fiddler On The Roof," written by composer Jerry Bock and our guest, lyricist Sheldon Harnick. It's sung by Harnick with Bock accompanying on piano. In addition to co-writing the songs for "Fiddler," Harnick wrote the lyrics for the musicals "She Loves Me," "Fiorello!" and "Tenderloin." This year marked the 50th anniversary of "Fiddler's" Broadway premiere. A revival is in the works for next year. I love hearing composers sing their own songs so I was delighted when an album was released last spring of demos and performances featuring Harnick singing his songs. The album is called "Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasurers, 1949-2013." I was unfamiliar with most of the songs on the album, and that's the point. Some of these songs never made it into the shows they were intended for. Others are songs he wrote for reviews early in his career. The interview we're going to hear was first broadcast on April, 30 of this year, which was his 90th birthday. You'd never know it from how he sounds in this interview.


GROSS: Sheldon Harnick, welcome back to FRESH AIR. And happy birthday. It's so wonderful.

HARNICK: Oh thank you, thank you very much.

GROSS: One of the pleasures of this new double CD is that there are songs that you wrote for "Fiddler on the Roof" that were taken out of the musical that were never used.

HARNICK: Many of them.

GROSS: Yeah. And it's you performing them. And "Fiddler on the Roof" is set in 1905 in a Jewish village in Czarist Russia, where the Jews are under attack and eventually forced out. So let's hear one of those songs. And this was supposed to be the opening number for "Fiddler on the Roof." It's called "We've Never Missed A Sabbath Yet." Tell us about what your intention was in writing this song and why you decided to not use it.

HARNICK: The intention was to start the show with an exciting musical number. And the excitement came from the fact that the sun was going down, the Sabbath was almost here and the mother and the five daughters still had so much work to do, so the mother's urging the girls on to help clean up, get ready for the Sabbath and it just, it made for an exciting musical number.

It wasn't used because when Jerome Robbins became our director, we had many, many meetings before we went on to rehearsal and at each meeting he started with the same question, what is this show about? And he would say there's something that gives this show its power and we don't know what it is. And finally at one of those meetings one of us said hey, you know what this show is about? It's about this changing of the way of life, of a people, in these Eastern European communities, these little towns, these shtetls, and Robbins got very excited by that. He said if that's the case, then what you have to write is a number about traditions, because we're going to see those traditions change. And that's so important in the show. Every scene or every other scene will be about whether a tradition changes or whether a tradition remains the same. So instead of a song with the mother and the daughters getting ready for the Sabbath, he wanted us to write a song about tradition because he thought that's what the show was really about.

GROSS: And this song actually includes musical lines that were used in other songs for "Fiddler." Do you want to give us an example?

HARNICK: When the song was cut, some of the melodic lines wound up as underscoring for other scenes. And one theme in the song "We've Never Missed A Sabbath Yet," the theme is (Singing) de, dum, pum, pa, pa, pa, da, pum, pum, pum. While we were in rehearsal, we cut a song that was written for the three older daughters because we had the three older daughters, one was an actress, one was a dancer and one was a singer. They could all sing well enough to sing a simple song, but we wrote a difficult song and the actress and the dancer had trouble with it so the song was cut, and we had to write a new song. So we wrote a song, "Matchmaker," which was much simpler. And what Jerry Bock did was he took the theme from "We've Never Missed A Sabbath Yet." (Singing) dum, pum, pa, pa, pa, da, pum, pum, pum. And he made it into (Singing) de, de, de, de, de, de, de, de, de, de. He was very economical. He never wasted anything. He changed that theme into the theme for "Matchmaker."

GROSS: And also, you took a line that was originally written for the Sabbath song and used it in "Tradition." But instead of the lyric for "Tradition," it's like, (Singing) there's noodles to be made and chickens to be plucked. What's the lyric?

HARNICK: Oh, my God, you pick that out. That's right. Yes.

GROSS: So what's the line that you actually used in "Tradition" instead of there's noodles to be made and chickens to be plucked?

