Making Sense of Humor

Robert Mankoff, cartoon editor of the New Yorker, explains how humor “works,” what it can explain about human nature, and considers the limits of bad comedic taste.
  • Transcript


Question: How does humor work?

Robert Mankoff: Well, I think humor works in this way. You know it not only tells us how to understand things. It tells something about the limits of our understanding. It usually uses incongruity. In other words, humor can’t just be something that’s absolutely normal. It has to deviate from the normal, and it uses some incongruity, but that incongruity just can’t be anything. It has to be appropriate, so let me just give you some real simple examples like a riddle you know. When is a door not a door; when it’s ajar. Okay, that’s a silly, little riddle, but we understand that the – you have this incongruity. You have a door that’s not a door. The interesting thing about humor is that in humor you – in logic something is A or not A. In humor it’s both A and not A. Let’s take a well known cartoon of mine. There’s a guy on the phone, and he’s looking at his rolodex, and he’s saying no Thursday’s out; how about never is never good for you. Now let’s look at that. What’s the incongruity there? The incongruity it wouldn’t be funny if he’s saying I don’t want to see you, right? That what he is saying right, but he’s saying it politely, so the two things that exist; what’s been called a cognitive synergy that don’t completely resolve is the message is rude and the form is polite.

That’s why when I did the cartoon I didn’t say no Thursday’s out how about never. I say is never good for you. It continues that, so you’re bringing things together that don’t usually go together and that can’t logically go together. You can’t both be polite and rude. Here you are both in fact being polite and rude, so I think we delight in that, and we also in I mean through jokes we delight in these synergies; these paradoxes that don’t resolve themselves for example, but we make it funny by also bringing in the emotional factor of people. For instance it’s a paradox to say this sentence is false, but there’s nothing funny about it, right? This sentence is false. That’s interesting; it’s false but it’s true but it’s false. To make it funny is that wonderful Alex Gregory cartoon from The New Yorker in which it’s a Hollywood boss, and he’s saying to the guy in front of him Dave I’m not going to lie; I’m gonna lie to you, so you know have that essential thing.

Now in terms of incongruity and appropriate congruity it’s appropriate but it’s not completely appropriate to logic, but I can do that by extending the riddle thing – the door, not a door; you know it’s ajar. Okay, everyone understands that but how about a riddle you know like this. You know what’s gray and comes in a jar, liquid elephant. Well, now one of the things is you can see it along a continuum of incongruity where there’s some resolution. I mean it wouldn’t make sense if I said mayonnaise. That would certainly be incongruous right, but there’s still something there, or even taking it further absurdly and saying why there is only one Eiffel Tower, and the answer because it eats its young. Okay, now so that’s very, very strange. There’s still some attachment. We understood if there was an animal that eats its young it would be maybe alone, so the constituents of humor are – I mean there’s really three different theories actually when you get down it. There’s superiority theory which Hobbes who was of course a theorist of power said it’s the sudden glory we feel when we see an eminence in ourselves compared to an inferiority in someone else – a fat guy slipping on a banana peel. Now a lot of humor has superiority and a lot doesn’t, and you know with the holy grail of humor is fine; the necessary and sufficient conditions for it.

Well, if it was sufficient to have superiority every time we saw a homeless person or a beggar we’d laugh and we don’t, so I think people confuse the fact that we often have an aggressive content in humor; we’re thinking that it’s either necessary you know or sufficient. The thing does seem you know – then there’s sort of the relief theories of Freud which is basically that we’re sort of this cauldron of desires, aggression and sexuality, and humor enables to actually sort of **** the moral dilemma of aggression by being distracted by the joke which either expresses sexuality and aggressive. And there’s this incongruity theory which says that it’s something either ambiguous that doesn’t fit that somehow is made to fit, and a way to really understand it and not understand it scientifically but in some comprehensive way you see that these are all parts that go into it.

Question: What aspect of human nature is best communicated through humor?

Robert Mankoff: Well, I think what uniquely is our ambivalence, and the fact that we’re multiple selves, and we all have different agendas. You know there’s something called Grice’s Maxims, and I can’t remember all of them, but basically they say do not say what you believe to be false. Do not exaggerate – you know be brief, be informative, and that’s good for a lot of discourses like science and stuff. It’s actually quite bad for a lot of communication with people in which we don’t know what they think, and they don’t know what we think, and humor is a way in which we can use ambiguity to probe ideas and to – straight forward language often leads to some decision. When often the most important thing is not to do something but just stand there. Interestingly you know humor versus anger and fear is sort of an immobilizing response. We don’t do anything; give you an example of how language works and you know in an ambivalent way, between me and my wife an actual conversation. We renovated our house, and my wife’s very neat; I’m very sloppy, so we decide you know what my studio is gonna be outside the house, so a very nice studio was created outside the house. But inside the house I have my green chair, my old green chair, and so my wife says you know now we made the house so nice why don’t we get rid of that ratty, green chair of yours. I said what do you mean? I mean I love this chair; I love it, so well if you like it so much why don’t you take it out to your studio. I said I don’t want this nasty thing out there. Okay, that actually shows our contradictory feelings, but instead of getting into locking horns about it, we realize you know what let’s negotiate, let’s compromise, and humor is full of paradox, and our lives are full of paradox.

Question: Where’s the line between humor and bad taste?

Robert Mankoff: The line between humor and bad taste is your audience in which some people will find everything offensive, and some people will find nothing offensive, but the truth is that most humor originates in what would be called bad taste. When you look at the origins of humor in Greek comedy which followed the tragedy which was you know very, very obscene; you know the satire plays – huge fallices. You know people running around you know very aggressive basically coming out of you know drunken revel rituals. The Feast of Fools; the The Lord of Misrule; Punch and Judy shows – all actually draw on this primitive side of humor which I talked about before that it comes out fear and aggression. It’s a way to negotiate that, so they deal very, very strongly with creating situations that are fearful, aggressive or transgressive, so the audience is important; going to a Chris Rock concert is very different than opening the pages of The New Yorker. The most offensive thing that ever occurred in The New Yorker would like the mildest thing at a Chris Rock concert.

Recorded on: September 21, 2009