Why aren’t The New Yorker’s cartoons funnier?

I recently returned from the Humor pre-conference at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. I got a chance to talk to Bob Mankoff, a cartoonist and the Cartoon Editor of The New Yorker.  I asked him:

Why aren’t The New Yorker’s cartoons funnier?


His answer is compelling. Yes, The New Yorker’s cartoons are intended to make you laugh, but they are selected to do more than that. In particular, the cartoons are intended to make you think (sometimes deeply). During Bob’s talk at the conference, he also mentioned that the cartoons need to be consistent with the editorial standards and tradition of The New Yorker, which are more subdued than that of, say, Mad Magazine.

…….. (Used with permission; http://rozchast.com/)

The subdued but thoughtful approach is also evident in The New Yorker’s caption contest. As a point of contrast, check out Daniel Radosh’s “anti-caption contest.” (Thank you Dick Thaler for bringing this to my attention). The anti-caption contest features a simple instruction: Submit the worst possible caption for this week’s New Yorker cartoon.

People allege that the the winning anti-caption is funnier than the winning caption at  The New Yorker. It is also more likely to offend (and fail to meet the multiple editorial goals of the magazine). Consider the winning submission for this cartoon:

I doubted your insanity defense, but I can clearly see your nuts.–wizalt

“When you say you’re ‘in really hot water right now,’ do you mean it in the I’m-guilty-of-murdering-my-wife sense?”– t.a.m.s.y.

From http://www.radosh.net/

I will return later to discuss the differences more deeply, but if you are familiar with my emerging research on humor with Caleb Warren, you could see how a benign violation account illustrates how a cartoon could go too far or not far enough. On one hand, a cartoon can fail to be funny in that elicits negative emotions – in the benign violation vernacular, it is a malign violation. Yet, on the other hand, a cartoon can fail to be funny in that elicits little or no reaction – it is strictly benign.

More later, but in the meantime, please tell me what you think.

8 responses to “Why aren’t The New Yorker’s cartoons funnier?”

  1. Steve Houser

    Interesting Article….The Onion explored the concept of editorial cartoons a number of years ago….they were (typically) poking fun at editiorial cartoons for being too confusing for the average reader. They additionally depicted editorial boards as being elitist and out of touch with most readers…..check out this article:


    Anyway, while the satirical example used in The Onion article is clearly benign, the affect on some readers is apparently negative. Is this why your above graphic says “Benign Violation…negative affect improbable?”

  2. Eugene

    This is great piece Pete. I submitted a cartoon to The New Yorker a couple of years ago, without success. But thanks to your work I can now just convince myself that he rejected it because it was simply TOO funny!

  3. Robert Mankoff

    As a point of information. Here the winner of the caption contest in your post.

    “These are required, sir. Other people do have to testify after you.”

    The anti-caption contest entry for this particular contest is quite benign itself, in that its only violation is being intentionally not funny. There is nothing transgressive about it as is often the case in the anti-caption contest which uses much more sexual and aggressive elements to be funny.

    It is also the case that what is benign or malign is dependent on the context in which it takes place. Something on the back page of The New Yorker which would be viewed as benign in Playboy or The Onion would be offensive to some readers of The New Yorker. We aren’t so careful as to make sure we offend no one – that’s not possible but we don’t use offense as the primary vehicle in our humor.

  4. Will these cartoons be funny in other countries? | Peter McGraw

    […] to maximize funniness – as The New Yorker’s Cartoon Editor, Bob Mankoff, readily admits. The cartoons are designed for a higher brow audience (not like me – I am middle brow). Even […]

  5. al in la


    The Anti Caption Contest you mention moved to my blog when Daniel Radosh was hired as a staff writer at the Daily Show.

    Check it out: http://alinla.blogspot.com/


    al in la

  6. Greg

    Lame cartoons are like pretentious art. If almost no one can figure out the meaning of cartoon, what’s the point? You can analyze New Yorker cartoons all you want, but the fact is, many are just plain stupid or lame. A classic example is the one with the pigeon and monk in the Feb 6, 2017 issue. I am no dummy, but neither I nor any of the friends could understand it. The few that had some possible interpretations still saw no humor in it.