HARNICK: As far as I remember, there was no actual lyric written to that. But what Jerry did, he took the melody for that. At the very beginning of "Fiddler on the Roof," there's a violin solo, an unaccompanied violin solo. And he took that melodic line from "We've Never Missed A Sabbath Yet" and gave it to the violinist. So he starts by playing, (Singing) bum pa, dum, pum, pum, pum pa, dum, pum, pum. I don't believe that I ever put a lyric to that. There was a lyric put to it. Our publisher, Tommy Valando, said why don't you take that, write a lyric to it so we can publish a song called "Fiddler on the Roof?" So I did. I wrote a special lyric...


HARNICK: And I know that I remember the first words was (Singing) a way above my head. And it went on from there, I don't remember the lyric. But I wrote a lyric that was meant to be a commercial lyric so we could have a song called "Fiddler on the Roof."

GROSS: Oh, so you'd have a title song.

HARNICK: So we'd have a title song. Yeah. Even...

GROSS: And the song was actually never in the show.

HARNICK: Not in the show, but it was in the sheet music.

GROSS: That's so interesting.


GROSS: Like another era. Well, OK. So now we have to hear "We've Never Missed A Sabbath Yet," the song we've been talking about that was cut from the show that was meant to open the show, "Fiddler on the Roof." And we'll hear Sheldon Harnick singing with Jerry Bock at the piano.


HARNICK: (Singing) Mama, Mama, we finished what you told us. Mama, Mama, could we go out and play? No. I rubbed and I scrubbed and the table's nice and clean. And I scrubbed all the chairs up and down and in between. Mama, Mama, can we go out? Mama can we go out? Mama can we go and play? There's still too much to do today.

Did you change the towels? Uh-huh. Then put on the Sabbath tablecloth, set the table and don't go away.

(Singing) Mama, Mama, you mustn't be so nervous. Mama, Mama, for heaven sakes, relax. So who can relax while there's so much to be done, keeping one eye on the soup and the other on the sun. Mama, Mama don't be nervous. Mama, we'll be ready long before the sun has set. We've never missed the Sabbath yet.

(Singing) Somehow the house will be clean, floors will be swept, soup will be cooked, beef will be boiled. There's noodles to make and chickens to be plucked and liver to be chopped and Halal to be baked. Raised with the sun so at the proper time the candles can be lit and blessed. There's noodles to make, and chicken to be plucked, and liver to be chopped and Halal to be baked. Raised with the sun, stir at the proper time and the Halal will be blessed.

GROSS: So that was a song that was written for "Fiddler on the Roof" but never used, sung by the lyricist Sheldon Harnick, who was accompanied on that by the composer of the song, Jerry Bock. It's featured on the new double CD "Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures, 1949 to 2013," which features a lot of demo recordings, such as the one we heard that were used for shows that Sheldon Harnick wrote.

GROSS: Your best known musicals, "Fiorello," "She Loves Me," "Fiddler on the Roof," were written with the composer Jerry Bock. And you say when you wrote songs by yourself, the lyrics would come first and the music would come after. But when you met Jerry Bock, he wrote the music first, and then you wrote the lyrics. What effect did that have on your songwriting, to have to change your whole approach like that?

HARNICK: Actually it was very stimulating. When I met Jerry, we developed a method of working that I've never worked with anybody else. Once we knew what the source material was, we would go into our respective studios. Jerry would go into his and start developing musical numbers. When he had a number worked out to his own satisfaction, he would record it, and eventually he would send me a tape with anywhere from eight to 12 or 15 numbers on it.

Each one would start where he would say this I think is for the butcher, I think this song is for this situation, and I never thought about the problem of setting lyrics to music, as opposed to writing lyrics first. As I say, the music was to me so exciting, I just wanted to put lyrics to it so I could be able to sing it.

And then when I had a lyric, I would go over to Jerry's studio, he was living in New Rochelle when we began to work. We would go into his studio and begin to work on this song because writing the lyric, writing a lyric to the music, was not the final stage. The final stage was singing it and seeing whether, when you actually sang it with piano accompaniment, whether it was comfortable to sing or whether there were moments in the lyric that had to be polished.

And then when we finally got it to where - the point where we really thought it's finished, then we would call Jerry's wife, she would come downstairs to the studio, we would sing it, and if she liked it, then that was finished.

