Sunday, November 08, 2009

The Cartoon IQ Test

From the recent issue of THE NEW YORKER magazine.

It's from their cartoon issue. They have a feature called "the Cartoon IQ Test" I DON'T GET IT.

What it is is a good lesson in what NOT to do when writing a joke. If a punch line is vague it's a bad joke. I feature two of their examples. And here's the key. Even once you know the actual captions these jokes are still not funny.

Audiences have to follow. If they're groping around trying to get what you're going for, you're dead. And trust me, they won't grope for long. No one wants to put in a lot of effort when it comes to a joke. It's clear, you get it, you laugh. It's not clear, you don't bother.

The first example is some sort of metaphor but that's a big leap. In the second one you have no idea what those puddles are. If they are blood he's lost about a pint already. If the puddles are oil then why does a bicycle need to carry that much oil?

I get the sense that this feature is designed to put the blame on you for not getting the jokes. After all, it is the New Yorker, and if you don't get the jokes then you're obviously just not smart enough. But it's not your fault. It's the writer's. These jokes are not "ahead of their time". They're poorly constructed.

This is the kind of stuff we'll deal with this weekend in The Sitcom Room. Looking forward to meeting you attendees.

Anyway, here's the explanation and two examples from the feature:

I Don’t Get It
On occasion, we publish a cartoon so ahead of its time that it boggles the mind, making us reconsider the very essence of comedy itself. We present here five of these confusing cartoons, along with their intended meanings. But watch out—each cartoon is accompanied by three unintended meanings. See if you can determine the real one, or just sigh, give up, and check the answers below.

The caption is: "Marsha!"

A. The plug is shocked to see someone using a Type A socket with no ground slot, thus increasing the chances of an electrical fire.
B. “Marsha!,” like our “23 skiddoo,” is a hilarious catchphrase that all the kids are saying today.
C. A talking electrical plug? Now, that’s just plain goofy!
D. Using a metaphor, this cartoon shows how funny it is that human sexual intercourse can often feel as cold and mechanical as the transfer of A.C. electricity from a socket to a plug.

The caption is: "Maybe you shouldn't try to shave on the way to work."

A. The biker is upset because he has shaved off his prized goatee.
B. The biker accidentally nicked his bike’s oil reserve while shaving.
C. The biker has attempted to multitask by shaving while riding his bicycle to work, and the result is facial lacerations and comical amounts of blood loss.
D. As the old saying goes, “Shave on the way to work, you're a Grade A jerk.”

The answers are D and C.

Me again. In reference to some of the commenters: I don't mean to suggest that all New Yorker cartoons aren't funny. Quite the opposite. For the most part I think they are. In fact, I think they have a very high batting average. And trust me, I am NOT an intellectual. I'm just reacting to this feature. When I read it I thought, "Oooh, what a good learning tool." However, I FULLY agree that the winning entries of their weekly caption contest are usually lame.


Dudleys Mom said...

I never find the New Yorker cartoons to be humorous. Guess I am just too lowbrow...or maybe they are too highfalutin' in-tel-lect-chew-al. On the other hand, I always get your jokes, Ken.

emily said...

1. Or has Marsha been caught getting plugged by someone other than John?
2. and definately won't be in the future by the wounded multi-tasking eunuch.

Shari said...

And they always pick lame winners for their comic caption contest.

Mac said...

About the plugs - what emily said. That's what I thought right away and I chuckled. Didn't have to grope, either. Number 2 - nope. Still don't get it.

Tim W. said...

I don't know. I got both of them right away. And I don't even get the New Yorker.

Steve Peterson said...

I actually thought both of them were funny -- but the explanation for #1 stunk.

I just found the idea of a plug feeling cuckolded amusing.

I also find absurd volumes of blood loss amusing in general.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

After all, it is the New Yorker, and if you don't get the jokes then you're obviously just not smart enough. But it's not your fault. It's the writer's. These jokes are not "ahead of their time". They're poorly constructed.

