Big Think Interview With Robert Mankoff
Question: Are we the only species with a sense of humor?
Robert Mankoff: Well, actually when you look back along the mammalian chain you find laughter in rats when you tickle them. If you use the right sort of whatever transduces so you can hear the sounds; they have this little chirping, laughing sound that we know is pleasant because when we tickle them they will end up following our hands around. Of course if we tickle wrong though then they’ll end up biting our hands, and so it seems like play and the pleasure of something at least like laughter exists you know way, way down the chain there. In terms of chimpanzees and apes, they definitely have a form of humor. They too can be tickled, and they like it, and they also have a type of rough house play in which they run around. It sort of looks like aggression except they have what’s called a play phase, and the play phase in chimpanzees sort of looks like that. And then they pant in and out very, very fast which is different from our laughter which are these exhalations of ha, ha, ha, and so it’s an interesting combination of something that looks like aggression but that they have fun with. And we can see this also in children also. Children will run around and play like this. It would sort of look like fighting but it’s not, and many, many animals have this. We don’t know that dogs are laughing, but they obviously can be doing something that looks like fighting and but it’s fun, and that transfers all the way up really to people and adolescent males who will insult each other type of mock aggression to actually have fun and show that they’re friends. So we’re not the only species who have something like humor; something like this duality where something which would normally be unpleasant is funny like a cartoon of a guy who’s about to be guillotined, and the executioner has you know two baskets and he’s saying paper or plastic. Okay, this would seem like an unpleasant situation right, an execution, and we have lots of cartoons about that, so there’s the duality there. What chimps and apes don’t have of course is there’s never one person being funny for a lot of other people. They don’t have language, so all they can do basically is run around with one or maybe two people or they can tickle the other, but they can’t tickle many people. The way we have humor is it extends through language to in effect lots of people a lot of the time, and actually that’s sort of my job as a cartoonist.
Question: To what extent is humor a social interaction?
Robert Mankoff: Humor is social. That’s how it evolves. It evolves as way in primates to and we assume really going back to our own evolutionary ancestors, as a way to regulate emotions of fear and anger; sort of turn pleasure into pain really. Now it’s interesting how do you get the jokes from there, and I think I can explain that or at least speculate on it but essentially social. Even when we laugh at cartoons or jokes; it’s then pseudo social. The people in those cartoons; the people in those jokes are people. They’re not just objects, so humor is social. If I was to compress it you know and through like a psychological encapsulation; I would say it’s a social phenomenon. We laugh 30 or 40 times more with people and often at almost nothing than we do when we’re alone. It’s actually very, very rare for us to laugh alone. We will appreciate humor, but we won’t laugh at it. It’s some non-serious incongruities; something that’s sort of wrong but something’s okay. If you’re at a dinner table and someone accidentally turns something over; someone mispronounces a word; often we’ll sort of get things back to normal you know by laughing. Then there’s this emotion. You know we focus on laughter, but we forget there’s an emotion before laughter, and it’s called mirth. It’s the thing you feel before you laugh, and it’s the thing that you suppress when somebody farts in church, so that’s important and one of things is it’s been shown that the physiological changes that humor you know the supposedly healthful changes that humor brings about are due to this feeling of mirth. That’s what actually produces – the laughter is the expression, so you really see it as social just like anger and fear – social, occurs in a social situation. Something triggers it. You know and anger fear it’s something we’ll run away from and something we’ll fight. There’s a feeling of anger and fear, and then there’s a big expression. That expression – laughter and smiling tells us it’s social. Of course, why would you have this big expression you know unless you were communicating?
Question: What are the physiological benefits of humor?
Robert Mankoff: Well, you know it increases respiration. After heavy bouts of laughter, our blood pressured is lowered. In the brain itself, it’s really connected to pleasure just really like food and sex are; it’s a pleasurable response. You know we feel good when we laugh. We actually feel good. That’s the reinforcing part. Since laughter actually occurs often in some stressful situation and transforms the stress, it reduces stress, so you know it’s a stress reducer. I don’t want to overstate the case about its medical benefits. It can act in that way. It can act as a mild analgesic. Obviously, you feel better. In terms of actual longevity, it seems like people with really good sense of humor, jolly people, live a little shorter. They’re not so sober sighted serious that they’re reading every Jane Brody column on our diet and following it, and so you know they might not make it to 93 maybe just 87 but just have a lot better time doing it.
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 us to actually sort out 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.
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.
Question: Do men and women have a different sense of humor?