GROSS: My guest is lyricist Sheldon Harnick. His album is called "Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures, 1949-2013." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Sheldon Harnick recorded earlier this year after the release of the album "Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures," which features demos and recordings of him singing some of his lesser-known songs. He wrote the lyrics for the musicals "Fiddler On The Roof," "Fiorello!," "She Loves Me," and "Tenderloin."


GROSS: So I want to move on to another show that's represented in this new Sheldon Harnick CD, and this is from the musical "Tenderloin," which is - you describe what the plot's about.

HARNICK: "Tenderloin" was based on a true story. The end of the 19th century, there was a minister in New York who wanted to clean up the district where vice flourished, and it was a district known as the Tenderloin. So he went on a crusade to do that. And an author named Samuel Hopkins Adams wrote a fictional treatment of that, in which a minister tries to clean up the Tenderloin.

So in the book there are two young women who belong to the parish where the minister has his pulpit, and they were discussing his crusade, this crusade to clean up vice, and these were two very innocent young women. And they were asking each other do you know about these things?

So we wrote them a song called "I Wonder What It's Like to Be With a Man." Well, when we did our pre-Broadway tour, there were a few women critics, and they loved the song, but all of the male critics were made uncomfortable by it, which was a surprise, and the song was cut.

Years later there was a production of the show at a place called the Equity Library Theater, and we restored the song, and there were no problems with it at all.

GROSS: It's a great song, and as we listen to this, I think people - what year is this show from?

HARNICK: This is 1960.

GROSS: OK, I want people to think about in 1960, writing the song from the point of view of two virgins who are working on this church crusade, knowing that they're not supposed to be thinking about sex.


GROSS: And this was not a typical subject, I think, for Broadway in 1960. So here's a wonderful song called "I Wonder What It's Like" with a lyric by my guest Sheldon Harnick, who we'll hear singing, and we'll hear the composer Jerry Bock at the piano and also singing backup vocals.


HARNICK AND BOCK: (Singing) I wonder what it's like, what it's really like to be with a man. I wonder how it feels, how it really feels to be as close as two people can. I know I'll never know until - I know I wouldn't dare until - I know it isn't right until you're married. Of course, to be sure, to be sure, of course, how true, quite true, and still I wonder what it's like, I wonder how it feels to be with a man. Nice girls shouldn't even read about such things, think about such things, dream about such things. So where could you go to ask about, you know? The people who do know get all flustered. They become both deaf and dumb as they politely close the subject, draw the curtain. How can a curious girl make certain? There is one way of finding out what every bride discovers, but decent well-bred American girls, especially young Presbyterian girls, don't take lovers, definitely not. And yet I wonder what it's like...

GROSS: That's a recording that's featured on the new double CD "Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures, 1949-2013" that features a lot of demo recordings that Sheldon Harnick made for plays, you know, for musicals that he wrote. And we just heard him singing a song he wrote the lyric for, "I Wonder What It's Like," with the composer of the song, Jerry Bock, at the piano and chiming in on vocals. And that was cut from the musical "Tenderloin."

GROSS: You know, my favorite line is - so where can you go to ask about, you know.


HARNICK: I know.

GROSS: It's so colloquial, and it's so perfect, and it's so, like, we can't really talk about this, but we know what we're talking - like you capture all of that in those two lines.

HARNICK: Well, what I love about that is that you know is a part of a rhyme, which comes unexpectedly. Where do you go to talk about, you know. The people who do know get all flustered and so forth, you know.

GROSS: Yeah, that's really terrific.

GROSS: So let's play another rarity from this new double CD, and this is from a TV musical that I've never seen from 1966 called "The Canterville Ghost," and the song is called "I Worry." You want to talk about writing this lyric?

HARNICK: Yes, one of the characters in the show, the show is about an American advertising man who's in England, working in England, and for his family he rents a castle, not knowing that the castle is haunted by a ghost. His daughter, his young daughter, meets a young English nobleman and falls him love with him, but she has no confidence in herself, and she confesses to him on one occasion that she worries about everything.

And this song was fun to write because I tend to be a worrier, too, and I identified with her.

GROSS: OK, so here it is, a song called "I Worry," which was - has a lyric by my guest Sheldon Harnick. Who wrote the music for this?

HARNICK: This was also Jerry Bock.

GROSS: OK, here we go.


