Getting Serious about Funny Business: Robert Mankoff on Cartoons and Psychology

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

“The good news about being seventy is that things could be worse. The bad news is that they will be.”

As cartoon editor at the The New Yorker magazine, it’s Robert Mankoff’s job to think about what makes things funny. In a lecture last Thursday, entitled “Crowdsourcing Humor: The New Yorker Caption Contest” and peppered with humor and expletives, Mankoff spoke about his theories of comedy and creativity, his career trajectory from psychologist to “cartoonologist,” and what your entry to the New Yorker captions contest says about you.

Mankoff was introduced by his friend of 60 years, Professor Barry Schwartz. Both Mankoff and Schwartz were graduate students in the same field of experimental psychology before Mankoff abandoned his dissertation to “do something meaningful and important in life,” said Schwartz. “I was on the cusp of my PhD, but the cusp turned out to be world’s largest cusp,” recalled Mankoff. In a creative attempt to speed up his dissertation, Mankoff kept his pigeon test subject in it’s testing chamber nearly 24 hours a day. The test pigeon’s subsequent death by exhaustion was the catalyst for Mankoff’s departure from the field of psychology (though it’s unclear on whose terms he left) and the beginning of his career as a cartoonist.

“I knew this crazy comic spirit was in me from the beginning,” said Mankoff. His whole life, Mankoff wanted to be either a cartoonist or a standup comedian, but the job of standup comedian didn’t exist when he was young. He found that drawing calmed his hyperactive state and that many of the “crazy obsessive things” he did during childhood, such as copying pictures dot by dot, came to inform his practice as a cartoonist (in this case, helping establish his signature pointillist style).

Throughout the lecture, Mankoff analyzed his experiences as a cartoonist through the lens of psychology. “An intermittent reinforcement schedule makes a subject very, very persistent,” Mankoff said. When as a young cartoonist Mankoff had one cartoon published and subsequent cartoons rejected, it made him that much more tenacious. That tenacity, along with the the validation of being published by The Saturday Review and The National Lampoon, lent Mankoff the confidence to withstand rejection after rejection. Two thousand rejections later, Mankoff finally had a cartoon published by The New Yorker.  “With a creative act, you don’t have to get rich on it,” said Mankoff, “but somebody, somewhere has to pay you something for it.”

To Mankoff, a New Yorker cartoon is more an “idea drawing” than a visual gag. “What makes people laugh hardest is people falling down to music,” said Mankoff, “but I’m not interested in this kind of joke.” According to Mankoff, the quality of the idea within a joke is what makes New Yorker cartoons so popular, and is the reason so many are republished in academic textbooks.

Image courtesy of

He offered one example, a famous cartoon he drew of a herd of lemmings running off a cliff and flying off into the sky. The cartoon is captioned “What lemmings believe.” According to Mankoff, this cartoon isn’t really about lemmings. “It’s about belief systems and the power of narratives. It’s about us,” he said.

A significant area of crossover between psychology and cartooning is the New Yorker captions contest, which Mankoff runs. For the uninitiated few, The New Yorker captions contest has the magazine run an un-captioned cartoon, and solicits captions from readers. The top three captions (determined by the New Yorker editors) are presented online for public voting, and the most highly rated is caption declared the winner.

Mankoff sees the caption contest as a means of studying human creativity. “If you can’t do the contest, it doesn’t mean you’re not smart,” said Mankoff, “but if you can do the contest, you’re smart and you’re definitely creative — and not just in humor.” Mankoff went on to point out the documented correlation between one’s ability to solve a humor problem like the captions contest and one’s capacity to think creatively in general. Mankoff sees creativity, and by extension humor, as a process of bisociation — of bringing together disparate frames of reference into coherent but unexpected relationships.

Mankoff explained the systematic approach he and his assistants have inventing for arriving at the top entries. An assistant categorizes between five to ten thousand captions in a given week, filtering out possible candidates and categorizing the type of joke. Mankoff noted that there were far fewer categories than there were submissions; for instance, a cartoon involving zombies at a dinner party would have captions which tended to clump in the categories of wordplay (“I’m telling you, they’re vegan!”), hosting jokes, and zombie jokes. A custom computer program then organizes the possible candidates into lists by category, and Mankoff picks the best captions for each category. Finally, he sends his curated final list out to the rest of The New Yorker editors, who vote on the top three captions.

Mankoff is working with computer linguists from the University of Michigan to try to devise an algorithm to sort caption submissions more efficiently. So far, however, humans still do a better job at determining which submissions are funny and which aren’t.

Mankoff also used statistics from the captions contests to analyze the gender divide in comedy. 16% of the contest entrants were women, Mankoff said, but 23% of the winners were women. “Once you remove many of the external variables which favor men getting laughs, such as interrupting, speaking loud, and just make it this anonymous thing, women do pretty well,” he said.

Mankoff showed a drawing of a man in a chair. “To make something funny, you have to distort the field — you have to make it wrong”. The next drawing is the same but rotated 90 degrees — the man now sits with his back to the ground, drawing minor chuckles from the crowd. “Then, you put an idea on it — you create an incongruity, and solve that incongruity.” The caption appears: “Budget recliner.” The lecture hall went wild.

Featured image courtesy of Chloe Tao ’18/The Daily Gazette.

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