On The Job: No Laughing Matter

The New Yorker's cartoon editor, Bob Mankoff, takes jokes seriously.

By Matthew Hutson, published on January 1, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

By now you'd imagine the proverbial desert island is as devoid of fresh one-liners as it is of fresh coconuts. But cartoonists keep them coming, and Bob Mankoff wants to know how. Years ago he deserted his in-progress Ph.D. in experimental psychology—his pigeon died, no joke—and returned to the fertile ground of cartoons, a high-school hobby. Now perched as The New Yorker's cartoon editor, Mankoff also studies humor with researchers at the University of Michigan, using The New Yorker's cartoon archives as fodder.

Your first 2,000 submissions to The New Yorker were rejected.

I thought I was very funny and The New Yorker was very stupid. Looking back, it was the other way around.

How much do you edit the cartoons?

It's more about selection. I cull from over 1,000 cartoons I see each week. Then David Remnick, the magazine's editor, makes the final call.

Are you a tastemaker?

A little bit. Because The New Yorker is an aspirational magazine it enables us to introduce people to subtle forms of humor. One question about a joke is, how well is the strangeness of the situation resolved? At The New Yorker, we retain a lot of incongruity, tapping the playful part of the mind—Monty Python-type stuff. We also try to use humor as a vehicle for communicating ideas. Not editorial comment, but observation.

Are cartoons good for studying creativity?

Cartoons are like fruit flies. Biologists use fruit flies because their large chromosomes and short life cycle make them ideal for studying hereditary changes. Cartoonists create so many cartoons on any given topic that we can follow the life cycle of a comic idea and how it evolves over time more quickly than we can with a form like the novel.

Are you using cartoons for psych experiments?

At Michigan we used them in eye-tracking and sentence-processing studies. In a current study I'm finding that when people are primed with illness- or death-related stimuli, they create more funny captions for pictures.

Are there "formulas for funny"?

It's an interesting cognitive process because the more you try to do a joke, the more you can't do it. You choke. For instance, you can use "clash of context"—make children sound like adults, or imagine hell is good—but you have to put that algorithm out of your consciousness to make it really work.

Why did you leave psychology?

I looked at my pigeon's death as an omen. But 30 years later I came back to it at Michigan. I'll be teaching a course on the art and science of humor. I really want to devote my declining—or maybe my plateauing—years to more research. One of my missions, because of this pulpit that I have, is to be an evangelist for humor. It bears on every element of human behavior.