It's time for a cartoon musing. I sometimes receive requests from my gentle readers to "please explain the cartoon". And this seemingly innocent request immediately makes a chill run up and down my manly spine.
It's not that you can't ask your neighbor why in the world it's supposed to be funny. You can. And you can ask another cartoonist, no problem. It's just that you can't ask me. Well, actually you can ask, it's just that I won't answer.
"Now why would that be", you ask, raising your right eyebrow a trifle and cocking your head ever so slightly. If one of your students asked "How did you know the angular velocity would be 15 rad/s?" would you not reply in a suave and reassuring manner "Because angular momentum is conserved? Surely a simple question deserves an answer."
Ah, but a cartoon is a funny beast. Explaining the humor of a cartoon is akin to explaining to someone why the flight of an eagle is so majestic by shooting the bird, skinning it, and pointing out the skeletal/muscular structures that help create the majesty. It ... doesn't turn out well.
"Why is that?", you ask again, stealing a quick glance at your watch and wondering if I'm ever going to get to the point.
Well, one of the reasons is that a good cartoon has to be viewed, understood and "gotten" in a few seconds. Say, seven seconds to be safe. It's a very "Boom!" sort of thing. Speed is of the essence and is, in fact, necessary to the way the brain perceives and understands "funny". By definition, explaining the cartoon stretches the time out WAY beyond seven seconds. Hence almost invariably precluding any "ha ha ha ha" at the end of the process. Not always, but usually. And as Tina Fey or Amy Poehler would quickly tell you, the lack of a "ha ha ha" after the deployment of "le joke" is something not greatly to be desired.
Furthermore, putting down an "explanation" of a cartoon in black and white often makes it seem ridiculous that anyone would actually find it funny. Me: "Well, you see, the guy slipped on a banana peel right after yelling at his wife that she was no longer a-peeling to him." Her: "I don't understand. He told his wife she's not appealing. That's terrible and hurtful. And he may have injured himself badly. How is that funny?" Sighhh. There goes the entire field of slapstick comedy.
And ... the truth of the matter is that everything is interpreted by the person viewing it within their own framework of experience and outlook. Two people might find a cartoon funny for two very different reasons. There's nothing "true" about what the cartoonist meant. Sure, she or he's got their own idea of what's funny in the cartoon but that's simply one point of view. Saying it's the only true explanation acts to unfairly minimize other people's equally valid opinions.
I did occasionally explain my cartoons for one person. My dad. Much as I hated it, I figured he deserved an answer, considering all that he'd done for me.
So there you go. If you're my dad, which is at this point the definition of unlikely, ask away. Otherwise, it's either "ha ha ha ha" or "move along, there's nothing to see here." :-)
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