For 'New Yorker' Cartoonist, '90 Percent Rejection Is Doing Great'

May 9, 2015
Originally published on May 11, 2015 2:09 pm

Matthew Diffee has been drawing cartoons for The New Yorker since 1999. When asked which comes first, the image or the words, he tells NPR's Scott Simon, "They both come at the same time. I start with words, but while I'm thinking words I'm picturing the drawing already."

Diffee has edited a best-selling volume of rejected New Yorker cartoons, and he has been honored by the National Cartoonists Society with a Reuben Award, which may be one of the few awards named for a deli sandwich. His new collection is called Hand Drawn Jokes for Smart Attractive People.


Interview Highlights

On The New Yorker's rejection rate

It's classically bad. ... We're supposed to turn in 10 gag ideas, you know, at a sketch level. And on a really good week they'll buy one. So 90 percent rejection is doing great.

On how his mom helped him get one beloved cartoon in the magazine

There's a cartoon in the book, actually, that exists because of my mom. It's hard to describe it, but it's like kind of a rough-looking dude, kind of like a Texan dude sitting in a lawn chair. He's in front of a banner that says, "Face Painting Five Bucks" and then you notice his hand is just holding ... a paint roller in a pan. So he's just going to go ... on the whole face of the kid. So that cartoon I submitted to The New Yorker, and they rejected. And then, you know, I waited another six months and I put it back in the batch — [it] got rejected again. It got rejected probably for three or four years and I just retired it. I was like, "Well, they're not going to buy it."

At one point — I don't even know how this happened — my mom was looking through some of my ideas that had been rejected and she just laughed and laughed. She said, "Oh, Matthew, they'll I love this one! This one's so good!" And that's the kind of encouragement that she would always give me, so I was like, "All right, well, I'll take it back one more time." And sure enough they bought it. It's still one of my favorites and, I think, one of her favorites.

On how his parents contributed to his becoming a cartoonist

My mom was very influential in making me want to be a writer and to enjoy words, and dad was very much [an] influence to me being an artist. He was an airline pilot that was an artist in his spare time, you know. So I learned tons from them. ...

My mom was one of those moms that loved pretty much everything I did and encouraged me to do it and also just instilled in me a love for books and for reading. You know, she read to us all the time. ... And my dad was, you know, more critical and I think maybe that balance was crucial, too. But ... Mom tells me I used to come home from kindergarten and I'd sit up on the kitchen counter and basically spend an hour telling her the story we heard from story time. And that's because she wanted to hear it, or at least [she] gave me that impression. ... I learned to tell stories and to, yeah, just enjoy that process of crafting a story for a person.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Matt Diffee, what comes to you first - the joke or the words?

MATT DIFFEE: I guess the best answer is that they both come at the same time. I start with words, but while I'm thinking words, I'm picturing the drawing already.

SIMON: Matthew Diffee joins us from our studios at NPR West. He's drawn cartoons for The New Yorker since 1999. He's edited a best-selling volume of cartoons that were rejected, and he's been honored by the National Cartoonist Society with a Reuben Award, which may be one of the few awards named for deli sandwich. His new collection is "Hand Drawn Jokes for Smart Attractive People." Thanks so much for being with us.

DIFFEE: Oh, thanks. I'm honored to be here.

SIMON: And this title - so only smart and attractive people get the jokes or...

DIFFEE: Yeah, unfortunately, yeah.

SIMON: Oh, so it's not that laughing at your jokes will make you smart and attractive.

DIFFEE: Well, it probably - if you try it probably would help over time. It'll take years, but yeah, it's a limited market kind of book - a niche market.

SIMON: Well, let me go through some of these cartoons to give people an idea of what we're talking - one early on (laughter) a doctor sitting with a patient in the hospital and he has a ventriloquist dummy on his knee. And he says, I'm afraid Mr. Bickles has some bad news.