The New Yorker itself has been going through a spate of dry weeks for about two months now (excepting Roz Chast, whose cartoons always work), making one wonder when they intend to seek out a new cartoon editor. But in this economy, probably not soon.

I also own the New Yorker Cartoon a Day calendar and during the week, there's only about two or three that actually have a decent punchline.

JRB said...

Ken, I think you're misreading the intent of the feature. I think the whole "reconsider the very essence of comedy itself" bit is the giveaway – even the editors in retrospect consider the jokes to be too opaque, and they're acknowledging the magazine's occasional pretentious tilt toward overcomplication by semi-regularly publishing this "test" that says, in effect, Oops. I'm a New Yorker diehard, and I always thought that this feature was the place I was supposed to be laughing AT them and not WITH them. (It always comes in their "Cartoon Issue".) Of course, I might just be an apologist.

wv; Thili: When they say it's "thenthational" or "thuper," you can be sure it's just thili.

A. Buck Short said...

Having nearly electrocuted myself this weekend rewiring the burner receptacles on our stovetop, I still giggle with embarrassment every time I find myself referring to male and female ends of a plug and outlet or any other type of electrical connection. A phone jack gets two giggles.

Hey thanks, I thought it was just me with the New Yorker cartoon caption contests. The caption contests are like the polar opposite of the Letterman Late Show online Top Ten list contests – where there are too many good answers to ever win a shirt among the thousands of entries. Or is it, as I suspect, they pick the first ten decent responses they get, and then, well, why bother to continue reading through all those others?

You think the cartoons are occasionally enigmatic? My wife’s sisters, a famous children’s book illustrator, got an early start drawing those tiny column filler illustrations, the magazine used to use that generally had absolutely nothing to do with the subject of the article or anything else in it. As for legendary New Yorker editors and their progeny, I still can’t tell the difference between the actors Wally Shawn and Linda Hunt.

Am I the only one who was traditionally late with college term papers because I spent most of my library hours in the “stacks” perusing the cartoons in back issues of the New Yorker to Thurber and beyond? I think my second favorite remains one of those existential examples where two hapless medieval prisoners are depicted chained separately about ten feet apart in crucifixion style positions to the wall of a castle dungeon, about 20 feet off the floor, with clearly not a prayer of hope. One secretively turns to the other and whispers, “Now here’s my plan.”

Cap'n Bob said...

I got them, but didn't think #2 was funny. Reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where Elaine challenges the humor editor at The New Yorker (I think) to explain a joke and he can't.

WV: Letramen. Sophisticated David Lettermen fans.

Ellen said...

When I was a little kid, I found an issue of The New Yorker in the house and read all the cartoons. Confused, I went to my mom and asked her to explain why they were funny.

Always eager for a teachable moment, she opened the magazine and stopped at the first cartoon, stared for a minute and said, "Uh ... bad example. Let's move on."

Same thing at the next cartoon. And the next. This went on until the last page.

"The thing you need to understand about the cartoons in The New Yorker," she said, "is that they're not actually ... funny."

Eric L. Sofer, the Bad Clown said...

Maybe the first one is funnier if it doesn't reference a forty year old comic bit, with John and Marsha. (Stan Freberg did a GREAT piece on that one!)

Or maybe it's just not funny.

I remain,
Eric L. Sofer
The Bad Clown...

wv: wories: What Jamaican elementary school has none of after his spelling test.

The Truth Hurts said...

Sadly, you see this a lot on the Internet. In a way it's funny watching an artist and their idolators lambaste the "idiots" asking for an honest explanation of WTF is going on, and yet it's sad because you know these people are ignoring valuable criticism that would actually help them better themselves and become more successful.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Next season on Fox: "Here Come the Plugs" a wry satirical animated series about extension cords, outlets and other surge protectors that wisecrack their way through life's wacky misconnections. Imagine the celebrity guest voices!

