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Innovation in cartoons

New Yorker cartoon taxonomy
The cartoon editor mentally classifies cartoons in a 2 by 2 of normal/abnormal setting vs. normal/abnormal caption.

We just saw Bob Mankoff, New Yorker cartoonist and cartoon editor, talk about his job. I was happily surprised to see the magazine using both sides of its brain in figuring out which were the best cartoons for the magazine, trying to innovate in the unlikely area of cartooning.

He and the other editors ultimately use editorial judgment to select pieces for each magazine from among thousands of submissions. But he also uses group discussion (in which he noted the inevitable group think involved). He uses surveys, and found that women consistently rate cartoons funnier than men. He’ll test one illustration with multiple captions. He considers the psychology behind cartoons (“It’s the opposite of empathy, and closely paired with fear. If you want to get children to laugh, run at them with a snowball in your hand.”) The University of Michigan’s Humor at Michigan study started with the complete collection of New Yorker cartoons and used eye tracking to analyze how people look at the illustration and the caption in different kinds of cartoons. And lately they’ve encouraged participation from readers with a caption contest on the back page.

It all adds up to make Mankoff a highly educated student of what is funny and why. And it makes me think: if they can do this for cartoons, what can’t we do this for?