DATE November 27, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Robert Mankoff discusses his career as a cartoonist and
cartoon editor at The New Yorker
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
In the current edition of The New Yorker, there's a cartoon in which a lawyer
is saying to his client, `What we're going to say to the jury is "love the
embezzler, hate the embezzlement."' Many people think of the cartoons as
their favorite part of The New Yorker. My guest Robert Mankoff has been the
magazine's cartoon editor since 1997. He got the job 20 years after he sold
his first cartoon to The New Yorker. Mankoff has edited several collections
of the magazine's cartoons, including its 75th anniversary collection. He's
also the founder and editor of the Internet cartoon database The Cartoon Bank.
Now Robert Mankoff has a new book called "The Naked Cartoonist" about the art
and craft of cartooning.
Robert Mankoff, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'm going to ask you to describe your
most famous cartoon.
Mr. ROBERT MANKOFF (Cartoon Editor, The New Yorker): All right. Well, here
is my most famous cartoon. It's quite simple, and maybe that accounts for its
fame. There's a guy on the phone. He's an executive, clearly a busy
executive. He's pointing to his Rolodex and he's got his phone to his ear and
he's saying, `No, Thursday's out. How about never? Is never good for you?'
And I know from statistics assiduously compiled that that's my favorite
cartoon because that's the one people license the most, that's the one they
buy prints of, and that's the one when I'm at a party and they say, `You know
what cartoon of yours I like best?' and I say, `I do. I do know what it is.'
And I tell them that, and I'm right.
GROSS: Why do you think it struck a chord?
Mr. MANKOFF: I think it was in 1993 and it seemed to sort of symbolize just
the hectic, harried nature of our lives, where we're constantly meeting and
associating with people which we often don't want to associate with and we're
trying to obfuscate and say the polite thing and this somehow was really
saying what people were really thinking on some of these phone calls.
GROSS: You know, songwriters are always asked, what comes first, the words or
the music? So talking to you, the cartoonist, I am curious if the words
always come first or if sometimes you get the picture first and then you have
to figure out what to say with it?
Mr. MANKOFF: With me, it's the music. Oh, I'm not...
Mr. MANKOFF: I forgot. I'm not a songwriter. It's--you know, as you would
imagine, it can be either one, or sometimes it's an amalgam. It's half of a
word, half of a picture, and then during the process of drawing or thinking,
they both sort of come together. I don't know if I've exactly answered the
question, but it's almost any conceivable variant of the process can occur.
GROSS: You became the cartoon editor of The New Yorker in 1997. Why don't
you just, like, describe what the job is?
Mr. MANKOFF: It's an interesting job. It's not, I guess, what people think.
Often when I go around and I give talks or people find out I'm a cartoon
editor, and they said, `Well, that's the greatest job in the world,' imagining
that it's something like, I don't know, being a candy taster, you know, or
eating all the best food, you know, the food you really love. And it's a
great job because I love cartoons but the process by which--well, I'll give
you for an example. Like, on a normal week, I will see 30 or 40 contributors
to the magazine who do cartoons and I'll see cartoons that--unsolicited and
solicited cartoons--you know, by mail--I might look at a thousand cartoons in
So when I'm looking at the cartoons, it's probably taking me about 10 seconds
or less to look at each cartoon and at that point just in a preliminary way
decide--`Do we want to use it? Do I like it? Is there something there?' And
then I'm going to go back and look at them again. But I'm not laughing or
almost rarely. I'm sort of just processing. There's so much to look at, and
if I went on some sort of, you know, gut instinct, like `Am I laughing at the
cartoon?' well, it would be sort of like if you were tasting bonbons and you
were trying to judge them and you were saying, `Gee, this thousandth bonbon,
why doesn't it taste as good as the fifth?' It wouldn't make any sense. So I
try to bring some sort of principles to just the initial selection of the
cartoons. Then after I make a selection out of about a thousand or maybe 50
cartoons, that I then take in an art meeting and I show to David Remnick, and
we have baskets, `yes,' `no' and `maybe.' And then David and I...
GROSS: He's the editor of The New Yorker.
Mr. MANKOFF: ...and sometimes some other editors--the editor of The New
Yorker--basically, choose the cartoons, and in the end, David chooses them.
He's got a--he's got to pick out of these bunch which ones he thinks makes
overall sense for the magazine. And we have differences of opinion and, you
know, sometimes he gives in to me, but he's usually--the editor so he usually
gets his way.
GROSS: So you have to have criteria because, as you said, the thousandth
bonbon isn't as tasty as the first.
Mr. MANKOFF: Right.
GROSS: So what are your criteria and could you put it into words?
Mr. MANKOFF: Sure. Or I can draw a picture but you couldn't see it.
So--although this--I like this whole idea of sort of the radio cartoon network
where I talk cartoons. And a laugh track might be helpful, too. Well, the
first criteria I have for the cartoon is is it communicating some idea through
the medium of humor? Is it demonstrating, you know, not just funniness but
thinking? Is it making some point? And, of course, we do cartoons that are
just silly and just funny, but overall, I think the enduring nature of The New
Yorker cartoons is that they strike a chord in someone. People remember them
because they make some sort of point.
