What Makes A Cartoon Funny? A Lesson on Social Awareness

What Makes A Cartoon Funny? A Lesson on Social Awareness

This blog is the second in a 5-part series by Adam Elder, Westside's Director of Counseling and SEL. At Westside, we believe that all teaching and learning is both social and emotional. In this series, Adam will be showcasing how we teach students the five pillars of social-emotional learning (self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making.)

I love a good cartoon that makes me laugh. But what makes a cartoon funny? And what do funny cartoons have to do with social and emotional learning?

At a time when we could still travel, at the Grit + Imagination Educator’s Summit in Philadelphia, I listened to some of the brightest minds in the fields of both education and psychology to examine how Social and Emotional Learning can be more effectively integrated into our schools.

The presentation that was most impactful to me was delivered by Bob Mankoff, former Cartoon Editor of The New Yorker magazine, who made a hilariously compelling case for using humor to teach a variety of social awareness skills such as:

  • Perspective taking
  • Demonstrating empathy
  • Showing concern for the feelings of others
  • Identifying diverse social norms, including unjust ones
  • Recognizing situational demands and opportunities
As he concluded his presentation, he encouraged us to start a cartoon caption contest at our schools to provide an opportunity for students to practice these skills in a new and interesting way. Inspired by his ideas, I went to work to develop my own cartoon captioning activity.

This fall, I did this activity in connection with the election to allow 5th and 6th grade students to both practice their social awareness skills and process their thoughts and feelings about the election by including a political cartoon at the end of the activity.

As students enter the room, they are greeted by a cartoon on the screen without a caption:

I like to begin with a brief mindfulness exercise to help students transition to class, and refocus their attention. For this activity, I draw their attention to the screen, have them take a few deep breaths, and then ask them to spend one minute in silence doing nothing more than simply noticing things in the scene. After one minute, I invite students to share what they noticed but to resist the urge to “tell the story”.

“I see a mom and dad on a couch,” says the first student.

The students are clearly confused when I remind them to resist telling the story, so I ask, “How do you know they are parents? Could they be relatives or babysitters? And how do you know one is male and one is female? What did you notice that led you to this conclusion?” This concept of not “telling the story” (aka: not jumping to conclusions) begins to sink in as students continue to share.

“Two people are sitting on a couch.”
“One person has a full cup of coffee. One cup is empty.”
“There is a young child by the window, standing on the couch.”

We collect a wide range of observations, then I encourage students to use that information to explain what they think is happening. Since this process is still new at this point, many ideas reflect interpretations one might typically expect:

“The parents want their child to get off the couch.”
“The child misses being outside because of COVID.”

However, some students fixated on the coffee cups and began exploring different ideas:

“Coffee time.”
“The adults are drinking too much coffee.”

I continue to probe their thinking as I ask questions like, “How do you know that is what’s happening? Why did you make that connection? What other interpretations did you consider?”

After a brief discussion, I ask students to write their caption. Below are few samples:

“Sweety, get off the couch.”
“Yes, that is the outside world, sweetie.”
“The new Sunday mornings.”

I then reveal the original caption, “She thinks it’s a touchscreen.”

“Is this a good caption?” I ask, followed shortly by another question: “What makes a caption good or funny?”

This conversation is the real “meat” of this activity, wherein students are essentially dissecting humor. What students are able to come to recognize through this discussion is that a “good” or “humorous” caption requires pretty refined social skills. First, a person must be able to notice the large and small details of the scene (situational awareness). Second, they need to have the creativity to tell the story in a unique way (diverse perspectives). Finally, and most importantly, a person needs to practice true empathy. That is, to place oneself in another’s position to understand and share their feelings. A caption is written for an audience, and the captioner must take into account what their audience will find relatable and humorous.

With a little practice under our belt, and a deeper understanding of the skills needed to write an effective caption, I show another cartoon:

We go through the same process as before. First, we notice things in the scene:

“Gingerbread man.” “Doctors.” “Chef’s hats.” “Hospital bed.” And many more.

Second, students try to tell the story:

“People are wanting to eat food, so they bring in chefs.”
“The patient needs surgery, but it’s food so they need chefs.”

Lastly, students create their own captions:

“I’m feeling crummy.”
“You look good!”
“I told you this would happen if you eat too many cookies.”
(Actual caption: “Have you tried icing it?”)

As you can see, on just their second try, students are moving away from merely descriptive captions, to captions that include creative wordplay and drawing on relatable experiences. This led to more LOLs, chuckles, and smiles from the class, and a desire to try one more before class is over.

Seeing their captioning skills grow, I am feeling excited about what they might come up with for our final cartoon, a political cartoon:

We are able to move through each step of the process more quickly, as students are now more adept at noticing without telling the story (step 1), and telling the story in unique ways (step 2). The students then begin offering their captions, which I find more humorous than the original, which is “I think the universe is trying to tell me something.”

A few of my favorites are below:

In less than an hour, we have practiced complex social skills using a medium that is interesting and accessible for every student, and I have seen growth in their ability to apply these skills. And as a bonus, we left class laughing!


Adam Elder
Director of Counseling and SEL

Read the first blog in the series here: How Are People Like Icebergs? A Lesson on Self-Awareness