When It's OK to Laugh at the Old

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It feels wrong, looking at 75-year-old jokes. It's like looking at old porn: you can't expect people who had body hair and no Pilates to seem hot now. But if you give yourself a chance to settle into it, as any good New Yorker reader trained on 5,000-word stories about ketchup would, you start to laugh at even the 1925 section of The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker. The rhythms might be slower, the references outdated and the attitude more restrained, but funny, it turns out, stays funny. Old porn, it turns out, also gets funny.

"There's a bedrock core of humanity. We have the same pompousness that needs to be punctured," says Robert Mankoff, the cartoon editor of the New Yorker and creator of the iconic cartoon in which a man is looking at his calendar while on the phone saying, "No, Thursday's out. How about never — is never good for you?" Mankoff spent two years collecting every cartoon ever printed in the magazine, which meant rounding up old issues from storage facilities in Queens and Illinois. "I'm offering $10 for any cartoon we missed, $20 if you just shut up about it," he says. Twenty bucks is a small price to pay not to have to go back to Queens or Illinois.

Mankoff, however, discovered that not even an oversize, 10-lb. book is big enough to hold all 68,647 cartoons. So he picked the best 2,004 and put the rest on two CDs that come with the book. What he wound up with is not only a stand-up routine for smart people who own a coffee table but a history of American culture. You can see how confused and fascinated New Yorkers were by skyscrapers in the 1930s, how threatened and angered men were by workingwomen after World War II and how uncomfortable Americans were with the growing ubiquity of television in the '50s. Cartoons with a freshly showered woman inside her home hiding her breasts from the gaze of a newscaster on a TV screen were huge.

But the book is even more interesting as an archive of American humor. From the '30s until the '80s, Mankoff says, the punch line was in the third person: we were laughing at — not with — the figure in the cartoon: it was an era of screwball comedies, Jack Benny and cops chasing people through hallway doors. In a James Thurber cartoon, a man stops his date in the lobby of his building to say, "You wait here and I'll bring the etchings down." It's the Joey theory of humor.

By the early '80s, Chandler had taken over, and the speaker was in on the joke. "Now everyone does shtick, so you see this wiseguy attitude. They're giving you their philosophy through humor," says Mankoff. In a 2002 cartoon by Bruce Eric Kaplan, who wrote for Seinfeld, a wife exiting a movie theater says to her husband, "I liked it except for you." Says Mankoff: "It's a Seinfeld line. That person realizes she is funny." Jokes today are also less visual and far more newsy than they were 40 years ago, when cartoonists could not expect news events to enter the popular consciousness quickly.

But the real proof that humor is immutable isn't that you still shamefully laugh at a 1972 cartoon in which a Chinese warrior says, "That banquet was most delicious, and yet now, somehow, once again I feel the pang of hunger." It's that every week Mankoff has to reject great submissions because the research department sends him typed index cards enumerating similar jokes made in New Yorker cartoons over the past 79 years. Seriously, people, let go of the deserted island.