So I'm looking for that, the communication of an idea. Secondly, if it's
someone who's new, I'm looking, do they have a distinctive voice? Now are
they doing their own cartoons? Or are they--you know, did they basically see
a Roz Chast cartoon and think `Oh, I can do Roz Chast cartoons'? And then
thirdly whether or not how funny the cartoon is is not, to me, always, the
ultimate criteria. For example, if a cartoon is on a topic that's been beaten
to death, then it's got to be very funny. Well, if it's on some topic that's
never been discussed before, for the first time, then, as far as I'm
concerned, I'll say, `Well, yeah, let's use this cartoon. No one has ever
done a cartoon, you know, about the fact that men don't like hair on their
back or whatever it is.'
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Mankoff. He is a
cartoonist and he's the cartoon editor for The New Yorker magazine. He has a
new book called "The Naked Cartoonist."
When you first became the cartoon editor at The New Yorker, were you in the
position of editing people who had been your heroes and sometimes being even
in the position of having to reject their work?
Mr. MANKOFF: Yeah, I was in a position, in that position, and also in the
position of editing and having to accept and reject the work of my friends, as
well, and that is a difficult situation. It occurred with the previous
cartoon editor, Lee Lorenz, who is still a cartoonist and was a cartoonist
when he was cartoon editor, you know, as well. But, I mean, in the end you
have to decide either to do the job or not and the--what I tell everybody and
whether really they're my friend or a longtime contributor or really no
matter how famous is that it's a cliche but it's the work that counts.
GROSS: What's the editing process like? Do you work with cartoonists on
improving the work or, you know, making it funnier, changing the drawing?
Mr. MANKOFF: Well, little--very little, because the--one of the things is is
that the cartoonist submit 10 or 15 ideas every week. And it's a little bit
like a type of haiku. You know what I mean? It--the line--I mean, you can
fiddle with it a little bit, but one of the things, especially, that's
involved in The New Yorker cartoon is this idea of authenticity. The
cartoons, I would say--I mean, everything else in the magazine goes through a
very, very elaborate editing process where things get written and rewritten
and, of course, it's still the person's work but a lot of--there's often a lot
of hands in it.
Here, you know, when you're looking at a Roz Chast cartoon, it's Roz Chast.
Nobody else wrote the line for her. Every once in a while I'll make a
suggestion--like with someone like Roz, if there's many panels, I'll say
something like `You know, I think panel four is weak.' You know, `I think
you could do a little bit more.' It's more encouragement The people are very
talented and they want to come up with their ideas. See, the--I mean, in a
caption, let's say, you know, of 10 or 15 words, yeah, we'll change a word but
I don't want to really start rewriting it because then it becomes my work, and
one of the things about The New Yorker cartoon--and when you're looking at it,
it's really the work of the person who does it.
The editing, I think, primarily, is in the selection and really in the
criteria. It was very different at one time. When the magazine started out
in the '30s and '40s, there was a lot more not so much editing but it was
straight-out gag writing. People like Peter Arno for the most part didn't
write any of their captions or Helen Hokinson, very, very few. So it might
be one writer, it might be more like sort of a Broadway show model where
someone does the music and someone, you know, does the lyrics.
GROSS: So someone would come up with a gag and then the cartoonist would be
brought in to come up with the image?
Mr. MANKOFF: Yeah. But more collaborative than that.
GROSS: They worked as teams.
Mr. MANKOFF: But the roles were clearly assigned. Helen Hokinson might draw
pictures and talk with her collaborator and he might come up with lines and
they might go back and forth. But it was different than it is is now.
GROSS: My guest is Robert Mankoff, cartoon editor of The New Yorker and
author of the new book, "The Naked Cartoonist."
We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is cartoonist Robert Mankoff. He's the cartoon editor of The
New Yorker magazine and author of the new book, "The Naked Cartoonist."
Who were some of your heroes when you were reading The New Yorker before you
started working there?
Mr. MANKOFF: Well, I--like everybody else, you know, Charles Addams and
George Price, but I would say my main influence, although my cartoons
certainly veered very, very far away from it, was Saul Steinberg. There was
something so--and it was hard to say even that they were cartoons but there
was something sort of so deeply intellectual about those cartoons and I had
quit graduate school to become a cartoonist, so Saul Steinberg was sort of my
GROSS: Can you give an example of one of his cartoons that influenced you?
Mr. MANKOFF: Well, I think--I'm trying to remember it. It--you know, he
engaged in this wonderful sort of, you know, almost fake writing, very
elaborate writing, and there's a guy at a--it's just a--you know, quite
simple cartoon. It's a loan office and there's a--this guy asking for the
loan, and in the speech balloon that's coming out is all this elaborate
writing, but it's all just shaped like a no. Almost like the Constitution,
Mr. MANKOFF: But in this wonderful, and, also, you know, very, very
artistic, as well, and the elaborate pictures that really can't be summarized
on the radio would just sort of spark by imagination and think--I guess what
it made me think is that this was something you could aspire to, that
something wonderful could be done in this field, that it could be more than
just a joke or more than--you know, I've grown up drawing Donald Duck and Bugs
Bunny in school and it could sort of be--I mean, I quit graduate school and I
said, `Well, gee, The New Yorker could sort of be the Harvard of cartooning.'
