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A shrink-rapped exhibit

New Yorker cartoonists have a field day with psychiatrists in 'On the Couch.'

September 14, 2006|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

PSYCHIATRIST couches around the world have been the launch point for countless painful explorations into memory, repression, angst and depression.

So why do we find cartoons about shrinks so funny?

Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor of the New Yorker, has a pretty detailed explanation that involves how both humor and psychoanalysis deal with base human desires, such as greed and sex, that we usually try to mask. And both humor and analysis manage to slip through our psychological defenses to expose truth.

Yeah, whatever.

"It's also a funny, artificial situation," Mankoff said. "You're paying someone to listen to you. It's a paid friend who at the end of the hour is not so much your friend anymore, but you still owe him money."

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sigmund Freud, the Austrian who introduced the world to its ego, superego and id, not to mention the dicier Oedipus and Electra complexes. To celebrate, the Skirball Center's Ruby Gallery is hosting "On the Couch: Cartoons From the New Yorker," an exhibit of more than 80 of the 400 or so psychiatry cartoons that have appeared in the magazine since the first, in 1927, depicting Henry VIII as he "discloses his dream life to a psychoanalyst," who clings in stark horror to the back of his chair.

"On the Couch," which opens today and runs through the end of the year, initially ran from April through early August at the Museum for the City of New York, and moves next year to Vienna. It was curated by the aptly named Michael Freund, an Austrian newspaper editor and head of the media communications department at Webster University Vienna, who dreamed up the show as part of Austria's "Freud Year" celebrations. The Skirball exhibit is co-sponsored by the Austrian Consulate General.

Freud himself wrote about humor and the unconscious mind "almost as a kind of afterthought" to his 1900 book "The Interpretation of Dreams," Freund said, adding that he thought linking Freud and cartoons in a traveling exhibit would be an exportable way of celebrating the groundbreaking psychiatrist.

"The idea was to turn the tables and see what jokes about Freudian therapy are like," said Freund, who will give an Oct. 25 talk at Skirball on Freud and humor. "Emotional pain looks for relief. Freud argued that jokes are a way of releasing the tension caused by pain and aggression -- jokes are themselves an aggressive reaction in disguise. The cartoons are an example in point."

Freund browsed the New Yorker's Cartoon Bank collection and found about 400 related to psychoanalysis, from which he culled the exhibit. More than 90 cartoons are included in the associated book "On the Couch: A Book of Psychoanalysis Cartoons."

Mankoff, who helped guide the conversion of cartoons into exhibition pieces, said he learned of the project in a telephone call from the Austrian Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, "which at first was a little bit frightening," Mankoff said. "I thought they were going to ask me if my papers were in order."

The Los Angeles exhibit will be launched by a one-hour, opening-night talk by Mankoff.

"I'm going to talk a little bit about the science of humor," Mankoff said, then paraphrased an old E.B. White observation that "analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Nobody's much interested and the frog dies."

Yet Mankoff is serious about comedy. He became a cartoonist in 1974 after abandoning a doctorate in behavioral psychology, using animals for research, at the City College of New York. "My pigeon died and I took that as an omen," he said.

Mankoff is involved in a study at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor trying to explore what makes humor work, in part using eye-tracking technology. It turns out that while we might be able to stifle a laugh, the eyes don't lie. At the moment someone gets the joke in a cartoon, the eyes suddenly dilate.

"Humor is an unconscious reflex," Mankoff said. "It's sort of an emotional regulator.... Freud has a whole theory that humor basically was being used to express taboo impulses and the joke got past our defense mechanisms before our superego could stop it."

To illustrate that point, Mankoff likes to show people a cartoon of a gallows with the noose and wooden steps, and a ramp added for handicapped access.

"People see that and they laugh, but sometimes they regret it and they want that laugh back. But it's too late, it got past their defenses," Mankoff said, adding that the laugh can leave some people feeling guilty. "That's the way Freud looked at what humor was doing, especially sexual and aggressive humor."

Good cartoons can turn that Freudian gallows humor back on itself, as in the Mischa Richter sketch of a shrink on his chair, notepad and pen in hand, next to a snarling femme fatale on the couch who draws a revolver from her handbag as she says, "You've done me a world of good, Doctor, but you know too much."

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