Robert Mankoff: Well, there’s some many men and so many women that you can’t generalize about everybody, but to generalize about a lot of people is there does seem to be you know somewhat what a distinction in that the since the roots of humor tend to be somewhat in aggression and fear and in dominance and stuff that men – what it turns is out is that men and women use humor differently. Men use humor often as a way to enhance their self presentation in a social situation – sort of look at me; also to show that they’re the dominant one in this situation. Women seem to use humor much more as a bonding mechanism, an affiliate of mechanism, and that’s the difference between joke humor and sort of conversational humor. It’s clear one of the real differences in our culture would be certainly among adolescent males. You see there’s a lot of insult humor among friends. You rarely see women do this. It’s not like they can’t be mean or anything, but they rarely insult each other as a form of joking.
Women’s humor is much more what’s called affiliative which is I want to make you feel good. I want to reveal something about myself. Here’s like a actual snippet of conversation because they have these conversational databases of humor. It’s two women at swimming pool, and one is saying to the other you know what is this good for your arms, and she goes that like that. In just in doing that, you know they’re fooling around a little bit, and the other woman says you know oh, I think it’s your thighs, and then the first woman said oh my thighs are out of control that’s helpless. And then the other woman says yeah I gained five pounds since I started swimming myself. Now they’re laughing they’re doing it. in other words they’re in this sort of playful mode and everything. You rarely find men through humor revealing something about themselves. Women often use the ambiguity of humor to probe and to find out about the other person, and they tend to like The Three Stooges a lot less than men.
Question: Has humor changed in this age of political correctness?
Robert Mankoff: Well, you know I think it’s the best of times; it’s the worst of times in that yeah there’s a lot of politically correct humor, and there’s a lot of absolutely politically incorrect humor. You know go up on YouTube in which the basic humor is you know someone getting hurt to a mash-up of jointy music – you dumb humor, and a lot of humor is dumb and a lot of dumb humor is you know very, very funny, but if you go you know on XM radio, you’ll hear a lot of absolutely raw stuff. There’s a lot of politically correct humor in politically correct places which would be universities. That’s where you when I do a presentation and let’s say I show a cartoon in which it’s a gallows and there are steps you know okay going up to the gallows, and then there’s a ramp for the handicapped. Okay so you get a type of laugh there – if you’re in private people will laugh at that. In public people laugh like ha, ha, ooh. They do the oohs. The first part is sort of reflex of response and the thing. The other part is a little confused thing saying is this making fun of the handicapped; we can’t make fun of the handicapped. You know and besides it’s about executions and we’re also against that, so you know I want a larger protest about this cartoon and remove the laugh that I actually laughed which is actually something you can’t do, and conversely when someone doesn’t find something funny you can’t put the laugh back in.
Question: What upcoming comedic trends can we expect?
Robert Mankoff: Well, I do I think you see more what I call meta humor – humor about humor, as humor’s so infuses everything that for instance we have a caption contest in The New Yorker, and then there’s an anti-caption contest. And with the idea is to the unfunniest caption. Of course, unfunniest caption is actually funny in itself. You can see trends like this going aways back. For instance when you started off with elephant jokes, they might seem to make first somewhat sense at the start you know like you why do elephants paint their toenails red, so they can hide in cherry trees, so they’re all very silly and stuff. But then eventually you see it’s a joke about that joke because the riddle will be how do you fit six elephants in a Volkswagen, and it says well three in the front, three in the back. Not a joke anymore but a joke only because there’s been all those jokes, and so I think you see that. So you see caption contests, anti-caption contests.
I do think you see going back also to the roots of humor that comes out of early what’s called low Greek comedy, trickster rituals in African and American Indians where they deal with really gross stuff because the audience now is such a niche, so you’re going to see a lot of that. I think you’ll see both high humor and low humor. You’ll see humor dealing with transgression, obscenity, all of that because the truth is humor like that almost goes back to the comedia del arte where a lot of it is if you read the script it would mean nothing, but it’s a lot of gesticulation, acting, falling on your ass, really that type of humor. At the same time, I think and hopefully in the pages of The New Yorker you see a different type of humor; it deals somewhat with that, but it also deals with a cognitive aspects of humor in which if you look at humor it’s basically social, but it has many other factors. You have a social factor. Okay, the more people around just having a good time going out for drinks. You don’t need much of a joke to have people laugh. You almost just need almost nothing. We’re in a play mood. You have this other and naturally related just to the physiological side of it. The more worked up we are in social situation; the more likely that excitation can be transferred to humor. There are experiments like this where you show someone a comedy film, and you either give them a placebo or adrenaline or a sedative, and just by giving them adrenaline, there’s a transfer of this excitation.
