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Joe Dator: Beefeater/Anteater (crop)

Work / Illustration

Brilliant New Yorker cartoonist Joe Dator talks about his life and work

Interviewing cartoonist Joe Dator is a real honour, because he’s a total hero and also a spectacular interviewee. Listen to him talk about his working life: “Everything revolves around Tuesday. The New Yorker cartoon meeting is on Tuesday, so that’s the day we all submit our new ideas to the editor…I usually work over the weekend and by Monday night I’m in full-on lockdown to get my batch of ideas ready. Wednesday is a day off. If you ever want to socialise with a New Yorker cartoonist, Wednesday is the day to do it.”

Across the pond, Joe’s one-panel gags are as ubiquitous as cornflakes for those people who pick up The New Yorker. His dry humour is offset with his pretty strange way of looking at the world. As he points out in the interview below, everyone makes fun of stupid latte flavours offered up by coffee conglomerates – but who can sum it up with a sketch and a one-liner containing the words “ham hock” like Joe? I guess that’s why he creates work for The New Yorker, he’s just really, really good at what he does. Ever fancied yourself as a cartoonist? Read on to find out what it entails, and some tricks of the trade.

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Joe Dator: Ham Hock Latte © Joe Dator/The New Yorker

Tell us about your experiences pitching to The New Yorker

I started submitting in 2005 and was very, very fortunate to have gotten my first cartoon accepted after a very short time, only a matter of months. I sometimes go in and sit across from Bob Mankoff as he looks at my work. He’ll then hand me back most of it and keep a small amount to show to the editor-in-chief, then by the end of the week I’ll find out if any of them were accepted.

Lately I’ve been staying home and emailing in my stuff, that way I avoid knowing which ones he doesn’t even want to consider. In my mind I imagine all my cartoons are contenders every week. Sometimes if I think something is very good I’ll keep submitting it until it’s accepted. The good thing about this process is it helps you grow a thick skin against rejection. I can pretty much be told to piss off by anyone any time and I don’t take it personally. I just think “OK. Move on. Next please,” and that’s as it should be.

“Sometimes if I think something is very good I’ll keep submitting it until it’s accepted. The good thing about this process is it helps you grow a thick skin against rejection. I can pretty much be told to piss off by anyone any time and I don’t take it personally”

Joe Dator

How many cartoons do you draw each day – and how many tries does it take to get you to the right one?

Some days I draw none and other days I draw ten. I don’t have a huge amount of control over that. Getting it right is unpredictable. It has happened that a cartoon simply appeared whole in my head and with one quick sketch it was done, but that’s rare. Usually there is some kind of process, where the spark of an idea happens and then after playing with it for a while I nail down what I was trying for. There are other times when an idea has a very long gestation period. I’ll think of the setup and then the punchline will come to me months or even years later.

Why do you tend to use one panel to tell a story as opposed to a strip?

I have done sequential work and I plan to do a lot more – I’m working on a graphic novel currently. The single-panel gag cartoon is something I kind of fell into. It’s a very different animal than any other art form and I find mastering it to be a challenge. You have one image and a handful of words to tell a joke and it hinges entirely on the split second that the reader gets the joke. Getting it right is so difficult that I think it’s addictive. Once you get on this bull and you can stay on for seven seconds, you get hooked on the thrill.

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Joe Dator: Cowboy Hat © Joe Dator/The New Yorker

Which cartoonists did you grow up reading?

Mostly I grew up obsessed with comedians rather than cartoonists, but I was a big Mad magazine reader and later I discovered National Lampoon and Playboy. There is a cartoonist named B. Kliban, who is most famous for his cat drawings but who was a true genius of absurd weird humor, and when I saw his work for the first time it really grabbed me and he became my hero. I still hold him up as the ideal.

Which cartoonists do you admire nowadays?

Lately my contemporaries at The New Yorker are doing some great cartoons. Paul Noth is consistently amazing. Drew Dernavich, Emily Flake and Liam Walsh are fantastic. Benjamin Schwartz and David Borchart always manage to put a surreal element in their work and that’s something I love.

Why are cartoons integral in newspapers and general news?

I don’t know. I don’t know that they’re integral. I try to keep my role in perspective – I’m here to provide a laugh. If it’s a laugh that makes an important point, all the better, but if I can draw a monkey wearing a Conquistador helmet, and that gives someone a stupid giggle, then I’ve fulfilled my promise to society. Personally, I think every little stupid giggle helps the world, but maybe some would disagree.

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Joe Dator: Earangel © Joe Dator/The New Yorker

Do you receive a lot of complimentary emails about your cartoons, and has anyone ever been offended by your work?

I get the occasional fan mail or complimentary message on Twitter. It’s always welcome. Some people have been offended by my work, though it was not anyone whose opinion I regard highly. It’s never my intention to hurt anyone’s feelings, but I do believe all jokes are at someone’s expense, so if you offend the right person you’ve done your job.

My Manspreading cartoon upset some people, which really surprised me. I saw some complaints on Twitter and so I clicked on the profiles to investigate. It turns out it was the “Gamergate” people and the “Men’s Rights” people, who see “manspreading” as feminist propaganda. I couldn’t be more delighted to have offended these idiots.

“You have one image and a handful of words to tell a joke and it hinges entirely on the split second that the reader gets the joke. Getting it right is so difficult that I think it’s addictive. Once you get on this bull and you can stay on for seven seconds, you get hooked on the thrill.”

Joe Dator

What would your advice be to budding cartoonists?

There is a topical cream that can stop the budding. Apply twice a day. As far as the cartooning goes, there isn’t a cure. What’s helped me is having no known ability to do anything else, so if you have that you’re in good shape. I would also say don’t take my advice, because there are no rules. Ask yourself “Is this the cartoon I wanted to draw? Is this the way I wanted to draw it?” and if the answer is yes to both of those questions, then that’s about all you can do.

Is there one cartoon you have made that you are particularly proud of?

I’ve done a few that I’m proud of. Recently I’ve been doing a daily cartoon for The New Yorker’s website and I’ve gotten a few things across that were very unusual. I’m the most proud of the ones that only I could have drawn, like the Ham Hock Latte cartoon. I’d like to think no-one else on this green earth is walking around with the words “ham hock latte” in their brain. Well, now there are probably loads of people, but before it was just me.

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Joe Dator: Beefeater/Anteater

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Joe Dator: Barbershop

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Joe Dator: Man Spreading © Joe Dator/The New Yorker

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Joe Dator: Mrs Robinson © Joe Dator/The New Yorker

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Joe Dator: Panda Swim © Joe Dator/The New Yorker

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Joe Dator: Self

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Joe Dator: Snow Leonard

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Joe Dator: Untitled