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Originally published – June 13, 2005

Though you can draw a diagram for the different axis’s that humor works on, you can’t really sit down and tell somebody what “funny” is. Humor is contextual, inexplicable and personal. Bob Mankoff has been working on a research project with the University of Michigan psychology department to find out how people process humor: how your eyes track and when your pupils dilate.

As the Cartoon Editor for The New Yorker magazine, Mankoff is in the fortunate position to pursue this question as he looks at a thousand cartoons a week. His recent book tour took him to a lengthy discussion at the New York Historical Society and Good Experience Live 2005.

“Cartoons and humor are not for the good times. They’re for all the bad frustrations, annoyances, and things bordering on the horrible that happen to us. And they’re even for the horrible things happen to other people – it’s a certain little anesthesia of the heart which is necessary.” – Bob Mankoff

Bob Mankoff recently spoke at the GEL 2005 conference. To follow is a transcript of that talk. Some specific references to slides have been omitted to facilitate reading. All the pictures were taken from the New York Historical evening.

BOB MANKOFF: The New Yorker is to cartoons as is God is to Religion. Every year the New Yorker produces a thousand cartoons, but strangely enough when we tried to do the book [ed. Ref to the recently published collection], there was no table of contents. Up to 1972, what they kept was scrapbooks of everybody’s cartoon that was ever published.

Let me show you the range in New Yorker cartoons. Folks, we have 965 cartoons. Cats! Dogs! Einstein! Friends! Internet!

You know, one other thing I’m interested in is “What’s the purpose of humor? What’s actually happening here?” And, I mean, jokes are this big thing – this big wind up toy and you can really see it. When you actually look at what’s happening, Jokes are really about a certain type of aggression and dealing with a whole range of problems. I once talked at high school about editorial cartoons and a Pakistani student said, he got up, a young man who had just come here said, “How come there are no cartoons praising God?” (laughter)

Cartoons and humor are not for the good times. They’re for all the bad frustrations, annoyances, and things bordering on the horrible that happen to us. And they’re even for the horrible things happen to other people – it’s a certain little anesthesia of the heart which is necessary. Everyone talks about empathy, but you know, you need lack of empathy, too. A lot of good humor is saying: It’s not me that it happened to. And that’s actually important. My theory of humor is what’s happening is that: something is wrong, but basically everything’s all right. Now sometimes they’ll give you that it’s all right if it’s not you.

I want to show you the difference in humor between cartoons – these are three cartoons from the 40s and the 50s. In these cartoons. Well, people say, well how does humor change? It has changed in a way. In all these cartoons, I’ll show you how you would promise, for example. The cartoon is not really within the cartoon. And the person that’s in the cartoon is not really making the joke. We’re looking into a human situation. “I didn’t sulk at Madison Square Garden.” Okay, the guy’s at the opera. Modern cartoons are much more aggressive. “You’ll be awake during the entire procedure, the anesthesiologist’s is on vacation.” “Careful, those plates are extremely dirty.” (laughter) “I started out my vegetarianism for health reasons and then it became a moral choice and now it’s just to annoy people.”

Okay, my job – the paradox of situations, I see 1,000 cartoons every week to help David Remnick pick 17 cartoons on the average to pick from for the magazine. So that’s my “paradox of choice.” I meet with the cartoonists. One of the things I’m here for and I do feel, rushed, of course, is that I’m a huge believer in humor because humor is one of the creative enterprises, one of our gifts. It always involves a special type of mind. When, I think humor is a bulwark against the hegemony of rationalism. The idea that we really can figure everything out. I mean, my basic models for the insanity of rationalism is sports. Okay, listen to the fans. Listen to the guys who know about Boston and the Yankees. They know everything conceivable about these teams. They’ve studied them and everything. They’ll make all sorts of pronouncements. And nobody has a clue who’s gonna win the game. But on Iraq, does anybody know more about Iraq than these guys know about the Yankees and Boston? Every single stat. So what humor is always saying is I may not know – but you don’t know shit!

When anyone finds out I’m a cartoon editor for the New Yorker, that’s what they tell me, “I have an idea for a cartoon.” I usually bring along actually rejection slips. But, my cardiologist, you know, I’m hooked up cause I have an arrhythmia and he’s saying, ‘I have an idea for a cartoon’. Oh, great, I have an idea for by-pass. He took it, which disturbed me. (laughter)

I have a cartoon in April, all these people come in, you might not sell a cartoon to the New Yorker for 2, 3, 4 weeks. They’re people who can do this special type of conceptual blending like I looked at. When I talk to audiences like this, I basically have one goal, if it’s one young person in the audience that I can prevent from becoming a lawyer or a doctor. Okay, so that’s basically what we do. We regret, constantly, but we do actually regret it. But one of the things about the creative enterprise is you must accept rejection. The people who can succeed in it have to have that ego strength. There are actually many people with talent – talent in these fields, but the talent wilts under rejection. So often the kids who were very, very talented, whose parents kvelled over them night and day are the ones who can’t succeed. My parents ignored me and made this gift.