There’s an experiment like that which will show you the cognitive side of the joke is exactly the same or the practical joke in this case, but everything is else is different, so they’re lab students and one group is told that they’re gonna move this rat from one cage to another; that’s all they’re told, but it’s a rat so they’re a little bit worried and they have a glove. And the other group is told they’re gonna have to move the rat, but it’s very, very frisky and it’s gonna have to be sedated. They’re gonna have to inject it in its stomach to sedate it. When each group reaches into the cage, it’s only a tiny, little rubber rat. Both of them laugh, but the group that had the more anxiety laughs a lot more, so that’s another factor. There’s a hardly anything cognitive. In the pages of The New Yorker, it almost has to be all cognitive. It is social in some way. You’re reading it; you understood someone did it, but the joke really has to do its work by itself. It has to create its own incongruity, so I think you’ll see all these different forms of humor really developing simultaneously. It’s really like the Internet itself. One of the things is because now you have almost infinite niche audiences. You could almost have many gradations of humor; many more productions of it in all the various forms I really think that have ever existed.
Question: Were you funny as a child?
Robert Mankoff: Yeah, I think I discovered sort in the sixth grade about that in some way I was funny, and both this gave me a power I did not have before – a type of attention, and so I can sort of remember at that time you know saying oh you know I’m looking at the world a little differently, I’m funny. And this is a little bit like a lot of research that’s going now on in terms of this idea that talent is overrated. There’s a difference you know that you suggest hey I’m sort of good at this whether it’s shooting baskets or maybe being funny, and then you start to work at it; then becomes something you consciously and unconsciously practiced. You know so by the time I was in high school and stuff you know I was scanning the horizon of every social situation to see the incongruities to process it to see if I could make some sort of joke.
Question: What was your first published cartoon?
Robert Mankoff: I do. That was 1974, and it was in The Saturday Review of Literature, and it’s interesting how dated all the parts of it is. It has Superman at a personnel office, and the guy is saying fastest than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound; what no steno. Steno now you know what no steno. Now that was funny you see the rhythm of that is funny. You know just even saying steno, and in a way that actually when you’re talking about one of the constituents of humor is that in humor you know when one script changes to another in humor like here it’s Superman he’s great, but the script changes to always diminishes what previously had exist; where art elevates it. I’ll give you another example. You know so when you draw a cartoon just the setting is a type of default script. If I draw a cartoon in a doctor’s office or another cartoonist does, you see a doctor. Ah, it’s a doctor. Doctors are not legible. They know a lot about medicine. They’ve been trained. They care about you. Your welfare is very important to them. Now of course it’s a cartoon that’s the script the in the back of your mind, but you know that can’t be the script. That creates the tension there.
What is gonna happen here? It can’t be saying oh, let me really help you Mr. Ferguson. Instead, he starts off continuing that script in a way because it seems solicitous. It said you’ll be awake during the entire operation. The anesthesiologist is on vacation. Now all of a sudden that becomes very, very horrible, but it diminishes the script of the doctor. And that’s one of the things humor does. It always diminishes. It’s one of the problems people you know have with it, and it’s one of the certainly problems that teachers had with me because being a wise guy I like to think of myself as the class satirist, but you know they probably thought of me as the class jerk you know causing trouble because for instance let’s say I would do a cartoon in class you a drawing script of not paying attention, not doing what I was supposed to do. You know and then the teacher – the way teachers would certainly when I was growing up; their enunciation patterns when they didn’t like you were to split your name Mike and my name Robert at that time not Bob into two syllables and say Ro-bert if it’s so funny maybe you’d like to share it with the rest of the class. Drawing a cartoon I’d say yes I would, so just that type of thing which in a personal way I found a power in humor.
You know going back to high school and college really I think was really almost a transformative event for me, also not a good student and not going to class really, and so there was a sociology class at Syracuse University. I had attended the first class. This was during the 60s and stuff where there was huge lecture halls, and I’d come to the final, the last class, after having read the text book, and so I came in late and the teacher comes up to me and there’s a hushed silence ‘cause I haven’t been there. And he says who the hell are you, and I waited a beat and I said you know I could very well ask you the same question, and that burst this whole exam, blue book filled thing into ****. So I think early and throughout that I felt that humor was sort of my thing; my way to shift the balance of power that matter what situation is in; no matter what how the power seemed to range that humor could at least temporarily put the banana peel under their shoe.
Question: How many cartoons did you submit to the New Yorker before you were published?
Robert Mankoff: I submitted 2,000 cartoons to The New Yorker, and no one I think will ever go through that again. Although actually some people probably are, but I was selling cartoons to certainly other magazines at that time but doing lots of cartoons. I was doing like 35 cartoons a week, but I think at that point I was just all over the lot. I hadn’t really developed my own particular voice, and see that’s interesting because in The New Yorker cartoons are particular in that way, and it really goes back to the idea of between high and low humor. Most people in terms of their sense of humor have no aspiration. They don’t want better sense of humor. Their sense of humor is what funny is; they know that; they’re absolutely certain. The New Yorker it’s whole ethos is to look for originality and creativity and authenticity, so The New Yorker even if your cartoons applied these criteria that we would usually apply to other art forms you know like music and the novelty humor itself, and we still do. David Remnick who’s the editor and makes the overall decision in what goes in the magazine even the cartoons, and you look at that and is it something new; is it original. It doesn’t always have to be that, but that’s almost the holy grail. I would say that most are best characterized by someone like Roz Chast who in her pieces first appeared in the New Yorker they didn’t look like any cartoons that had ever appeared before.
