a photo of a bearded man next to an illustration of a man standing at a podium that says "welcome rabbinical students." the man says, "first, do no ham."
Phil Witte with one of his single-panel New Yorker-style cartoons. (Photo/Rob Yelland)

‘Funny Stuff’: Gag cartoonist in Piedmont reverse-engineers his craft in new book

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Updated June 24 at 6:25 p.m.

Phil Witte sees things in black and white. 

The Piedmont resident is a cartoonist who specializes in the single-panel gag cartoon — the kind that appears in every issue of the New Yorker, where James Thurber and Charles Addams pioneered the artform in the 1930s.

Witte has had more than 1,000 such cartoons published in outlets including the Wall Street Journal, the Times of London, Barron’s and Reader’s Digest. “Funny Stuff: How Great Cartoonists Make Great Cartoons,” his upcoming book co-written with his friend Rex Hesner, reverse-engineers the process of cartoon creation and includes 100 top-notch examples by Witte and other masters of the craft.

“For me, it comes down to the gag,” Witte, 67, told J. earlier this month. “People often ask me how I come up with ideas. I usually say it’s where everyone gets their ideas: your experience, your dreams, your childhood, what you ate for breakfast.”

Gag cartoons are distinct from comic strips, graphic novels and political cartoons on op-ed pages. They boast their own rules and quirky humor. From cavemen contemplating the meaning of art to dogs and cats conversing to couples in bed examining their sex lives, the best gag cartoons cleverly pair archetypal scenes with skewed takes on life.

“Funny Stuff,” which is set for release on July 16, covers topics such as humor styles, visual and caption incongruity, idea generation and how women and people of color have expanded the art form. The authors also interviewed several A-list cartoonists to get their take on how they do what they do, including Roz Chast, Bob Mankoff and Bruce Eric Kaplan.

If those names don’t ring a bell, there’s a reason.

“Roz Chast is at the top of her game,” said Witte, who worked as a lawyer before making a later-in-life career switch. “She’s a bestselling author. She’s in museums. She gives talks. Does the average person know her? No. She’s well known in the cartoon world, but [cartoonists] labor in obscurity.”

Mankoff is another key player in that world. Not only was he the longtime cartoon editor at the New Yorker, Mankoff is founder of Cartoonstock.com, a website devoted to the art and the source of most of the examples in Witte’s book. Mankoff is also the master cartoonist who came up with one of the best-known New Yorker cartoons: the businessman standing at his desk while on the phone and consulting his calendar. The caption reads, “No, Thursday’s out. How about never — is never good for you?”

That classic is found in Witte’s book. So is Eric Lewis’ rendering of an old man on his deathbed whispering to his wife, “I should have bought more crap.” And Julia Suits’ depiction of two savage Vikings approaching a supermarket checkstand, with one saying, “We made a bit of a mess in Aisle 2.”

An illustration of Moses holding the two tablets. The caption reads: "So... who owns the copyright?"
(Courtesy Phil Witte)

Witte, who is Jewish, said Jewish humor and the gag cartoon style intersect nicely.

“There is a New York Jewish Seinfeldian humor among certain cartoonists,” he said. “Mankoff, Roz, Eric Bruce Kaplan. The New Yorker cartoonist assumes a certain sophistication, a knowledge of the culture we’re living in, so you can skewer it. It’s making light of or criticizing it but finding humor in our foibles, and that’s kind of a Jewish thing.”

Witte grew up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. His family belonged to a Conservative synagogue, where he went to Hebrew school three times a week. He graduated from Princeton University and University of Chicago’s law school. As a newly minted lawyer, he moved to the Bay Area in 1983, settling in Piedmont and working for a major San Francisco law firm.

He and his wife joined Oakland’s Temple Sinai and have been members for nearly 30 years. Witte has served on the Reform synagogue’s board for multiple terms.

As for cartooning, the Baby Boomer grew up adoring the Three M’s: Mad Magazine, Monty Python and the Marx Brothers. 

“We all had that mentality,” he said of himself and his high school posse. “The cartooning came out naturally. I absorbed a sense of irreverence and satire, and it carried over to adulthood.”

He started drawing as a child and later created caricatures of teachers and fellow students. In college he delved into creative writing, an effort that paid off later in life. His 1999 joke book, “What You Don’t Know About Turning 50: A Funny Birthday Quiz,” and the sequel about turning 60 together have sold more than 175,000 copies. He also decided to try his hand at freelancing gag cartoons.

“I started sending out cartoons, and they started selling,” he recalled. “I got better. That went on for 15 years, got to the point of selling a lot of cartoons for major publications, and then I said goodbye to law.”

Naturally, he draws on his Jewish roots for inspiration. “Moses is my go-to guy” for Jewish-themed gag cartoons, he said.

Fortunately, Witte doesn’t need to rely on his drawings to pay the bills. He said no one gets rich creating gag cartoons. The competition is fierce, even among the best in the business.

Typically, the New Yorker receives around 1,500 submissions for only 14 spots per issue. Even Mankoff had to submit 2,000 cartoons before the New Yorker accepted one. (Witte has never had a cartoon accepted, but he did come up with the gag for two cartoons by another artist that were published in the magazine.) That shouldn’t stop any aspiring cartoonist from giving it a try, he said.

“If you have a humorous or twisted view to reimagine things, you can come up with cartoons,” he said. “I never sit down and think, ‘I gotta come up with an idea.’ Once your antenna is up, it’s a process that becomes very natural.”

“Funny Stuff: How Great Cartoonists Make Great Cartoons” by Phil Witte and Rex Hesner (Prometheus Books, 150 pages). Witte and Hesner will attend a book launch event at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 16, at Book Passage in San Francisco’s Ferry Building.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the New Yorker has published cartoons by Witte.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.