HARNICK: (Singing) I worry about religion. I worry about my fate. I worry about my parents. I worry about my weight. I worry about my posture. I worry about my tact. Whenever I meet new people, I worry. In fact there are so many things I would like to try that I'll never try, I'm afraid to try. For what if I should fail? And what if someone left? I think that I would die. I worry about the future. I worry about the past. I worry about the present. It's lovely, but will it last? I worry about most everything, and as a final touch, I worry that maybe I worry too much.

GROSS: That's a song from a 1966 TV musical called "The Canterville Ghost," sung by the lyricist Sheldon Harnick, with the composer Jerry Bock at the piano. I like the line I worry about the future, I worry about the past. I worry about the present. It's lovely, but will it last?


HARNICK: I know. That's the way I feel and these days more than ever.


GROSS: So you said you're a worrier. What are the things that you worry most about, that have, like, you've always worried about?

HARNICK: Well, up until "Fiorello!," I guess, I worried about being able to make a living in the theater. My parents also worried about that. They suggested that my brother and I open a shoe store. They said you can write your songs at night, but during the day you'll make a living. So that was one of the things.

I had had two unsuccessful marriages. I worried whether I would have a relationship that would last. That turned out to be when I met Margie(ph), that problem got solved. I worry today when I look at the newspaper, there's endless worry. I worry about climate change. I worry about the Crimea, about Russia and Crimea. There's - if you're happy worrying, there's an endless supply of things to worry about.

GROSS: We'll continue our interview with lyricist Sheldon Harnick in the second half of the show. The album "Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures, 1949-2013" features recordings of him singing his own songs. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with more of the interview I recorded with lyricist Sheldon Harnick last spring. He co-wrote the songs for the musicals "Fiddler On The Roof," "Fiorello!," "She Loves Me," and "Tenderloin." The occasion for our conversation was the release of a double CD that gives us the chance to hear Harnick singing some of his own songs. It's a compilation of his demo recordings and performances. The Album is called "Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures" because many of these songs were never used in the shows they were intended for, others were written for reviews early in his career.


GROSS: So in the show "Fiddler on the Roof," there's a song called "Anatevka," which the Jews in this small town sing when they're forced out of their village, Anatevka. And it's a very - the song that's used in the show is both about, well, it's just a place, it's not an important place, but it's also very nostalgic song for the place that they are being forced to leave, the place that is their only home. But initially, in "Fiddler on the Roof," there was a song called "Letters from America." So tell us what the intention was with "Letters from America" and why it became "Anatevka."

HARNICK: Well, we felt we needed, it's traditional kind of to have an up-tempo song opening the second act to get the second act off to a good start and we felt we needed that. So Joe Stein remembered that his father had told him while he was still in Europe, when people went to America they would write letters describing the life in America that made everybody's mouth water. They just wanted to immediately to move to America, although some of the letters were very funny. Like one correspondent said, you know, we only work half a day here, 12 hours.


HARNICK: So we wrote the song and part of it was very active. I think you'd call it a kazatsky, a Russian kazatsky. (Singing) Yum pum pa dum. Yum pum pa dum. Ya va da ta dada. Yum pum pa dum. Anyway, it was Hal Prince, our producer on the show, who pointed out to Jerry Robbins - because Robbins wasn't sure while we were working on it. He just wasn't sure that it was a right way to open the act. So he did - he showed when he had created to Hal. And Hal said guys, this is not your usual Broadway show. We don't have to start with the villagers gambling on the green. It's just not the way to start.


HARNICK: So what we did was have Zero Mostel come out as Tevye and bring the audience up to date on what had happened since the end of act one.

Then as we worked on the show in our pre-Broadway tour, Robbins came to Jerry Bock and me one day and he said, you know, I want to end the show - or just shortly before the end - I want to have a song for our principles where they're about to be expelled from this village where they've lived all their lives. I want a song and for them which will describe how they feel about having to leave this village, Anatevka. And he said I think if we take that song from "Letters from America" that had been fast and if we slow that down (Singing) Yum pum pa dum. Yum pum pa dum. He said I think that we'll have the melancholy quality that we need. And Jerry and I bought that idea immediately. So then I set to work to write a nostalgic song, because a song, a premature nostalgia as these principal actors, Tevye and his wife Golda, and the butcher and the matchmaker, as they try to imagine what life will be like when they're no longer living in their beloved, little Anatevka.

