A Cartoon History

Jokes as we know them today are a relatively recent invention, says New Yorker cartoon editor Robert Mankoff. In fact, modern humor draws its roots to back only to the post-war United States
  • Transcript


Question: What’s the oldest known cartoon?

Robert Mankoff: Well, even going back to jokes; I mean it’s interesting about jokes. You have this Greek book called Philo Gilos I think it’s called which is laughter lover, and it has something that sort of looks like jokes. They’re not very good; they’re bad jokes. They’re like the intellectual found that his pants were too tight, so he shaved his legs – sort of like that, so you have that but they’re very few. Then jokes even of that light are almost completely lost – there’s repartee, there’s quick comebacks and stuff, and there’s Joe Miller’s jest book which aren’t really jokes at all. There more like moral examples. They’re something like a minister was talking very loudly, and a woman in front started to cry and cry, and he said I am so pleased that I have moved you so much by my sermon. And she said no, no you just remind me of the bray of my donkey who has died, so they don’t really have it yet, and then there’s a little moral that comes after that. The truth is almost all of our modern forms of humor come out of a commercial culture of humor that started to exist in the United States and in England after the Civil War in which originally there’s variety and then there’s vaudeville, and it’s interesting you can look at guide books from vaudeville from the 1880s where they start to talk about comic material stuff produced. Now that’s very interesting. Now you wouldn’t say that a novel is material. For a poem it’s material but you start to have people actually write jokes for other performers.

By 1900 you have people are making $30,000 a year in vaudeville, so there’s a business of it. There may be three joke books in all of existence before you know the middle of the 19th century, and by 1900 there are thousands of them, and there are rate cards for what we pay for jokes. And in this time what we know is as the joke actually is invented. The joke that really has a punch line; that works you know in a complicated in which sometimes it seems to have a point but often it has no point at all. The interesting thing about it is that it bares no relation to truth – some of these jokes, and all they want to do is entertain.

Guy’s feeling lonely and so he goes to pet store; he wants an unusual pet, and he asks the guy yeah, I got an unusual pet; what do you got, and the guys says I have a talking cat; I have a talking centipede. Well, that’s great – now of course right away that’s a fantastic thing. Everything about that is wrong, untrue, cannot be – centipedes are not pets. This is violating the truth maxim; they’re not pets, and they don’t talk, but anyway for the purpose of the joke we move on. Guy takes the centipede home. He builds a nice little box for him; they’re getting along great. Finally, he says hey; he yells into the box let’s go down to Joe’s for a beer and a few drinks. Okay, another falsehood; centipedes can’t down to bars. They can’t drink. They don’t drink alcohol. We don’t care; it’s a joke right okay. He keeps yelling in and no answer. Finally, the centipede you know says will you give me a little fucking time I’m putting on my shoes. Okay, so these types of jokes there’s no moral in that. We don’t learn anything about centipedes. We don’t learn anything of that. This came out of the vaudeville esthetic, and the vaudeville esthetic was the presentation esthetic. The only thing is that this is the moment and to please that audience, so you have lots of jokes that start to get written. Now one of the reasons why people think jokes have always existed is because there’s a lot of stealing. There’s a lot of re-manipulation of jokes. What’s really interesting is that jokes becomes this transportable portable sense of humor, stripped of all its context which anybody can tell and which also could be manipulated to create new jokes. So it’s like a joke factory, so the joke which says I went into a restaurant the other day and I asked the waiter I want some cold soup, some burnt steak and melted ice cream. Well, he said I can’t do that. You say you just did it yesterday. Okay, that’s the same joke that gets manipulated is I went to the airport that the other day and I said I want this luggage to go to Toronto; this to Ohio and this France, and they say I can’t do that; you did it last month.

So this is the thing that develops as a type of really – and that’s what really interesting. Jokes as we know them are relatively a recent invention, and an even more recent invention are cartoons. Cartoons you do have you know Benjamin Franklin we’ll all hang together or we’ll hang separately. You have these editorials cartoons. You have these very long worked out sketches and punch where there’s you know much, much dialogue, but eventually what happens to the joke happens to the cartoon, and it starts to get compressed down to simply one line; the purpose of which is the joke. So with James Thurber you know before – in The New Yorker the original cartoons in 1925 are very much sort of long and lugubrious, and then eventually the cartoons get compressed down to where James Thurber cartoon where there’s two people are dueling. One person has knocked the head off another person and he’s saying touché, so it gets down to a single word.

Recorded on:  September 21, 2009