(LAUGHTER)

DIFFEE: Yeah, it's light and it's very dark at the same time, yeah.

SIMON: Well, that's what you go for or what?

DIFFEE: Yeah, you got to have a little bit of - a little bit of an edge, I think.

SIMON: You have a woman in a classical gown looking out over the sea coast in the moonlight holding a lantern. The caption - night after night she watches the sea, longing for her husband's departure (laughter).

DIFFEE: Yeah, I'm glad you like that one. That's one of my favorite and I really overdrew that one.

SIMON: You were - you've become one of the best-known cartoonists in America, but even still, what's your acceptance versus rejection ratio?

DIFFEE: Oh, yeah (laughter). This is classically bad. This is, you know, across the board for everyone at The New Yorker. We're supposed to turn in 10 gag ideas, you know, at a sketch level, and on a really good week they'll buy one, so 90 percent rejection is doing great.

SIMON: I noticed the book is dedicated to your parents...

DIFFEE: Yeah.

SIMON: ...Who you seem to credit both of them for opening your eyes to cartooning.

DIFFEE: Sure. Well, not so to cartooning so much, but to the two parts of cartooning. Like, my mom was very influential in making me want to be a writer and to enjoy words, and Dad was very much influenced on me being an artist. He was an airline pilot that was an artist in his spare time, you know? So I learned tons from them.

SIMON: So your mother wasn't exactly necessarily encouraging you to be a cartoonist so much as she was just encouraging you.

DIFFEE: Yeah, my mom was one of those moms that loved pretty much everything I did and encouraged me to do it and also just instilled in me a love for books and for reading. You know, she read to us all the time.

SIMON: Yeah.

DIFFEE: Yeah, just enjoying the ideas and the things that I did meant so much. And my dad was, you know, more critical, and I think maybe that balance was crucial, too. But I used to come home - Mom tells me I used to come home from kindergarten and I'd sit up on, you know, the kitchen counter and basically spend an hour telling her the story we heard, you know, from story time. And that's because she wanted to hear it, or at least, you know, gave me that impression. And I would - I just - I learned to tell stories and to, yeah, just enjoy that process of crafting a story for a person. And in that case, it was my mom. So yeah, I can't say enough about Mama.

SIMON: It's funny because there's a cartoon that I've just turned to here that shows a couple of married couples chatting, and the wife in one of the couples says our son wants to be a comedian, so we're getting a nasty divorce.

DIFFEE: Yeah.

SIMON: But you were - are a comic talent that seems to have come from a happy, harmonious, loving, stable family.

DIFFEE: Yeah, that's the stereotype. You have to make jokes sometimes about stereotypes, but in my case it was a wonderful family to grow up with. There's a cartoon in the book, actually, that exists because of my mom.

SIMON: Yeah.

DIFFEE: It's - I'll have to describe it, but it's, like, kind of a rough-looking dude, kind of like a Texan dude, sitting in a lawn chair. He's in front of a banner that says face painting - five bucks. And then you notice his hand is just holding, like, a paint roller in a pan. So he's just going to go (imitating sound), you know, on the whole face of the kid. So that cartoon I submitted to The New Yorker and they rejected and then, you know, I waited another six months, and I put it back in the batch, got rejected again. And it got rejected probably for three or four years, and I just retired it. I was like, well, they're not going to buy it. And at one point, I don't even know how this happened, but my Mom was looking through some of my ideas that had been rejected, and she just laughed and laughed and said, oh, Matthew, love this one. This one's so good, and that's the kind of encouragement that she would always give me. And so I was like, all right, well, I'll take it back one more time. And sure enough, they bought it. And so it's still one of my favorites and I think one of her favorites.

SIMON: Matthew Diffee - his new book, "Hand Drawn Jokes for Smart Attractive People." Thanks so much for being with us. I feel somehow - I don't know - smarter and more attractive.

DIFFEE: Smarter and more attractive - well, thank you, Scott, I had a great time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.