People think all the people doing the New Yorker cartoons are 40 or 50 years old. No, it’s not true. Or 60, like me. Hey look, David Mammet, when I became cartoon editor at the New Yorker, sent to me a very nice note saying, “Congratulations on becoming cartoon editor of the New Yorker. I’ve taken the liberty of sending you a batch of cartoons.” I sent him back a note which was not nice saying, “thank you very much. I’ve taken the liberty of sending you a play.” I know what it’s like to be rejected because when I actually quit experimental psychology for cartooning, I remember I told my father that I had all my credits for a doctorate, and I said, “Well, I’m going to be a cartoonist instead. I taught at the high school of music and art, I always wanted to do this.” He said, “You know, they already have people who do that.” And they did but I always hoped that one of them might die. Rejection, rejection is all they got.  Finally I did get a cartoon accepted to the New Yorker – no actually, first I did this. A few coveted early cartoons that I sold to the New Yorker. “There is no justice in the world, there is some justice in the world, the world is just.” “Hi, I’m…I’m…I’m…you’ll have to forgive me; I’m terrible with names.” (laughter). It’s called, “What Lemmings believe.” “Geez, you’re the worse focus group I’ve ever seen.” “I’m sorry, dear, I wasn’t listening. Could you repeat what you said since we’ve been married?”

Okay, I’ll quickly show the thing I’m looking for in a cartoon. Like the inside, the joke, it’s part of the creative mind. It’s not rational. You can’t come up with these ideas by outlining them. It’s a type of conceptual blending, you know. It all comes from your unconscious. It’s my personal belief that everything is part of process. And if you ask people how they get the idea, they can’t tell you because you’re asking the secretary. It’s like asking the screen of the computer what’s going on. It’s all happening, you know, underneath. Ah, so that’s not an idea. Okay, but that’s transformed into an idea.

There is an aggressive element. Even in this there’s an aggressive element just as you’re manipulating the world. But what I’m hoping for in humor and for the use of humor, is that there’s something there that you participate in. When you’re watching American Home Video you’re not participating in anything. You’re watching people fall down. Which turned out just about the funniest thing there is. I make cartoons by what I call conceptual blending. I take two different spheres like this cartoon where you have heaven in easy pass. If I see Heaven as a gate. I can blend it with a million other things that have gates. This guy could be a bouncer in a – at a nightclub. You could be asking for these peoples’ passwords. If heaven is an office, then the clouds could be desks. It’s this idea, this creative idea of taking two different associational domains, matrixes, and putting them together. And in that then diagram’s space there in the middle, that’s where creativity comes. And in that space is something that was never in the original space.

So, the types of cartoons that I do if I’m blending the office in a judicial system. Accounting department and legal department. Gas – fill’er up with testosterone. The other thing I do in terms of looking at these thousand cartoons, is divide them. And we’re doing research on it into whether or not the work is sort of being done in the caption, over here. Here you have normal – and abnormal segment – it’s a gag: “Your infection may in fact be antibody resistance and let’s see how we responds to intensive litigation.” But the picture is normal. Here is an abnormal picture of a little rat hung himself, “Discouraging data on anti-depressants.” Here in this quadrant is the fantasy where both things are unusual. And here you have the slice of life, stuff that I showed before. Over here is the gag diagonal, you know, where both jokes occur. I try to look for jokes here and also here as well. When I’m looking at a thousand cartoons, I want it to be an exhibit of all the types of humor.

I want to show you we’re doing experiments at the University of Michigan. Now the next slide will show how the eyes track and process for a cartoon like this. These are high-speed digital cameras of subjects as they look at different types of cartoons. In the cartoons where they have to integrate the information, they obviously integrate on both sides. In cartoons that people – you also measure pupil size and cartoons that people like, in the half before they go to get cartoons, their pupil sizes are small and then it pops. So it’s a very, very interesting measure, besides laughter itself, of humor. And we do these experiments at the university of Michigan using these cameras and also FMRIs, you know, of the brain.

Most people like the cartoons. But, in any cartoon, no matter how – when people come up to me they say, ‘now, that’s funny!’ They think funny is in the cartoon. Funny is in the relationship between your experiences in life and this cartoon. So the best rated the cartoons, many think they’re terrible and other cartoons are exactly the reverse. When I look at what people actually think is funny, these are all the intellectual cartoons that I’ve done. All cartoons that I like – “periodic table 450 B.C.”, “Tomb of the unknown quantity,” etc. They’re all stuff. People like these cartoons. They’re not that strong laugh cartoons because they’re abstract. You know, when you’re looking. You take the sentence – this sentence is false. That’s a paradox. That’s sort of funny. But it becomes funnier if it’s always looking at “ignore this sign”. When human beings are involved in cartoons people laugh. Okay? “Now that’s product placement,” Viagra. “If these walls could talk and they knew what’s good for them, they’d shut the fuck up.” (loud laughter).

Death is a big element. Cartoons and humor are about taming. We have a very old system which is the limpid system and the emotional system, it basically wants to run away and flee or it wants to fight. And humor is for the responses between that we’re constantly being confronted with. Humor in all these cartoons is about death are really a way of taming death.

Placement was a website that turned a critical eye on culture, with an emphasis on the importance of integrity in process over product. It published frequently from 2005 through 2006, as an online critique of art and design within contemporary culture. Placement provided original content by independent voices – something the internet is particularly good at offering but which blogs don’t seem to be very good at maintaining.

In order to save some of that work from the sands of time, I’ve archived selections from that work here: PLACEMENT Archive

E. Tage Larsen
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