The Michigan Daily - michigandaily.com
Thursday, A prill1, 2010 - 3B
The Michigan Daily - michigandailycom Thursday, April 1, 2010 - 3B
- Learning to laugh with Mankoff
'New Yorker' cartoon
editor tells 'U' what's
funny in mini-course
By CAROLYN KLARECKI
Senior Arts Editor
Attending Robert Mankoff's
class is more like seeing a stand-
up comedy show than going to
lecture. In his course, you don't
have to politely chuckle when
the professor makes a bad joke.
* There's genuine laughter, and
audience participation builds upon
the humor. Mankoff will take any-
thing and everything and spin it in
a funny way, and in his Honors 493
class Humor: History, Theory, and
Practicum, he teaches his students
to do the same.
Mankoff is the perfect professor
for a course that essentially teaches
students how to be funny. He's jug-
gling his semester as an intermit-
tent lecturer at the University with
his job as cartoonist and cartoon
editor for The New Yorker, a maga-
zine known just as much for its car-
toons as its prose.
"I had wanted to be a cartoonist,
and then after I had a brief career
in graduate school, I thought I'd
give it a try," Mankoff said. "And
then after submitting only 2,000
cartoons to The New Yorker, I was
chosen ... and then I did cartoons
there for 20 years.
"But what I always really want-
ed was a small office in the Art &
Design building, and now I also
have achieved that," he added jok-
Mankoff first came to Ann
Arbor for a speech that he made
to the University's Knight Wallace
Fellows in 2008 about his job and
journalism. After that, he realized
how much he wanted to explore
humor from its academic side and
approached the University's psy-
chology department about teach-
ing a class..
"I started off in the psychology
department teaching the sociology
and science of humor. ... Why do
we have humor? The evolution of
it, mechanisms of it, the cognitive
part of it, the developmental part
of it - social psychology, you know,
a real boring course," he explained.
"Gradually, (it has) evolved more
into a course in which I try to
inform (the students) of the psy-
chological research by showing
them humor in action - its cre-
ation - and this year it's much
more of a practicum.
. "You have satire, you have irony,
you have parody, you have all these
different forms, and that's the
point of the course," Mankoff said.
By introducing his students to
these different forms, his goal "is
actually to improve the students'
sense of humor."
Robert Mankoff submitted over 2,000 cartoons to The New Yorker before having one selected.
Yes, in this course (cross-list-
ed as an Honors, Art & Design,
and Institute for the Humanities
course), Mankoff is actually try-
ing to teach his students how to
be funny and appreciate different
types of humor. As part of his job
as cartoon editor, Mankoff must
evaluate the hundreds of cartoon
submissions The New Yorker
receives each week, so he needs to
have a decent idea of what makes
"Nothing that's good is funny.
No good marriage is funny, no
good teacher is funny, no good
vacation is funny," he explained.
"There are numerous ways of see-
ing the incongruous things in life,
getting a little distant from them
and seeing the absurdity of that.
"For example, the absurdity here
in Ann Arbor, and everywhere, of
waiters and waitresses constantly
asking, 'How are you doing? How's
the food?' Well, you know, if a
quarter of the way through it was
OK, it's probably fine," he added.
"They don't have to keep check-
ing. Now one of the many different
mechanisms of humor (is) exag-
gerating things like this."
Still, the larger question at hand
is whether humor is an inherent
gift or whether it can be taught.
Mankoff believes the latter.
"Can humor be taught? It can be
manicured and it can be learned,"
he said. "Of course, like every-
thing else, people come to it with
different ability, different starting
And because all his students
come into the course with dif-
ferent levels of experience and
natural talent, he uses a hands-on
approach to force them to keep
practicing. One of his methods is
to present a student with a statu-
ette and to make them accept the
award in a creative way.
"If I wanted to do improv with
you and wanted you to accept an
award, you'd freeze. You'd say, 'Oh,
I don't know what to do with some-
thing like this,' but I'd make you do
it over and over again and even-
tually you'd come up with some
ideas," he said.
And his students readily accept
"It's kind of like a big party,"
said Art & Design senior Carolyn
Nowak, a student in Mankoff's
class. "Everyone tries to partici-
pate with their own jokes and their
"The man is an eccentric cross
between Christopher Walken and
Woody Allen," said LSA senior
Brad Bobkin. "You're born with
a sense of humor, but you can be
taught and persuaded to see things
differently. ... I think he's teach-
ing people to just walk with open
Mankoff wants his students to
take note of everyday occurrences
and to see the humor in them. His
students constantly swap anec-
dotes online throughout the week
and build upon each other's expe-
riences. All he asks of his students
is to have fun and be funny.
Another one of his hands-on
learning activities is a perfor-
mance competition at the end of
his class. Each student will per-
form his or her own piece of com-
edy, and Mankoff will give a cash
prize to the student who does the
"I'm excited to see not just what
I put out, but what everybody else
does," Bobkin said.
And though some students may
fold under the pressure of the com-
petition, Mankoff always makes
sure nobody leaves the class feel-
ing any worse for wear.
"He takes everyone very seri-
ously, even if they're not very
funny," Nowak said.
