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I'm going to be talking about designing humor, which is sort of an interesting thing, but it goes to some of the discussions about constraints, and how in certain contexts, humor is right, and in other contexts it's wrong.
Now, I'm from New York, so it's 100 percent satisfaction here. Actually, that's ridiculous, because when it comes to humor, 75 percent is really absolutely the best you can hope for. Nobody is ever satisfied 100 percent with humor except this woman.
Now let's look at this cartoon. One of the things I'm pointing out is that cartoons appear within the context of The New Yorker magazine, that lovely Caslon type, and it seems like a fairly benign cartoon within this context. It's making a little bit fun of getting older, and, you know, people might like it.
The New Yorker is rather a sensitive environment, very easy for people to get their nose out of joint. And one of the things that you realize is it's an unusual environment. Here I'm one person talking to you. You're all collective. You all hear each other laugh and know each other laugh. In The New Yorker, it goes out to a wide audience, and when you actually look at that, and nobody knows what anybody else is laughing at, and when you look at that the subjectivity involved in humor is really interesting.
Indeed, it is discouraging. Now, you would think, well, look, most of you laughed at that. Right? You thought it was funny. In general, that seems like a funny cartoon, but let's look what online survey I did. Generally, about 85 percent of the people liked it. A hundred and nine voted it a 10, the highest. Ten voted it one. But look at the individual responses.
Humor is a type of entertainment. All entertainment contains a little frisson of danger, something that might happen wrong, and yet we like it when there's protection. That's what a zoo is. It's danger. The tiger is there. The bars protect us. That's sort of fun, right? That's a bad zoo. (Laughter) It's a very politically correct zoo, but it's a bad zoo. But this is a worse one. (Laughter) So in dealing with humor in the context of The New Yorker, you have to see, where is that tiger going to be? Where is the danger going to exist? How are you going to manage it? My job is to look at 1,000 cartoons a week. But The New Yorker only can take 16 or 17 cartoons, and we have 1,000 cartoons. Of course, many, many cartoons must be rejected. Now, we could fit more cartoons in the magazine if we removed the articles. (Laughter) But I feel that would be a huge loss, one I could live with, but still huge.
Cartoonists come in through the magazine every week. The average cartoonist who stays with the magazine does 10 or 15 ideas every week. But they mostly are going to be rejected. That's the nature of any creative activity. Many of them fade away. Some of them stay.
Now I know all about rejection, because when I quit -- actually, I was booted out of -- psychology school and decided to become a cartoonist, a natural segue, from 1974 to 1977 I submitted 2,000 cartoons to The New Yorker, and got 2,000 cartoons rejected by The New Yorker. At a certain point, this rejection slip, in 1977 -- [We regret that we are unable to use the enclosed material. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider it.] — magically changed to this. [Hey! You sold one. No shit! You really sold a cartoon to the fucking New Yorker magazine.] (Laughter) Now of course that's not what happened, but that's the emotional truth. And of course, that is not New Yorker humor.
What is New Yorker humor? Well, after 1977, I broke into The New Yorker and started selling cartoons. Finally, in 1980, I received the revered New Yorker contract, which I blurred out parts because it's none of your business.
With respect to idea drawings, nowhere in the contract is the word "cartoon" mentioned. The word "idea drawings," and that's the sine qua non of New Yorker cartoons. So what is an idea drawing? An idea drawing is something that requires you to think. Now that's not a cartoon. It requires thinking on the part of the cartoonist and thinking on your part to make it into a cartoon. (Laughter)
The New Yorker and I, when we made comments, the cartoon carries a certain ambiguity about what it actually is. What is it, the cartoon? Is it really about lemmings? No. It's about us. You know, it's my view basically about religion, that the real conflict and all the fights between religion is who has the best imaginary friend. (Laughter)
And this is my most well-known cartoon. "No, Thursday's out. How about never — is never good for you?" It's been reprinted thousands of times, totally ripped off. It's even on thongs, but compressed to "How about never — is never good for you?"
Now these look like very different forms of humor but actually they bear a great similarity. In each instance, our expectations are defied. In each instance, the narrative gets switched. There's an incongruity and a contrast. In "No, Thursday's out. How about never — is never good for you?" what you have is the syntax of politeness and the message of being rude. That really is how humor works. It's a cognitive synergy where we mash up these two things which don't go together and temporarily in our minds exist. He is both being polite and rude. In here, you have the propriety of The New Yorker and the vulgarity of the language. Basically, that's the way humor works.
So I'm a humor analyst, you would say. Now E.B. White said, analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Nobody is much interested, and the frog dies. Well, I'm going to kill a few, but there won't be any genocide. But really, it makes me — Let's look at this picture. This is an interesting picture, The Laughing Audience. There are the people, fops up there, but everybody is laughing, everybody is laughing except one guy. This guy. Who is he? He's the critic. He's the critic of humor, and really I'm forced to be in that position, when I'm at The New Yorker, and that's the danger that I will become this guy.