GROSS: So let's hear the demo version that you made of "Letters from America," The song that was cut. And then we'll segue into a little bit of the song that you wrote instead, "Anatevka," the song that was actually used in "Fiddler on the Roof."


HARNICK: (Singing) Here in Anatevka, 90 percent are behind in the rent and we're hungry to amend. Once a Rothschild saw our town crossed himself and ran. Who needs America? Who needs a new community changing our ways to I don't know what? Who needs America? Maybe there's opportunity. Maybe I'd like America, but...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Anatevka. Anatevka, thoroughly orthodox. Anatevka, where else would Sabbath be so sweet? Anatevka, Anatevka, obstinate, orthodox, Anatevka. Though pigs may wander through the street. Where is the Rabbi more widely renowned or revered? Well, Anatevka hasn't exactly been the Garden of Eden.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Avram) That's true.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Golde) After all, what have we got here? (singing) A little bit of this, a little bit of that.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Yente) A pot.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Lazar) A pan.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Mendel) A broom.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Avram) A hat.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Tevye) Someone should've set a match to this place years ago.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Mendel) A bench.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Avram) A tree.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Golde) So what's a stove?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Lazar) Or a house?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Mendel) People who pass through Anatevka don't even know they've been here.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Golde) A stick of wood.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Yente) A piece of cloth.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (singing) What do we leave? Nothing much. Only Anatevka. Anatevka. Anatevka. Underfed, overworked. Anatevka. Where else could Sabbath be so sweet? Anatevka. Anatevka. Intimate, obstinate Anatevka. Where I know everyone I meet. Soon I'll be a stranger in a strange new place. Searching for an old familiar face. From Anatevka. I belong in Anatevka...

GROSS: So we heard two recordings back to back there, "Letters from America." That was the demo version made by the songwriters Jerry Bock and my guest Sheldon Harnick, and then we heard the song that they used instead after they took "Letters from America" out of the show and that song was from the cast recording, the original cast recording, of "Fiddler on the Roof." The song is "Anatevka."

You know, when I hear some of the songs from "Fiddler on the Roof," I get tears in my eyes, in part because my parents had very few albums when I was growing up, but they had "Fiddler on the Roof" and they played it over and over and over and over. And it really started to drive me crazy.


GROSS: But when I hear it now, you know, my parents passed, you know, like, several years ago, and when I hear it now I think about my parents and I think not only about how good the songs are, but I think what those songs meant to them and what it was like for them in the 1960s to go to Broadway and see a show about Jews and a shtetl in Eastern Europe because their parents had been Jews in shtetls in Eastern Europe.

And I'm sure you know how much this musical meant, you know, has meant to so many people.

HARNICK: Yes. Well, one of the things - when Jerome Robbins became our director he told us this story. He said when he was 6 his parents took him to that part of Poland where their ancestors came from, and even at the age of 6 he remembers it as being a very emotional experience.

Then during World War II as he read about the extermination of these little villages by the Nazis he was certain that the village that he had visited when he was six was one of those villages that had been obliterated. So when we gave him the opportunity to direct "Fiddler" he said I want to put that culture back on stage. I want to give it a theatrical life of another 25 years. He was being modest because now it's almost 50 years and it's still going strong.

But he was like a man obsessed with restoring that culture. He did enormous research. And I think Jerry more than anyone else is responsible for the success that "Fiddler" has had. Not that Joe Stein and Jerry Bock and I didn't do good work, but it was what Robbins brought to it with this obsession to put that culture back on stage that made the show what it is.

GROSS: Sheldon Harnick, thank you so much for talking with us. Its just been a treat to hear some of the stories behind some of your songs.

HARNICK: My pleasure. My real pleasure.

GROSS: Our interview with Sheldon Harnick was first broadcast on April 30 of this year, the day of his 90th birthday. The album of his demos and recordings is called "Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures, 1949-2013." The album is a collaboration between Harbinger Records and The Musical Theater Project. This is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. If you love New Yorker cartoons, you'd probably love the view from Bob Mankoff's desk. As the cartoon editor of the magazine, he evaluates more than 500 cartoons every week. He became the cartoon editor in 1997, 20 years after selling his first cartoon to the magazine.

