Bob Mankoff sketches the comedy scene for select Swarthmoreans

Bob Mankoff, cartoon editor of “The New Yorker” and a guest lecturer last night at the Science Center, posed a question to the audience early on: “Any young people here interested in comedy?” When one third grader raised his hand he immediately continued, “You should quit school now…no, maybe wait one more year.”

Thus began an engaging talk to a capacity audience last night. Mankoff explained the parameters of his job and the politics of funniness. There are easily hundreds of cartoons considered for the magazine each week, thirty to forty of which are actually published. It is Mankoff’s role to separate the slightly funny from the hilarious. “While you may think I?m laughing all the time…it’s not true, I’m mainly processing,” Mankoff said, trying in vain to convince the audience that his job is actually boring.

So how does he choose? First bringing up the unsophisticated comedy “America’s Funniest Home Videos” as an example of what the magazine is not seeking, he demonstrated an acute knowledge of the science of humor. There are many types; some, like the “EZ Pass” heaven’s gate cartoon, are a clash of two very different ideas. It’s really a “counterfactual situation…humor comes from the subconscious.”

Other cartoonists’ ideas are simply weird; they don’t fit in with any philosophy, but they still belong in the magazine. A sign reading “Stop and Think” and two men saying “Really makes you stop and think,” may not seem that hilarious but certainly got a rise from the audience.

Essentially though, humor is a way of coming to terms with reality. It’s “manipulating the world” and making fun of it. Mankoff remarks that while it may not be appropriate to laugh after being completely rejected by a crush, a caption reading “No, Thursday?s out?how about never?is never good for you?” is still really funny. Improvisation is important, sex is funny, so is the Grim Reaper. Albert Einstein is hilarious. Terrorist attacks are tragic, but a man in a bar saying, “If I don?t drink this, the terrorists win” is rather good.

During questions, Mankoff readily admitted that talking about humor is, in E.B. White’s words “like dissecting a frog, few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” Nevertheless, there is a level of intelligence or knowledge that remains necessary to good humor, sophisticated and satirical or not. And “The New Yorker” represents this in a way. That said, the cartoon of the pasta talking on the phone, “Fusilli, you crazy bastard. How are you?” is still pretty funny.


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