The cartoon editor of The New Yorker came into my office yesterday to talk about what makes a good caption for the magazine’s cartoons. (This had very little to do with my job or company and was purely for entertainment, in case you were thinking my job must be pretty cool and/or fun.) He also, indirectly, talked about what makes something funny.
I was more interested in the latter, since I am not artistically delusional enough to even try to submit a cartoon to The New Yorker (although, did you know they have open calls every Tuesday where anyone can visit the office and submit one?). What Bob Mankoff had to say about humor is that, firstly, maybe obviously, it’s everywhere. And also, it is often dependent upon outside circumstances.
To illustrate this point, he showed us some of the entries for one of the magazine’s weekly caption contests. After showing ones that were pretty good (or, to use a technical term, “finalists”), he then showed us captions that could work depending on what sort of caption it was supposed to be. The final one was an “anti-caption,” and it was basically just a sentence strung together with curse words. But we all laughed. It was because of what had been built up before it.
There’s also, of course, the type of laughter we do when we’ve done something stupid–his examples were pouring coffee down your sleeve or getting off the elevator on the wrong floor. Or like when you discover the four yogurts you bought last night on the floor by the front door this morning, warm and useless, and if you let yourself, you’ll be angry at yourself for wasting both money and food, so instead you laugh to stave off the inordinately strong feelings you often have about something largely trivial. Just another hypothetical example. And then there’s laughter where you start it but then stop when you realize what you’re laughing at is cruel.
The most interesting thing to me, though, was when he said that in studies, people laugh a lot throughout the day, but the majority of the time, it’s 1.) at themselves, or 2.) at nothing.
Which makes sense, considering humor is a basic coping mechanism for life. If you can’t laugh, you probably won’t survive very long. Or, if you do happen to live without laughing, you’ll probably wish you hadn’t survived.