GROSS: Now you sold your first cartoon to The New Yorker in 1977.
Mr. MANKOFF: Right.
GROSS: What were some of the things that you drew before that that didn't get
in, that got you rejection notices?
Mr. MANKOFF: Yeah. I did hundreds of cartoons and I actually got a number of
them published. I'm thinking of some of them now. One of them is in the
book. It shows a jester and he's in a very gloomy cell. He's hanging by his
hands and he's peering out the window to the guard and, you know, he's a court
jester, and he's saying, `Please tell the king I've remembered the punch
GROSS: Yeah, I like that one.
Mr. MANKOFF: Then there's a couple, a middle-aged couple, who are just
reading the paper in the living room and you hear--you know, you see and the
picture says--it's not--someone's knocking at the door and the woman is saying
to the man, `Quick, hide. That may be my husband.'
GROSS: That's a kind of variation on the no-sex theme.
Mr. MANKOFF: Right. It is. Yeah, it is.
Mr. MANKOFF: And when I look back on this, I mean, sometimes I flipped that,
you know, around, where you take a situation that is a very, very common
situation and then by somehow looking at it in a different way like I might
have a couple just at breakfast reading the paper, drinking coffee, and the
woman might be saying, `You know, Dave, I think the divorce has just been a
little bit too amiable.'
GROSS: Of the rejection letters that you got when you were starting out,
which is the one that really stands out in your mind?
Mr. MANKOFF: Well, none of The New Yorker's because this was their standard
rejection slip, you know, `Thank you very much for giving us the opportunity
to see it,' which, you know, as I said, many people, not just me, created
wallpaper out of. The one that stands out in my mind is one I got from Steve
Heller, who was then, I think, the editor for the Op-Ed page of The New York
Times where they used art, the art editor, a cartoon historian and fine editor
and everything, but I got back this little note that said, `We think your
ideas are good. But we would like you to do them in a less cumbersome style.'
So which I ignored. I persisted in my cumbersome style. But I think that's
the one that I sort of remember.
GROSS: Did you know what he meant by cumbersome style?
Mr. MANKOFF: Yeah, because I do the stuff with the dots. He wanted me to
lose the dots. And I didn't know then why I did the--you know, did this
stippled dot style. I don't exactly know why. Except probably I'd been
drawing this way, in one way or the other, since high school. So there was
something about that rejection letter that I sort of liked in a way because
I--because it was asking me to do something that I knew I wasn't going to do.
And so it sort of gave me--said, OK, well, I'm going to have to see if I can
do it, you know, my way without the whole melodic interpretation, Sinatra
GROSS: Now in talking about rejection notices, in your new book, "The Naked
Cartoonist," you reprint a letter you got from David Mamet shortly after you
became cartoon editor, and then you print the note you sent him in return.
Mr. MANKOFF: Right.
GROSS: So read us the two.
Mr. MANKOFF: Well, David Mamet--I'll do this from memory. I think it's
GROSS: This is David Mamet, the screenwriter and playwright and director.
Mr. MANKOFF: Right, right, right. The screenwriter, playwright. And
cartoonist, I guess, 'cause he did cartoons and I think he has probably some
cartoons he sent me. He said, when I became cartoon editor, `Dear Mr.
Mankoff, congratulations on becoming cartoon editor. I've taken the liberty
of sending you a bunch of cartoons,' and I looked at them and I wrote him back
this note, saying, thanks very much, I've taken the liberty of sending you a
GROSS: Why did you do that?
Mr. MANKOFF: Just snottiness. But--partly.
GROSS: Because that's really a way of saying to him `You might be a great
writer, but your cartoons aren't very good.' I mean...
Mr. MANKOFF: Or--well, let's put it more gently, `not right for us.' That's
what I learned basically in being an editor. You don't say things are not
good; you say they're not right for us.
Mr. MANKOFF: But there is a certain arrogance that writers have often
captured when they say this to you: `I can't draw at all, but'--their
assumption is somehow that they could easily, you know, create great cartoons
because they're smart, they're writers, they're funny, and whatnot. And I
haven't found it to be the case. Now last week Norman Mailer was in my office
showing me his cartoons. And I must say I was a lot nicer to Mr. Mailer than
I was in this note to David Mamet. But they weren't actually cartoons, so I
don't know if they're--they didn't really fit the criteria so much, whereas
actually David Mamet's cartoons were basically attempts to do gag cartoons
and, I mean, I judged them as unsuccessful. Others, you know, might think
I think the problem writers have--and even, you know, great writers--is that
they bring all--it's almost like a tremendously muscle-bound person trying to
play Ping-Pong. They're just bringing too much to it. They want to show off.
