The Future of Humor: Anti-Humor

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: Do you see any difference in the humor sensibility of liberals versus conservatives?

Robert Mankoff: Well, I would say that since you know most of the people are funny are liberal, and I think it depends on what area you come out of. There’s something about humor that tends to be subverse as questioning of authority, so since that’s often been the case or even the ideological stance of people on the left, they seem to more naturally have gravitated to it. And in a broader sense, not with a liberal but I would say comedians themselves are liberal in simply that they want less rules of a social nature opposed upon them by society. They want more freedom. They want freedom to say whatever they want on stage and stuff like that, and traditionally, it’s been the conservative’s stance to say in terms of censorship that’s where censorship has come from, so I think that that’s been the province. I think liberals find it harder now especially if they back Obama, and it’s easier to since the authority tends to be democratic now or more. From Obama he becomes a harder target for liberals because they don’t want him as target at all and an easier target for conservatives.

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.

Recorded on:  September 21, 2009

Where does comedy go from here? According to the cartoon editor of the New Yorker, it can only journey inward or towards ever-increasing depths of absurdity.

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