Fool for a Day: Bob Mankoff Visits CU Boulder

Erstwhile’s Sara Porterfield reports on the first annual Fool for a Day Award presented by the Center of the American West and the nonstop laughter at the awards ceremony.

On Wednesday evening Bob Mankoff, cartoon editor at The New Yorker magazine, received CU Boulder Center of the American West‘s inaugural Fool for a Day Award. Along with providing the recipient with a trophy in the shape of a pickle–because, as Center director Patty Limerick said, “pickles are inherently funny”–the award recognizes the recipient as one who believes that “a dose of good humor is essential to constructive public discussion, and not coincidentally, to public health.”

Mankoff, who has served as The New Yorker‘s cartoon editor since 1997 and has published cartoons in the magazine since 1977, spoke about the history of humor and his own life story and experiences, all while dispensing sage–and more often than not, hilarious–life advice. He had a particularly cringeworthy story for the graduate teachers and professors in the audience: when Mankoff showed up to a final exam for a college class he had not attended all semester, the professor came over to his seat and, looming above him, asked “Who the hell are you??” Mankoff replied, “I could very well ask you the same question,” thereby relieving a tense situation and adding humor to an encounter that could easily have been antagonistic.

From this experience, Mankoff concluded that “the right joke at the right time has enormous power”–a lesson useful not just for everyday life, but one that is equally applicable to the historical profession. A good sense of humor on our part not only makes textbooks and monographs more enjoyable for our readers, but also allows us to show our students, fellow academics, and lay audiences that the past is, after all, a strange country, and quite often a humorous one as well.

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