They want to show not only are they funny but they're smart. The other thing
that happens--I don't know how to describe this. But even if their cartoons
were OK, they--it would be hard to use them because their cartoons are--become
too contaminated by their other persona. So that people couldn't really even
see the cartoon.
The way I'd explain it is sort of by flipping it and say--let's say you look
at Roz Chast cartoons and if you look at them for 20 years and these wonderful
cartoons and then you meet Roz Chast, well, it's hard for you just to meet
Roz. You're looking at her but you're not even seeing her or you are--you're
seeing her but it's somehow contaminated by all your preconceptions about her
because of her cartoons. In the same way, if someone was, you know, very
famous--I don't know, let's say George Bush started submitting cartoons to The
New Yorker. It would be impossible just to view them as they should be
viewed. I mean, fab--I mean, if they were funny enough, I'd guess we'd
publish it. And I am and even right now over the radio encouraging George
Bush to submit.
GROSS: Well, who knows?
Mr. MANKOFF: I know he's a busy guy but, look, get off the treadmill, draw a
GROSS: Robert Mankoff is the cartoon editor of The New Yorker and the author
of the new book, "The Naked Cartoonist." He'll be back in the second half of
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, cartoons about sex and not having sex. We continue our
conversation with the cartoon editor of The New Yorker magazine, Robert
Also, we meet two of the people behind the satirical newspaper The Onion,
editor Robert Siegel and writer Carol Kolb.
And John Powers reviews the new film "Solaris," starring George Clooney.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Robert Mankoff, cartoon
editor of The New Yorker magazine. He got the job in 1997, 20 years after he
sold his first cartoon to The New Yorker. He's edited several collections of
the magazine's cartoons. Now he has a new book about the art and craft of
cartooning called "The Naked Cartoonist."
In a recent edition of The New Yorker, there's a cartoon that--it's very
funny; I thought I'd ask you about it.
Mr. MANKOFF: Sure.
GROSS: As our listeners may know, there's a new Museum of Sex in New York,
and this cartoon showed exhibits from the Museum of No Sex. And the exhibits
included the chastity belt, the headache, the pocket protector, "Star Trek"
memorabilia and late-night television.
Mr. MANKOFF: Right.
GROSS: Talk about deciding to use this particular comic.
Mr. MANKOFF: Well, I mean, I think--I mean, in a way it's sort of like a
common way to flip an idea. And another criteria really that I didn't mention
is topicality. A cartoon like this, simply because it talks about this new
subject, you know, in a way doesn't have to be the world's best cartoon. It
just sort of interestingly flipped the idea of sex with no sex. I mean, one
of the things that changed somewhat in The New Yorker, especially when Tina
Brown started being editor, was that sex became a topic.
One of the first cartoons I did when Tina became editor sort of for her tenure
was a middle-class couple in bed and they're reading, and the woman is saying,
`You know what? You're right. Tonight isn't reading night. Tonight is sex
Mr. MANKOFF: And in a way both these cartoons have an affinity. One of the
things is that in sort of a subtextual way this cartoon speaks to the fact
that although we have a very sexualized culture, people aren't having much
GROSS: Well, you have another cartoon about that. And it's--there's four
middle-age people in a living room. One's sitting on the couch. One's on an
easy chair. Another's on another easy chair.
Mr. MANKOFF: Right.
GROSS: One's reading. One's listening to a Walkman. The other's knitting.
Mr. MANKOFF: Right.
GROSS: And it--what's the caption?
Mr. MANKOFF: I think, it's "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," the remake.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. And for anyone who doesn't know that movie, that's a
movie about like swinging couples, you know...
Mr. MANKOFF: Right. Right.
GROSS: ...having sex with each other in the '60s or '70s; I forget which.
So, yeah, I thought that was another funny one on that same theme of people
not having sex.
Mr. MANKOFF: Yeah. Well, that--not having sex and this is a little bit what
I'm talking about as we're discussing these cartoons. You can see what the
sort of Ben Wright criteria for what has become defined as a New Yorker
cartoon is. It's topical, but it's not today topical. It's not this week
topical. It's contemporary, but it is speaking to the issues of this time.
GROSS: Can you think of funny ones about having sex?
Mr. MANKOFF: About having sex? Let me see. I think I did a cartoon where
there's--a few cartoons. One I did where there's a woman and a man in bed.
And they're actually having sex--New Yorker-type sex; they're all covered.
And he goes--sometimes I ask my wife, `You want to have New Yorker type sex or
regular sex?' But the woman is saying to the man, `Wow, our first date and
already I feel like it's our second.'
Mr. MANKOFF: So the other thing I did--I mean, somewhat crazy sort of sex
thing, is I did a cartoon where it's just two chairs stacked up, you know,
like when you close a restaurant with one chair on top of the other. And it's
called `How Chairs Have Sex.'
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Mankoff. He's the
cartoon editor for The New Yorker magazine, and he has a new book called "The
One of the things you've been doing at The New Yorker the past few years is
having a captioning contest. Why don't you describe the contest?