I'll describe the cartoon he's most famous for. An executive is at his desk, on the phone, looking at his calendar, saying no, Thursday's out. How about never? Is never good for you? The title of Mankoff's new memoir is taken from that caption. It's called "How About Never - Is Never Good For You?" Bob Mankoff's book is filled with cartoons and insights about them. We spoke last March after the book was published.


GROSS: Bob Mankoff, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So do you remember how you came up with the idea of how about never? Is never good for you?

BOB MANKOFF: I absolutely do, which is unusual, because, you know, as I told people a lot of times, people think you get one idea for a cartoon every week, and that's not the way it works. You usually get 10 or 15, and you're - certainly when I was a cartoonist, before I was a cartoon editor - you're rushing to do what is called the batch. When I was doing that, I liked to have, in general, about 10 cartoons.

And people say, well, why, you know - new cartoonists especially ask me why do - why do you want me to do 10 cartoons every week? I say because nine out of 10 things in life don't work out. So I had done nine cartoons, and I was looking to do one more. I was on - I was trying to get on the phone, and I did get on the phone with a friend of mine - quote-unquote "friend" - who I wanted to see. And somehow, that person didn't want to see me, it seemed.

And, you know, I kept saying, well, could we do it this time? Could we do it that time? And then I just got exasperated with him and said how about never? Is never good for you?

GROSS: (Laughter).

MANKOFF: So it was really a snotty line. And when I look back on it, on my Queens and Bronx and New York Jewish background, it's sort of like, hey, if I never see you again, it'll be too soon. The underlying structure is that. So I do remember it. And, you know, it turned out to be the most - one of the most reprinted cartoons in, I think, New Yorker history - we don't have records going all the way back - and certainly my most reprinted cartoon. And certainly - yeah, it's a little macabre. And I don't think most people know what's going to be in their obituary, but I do.

GROSS: Oh, yeah, but not on your tombstone, right?


MANKOFF: Not on my (laughter) - well, Johnny Carson had I'll be right back...


MANKOFF: ...Which seemed very optimistic.

GROSS: So...

MANKOFF: Yeah. So, yeah, not on my tombstone.

GROSS: So what are some of the ways that how about never, is never good for you has been appropriated over the years?

MANKOFF: Well, you know, just to get this right, I'm going to look in the book to see what Nancy Pelosi actually said. But when she was on the Jon Stewart show, she said, just talking back and forth to Jon Stewart, when the Republicans came in, they said to the president how about never? Does never work for you? (Laughter) The other ways it's been appropriated is, of course, just being reprinted in and of itself. It's on coffee mugs. It's also been ripped off. It's on panties.


GROSS: Great.

MANKOFF: Yeah. So, there, you know, and I - really, no higher praise.


MANKOFF: And - but, you know, my lawyers are after it. We've recalled all those panties, and...

GROSS: Seriously?




MANKOFF: What do you want to do with recalled panties, really? They sound...

GROSS: Well, no, if it's a copyright infringement, it's a copyright infringement. Do they ask for your permission to reprint it on...

MANKOFF: No, they don't, and a lot of these things are...

GROSS: And they were really more like thongs, judging from the photo in your book.

MANKOFF: That's right. You know what? You're right - thongs. That's right. (Laughter).

GROSS: Just to be precise.

MANKOFF: I stand corrected.

GROSS: Slightly harder to fit it onto a thong than a full panty. Yeah.

MANKOFF: And I hope people are enjoying them.

GROSS: (Laughter) No, they're not enjoying them, because it's how about never? Yeah.

MANKOFF: No, actually, you know, it's impossible to track those things down, you know, because they're all run by the Russian mafia. No, that's not true.


MANKOFF: But they - and you really don't want to mess with them. And it's just not worth it. I think at one time, before the Internet, you sort of could do that. But now it's sort of piracy becomes the sincerest form of flattery.

GROSS: So, in your book, you write that you have to look at about 500 cartoons a week and evaluate...


GROSS: ...Because you're the cartoon editor at the New Yorker. And you say evaluating humor is different from enjoying humor. And to demonstrate, you have a cartoon with 10 possible captions. And this is what you have to do all the time for the cartoon caption contest that you run each week...