Question: Were they right to reject you so many times?
Robert Mankoff: Let me just say I think it worked out.
Question: What was your first cartoon the New Yorker published?
Robert Mankoff: Yeah, a very strange cartoon actually and I was very much influenced by Eastern European cartoon and by Saul Steinberg. All of my original maybe seven or eight cartoons I had published had no caption at all which is strange because I sort of have this whole verbal gag component. It was a very careful stipple style and with my dots but lots more dots than you see now, and there was a guy at the end of a big newspaper printing press, very elaborate machine, so the press coming off this long newspaper. And he’s turning up the very end of it like he’s at a breakfast table where he’s has some scrambled eggs and some orange juice, so it was just sort of very sweet visual stuff, and I was very much influence by Saul Steinberg you know in that not soon after that I did a cartoon, so the cartoons were very intellectual in a way. And I did this cartoon, and this cartoon also you know shows you that got published in The New Yorker why humor although it may have its roots in fear and aggression; some humor can seem very far from that. It shows a water girl holding buckets you know coming down from the well, but there aren’t two buckets they’re three buckets, and two of them are labeled H and one of them is labeled O, so a really superiority theorist says exactly what is it; what do we feel superior to chemistry or that water girl. What I will say well you can go back and really look at some of the roots even from the most primitive part is a lot of what happens in humor is that there’s a cognitive ship from unknowing to knowing, from not understanding to understanding, and when we look at our evolutionary past, we can see that a feeling of unknowingness, of tension, of I gotta figure this out would have been fearful, would have been problematic, so one of the things jokes do is they build this thing is I’m telling you with the centipede you are in that state of unknowingness of tension. You know you’re thinking am I gonna understand this; what that, is it gonna be funny, and then all of a sudden there’s this feeling of mastery, and with humor different than a puzzle, the mastery is instantaneous when the joke works.
Question: How many cartoons have you published?
Robert Mankoff: Oh, I think somewhat over 900 and done thousands, and that’s interesting also. People like Roz Chast, Jack Ziegler or Sam Gross – people think you do one idea a week. Well, you do five, 10, 15 ideas a week. Someone like Sam Gross who’s a classic gag cartoonist is 26,000 something cartoons. Every time Sam hands in cartoons on the back I can see the number, and I say Sam what is this you’re handing in like 8, 468th cartoon; you’re resubmitting this, so he keeps track, and so the amount of work and effort going into this is much, much greater than people think. And that work is necessary because the difference between a professional and a amateur I think in any field is an amateur thinks pretty much everything they do is good, and a professional thinks most of what they do is crap.
Question: What’s the most difficult part of being a cartoon editor?
Robert Mankoff: There is something about seeing a 1,000 cartoons a week that is somewhat inhibiting or put you in a difference mindset. An evaluation mindset is not a creative mindset. Also, I have to be very careful about not using anybody else’s ideas and not being influenced, so I think that’s it. That all of a sudden even more than ever before you have to say what is my own particular voice, and your voice changes over time in that you know one of the things that I like to do now is try to you know connect cartoons to some emotional truth; so I might look at the present situation. You know I might take a quote like Scott Fitzgerald like living well is the best revenge, and I might have a guy at a party saying I know living well is the best revenge, but right now I want to do better than my brother in law; getting it back to how we actually feel about events or thoughts that you’re happening rather than simply being in a cartoon universe. And yet the truth is I find that the thing that people often funniest are just the most simple things you do that you think you throw away. In a couple of cartoon issues, I had a label it was called Hamlet’s Duplex, and it just has two doors in an apartment setting 2B be and the other doors says not 2B, and so there is just me fooling around. It has no meaning at all, but within this joke universe, it’s wonderful. You get these e-mails saying I love that cartoon; that was the greatest cartoon.
Meanwhile, you’re struggling to get to emotional truth, so it’s a little bit like the Sullivan’s Travels movie by Preston Sturges where Joel McCray does comedies, and he wants to do something important. He wants to go out into the world, and then you know he goes through all these travails, and in the end you know he’s in some sort of prison where some horrible situation where a Charlie Chaplain movie comes on and everybody’s laughing and laughing with tears streaming down their face, so maybe I should get back to that.
Recorded on: September 21, 2009
A conversation with the cartoon editor of The New Yorker.
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