Mr. MANKOFF: The contest happens every cartoon issue where we provide an
image drawn by a cartoonist. When the cartoonist draws the image, he doesn't
have any idea or he doesn't have a completely thought-out idea of what the
caption is actually going to be. And then we ask the readers of the
magazine--and this year we've done it all over the Internet--to supply a
caption. And the idea is somehow to--it's a little bit like a parlor game.
It's like it's not so much, `Well, can you make a great cartoon out of this,'
but `Can you really make any cartoon?'
It's quite hard, because you as the reader don't have control over the picture
at all. When I'm a cartoonist, I can draw a situation and I can discard all
the drawings that don't work until, you know, one sort of hits my mind as
right. I mean, I can start drawing a couple and I can have the couple on
either side of a couch, then I can put guns in their hand and I can have them
shooting at each other, and I can have the guy on the phone while this couple
is shooting each other and he's the phone saying, `As a matter of fact, you
did call us at a bad time.' But I get to control all the elements to make
that gag work. So it's harder, and that's why I think it's quite remarkable
that the readers of the magazine come up with some pretty good lines for the
weird pictures that we throw at them.
GROSS: You want to describe the picture that was in the most recent version
of this in 2002?
Mr. MANKOFF: Yeah. It's got--it's a prison cell--sort of a hard-bitten
prisoner. And on the lower bunk is an angel who is very sad and has got his
head in his hands and a woebegone look. And that's sort of the picture. And
the idea is that this picture should create some sort of tension. I mean,
what is an angel doing in prison? Is it an angel? He's got a little--you
know and there's all little objects. This little pinup picture. The convict
is talking to the angel. And the question is, you know: What is it that he's
going to say that's going to be funny?
GROSS: As we record this, you haven't picked a winner yet.
Mr. MANKOFF: Right.
GROSS: Can you tell what some of the lines you're considering, or at least
some of the lines that have come in are?
Mr. MANKOFF: Sure. One is the convict, you know, talking to the angel and
saying, `You think I could borrow the outfit for the parole meeting?' There's
a couple along the lines of `Yeah, the devil made me do it, too.' Or `Some
guardian angel you turned out to be.'
Mr. MANKOFF: The, you know, `Just for discussion's sake, how far do you think
you could carry a guy?'
GROSS: That's good.
Mr. MANKOFF: And so those are some...
GROSS: Are these contenders or...
Mr. MANKOFF: Yeah, absolutely. And they're quite good.
Mr. MANKOFF: You know, they're quite good. And in one way it points out just
to the great readers of the magazine. And it also points out why the cartoons
are this democratic forum, because people really can relate to them. You
often can come up with a good line for a cartoon. Maybe not, you know, in a
professional way. Maybe if you had to do 10 or 20 a week, you know, you
wouldn't be able to do it. But people feel, you know, a natural connection to
cartoons because they--well, they think, sometimes realistically, sometimes
unrealistically, that they could do them.
GROSS: After September 11th, how long did it take The New Yorker to feel like
it was comfortable or that it was appropriate to publish cartoons that had to
do with terrorism?
Mr. MANKOFF: I think we took a week where we just stepped back. We had one
George Booth drawing, which wasn't a cartoon--sort of an anti-cartoon. It
just showed one of his usually gay happy figures depressed. And Ms.
Ritter-Haus(ph), she had her violin, but she wasn't playing any music, and the
cat just had his head between his hands. But the week after, we sort of edged
back into it. The first cartoon we ran after September 11th was a woman
saying to guy at a bar--saying, `I never thought I'd laugh again until I saw
that jacket.' You know, he's got a--and it showed wonderfully really, well,
we're going to laugh. People are going to be silly and stupid. And then
there was a great cartoon, which is still, you know, applicable with that
woman getting on a plane with a cat in a little cat carrier. The security
guy's saying, `Ma'am, we're going to have to declaw the cat.'
GROSS: That's good.
Mr. MANKOFF: So I think we did a pretty good job--of course, it wasn't
about--we didn't do cartoons about really the tragic part, but we did cartoons
about the human part and what we were after September 11th, which were still
GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. MANKOFF: Well, thank you, Terry. Thanks for having me. It was really my
pleasure. Whenever you get to New York, come and visit me at The New Yorker.
I'd love to show you the place.
GROSS: I'm glad you said that because I have a few cartoons I wanted to show
you. I'm kidding.
Mr. MANKOFF: That's not surprising.
GROSS: Don't worry. Don't worry. I wouldn't do that to you.
Mr. MANKOFF: And I have a few interviews, of course, I'd like to do.
GROSS: Robert Mankoff is the cartoon editor of The New Yorker, and the author
of the new book "The Naked Cartoonist."
Coming up, two of the people behind the satirical newspaper The Onion. This
is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Carol Kolb and Rob Siegel discuss their satirical online
and print newspaper The Onion
TERRY GROSS, host:
The Onion is a satirical newspaper that lampoons the latest headlines and all
aspects of politics and American culture. A recent headline read: Bush Seeks
UN Support for US Does Whatever It Wants Plan. The article reads, `President
Bush called upon the international community to support his US does whatever
it wants plan, which would permit the US to take any action it wishes anywhere
in the world at any time.' The headline was written by my guest Carol Kolb.