GROSS: ...Where you put a cartoon on the page, and readers have to come up with captions. And it's a contest, and you reprint the winners.


GROSS: So this cartoon that you reprint with 10 possible captions is two snakes walking side by side. And one of them, in the middle of the snake body, has a bulge that looks like two buttocks.

MANKOFF: Very callipygous buttocks...

GROSS: Oh, callipygous - what does that mean?

MANKOFF: Right. It means very well-shaped buttocks.


GROSS: Thank you.

MANKOFF: So now you can - I don't know how often you can use that in conversation without getting slapped.

GROSS: OK. So I want you to read the 10 possible captions.

MANKOFF: OK, so the captions are - did you see the look on Darwin's face? I don't like the way Adam looks at you. That happens when you eat Brazilian. Now you probably want a chair. Those Kardashians are hard to swallow. I'm telling you, the apple will be tempting enough. It's hot now, but tomorrow it'll be somewhere near your ankles. All he gave me to work with was a lousy apple. I told you silicon was non-digestible. It's not my fault that my brain is not evolutionarily wired to like that. Please stop asking, honey. If anything you look too thin. If only I had hands, Gladys, if only I had hands.

So there you have all the choices. And one of the things, you know, this book - the paradox of choice - one of the things about choice in humor and just the interference of the judgment process is it automatically is a mediating response, and it short-circuits your laugh response. Now, instead of laughing at something, as you would in a normal cartoon, you're having to judge it. And for one thing, that makes everything less funny, but you still have to - you know, you still have to judge it.

GROSS: So which did you pick? Which did you think was the funniest?

MANKOFF: You know, I thought the funniest was I don't like the way Adam looks at you.

GROSS: I thought the funniest was did you see the look on Darwin's face?

MANKOFF: But you see, you're wrong.

GROSS: Why am I wrong?


MANKOFF: No, you're not. So humor itself and your response to humor - that's one of the things that, really, I learned in doing this job and even writing this book - especially the caption contest - is very, very varied. But what we do is after we look through all 5,000 - and usually it's my assistant, and usually the assistant is someone from the Harvard Lampoon - looks through all 5,000, categorizes them in all different ways the jokes are made. Then I pick maybe these many, and I use Survey Monkey, and I send it out to the New Yorker editors.

And just like you, the response is incredibly varied. But at that point, it's sort of this - it's this crowd-sourcing. And you know what? I'll sort of tend to go with the one that the crowd likes at that point because in the end, there's another crowd who's going to pick and that's who will vote on it.

But all of these - one of the things is all of these are actually pretty good when you look at it - what the caption contest is, which is a game. So I try to evaluate it not so much as is this hysterically funny, but if you were playing this game like a board game, and you came up with this, would you think you did a pretty good job? I think for all of these, you'd think I did OK.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bob Mankoff. He's a New Yorker cartoonist and the cartoon editor at the magazine. He has a new memoir that's about his life, but also about the art of cartooning. It's called "How About Never - Is Never Good For You?: My Life in Cartoons." Let's take a short break.

MANKOFF: You see those two snakes? That might have worked for the two snakes, too.

GROSS: How about never?


GROSS: That would be funny.

MANKOFF: Isn't that? Well, see?


GROSS: That actually works for so many things.

MANKOFF: Right. And, of course, the caption contest - I won't go there, but one of the interesting things about the caption contest is that it shows, first of all, that a sense of humor, and especially a sense of humor related to cartoons, is something really that's very, very widespread. It doesn't mean that the people who win the contest are professional cartoonists, but a lot of what the Internet is showing is that talent is more disperse than gatekeepers such as myself, you know, previously restricted it to.

And the other interesting thing about the caption contest is that it spawned all forms of meta-humor so that there's an anti-caption contest where you come up with the worst possible caption. There's the universal caption contest where you come up with a caption that fits all of the contest, and one of the contenders is what a misunderstanding.


MANKOFF: And the other is - I don't know if you can have this on NPR - is Christ, what a [bleep].


