New Yorker's cartoon editor lectures at 'U'

Daily Staff Reporter
Published November 11, 2003

Renowned for wit and sophistication, cartoons in The New Yorker
have enticed readers for over 75 years.

An afternoon of chuckles and guffaws ensued as the
magazine’s cartoon editor, Bob Mankoff, spoke to University
psychology faculty, journalism fellows and community members

Seeking to forge an academic relationship between the University
and the weekly publication, the Psychology Department invited
Mankoff to give a series of five lectures on cartoons and the art
and science of humor.

“Right now, our faculty doesn’t study humor. And I
would like, if there is sufficient faculty interest, to develop a
center on the study of humor,” Psychology Department Chair
Rich Gonzalez said.

For most of the presentation, Mankoff showed cartoons from The
New Yorker’s extensive history, dating back to 1925. The
weekly magazine has archived all of its cartoons, maintaining a
collection of over 65,000 drawings. As cartoon editor, Mankoff is
privy to these archives.

On the art of humor, Mankoff discussed a number of skills and
methods, such as “taking an idea to the extreme, but then
egging us to see it another way.”

“That’s a common mechanism in humor. But unless you
have the right type of head, people stop short of it. It’s
about looking at the ordinary and seeing that little part where you
move it and make it extraordinary,” he added.

As an example, he presented a cartoon of businessmen seated
around a table. The caption read: “On the one hand,
eliminating the middleman will result in lower costs, increased
sales and greater consumer satisfaction. On the other hand,
we’re the middlemen.”

This humor, recently published in The New Yorker, is markedly
different from the earliest cartoons printed in the magazine. In
the 1920s, cartoons tended to be aristocratic, elaborate and
sometimes anti-Semitic, Mankoff said. Cartoonists highlighted class
divisions, representative of the city’s burgeoning wealth,
growing immigrant population and rising economic inequality.

Over time, cartoons became more “democratic” and
simpler. Brevity and wit increased in value, Mankoff added.

Nancy Derringer, a University Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow,
agreed with this reasoning. When Derringer was a child, she
regularly read the anthology of The New Yorker cartoons and
recalled the stark difference between current and older

“They used to have full pages and multiple panels, and
line after line of text. So he’s right, they have gotten much
simpler and a lot more ironic in a lot of ways,” Derringer

Events can also influence humor. Mankoff described cartoons
after the attacks of Sept. 11. After the magazine refused to print
cartoons for the issue following the attacks, the subsequent months
brought cartoons that “dealt with the darker side of
life,” Mankoff said.

“In some deep way, all humor is dealing with the dark side
and the problems in life, and I think that’s what it’s
for,” he added.

To exemplify comics published after Sept. 11, Mankoff showed a
cartoon depiction of traditional New York City subway scene. The
caption read: “It’s taking a little time, but I’m
starting to get back to hating everyone.”

Such published sketches would be very useful to faculty members
in psychology.

“You could do archival research for example, comparing how
political satire has changed from, say, the mid-’20s to the
present. You could take comparable events in history and see, for
instance, how Hitler was satirized versus how Saddam Hussein was
satirized,” Gonzalez said.

Mankoff discussed some other possibilities for more research.
For example, psychologists could study the time delay between when
an observer first eyes a cartoon and the first laugh.

“If we did brain imaging, (we could explore) what is
happening at that time,” Mankoff said.

Mankoff will lecture in East Hall throughout the week. Other
lectures include “How One Judges What is Funny” and
“Editing Humor.”