The contest is sure to display
the wide variety and disparities in
each individual's sense of humor.
"Most people think seeing
humor is like seeing red. 'Hey,
that's red. Don't you think it's red?
We both agree it's red.' They think
humor is the same way," Mankoff
In his class, Mankoff aims to
disprove this notion, to open his
students' eyes and to heighten
their awareness of humor, under-
standing its grand diversity it has.
"There are many different
things that are funny," he said.
"And differentthings will be funny
to different people."
For instance, Mankoff isn't a
fan of lolcats, believing they're too
easy to create and don't require
much thought. Still, he recognizes
their popularity and understands
that many of his students enjoy the
As "what is funny" changes,
so does the role of the humorist.
Mankoff recognizes the ever-
shifting nature of the job and how
that makes it nearly impossible to
define the position.
"In 1977, The New Yorker and
other places were gatekeepers....
In order to be seen in terms of the
humor you produced, you had to be
employed as a humorist," he said.
"Obviously one of the big changes
has been the Internet. Everyone
can publish and everyone can do
that. And I think with that you get
a huge range of humor."
Mankoff doesn't necessar-
ily want his students to develop a
sense of humor that's too highbrow
for lolcats. He does hope that by
exposing them to different types of
humor and giving them the oppor-
tunity to create material, they'll
develop the ability to laugh a lot
I n a city chock-full of res-
taurants fit for any craving,
eating out is not just the cool
thing to do, but the easiest thing
to do. Going
out to eat
or family is a
depend on age.
Ann Arbor cer--
tainly doesn't CHRISTINA
for the most
part, but some of its restaurants
do offer cooking classes.
A bit of a contradiction, restau-
rant-sponsored cooking classes
revive the fun of making some-
thing from scratch, in the com-
fort of a well-stocked kitchen.
Why do these restaurants offer
classes that could, in the long
run, promote staying in? After
all, people going out to eat keeps
their bills paid.
Well, there's something to be
said about home cooking, even
by the restaurant biz itself, and it
may just go beyond the registra-
tion fee of the class.
My first cooking class in Ann
Arbor was at Pilar's Tamales, a
family-owned Salvadorian res-
taurant. Ten people squeezed
into the small shop and learned
how to make horchata, a sweet
drink made from ground-up rice
and sugar. Pilar's owner, Sylvia,
didn't push her products on the
class, only her love for horchata
and some of her opinions on mass
food production in general. It was
an experience nothing like eating
out or going to class - the tuto-
rial was more of a celebration of
the art of making food.
It was hard to imagine why
Sylvia would see fit to hold such
a class. The process could have
easily been YouTubed, the recipe
could have been attained from a
number of online sources or we
could have walked in, grabbed
one of Pilar's homemade horcha-
tas on the shelf and left in a Star-
Pilar's horchata sells for about
$4 a cup, and trying to show
the class how easy it really isnto
make seems apt to make business
dwindle. With a strictly bottom
line-oriented mindset, cooking
classes don't add up. They seem
like a portal into the magical
world of the restaurant kitchen,
offering advice on how to spice
up life at home without paying
the premium for the restaurant
Before Sylvia's class, I thought
perhaps cooking classes were an
easy way for restaurants to make
a buck and expand on something
I already knew. But the class felt
more like a family get-together,
where everyone shared ideas on
extra things to add to horchata.
I realized the $15Ipaid probably
bought merely the ingredients and
Sylvia's time - hardly indicating
an entrepreneur looking for easy
money. Sylvia is a catalyst, bring-
ing together people who want to
move beyond the typical tables,
booths and appetizers.
In Ann Arbor, cooking classes
are offered by nationwide chains
like Whole Foods, which offers
quick classes for as low as $5, and
by local restaurants like Zinger-
man's, which holds intensive
"BAKE!cations" that can last up
to a week. But classes don't have
to be taught bythe big guys, and
they don't have to be expensive.
Many small, family-owned res-
taurants near campus, like Pilar's,
hold affordable, intimate classes
that reveal a true passion for food.
Getting together to eat happens all
the time, but getting together to
cook, bake or learn is sadly a rarity
in a busy city like A2.
So instead of just eating out,
try a cooking class. It can be as
high-class as Paesano's, which
schedules culinary tours to Italy
every year, or it can be an occa-
sion to bring out the kid inside
who loved (and still loves) frost-
ing with a cake decorating class
at Dahlia's Custom Cakes. Even
the University holds classes
through MHealthy, with themes
ranging from Vegetarian Cuisine
to Mother's Day Brunch.
The truth is, cooking classes
are about as unnecessary as
restaurants themselves - all we
need is a grocery store, a cook-
book and some gumption. In a
way, cooking classes rub against
social norms, making home cook-
ing a quasi-public event. But
these classes help close the gap
between the chef and the every-
day restaurant connoisseur.
