Funny with honors: New Yorker cartoon editor teaches the art of humor in mini-course

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BY CAROLYN KLARECKI
Senior Arts Editor
Published March 28, 2010

Attending Robert Mankoff’s class is more like seeing a stand-up comedy show than going to lecture. In his course, you don’t have to politely chuckle when the professor makes a bad joke. There’s genuine laughter, and audience participation builds upon the humor. Mankoff will take anything and everything and spin it in a funny way, and in his Honors 493 class Humor: History, Theory, and Practicum, he teaches his students to do the same.

Mankoff is the perfect professor for a course that essentially teaches students how to be funny. He’s juggling his semester as an intermittent lecturer at the University with his job as cartoonist and cartoon editor for The New Yorker, a magazine known just as much for its cartoons as its prose.

“I had wanted to be a cartoonist, and then after I had a brief career in graduate school, I thought I’d give it a try,” Mankoff said. “And then after submitting only 2,000 cartoons to The New Yorker, I was chosen … and then I did cartoons there for 20 years.

“But what I always really wanted was a small office in the Art & Design building, and now I also have achieved that,” he added jokingly.

Mankoff first came to Ann Arbor for a speech he made to the University’s Knight Wallace Fellows in 2008 about his job and journalism. After that, he realized how much he wanted to explore humor from its academic side and approached the University’s psychology department about teaching a class.

“I started off in the psychology department teaching the sociology and science of humor. … Why do we have humor? The evolution of it, mechanisms of it, the cognitive part of it, the developmental part of it — social psychology, you know, a real boring course,” he explained. “Gradually, (it has) evolved more into a course in which I try to inform (the students) of the psychological research by showing them humor in action — its creation — and this year it’s much more of a practicum.

“You have satire, you have irony, you have parody, you have all these different forms, and that’s the point of the course,” Mankoff said. By introducing his students to these different forms, his goal “is actually to improve the students’ sense of humor.”

Yes, in this course (cross-listed as an Honors, Art & Design, and Institute for the Humanities course), Mankoff is actually trying to teach his students how to be funny and appreciate different types of humor. As part of his job as cartoon editor, Mankoff must evaluate the hundreds of cartoon submissions The New Yorker receives each week, so he needs to have a decent idea of what makes something funny.

“Nothing that’s good is funny. No good marriage is funny, no good teacher is funny, no good vacation is funny,” he explained. “There are numerous ways of seeing the incongruous things in life, getting a little distant from them and seeing the absurdity of that.

“For example, the absurdity here in Ann Arbor, and everywhere, of waiters and waitresses constantly asking, ‘How are you doing? How’s the food?’ Well, you know, if a quarter of the way through it was OK, it’s probably fine,” he added. “They don’t have to keep checking. Now one of the many different mechanisms of humor (is) exaggerating things like this.”

Still, the larger question at hand is whether humor is an inherent gift or whether it can be taught. Mankoff believes the latter.

“Can humor be taught? It can be manicured and it can be learned," he said. "Of course, like everything else, people come to it with different ability, different starting points.”

And because all his students come into the course with different levels of experience and natural talent, he uses a hands-on approach to force them to keep practicing. One of his methods is to present a student with a statuette and to make them accept the award in a creative way.

“If I wanted to do improv with you and wanted you to accept an award, you’d freeze. You’d say, ‘Oh, I don’t know what to do with something like this,’ but I’d make you do it over and over again and eventually you’d come up with some ideas,” he said.

And his students readily accept his methods.

"It's kind of like a big party," said Art & Design senior Carolyn Nowak, a student in Mankoff's class. "Everyone tries to participate with their own jokes and their own material."

“The man is an eccentric cross between Christopher Walken and Woody Allen,” said LSA senior Brad Bobkin. “You’re born with a sense of humor, but you can be taught and persuaded to see things differently. … I think he’s teaching people to just walk with open eyes.”

Mankoff wants his students to take note of everyday occurrences and to see the humor in them. His students constantly swap anecdotes online throughout the week and build upon each other’s experiences. All he asks of his students is to have fun and be funny.

Another one of his hands-on learning activities is a performance competition at the end of his class. Each student will perform his or her own piece of comedy, and Mankoff will give a cash prize to the student who does the best job.

“I’m excited to see not just what I put out, but what everybody else does,” Bobkin said.

And though some students may fold under the pressure of the competition, Mankoff always makes sure nobody leaves the class feeling any worse for wear.

"He takes everyone very seriously, even if they're not very funny," Nowak said.

The contest is sure to display the wide variety and disparities in each individual's sense of humor.

“Most people think seeing humor is like seeing red. ‘Hey, that’s red. Don’t you think it’s red? We both agree it’s red.’ They think humor is the same way,” Mankoff said.

In his class, Mankoff aims to disprove this notion, to open his students’ eyes and to heighten their awareness of humor, understanding its grand diversity it has.

“There are many different things that are funny,” he said. “And different things will be funny to different people.”

For instance, Mankoff isn’t a fan of lolcats, believing they’re too easy to create and don’t require much thought. Still, he recognizes their popularity and understands that many of his students enjoy the captioned felines.

As "what is funny" changes, so does the role of the humorist. Mankoff recognizes the ever-shifting nature of the job and how that makes it nearly impossible to define the position.

“In 1977, The New Yorker and other places were gatekeepers. … In order to be seen in terms of the humor you produced, you had to be employed as a humorist,” he said. “Obviously one of the big changes has been the Internet. Everyone can publish and everyone can do that. And I think with that you get a huge range of humor."

Mankoff doesn’t necessarily want his students to develop a sense of humor that’s too highbrow for lolcats. He does hope that by exposing them to different types of humor and giving them the opportunity to create material, they’ll develop the ability to laugh a lot more.