Also with us is The Onion's editor, Robert Siegel. The Onion is published on
the Internet and as a hard-copy edition, but you can also catch up on The
Onion through its book collections. The latest is called "The Onion Ad
Naseum," and it collects all the articles published during The Onion's 13th
year from October 2000 to October 2001. I asked them for some of their
favorite recent Onion headlines.
Ms. CAROL KOLB (The Onion): One that I wrote recently was India's Top
Physicists Develop Plan to Get the Hell Out of India. They're just, `Got
together, figured out what to do to leave.' Also another one: Republicans
Mount Campaign to Rename Alzheimer's Reagan's Disease.
GROSS: Ooh, yeah.
Mr. ROBERT SIEGEL (The Onion): That was a good one. I like that one a lot.
Ms. KOLB: Yeah.
Mr. SIEGEL: We also had a headline recently: Bush Won't Stop Asking Cheney
If We Can Invade Yet.
GROSS: Right, yeah.
Mr. SIEGEL: He couldn't stop bugging him about that. And then Cheney had a
recent Op-Ed which was When I'm Feeling Blue, I Can Always Go To My
Undisclosed Location. And it was sort of his own personal tree-house bunker
where he goes when he's kind of sad.
Ms. KOLB: Yeah.
GROSS: Do you have like brainstorming sessions at the beginning of the week
in which everybody throws in their headlines and people bounce off of that, or
do people just bring that to you, Rob, since you're the editor? Is that more
a group thing or a more private thing?
Mr. SIEGEL: No, it's a group--well, it's a private thing. The brainstorming
is private. Everyone comes up with 25 headlines every week. And then they're
read collectively. We get together in a room and we pitch our ideas. And the
ideas that get a good response go on a master list, and then from
there--there's a multistep winnowing process.
Ms. KOLB: Right.
Mr. SIEGEL: The first step is to pitch your ideas to the group. And the
ideas that are liked then go to the next stage.
Ms. KOLB: And you would be surprised how unfunny those meetings are. We just
sort of sit around in a room. We all read our headlines, and we're tired and
we want to go home. And there actually is not all that much laughing. We're
just sort of like, `Yeah, that'll work. OK. Sure.'
Mr. SIEGEL: I mean, there are moments of laughter and inspiration, but we
really--it sounds--if you were to observe an Onion meeting, it would look a
lot more like probably a Washington Post editorial meeting where it's just
everything is being very soberly discussed, even though what we're discussing
is not all that serious. We actually, at this point having done it for--most
of the staff has been there seven, eight, nine years at this point, and we can
do it in this very sober, intellectualized way that really comes off as really
funny and ridiculous to an outside observer.
GROSS: Well, what's the one story that has gotten the biggest reaction
from--well, two things. What's the story that's gotten the biggest reaction
because people loved it and the story that's gotten the biggest reaction
because people were offended by it or thought it was in bad taste?
Mr. SIEGEL: Let's see. What was one...
Ms. KOLB: I remember...
Mr. SIEGEL: The Ashley Olsen Op-Ed was...
Ms. KOLB: Yeah, sometimes it's kind of random. Someone will pick up a story
and either think that it's real or, even if they don't, they just become
offended and they--you know, they send it out through e-mails and distribute
it and then we'll get an onslaught of negative e-mail. And recently that
happened with an article--do you remember the headline, Rob?
Mr. SIEGEL: I think it was Mary-Kate Olsen Is Dragging Ashley Down. This
woman was a big fan--they're twins. And this woman was a big fan of one of
the twins and not the other. It's just one of these things where fans who
don't get--it's usually just fans who don't get the joke. It's not like the
most offensive article we've ever run--there's not necessarily a correlation
between level of offensiveness and level of outrage in the response we get.
Usually it's just these random weird articles. The ones we least expect are
going to be the ones that somehow get, you know, the fans or the people who
care about their particular thing, whatever it is...
Mr. SIEGEL: ...they mobilize, and you never know what it's going to be.
Mr. SIEGEL: Yeah.
Ms. KOLB: Right. Sometimes it's a legitimately offensive one. I remember
one was--I wrote it. It was Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Linked To Bad
Parents Who Should Have Done More. Yeah. And so, you know, it's just an
article that took all the quotes of the parents who, you know, `Why couldn't I
have done something?' You know, reported these as fact. And I remember
getting some e-mails from people and they were saying, `Well, don't you
understand that these people are, you know, feeling grief and wrongly feeling
guilt, and, you know, that's why they're giving these answers?' You know, and
they pretty much just explained the premise of the humor to us in their
Mr. SIEGEL: That's a standard Onion formula is to take the terrible attitude
some people have--you know, the absolute opposite of what psychologists tell
you you're supposed to say or think about something and then report it. And
so that was a case if you're on Yahoo! and you're doing a search--let's say,
for example, your child died of sudden infant death syndrome. You do a Yahoo!
search for a support group in your neighborhood. Our article...
GROSS: Oh. Oh, yeah.
Mr. SIEGEL: Onion articles--that's how many of our readers come to us...