(Video) Bob Mankoff: "Oooh, no. Ehhh. Oooh. Hmm. Too funny. Normally I would but I'm in a pissy mood. I'll enjoy it on my own. Perhaps. No. Nah. No. Overdrawn. Underdrawn. Drawn just right, still not funny enough. No. No. For God's sake no, a thousand times no.
Now, we do reject, many, many, many cartoons, so many that there are many books called "The Rejection Collection." "The Rejection Collection" is not quite New Yorker kind of humor. And you might notice the bum on the sidewalk here who is boozing and his ventriloquist dummy is puking. See, that's probably not going to be New Yorker humor. It's actually put together by Matt Diffee, one of our cartoonists.
Now, in fact, within a context of this book, which says, "Cartoons you never saw and never will see in The New Yorker," this humor is perfect. I'm going to explain why. There's a concept about humor about it being a benign violation. In other words, for something to be funny, we've got to think it's both wrong and also okay at the same time. If we think it's completely wrong, we say, "That's not funny." And if it's completely okay, what's the joke? Okay? And so, this benign, that's true of "No, Thursday's out. How about never — is never good for you?" It's rude. The world really shouldn't be that way. Within that context, we feel it's okay. So within this context, "Asshead. Please help" is a benign violation.
Within the context of The New Yorker magazine ... "T-Cell Army: Can the body's immune response help treat cancer?" Oh, goodness. You're reading about this smart stuff, this intelligent dissection of the immune system. You glance over at this, and it says, "Asshead. Please help"? God. So there the violation is malign. It doesn't work. There is no such thing as funny in and of itself. Everything will be within the context and our expectations.
One way to look at it is this. It's sort of called a meta-motivational theory about how we look, a theory about motivation and the mood we're in and how the mood we're in determines the things we like or dislike. When we're in a playful mood, we want excitement. We want high arousal. We feel excited then. If we're in a purposeful mood, that makes us anxious. "The Rejection Collection" is absolutely in this field. You want to be stimulated. You want to be aroused. You want to be transgressed. It's like this, like an amusement park.
This is another cartoon from "The Rejection Collection." "Too snug?" That's a cartoon about terrorism. The New Yorker occupies a very different space. It's a space that is playful in its own way, and also purposeful, and in that space, the cartoons are different.
Now I'm going to show you cartoons The New Yorker did right after 9/11, a very, very sensitive area when humor could be used. How would The New Yorker attack it? It would not be with a guy with a bomb saying, "Too snug?" Or there was another cartoon I didn't show because actually I thought maybe people would be offended. The great Sam Gross cartoon, this happened after the Muhammad controversy where it's Muhammad in heaven, the suicide bomber is all in little pieces, and he's saying to the suicide bomber, "You'll get the virgins when we find your penis."
These cartoons are not about them. They're about us. The humor reflects back on us. The easiest thing to do with humor, and it's perfectly legitimate, is a friend makes fun of an enemy. It's called dispositional humor. It's 95 percent of the humor. It's not our humor.
Humor does need a target. But interestingly, in The New Yorker, the target is us. The target is the readership and the people who do it. The humor is self-reflective and makes us think about our assumptions. Look at this cartoon by Roz Chast, the guy reading the obituary.
The New Yorker demands some cognitive work on your part, and what it demands is what Arthur Koestler, who wrote "The Act of Creation" about the relationship between humor, art and science, is what's called bisociation. You have to bring together ideas from different frames of reference, and you have to do it quickly to understand the cartoon. If the different frames of reference don't come together in about .5 seconds, it's not funny, but I think they will for you here. Different frames of reference.
Now there are some cartoons that are puzzling. Like, this cartoon would puzzle many people. How many people know what this cartoon means? The dog is signaling he wants to go for a walk. This is the signal for a catcher to walk the dog. That's why we run a feature in the cartoon issue every year called "I Don't Get It: The New Yorker Cartoon I.Q. Test." (Laughter)
The other thing The New Yorker plays around with is incongruity, and incongruity, I've shown you, is sort of the basis of humor. Something that's completely normal or logical isn't going to be funny. But the way incongruity works is, observational humor is humor within the realm of reality.
Now that's a little puzzling, right? It doesn't quite come together. In general, people who enjoy more nonsense, enjoy more abstract art, they tend to be liberal, less conservative, that type of stuff. But for us, and for me, helping design the humor, it doesn't make any sense to compare one to the other. It's sort of a smorgasbord that's made all interesting.
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The New Yorker receives around 1,000 cartoons each week; it only publishes about 17 of them. In this hilarious, fast-paced, and insightful talk, the magazine's longstanding cartoon editor and self-proclaimed "humor analyst" Bob Mankoff dissects the comedy within just some of the "idea drawings" featured in the magazine, explaining what works, what doesn't, and why.
Bob Mankoff is the cartoon editor of The New Yorker, as well as an accomplished cartoonist in his own right. Full bio »