The Sciences

NCBI ROFL: Humor and death: a qualitative study of The New Yorker cartoons (1986-2006).

DiscoblogBy ncbi roflJun 7, 2010 11:28 PM


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"American's experiences with dying and death have changed throughout the course of our history. As an agrarian society death, was seen first-hand on, often, a daily basis. Industrialization brought with it removal of the dying process to the hospital and burial became the responsibility of the undertaker. This separation of dying and death from society resulted in not only a physical barrier but a psychological one as well. Technology in health care once again raised issues of the dying process by asking people to make decisions about their health care in the realm of resuscitation, respirators, and the use of artificial food and fluids. One way that Americans have been known handle the difficult times in their lives is through humor. When it becomes difficult to cope, tears and laughter are both cathartic. This study analyzes cartoons from The New Yorker in an effort to categorize contemporary notions of death as well as establish the correlation between societal events related to dying and death and the overall percent of death-related cartoons in this media."

Bonus table and text:

"Themes: “Things you can't avoid” (n = 14) depicted multiple iterations on the saying that “the two things you can't avoid are death and taxes.” For example, one cartoon showed the Grim Reaper and an IRS tax man crouched at the starting line of a race. Another depicted the devil meeting with a politician with the caption, “Congressman, our people would look upon it favorably if you were to oppose any additional sin taxes” (from 1994; Mankoff, 2006, p. 23). The grouping also involved aspects relating tempest fugit (Latin for “time flies”). “Wills” (n = 14) peaked in 1991, the year after the passage of the Patient Self-Determination Act of 1990 (which is an ammendment of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990 [OBRA 90] combined depictions of Advance Health Directives, such as living wills, and also involved aspects of greed relating to insurance claims. “Bad News” (n = 17) depicted informing loved ones of a recently deceased individual or letting people know that they were terminally ill; for example, an egg (carrying a purse) walks into a busy emergency room. The doctor says, “You might want to sit down, Mrs. Dumpty” (from 1993; Mankoff, 2006, p. 278). “Things That Will Kill You” (n = 20) depicted activities that could affect life expectancy, including diets, alcohol and tobacco, and exercise. The grouping also included hobbies and examples of human traits (e.g., A cat lies on the autopsy table. Cause of death? Curiosity). “Assisted Suicide” (n = 23) peaked between 1997 and 1998 and included all cartoons relating to Jack Kevorkian and the debate about self-determination and the right to die. One shows a Boy Scout helping an old woman across the street with the caption “I also do suicides” (from 1998; Mankoff, 2006, p. 310). Another shows an elderly couple buying gas with the caption, “Yes, Oregon's lovely, but we're just here for the suicide” (from 1998; Mankoff, 2006,p. 163). Lastly, a doctor is fielding phone calls in his office; the caption is, “Before we try assisted suicide, Mrs. Rose, let's give the aspirin a chance” (from 1997; Mankoff, 2006. p. 647). “Personification of Death” (n = 38) included a subtheme of “Bargaining with Death.” The main theme included representations of death with human attributes, such as the Grim Reaper. Examples are the Grim Reaper sitting in a bar talking to another man; the caption reads, “Sometimes I give myself the creeps” (from 2005; Mankoff, 2006. p. 28). The subtheme involved people negotiating for more time to live. Many of the cartoons in this theme show the Grim Reaper standing at someone's door as he or she tries to negotiate his or her way out of dying. For example, one such caption read, “Couldn't I do a couple of hundred hours of community service instead?” (from 1990; Mankoff, 2006. p. 46). This can be seen as the legacy of death (Elgee, 2003), that we are all its slaves. “Punishment” (n = 55) included the subtheme of “Aggression.” Cartoons placed under the main category contained aspects related to suffering, such as people in Hell agonizing over pain. Many themes related to Hell included lawyers and writers. One cartoon shows people entering Hell with a sign by the entrance that reads, “Authors must be with their agents!” (from 1991; Mankoff, 2006. p. 736). The subtheme included depictions of murder, suicide, and domestic violence resulting in death. One shows movers moving a piano, a man dead on the floor, and a woman saying “I liked it better on top of my husband” (from 1995; Mankoff, 2006. p. 347). “Finality” (n = 58) peaked during the period 1994–2000 and encompassed cartoons related to the final moments of life, including last words, actions, and confessions. Many of these cartoons show deathbed scenes where the family is gathered (typically with clergy present) and final thoughts are shared. For example, captions associated with this picture include, “Promise me, son, that you'll never have anything to do with publishing” (from 1996; Mankoff, 2006, p. 368) and “And don't go auctioning off my stuff” (from 1996; Mankoff, 2006, p. 157). “Meaning of Life and Death” (n = 60) included a subtheme of the “Triviality of Life or Death.” Cartoons placed under the main theme contained depictions of philosophical statements, the circle of life, and an acceptance of death. One cartoon shows a man working on his computer and talking to his wife. He says, “If we take a late retirement and an early death, we'll just squeak by” (from 2003; Mankoff, 2006, p. 459). Cartoons placed under the subtheme made light of deadly situations and included inconsistent statements and actions. For example, two doctors stand at a dying man's bedside as one doctor says to the man, “So, could we have all your stuff after you die?” with the caption “Doctors without Boundaries” (from 2003; Mankoff, 2006, p. 321). Another shows a man in hospital admissions and the clerk says “Fill out this tag and attach it to your big toe” (from 2001; Mankoff, 2006, p. 544). “Memorialization” (n = 128) included a subtheme of “Funerals.” The main theme involved cartoons depicting tombstones, the scattering of ashes, and obituaries, whereas the subtheme included graveyard humor and funeral gatherings; for example, two tattooed and pierced men with Mohawks are looking into a casket and visible at the head of the casket is a spiky Mohawk and the caption reads, “You've got to admit, he looks good” (from 1994; Mankoff, 2006, p. 364). “Afterlife” (n = 206) included three subthemes: “Judgment,” “Postdeath,” and “Taking It with You.” The main theme involved cartoons relating to Heaven—such as one showing two people in heaven wearing black robes, wings, and sunglasses talking to an angel in white; the caption: “We're from Manhattan” (from 2001; Mankoff, 2006, p. 396). The subtheme of “Judgment” contained depictions of entry into heaven or initiation into hell. All of these cartoons depicted either St. Peter at the gates of heaven or the devil at the gates of hell. One shows a man at the gates of hell standing at a podium with the devil and the devil is saying, “And, if you don't have an attorney, we have millions of them” (from 2003; Mankoff, 2006, p. 11). Another shows a man being greeted at the gates of heaven with St. Peter saying, “I'd like to congratulate you on dying with dignity” (from 1997; Mankoff, 2006, p. 446). The subtheme of “Postdeath” included representations of human life carried into the afterlife. For example, a group of angels are talking and one says, “Does anyone else's robe say ‘Hyatt’?” (from 2005; Mankoff, 2006, p. 636). Cartoons representing the theme “Taking It with You” involved earthly pleasures and objects in relation to life after death. One cartoon shows a man on his deathbed with the caption, “True, I can't take it with me, but I can take the access codes to it” (from 1998; Mankoff, 2006, p. 418)."

Image: The New Yorker

Related content: Discoblog: NCBI ROFL: "Old people are useless": representations of aging on the Simpsons.

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