Mr. SIEGEL: ...or certainly our irate readers come to us is they'll do a
search on Yahoo! or Google for a particular subject, and our horrible article
about that subject will turn up.
GROSS: Oh, God.
Mr. SIEGEL: You know, embedded in the...
Mr. SIEGEL: You know, so the critical reader--you'd think if you had critical
reading skills you would say, `Hmm, what is the context of this article?'
Mr. SIEGEL: `What is the source?' you know. And then you might be able to
figure out that The Onion is, you know, not real. But they don't always do
that. You know, most people just see something in print, and there's
something about print that people--particularly, you know, newsprint that
people are, you know, very gullible, you know.
GROSS: Oh, yeah, but still, you know, like say you did lose a child, and
you're researching sudden infant death syndrome and you come across the
article, you're not in the mood for it.
Mr. SIEGEL: Well, that's the case where--right. Well, that's a ca...
GROSS: I mean, you're not in the mood to be entertained. You're doing it
because you're miserable.
Mr. SIEGEL: No, of course. And that's...
Ms. KOLB: Right.
GROSS: So I can understand why people would take it the wrong way. And it's
Mr. SIEGEL: No, that's not a case--right.
Ms. KOLB: Right. It also happens in this other way where people sort of use
our articles to justify the thoughts that they already have. Like we got a
lot of e-mail for an article we did about Homosexual Recruitment Drive Up To
Anticipated Levels, like for somebody...
Mr. SIEGEL: It was like 1998.
Ms. KOLB: Yeah. Yeah.
Mr. SIEGEL: 1998 Homosexual Recruitment Drive Nearing Goal, or something that
the gays are...
Ms. KOLB: Yeah. Yeah. And so a lot of people found that article and
they--you know, they...
Mr. SIEGEL: And a lot of gay--it went up on a lot of gay hate group--you
know, gay homophobic sites...
GROSS: Like it was real?
Mr. SIEGEL: Yeah. Saying look at what the gays are doing.
Ms. KOLB: Right. See, this is--yeah. Right. Or we have articles about fake
products and we sort of just think some product that the disgusting American
public would want. And one was a stop smoking product that was smokable
Mr. SIEGEL: These little cylindrical...
Ms. KOLB: And, you know, basically it was just cylindrical--it was a
Mr. SIEGEL: Like instead of a patch, which has a little dose of nicotine...
Ms. KOLB: Right. Yeah. Right.
Mr. SIEGEL: ...you can actually have a cylindrical tube that you insert into
your mouth orally.
Ms. KOLB: But you got a prescription from you doctor. And we got some
Mr. SIEGEL: Some nurses had called, yeah.
Ms. KOLB: ...yeah, that said that people were asking about these, that they
heard about them. They read an article. They wanted to know where they could
Mr. SIEGEL: Yeah. One of the funniest along those lines was we had an
article, Chinese Woman Gives Birth to Septuplets. It was right after
the--remember the McCaughey septuplets in Iowa who gave birth to the eight
children? We did--right after that we did one, Chinese Woman Gives Birth to
Septuplets. And then the subhead was Has One Week to Choose. And the idea
was in accordance with Chinese one-child-per-family policy. This woman had to
pick which of the eight children...
Ms. KOLB: Yeah. And throw the others off a cliff.
Mr. SIEGEL: Yeah. The others had to be thrown off a mountaintop. So we got
all sorts of e-mails from people--not mad at us, but mad at the Chinese
government for this horrible policy. And we had offers to adopt the children,
the unwanted children. We had people just simply writing to inform us that
they had started a prayer group for the kids. Most of those e-mails curiously
came from Texas, for whatever reason.
GROSS: Do you feel like you have to respond to these e-mails where they don't
get the context, they don't get the joke and they're angry with you? Do you
write them back?
Mr. SIEGEL: No, we...
Ms. KOLB: No, we don't. Occasionally, I think someone might send back just a
statement that says, you know, `The Onion is a satirical newspaper.' But in
general, we just do not respond.
Mr. SIEGEL: For the most part, we regard those people as lost causes. We're
not going to--I don't think we're going to convert them into Onion fans, you
know. So I guess we've got other things to do.
GROSS: Robert Siegel is the editor of The Onion. Carol Kolb writes for The
Onion. The Onion is published on the Internet at theonion.com. The new Onion
book is called "The Onion Ad Naseum."
Coming up, John Powers reviews the new movie "Solaris." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New movie "Solaris" starring George Clooney
TERRY GROSS, host:
Director Steven Soderbergh and actor George Clooney team up again in the new
sci-fi film "Solaris." Clooney starred in Soderbergh's films "Out of Sight"
and "Ocean's Eleven." Soderbergh also made the box office hits "Traffic" and
"Erin Brockovich." Soderbergh adapted "Solaris" from Andre Tarkofsky's 1972
film, which is based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem. Film critic John Powers
says Soderbergh and Clooney have made a big-budget art film full of surprises.
JOHN POWERS reporting:
Back in 1972 the anti-Soviet Russian filmmaker Andre Tarkofsky made "Solaris,"
a fabled art film that was something of a response to Stanley Kubrick's "2001:
A Space Odyssey," which Tarkofsky found technically brilliant but inhuman.