THE NEW YORKER sometimes reminds me of that society lady on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" (played by the wonderful Betty Lou Gerson, the original Cruella DeVil), who said, "Oh, I don't own a television machine!"

Dimension Skipper said...

I got them both immediately and was easily able to choose the right answer from the choices. I agree with Steve Peterson that the explanation for the first one was bad. Also, I just didn't think the first one was all that funny, but liked the second.

Roger Ebert has groused about the New Yorker cartoons too, but only because they won't choose any of his entries as contest winners. I have to say I agree that his are often funnier.

I thought that he did a couple blog entries a while back on the subject, but in searching I can only find this one.

WV: stolentl... Hey, I resent that. I've never stolen anyone's tl!

Dimension Skipper said...

Ah, here was the followup Ebert NYer cartoon contest entry. It's more about the entrants than the contest, but the finalists are mentioned at the bottom of the post if you just want to scroll on down to check'em out.


I'm a little confused because that Ebert blog entry is dated Aug 5, 2009, and at the bottom of the other blog entry I referred to prior was an indication that deadlines for entry of captions into Ebert's own contest would be Aug 15, 2009. So I don't know how the winning entry could be posted and discussed 10 days prior to the alleged deadline. I think someone's chads may be dangling in public!

Mary Stella said...

In the first cartoon, I thought the male plug was talking to the remale socket. Then I realized I'd actually spent time trying to figure out a stupid cartoon so the correct answer is e) Mary, have better things to do than waste time on this dumb ass cartoon.

I got cartoon #2 but think it probably works better in cities where A) there are a lot of bicycle couriers or B) many environmentalists cycle to work. Next week, they could run a commercial with a woman bike rider who poked her eye out with the mascara wand -- yet another task I've seen women do while driving.

Tom Quigley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JackStraw said...

I agree with your analysis, but with the second cartoon the intended meaning/humor was pretty low level obvious to me; i don't get the confusion at all. Curiously the New Yorker explanation of the first is completely off base for me, which I guess furthers your point. Isn't it, as Emily says, that the plug (the male) is coming home to find his wife (the receptacle) getting plugged by another guy? I saw it, and it took 2 seconds to get it but my wife needed a lengthy explanation. I suppose that's good news for our relationship.

wv: scult. a swingin' cult, like s'marvelous, s'wonderful

Tom Quigley said...

always heard that the whole point of New Yorker cartoons was that you weren't supposed to get them... It's just a comfortable way for the rich conservative right-wing snoots who run the publication to wallow in their own sense of self-satisfaction in believing that there's no refined culture or gentility beyond the walls of their editorial offices ("By the way, did you hear the one about when Puccini was writing TOSCA?-snicker, snicker")...

Well, now that I've said my piece, back to my beluga caviar and cognac....

Chalmers said...

Reminds me of the "Taxi" episode where Tony strains to set Alex up with his smart sister (Julie Kavner).

Their date is a dud, and Tony's shocked as his sister instead falls for Jim. Mortified, Tony directs his anger at Alex for ruining the setup:

"You used that dry humor stuff on her! Where no one laughs, they just say 'Oooh, how clever.' "

Howard Hoffman said...

New Yorker cartoons are like trains. If you don't get one, the next one will come along and plow you down.

I don't get that metaphor either.

And they make dandy wallpaper for your bathroom.

Kirk said...

I've read somewhere that cartoonists at The New Yorker don't always write their own captions. If that's the case, cartoon number two might have been funnier, and easier to get, with a different artist.

blogward said...

Is Bob Mankoff still the New Yorker cartoon editor? Well someone's got to provide fodder for doctors' waiting rooms.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

Is Bob Mankoff still the New Yorker cartoon editor?


(Try finding the joke in that response. I spent hours considering how to put it in.)

Rory L. Aronsky said...