A more social
way to cook your
People may not realize that a
love of food, not just profits, is
a large part at a restaurateur's
motivation. It may be possible to
judge a restaurant's culinary pas-
sion based on the kinds of things
they do outside of changing the
menu and keeping the salt and
pepper shakers clean. Pilar's, for
instance, held a benefit dinner for
Haiti and offers seasonal special-
ties to take advantage of local
Sylvia told us she doesn't make
horchata for the money, but for
the rich tradition it represents in
Latin culture. Behind the cook-
ing class itself was the practice of
preparing foods together, an act
that lies as the basis for many cul-
tures. Even in a city as big as Ann
Arbor, it's possible to make cook-
ing a more sociable and enjoyable
event than dining out.
Anger wants to teach you how
to boil water. To join the class,
e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Three comedic styles for the
three U' improv comedy groups
By JEFF SANFORD
"What you see tonight has never been done
before and never will be done again."
Arthur Brannon III, LSA senior and co-
captain of University improv comedy troupe
Witt's End, is addressing a modest, unsure
"Now who wants to volunteer to have us go
through their wallet?"
This was as apt a preface as any for a Witt's
End performance, which on this night con-
sisted of a whirlwind of short, absurd skits
that somehow worked in common themes and
recurring characters - all invented on the
spot, of course.
"Watching one of our shows is like watch-
ing a play with disconnected scenes," Brannon
said. "It depends on what kind of night we're
having, but some nights the plot will be really
defined, and other nights it's just not. It just
depends on how it happens to fall."
This particular performance, while often
returning to prior jokes or situations (e.g.,
cheese infected with Republicanism), was cer-
tainly not dedicated to any coherent plot. It
was more like watching an unrehearsed "Sat-
urday Night Live" episode in super-fast for-
ward, with the decision of when to begin and
end a skit entirely up to the actors.
Witt's End, one of three improv comedy
groups on campus, started approximately 10
years ago when a member of another troupe,
ComCo, decided he didn't like the direction
ComCo was taking. Soon after splitting, Witt's
End fortified its distinct improvisational style,
switching from ComCo's traditional "short
form" structure to "long form," becoming the
first improv group on campus to primarily use
Short form vs. long form is probably improv
comedy's chief distinction. While short form
is generally more accessible and quick-hitting
(it's the kind that was featured on "Whose
Line Is It Anyway?"), long form allows for a
more nuanced brand of humor.
"Long form is more character-driven. You
have a basic form with two people, two really
strong characters, and so you start discovering
more about them. The humor from that comes
from how organic the relationships (are) and
how quickly people come up with things. It's
more about building relationships and explor-
ing that," Brannon said.
On the other side of the spectrum sits
ComCo, the University's oldest extant com-
edy group and purveyors of the art of short
"Our comedy is a lot more easier to grasp on
to," said Alex Stuessy, Ross School of Business
junior and ComCo member. "You don't neces-
sarily have to be a theater major or somebody
who appreciates long form comedy. Our shows
Dispute over long form
vs. short form led to a
usually are a lot more explosive, a lot more
fast-paced. And so it's a lot easier to just jump
right into the laughs."
ComCo was founded in the late 1970s, origi-
nally as a sketch comedy troupe that would put
on large-scale performances at the Michigan
Theater. But in the early 1990s, ComCo took a
significant hit when its relationship with Uni-
versity Activities Center (UAC), the University
organization that funded the group, soured,
according to ComCo leaders. Apparently, Andy
Dick was at least partially responsible.
"(ComCo) brought Andy Dick to campus
and apparently it flopped ... then the head of
ComCo got in a shouting match with the head
of UAC. We went from being this big per-
formance comedy group to being this small
10-member comedy group," said Adnan Pirza-
da, LSA senior and "de facto leader" of ComCo.
Years later, ComCo, aided by the over-
whelming success of its non-improv work (like
2007's written sketch "College Musical," a
parody of Disney's "High School Musical"), is
gradually ascending to its previous heights.
"We've actually been slowly building back
up. At my first couple shows we were lucky
to bring 30 to 40 people out. This entire year,
each and every one of our shows has brought
200 to 250 people, so we're sort of moving back
into sketch work," Pirzada said.
Straddling the long form/short form dis-
tinction is the University's newest improv
group, The Impro-fessionals. Established
three years ago by three female University
students, The Impro-fessionals was founded
out of pure entrepreneurial spirit and a desire
to bolster the feminine presence in the Univer-
sity's comedy scene.
"They just really, really wanted to start one.
And especially (co-founder Julia Young) was
really into female comedians and having a
group (that was) run and started by women,"
said Tali Gumbiner, LSA senior and co-found-
er of the group.
As newcomers to the University's comedy
scene, The Impro-fessionals are dedicated to
bringing in less experienced performers and
creating a more dynamic, learning-by-doing
comedy troupe. The group has also forged a
rather unexpected partnership with Hillel.
"That's a very interesting turn of events,"
said Gumbiner. "Initially our freshman year
we weren't affiliated with Hillel. And coinci-
dentally, through recruitment, our first year
everyone in the group was Jewish."
The budding group approached Hillel and a
deal was struck.
"(They) were like 'Yeah, we like to sponsor
groups who have a lot of Jews, even if they're
not a Jewish group.... We can give you money
to hire a coach and put on your bigger shows
and in exchange you'll perform for us when-
ever we want a comedy group'
See IMPROV, Page 4B