Tarkofsky's movie has an international cult following. And when it was first
announced that Steven Soderbergh was doing a remake, a man followed him down
the streets of New York shrieking, `You should be ashamed.' No, he shouldn't.
Clocking in at a lean 96 minutes, Soderbergh's bold new remake is an honorably
told tale of love, loss, memory and redemption. George Clooney stars as Kris
Kelvin, a disillusioned shrink who spent years grieving for his dead wife
Rheya. One day, he receives an enigmatic call for help from a space station
near Solaris, a swirling oceanic planet which is essentially a gigantic brain.
Reaching the station, he finds the place deserted, except for a jittery geek
named Snow, played by Jeremy Davies, and a stolid scientist named Gordon,
played by Viola Davis.
Kelvin soon learns that Solaris has the ability to bring human memories to
life. And as he snoozes, his dead wife Rheya--that's Natascha McElhone--shows
up in his room. Freaked out, he activates a space pod and banishes the
simulacrum into deep space. But Rheya keeps coming back and back, and Kelvin
starts sleeping with her, wondering whether he can save the new Rheya to atone
for not keeping his wife from suicide back on Earth.
Here Gordon confronts Kelvin about what they should do with the duplicate
(Soundbite of "Solaris")
Ms. VIOLA DAVIS (As Gordon): She's a mirror that reflects part of your mind,
and you provide the formula.
Mr. GEORGE CLOONEY (As Kris Kelvin): She's alive.
Ms. DAVIS: She is not human. Try to understand that if you can understand
Mr. CLOONEY: What about your visitor? The one that you're so ready to
destroy without hesitation? Who is it? What is it? Does it feel? Can it
touch? Does it speak?
Ms. DAVIS: We're in a situation that is beyond morality. Your wife is dead.
POWERS: Although this version of "Solaris" is far more accessible than the
original, it is by current Hollywood standards almost avant-garde, elliptical,
open-ended and demanding on viewers who are used to having everything spelled
out. It's an especially daring project for both Soderbergh and Clooney,
hugely successful figures who previously worked together on "Out of Sight" and
"Ocean's Eleven," which were enjoyable movies, but not exactly known for their
weightiness. Here each pushes himself farther than he's ever gone before.
The movie is a triumph for Clooney, who has always seemed a present-day
version of Cary Grant or Clark Gable, an old-style movie star better known for
his virile charm than his inner depth. But as Kelvin, he achieves a revealing
new level of passion. In fact, for a guy who's spent his entire career
playing cool, Clooney's strikingly good at acting scared, freaked out and
emotionally ravished. Ironically, he's at his worst in the rather trite
flashbacks that depict Kelvin first falling for Rheya, precisely the scenes
that come closest to asking him to do Clooney.
The movie is propelled along by Soderbergh's style, which owes more to the
European 1960s than it does to today's Hollywood. In fact, the story feels
positively dreamlike, a quality played up in the film's striking imagery with
its hallucinatory Christmas, symbolic battle between gold and blue and use of
shifting focus to give shapes an ambiguous fluidity. But while the style is
something of a tour de force--the technique is worthy of Kubrick--it doesn't
wholly mesh with the feelings it's supposed to express.
Although I can tell the love between Kelvin and Rheya was supposed to be
moving, I kept feeling their passion struggling against the virtuosity of
Soderbergh's filmmaking, which is so worked that even when he wants scenes to
be emotionally incandescent, they wind up feeling detached, even chilling.
Unlike Todd Haynes in "Far From Heaven," Soderbergh doesn't quite escape the
prison house of his own intelligence and make us feel for his characters.
At one point in the original Russian film, a character says, `We have lost our
sense of the cosmic.' That loss is felt acutely in this remake, which suffers
from a fascinating culture clash at its very core. Soderbergh has taken a
story that feels very Eastern European, shot through with agonized romanticism
and a transcendent sense of spirituality, and then heroically tried to make it
fit within the profoundly secular constraints of Hollywood filmmaking.
But in the end, this is a movie that yearns for transcendence more than it's
able to deliver it. Soderbergh's film never achieves the cosmic resonance of
the original, which you can now see in a marvelous new DVD from Criterion.
Still, its failings are born of ambition rather than commercial calculation.
And rather like the fictive Rheya that Kelvin finds out in space, "Solaris"
may not be the real thing, but you can almost believe that it is.
GROSS: John Powers writes the On column for LA Weekly.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with music by Jimi Hendrix. Today would
have been his 60th birthday.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. JIMI HENDRIX (Musician): (Singing) Rainy day, rain all day. Ain't no
use in getting uptight. Just let it groove its own way. Let it drain your
worries away. Lay back and groove on a rainy day. Lay back and dream on a
rainy day. Lay back and groove on a rainy day. Rainy day. Lay back and
groove on a rainy day. Lay back and dream on a rainy day. Lay back and
groove on a rainy day. Lay back and dream on a rainy day. Lack back and, lay
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.