MANKOFF: And so - and I think the interesting thing about that - the interesting thing about this is people will laugh much harder often at these than they will at the actual caption. And that shows something about the shifting character of humor in our society. It's become much more ironic. It's become much more humor about humor. And I don't think there's ever been as much meta-humor, jokes about jokes, sort of ironic stances from humor than there has been, and that's partly what I talk about in the book.

GROSS: It's time to take that break, so let's take a break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bob Mankoff. He's been a cartoonist with the New Yorker since the late '70s. He's also been the cartoon editor for many years. Now he has a new memoir called "How About Never - Is Never Good For You?: My Life in Cartoons."

You know, in giving advice to - about cartoon humor, you mentioned, like, if you're doing a list or mentioning alternatives, there's got to be at least three - that two isn't enough. And I've heard comics - stand-up comics talk about the law of threes. So what's the magic of three?

MANKOFF: I think the magic of three is sort of what I talked about before in terms of surprise. You need a sequence for surprise. So let's, you know, look at a joke by Alex Gregory. You know, it's two cavemen, and, you know, they're saying, I don't understand it. The air is pure, everything we eat is organic, and yet, we only live to 30.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MANKOFF: Or another one - this is a great cartoon by Alex Gregory, which also really shows this thing that in professional comedy is called a triplet, which is one, two and then boom - the punch line. A woman is saying, I started my vegetarianism for moral reasons, then for health concerns, and now it's just to annoy people.

GROSS: (Laughter). How have New Yorker cartoons changed since you started cartooning for the magazine in around '77?

MANKOFF: I think they've changed, and for one reason they have become sort of meta. You know, so when you look back at desert island cartoons, which we've had forever, you know, you might have, you know, a cartoon with - well, it's interesting. The very first desert island cartoons were rather big. You've got to live on that island, OK?

By 1984, I have a cartoon where the guy is pretty much - he's a regular-sized guy, but he's the size of the island. He's saying no man is an island, but I come pretty damn close.


MANKOFF: And then maybe a few years ago, I have a cartoon by Farley Katz where there's Superman on the island, and he's saying wait, I can fly. So...

GROSS: Oh, I get it. OK. That took a second. All right.


MANKOFF: Wait, I can fly. So that's really sort of more meta. It's a cartoon about cartoons. When you look back at the older cartoons, they're very much more observational cartoons. And the cartoon - the people in the cartoons are not making the joke. They're not making the joke. So in an older cartoon, you might have - and this is based on more stereotypes than we would have had then - you might have a woman at a baseball game. She's looking exasperatingly at her watch. And she's saying why didn't they tell us there would be an extra inning, you know, because baseball...

GROSS: Right.

MANKOFF: OK. She's not making a joke. She is saying this. She's saying this. We're observing the joke. In these later cartoons it's like sitcom, right? There's no way that she's not aware that this is a joke. And I think one of the reasons that humor changes is because of the humor that the generations are exposed to. So the generations that were exposed to sitcom have the people actually saying the line, saying the joke, whereas sort of before that you have much more observational humor.

But I think one of the things, one of the things I enjoyed in writing this book is really showing the very, very widespread type of humor that happens in New York. You have completely silly cartoons, but then you have cartoons that are satiric. But it's interesting because they're - they do deal with issues that are in the public mind, but they're never really about the public figures. So if they're cartoons about same-sex marriage - I'll give two examples. One is a Michael Short (ph) cartoon where it's a couple looking at TV, and the guy is saying gays and lesbians getting married - haven't they suffered enough?


MANKOFF: And then I did a cartoon where there's a couple in bed, and the guy is saying to the woman, what's your opinion on some-sex marriage?

GROSS: (Laughter).

MANKOFF: So it's refracted through the personal, and I think the interesting thing about New Yorker humor is that it's basically benign. I know everybody wants humor to be subversive and speak truth to power. I don't think power has been listening, incidentally. But the humor in the New Yorker is the jokes are directed back at the class that's reading the magazine. And for me, personally, that's the most interesting type of humor.

GROSS: Bob Mankoff, it's been great to have you back on the show. Thank you so much for talking with us.

MANKOFF: Thanks so much, Terry.

GROSS: Bob Mankoff is the cartoon editor of the New Yorker. Our interview was recorded last March, after the publication of his memoir "How About Never - Is Never Good For You?" If you'd like to catch up on interviews you missed, check out our podcast on iTunes. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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