The first room on your left at the Institute of Humanities is lined at eye-level with 68 single-panel cartoons. Their compositions are visually unassuming, being the simple, colorless line drawings of a certain magazine’s signature style. Bourgeois couples and well-fed CEOs squabble in various boardrooms, bars and urbane living rooms, each little scene wryly grounded by a punchline that’s either inoffensively snide or sharply academic.

Christina Choi
Christina Choi
Christina Choi

Across the hall from the exhibit room is a tiny office quietly overflowing with faxes of cartoons, stacks of folders and boxes. Somewhere, there’s a phone and a computer. The only color in the room comes from three multi-colored juggling balls moving in frenzied, concentric arcs. I thought I had the wrong office.

Bob Mankoff, a 30-year contributor to The New Yorker and its current cartoon editor, deserves some down time. He’s in constant motion, juggling as many as 600 to 1,000 cartoons a week for The New Yorker while giving lectures and teaching an honors mini-course at the University, “The Art and Science of Humor: Theory and practice, practice, practice,” which began last week.

At first glance Mankoff is everything you’d think The New Yorker cartoon critic would be: liberal gravitas; easy, know-it-all humor; well-cut blazer with jeans and nice shoes.

Elisabeth Paymal, curator and designer for the Institute for the Humanities, described him as a “cultural shock for everyone.”

Mankoff described Meijer as “bigger than Rhode Island.” His persona is certainly characteristic of many things New York, but Mankoff is extremely aware of humor’s psychological processes and what triggers them.

“Humor is entering a play state, a safe area, where you’re insulated from the outside world,” he said. “That’s why we can enjoy aggressive humor, sexual humor – things that if they occurred in real life we would find disgusting and repellent.”

He likened humor to horror movies, in that once you’re insulated by the stimuli of people getting brutally murdered, the questions “Are you afraid?” and “Aren’t you offended?” don’t matter anymore. The situation takes on its own language, outside of the real world.

. . .

Let’s say two groups of people are told a joke that goes something like this: A doctor tells his patient “You’re going to be awake during the entire operation; the anesthesiologist is on vacation.”

The first group laughs at the harmless joke. Everything is fine.

The second group of people is told the reason they’re laughing is because, psychologically, the joke releases aggressive impulses.

“Now, their conscience is tweaked a little bit,” Mankoff said. “They think: ‘I don’t like aggressive impulses, that’s not a good thing, I’m a nice person.’ Now that group, when they look at the cartoon, won’t laugh as much. They’re repressing – like political correctness – they’re repressing because they feel guilty for their aggression.”

Another example: a gallows with a wheelchair ramp. “Now, you’re going to laugh at that,” Mankoff said. “But if you’ve read stories about the handicapped, all of a sudden I activate that scheme in your brain, the importance that the handicapped should be treated correctly. Then the political correctness dampens that, then the real world intrudes on this fantasy world.”

Perhaps it’s that intrusion which gives Mankoff’s humor a definitive ring. If based solely in the fantasy world of humor – the notion that anything goes, that we’re protected from offense because humor is harmless – then the punchline runs the risk of losing its relevance.

By bringing in the real world – a wheelchair ramp on a gallows, an ad for Viagra on an erect skyscraper, a lawyer casually claiming he can sue God – Mankoff’s humor defies easy categorization. One cartoon has a CEO type seated at a desk while a suited figure in front of him strikes an awkward dance move: “Say what’s on your mind Harris, the language of dance has always eluded me.”

The banner over a captionless cartoon from 1979 reads “10th Annual Woodstock Reunion.” Beneath it lies a landscape of suited figures sharing cocktails. Another cartoon has suited partygoers quipping, “If this is the Information Age, how come no one knows anything?”

“The purpose of the fantasy world is somewhat like the purpose of the horror movies: We can indulge our not-correct impulses in a fairly harmless way,” Mankoff said.

For Mankoff, this approach is “rooted in the psychological truths about what humor is for.” He cited chimpanzees as beings that laugh, smile and mock fight as a necessary form of interaction. “A lot of humor is saying ‘We’re teasing, we’re probing, we’re saying things you couldn’t normally say, but ultimately it’s for fun.’ “

It’s hard to reconcile the ideal innocence of humor with its real-world consequences. Mankoff firmly disagreed with the publications that decided not to run the controversial Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed as a suicide bomber. He spoke of the decision as based on a culture of fear.

“There’s a purpose for humor which enables us to deal with all our ambiguous impulses, even the ones of aggression, because it’s just mock aggression,” he said. “Wouldn’t the world be so much better if we had mock aggression instead of real aggression?”

Mankoff and his work are not new to Ann Arbor. In 2003, Mankoff was informally invited by the Knight-Wallace Fellows to give a series of five lectures in conjunction with the University’s psychology department.

Mankoff was able to grant the University access to the entire New Yorker cartoon catalogue. Several avenues of research have subsequently benefited from the catalogue’s availability, such as a project tracking pupil dilation at the moment a spectator comprehends a cartoon’s punchline.

For Mankoff, there is no last laugh. He invests equally in rational and irrational qualities of humor, a human emotion he likens to an unexplored territory.

But for all of his psychology, perhaps Mankoff’s take on cartoons can be best defined by the two requirements for his mini-course: a gift for laughter and a sense that the world is mad.

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