However, I FULLY agree that the winning entries of their weekly caption contest are usually lame.

Same. In the October 19 issue, they had the three caption finalists for the cartoon of a man laying in a hammock tied between two subway columns, shaking a cup at a businessman. I loved the third finalist: "Margaritaville or bust." I hope that one wins, because "Brother, can you spare a lime?" is lame.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

Well, go figure. The New Yorker website claimed all three could be voted on on November 16th, but looking at the Cartoon Caption Contest page, the lame one won.

odocoileus said...

emily's right about the first cartoon.

It's a variation on the catching-your-spouse-with-someone-else cartoon that's so popular in Playboy.

The man, woman, and paramour are abstracted to plugs and a socket. The abstraction is part of the appeal for those who find the cartoon appealing. It rewards the reader's cleverness at the expense of real humor. "I see," says the clever reader, "You're commenting on infidelity humor. You're making a joke about a joke."

Real humor requires the reader to momentarily identify with the characters in the cartoon, and to feel some sense of risk from the jeopardy in the scene. No personal identification equals no risk, and no risk equals no laugh.

odocoileus said...

The problem with the second cartoon is the drawing itself. The idea could be mildly funny with a more cartoon like drawing style. Piraro, for example, could make a joke like this work quite well. Good for a chuckle with your morning coffee.

Anonymous said...

I got all the cartoons in the quiz, but I will admit that I had to think a lot about the first one. I agree with Jack Straw that it's more about coming home and finding another plug schtupping the wall socket. And the "Marsha" and "John" is a throwback to an old long forgotten comedy routine. Like many of Shakespeare's puns, it's meaning is lost, and so is its humor.

I generally like the New Yorker cartoons, and mostly find them all funny. Not LOL funny. Just very very a martini, say. Their subject is always about New Yorkers themselves, and if you don't understand that milieu, you're not likely to find them amusing. It's not unlike a Wes Anderson film, which is tres amusant only for those who have a fellow feeling for hypersensitive, twee youths.

It goes without saying that the New Yorker Magazine's sense of humor would never work on a sitcom; it isn't broad enough. Ken's advice to not emulate it is sound. However, just because you don't get their cartoons doesn't make them not amusing to everyone. I've never cared for The Three Stooges, but it's clear that they're vastly entertaining for a large number of other people.

FlipYrWhig said...

I thought the point of the first one was that the one available socket wasn't polarized, but the plug was, so even though there was an empty spot, they couldn't get together. But I was defeated by the caption, because I could only read it in the voice of Jan from The Brady Bunch.

WV: elufan. Some sort of cross between an elf, a loofa, and a fan, and, um, an elephant, I guess. I'm not good at what you call "humor."

Michael in YVR said...

I'm a regular New Yorker reader and I love the cartoons as a good complement to the articles. As with the articles, if one doesn't work for me, whatever. But when I saw this feature the other day, it was the first time the magazine insulted my intelligence. "So ahead of their time, you didn't get the joke." WHAT? I got the jokes the first time around -- they just WEREN'T FUNNY! You're right Ken, I felt that the magazine was trying to blame me for not laughing.

Kate Coe said...

I'm dumb. I thought the first one was John! Marsha! John! Marsha! and that the 2nd one was stupid.

Julia Suits said...

Here is how I intended the gag to "read": The outlet is 'Marsha'. The shouting plug is her faithful lover. Marsha is cheating on him. She is caught in the act, hence her surprised exression. (sockets=eyes).

Marsha was the silliest name I could think of for an electrical outlet. I did not have Freberg's "Marsha!" in mind while making the cartoon.

When my editor chose it for publication last summer,I was surprised as I thought the visual joke would be too obvious to readers. Not all readers, it turns out!

What kind of sex act it is open for interpretation.

Julia Suits

Prekosifa Jones said...

Would have been funnier if the caption for numer one had read


and number 2 said

'I think you used too much lube'

but then I am British!