Written by Bob Mankoff on March 17, 2014
HOW TO “WIN” NEW YORKER CARTOON CAPTION CONTEST
Hey, what’s with the quotation marks around “win”? They’re ironic, in two senses of the word. First, in the traditional sense of something ironic, meaning the opposite of what is said—so partly what I’m going to show you is how to lose the contest. By doing the opposite, you will improve your captions. Second, in the sense of distancing myself from the over-the-top claim I made in the title, in order to have you chomping at the bit to read this. So stop your chomping. Actually, I just found out from Google that it’s not chomping, it’s champing. Anyway, stop that too. But don’t be too disappointed. Remember, it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game (Russian roulette excepted), and I am going to tell you how to play this game better. It won’t necessarily make you win, but it will increase your odds—and, at the very least, will make it more fun for all of you who do the captions, and for all of us who have to read them. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself here. I can’t just assume that everyone knows all about the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest. So let me slow down, catch up with myself, and get everyone on the same page. By the way, if you’re on any page other than this one, please come back. The original Cartoon Caption Contest was a once-a-year affair on the back page of our annual Cartoon Issue. The yearly contest was popular with our readers but had no wider cultural influence. All that changed in 2005, when David Remnick suggested that we make it a weekly feature. Accordingly, on the back page of every issue since 2005 have appeared three contests in various stages: a contest to enter, a contest to vote on, and a contest whose winner is being announced. Here is the first iteration of that format, from 2005.
Since then, there have been more than four hundred reiterations, and more than two million entries. And I only expect its popularity to grow now that it’s available on phones and tablets. But I’ll be the first to admit that the whole toaster-oven initiative was ill-conceived.
Still, that fiasco notwithstanding, the contest has become part of the cultural landscape— delightful and frustrating in equal, or perhaps not so equal, measures. The frustration was nicely captured in an episode of “Bored to Death,” in which George, the character played by Ted Danson, struggles to win the contest.
Jonathan Ames, the creator of “Bored to Death,” said, “I wrote it into the show because myself a number of times.” He’s not alone among stymied stars, as a Wall Street Journal article entitled, ahem, “How About Never—Is Never Good for You? Celebrities Struggle to Write Winning Captions,” indicates. Indeed, the contest has become infamous for frustrating famous people, from Mayor Bloomberg, who confessed that no matter how hard he works at it, nothing comes to mind, to Maureen Dowd, who said that she gave up after trying it every week, to Zach Galifianakis, who was so miffed after being rejected that he refused to comment for the Wall Street Journal article. Recently, Stephen Colbert, in mockpique, said, “I try hard not to read The New Yorker, because I never win their Cartoon Caption Contest.” So what’s stopping all of them from winning? Actually, who’s stopping them is more like it. First, there’s him—my assistant, Marc Philippe Eskenazi, known as Marc Philippe Eskenaz for short. He’s the first line of defense against the onslaught of the thousands of captions that come in each week. His job is to go through every single one
of them, which is exhausting. But at this point he can do it in his sleep, and often does.
We make it easier on him by supplying periodic LOLCats breaks to revive him.
After that we rely on his own sense of humor, which has been honed at the Harvard Lampoon and by doing standup gigs around New York, to make a short list of fifty or so of the best captions, broken down into different categories representing the different comic themes that each contest evokes. With that, Marc’s work is done, and he can now return to perfecting his standup routine, or continue on his quest for the perfect Caption Contest theme song. Next up in the selection process is moi. I aim to select three good captions that will be competitive with each other when it comes time for the public to vote. Experience has taught me that, licensed humorist though I am, when I just tried to do this myself I wasn’t very good at it, and was, in fact, in danger of getting my license revoked. I’ve had better success by picking about ten captions that I like best and then sending a survey to New Yorker editors and staff to see which three they like best.
With this method, I often get what I’m looking for—an equitable distribution of the voting in the actual contest.
Were these actually the three best captions from this contest? Probably not, if yours wasn’t selected. But at least you now know the madness behind the method. Let’s move on to the methods you can use—mad, sane, or a combo of the two—to increase your chances of winning. O.K., let’s first go wonky, rational, statistical on this. Obviously, like they say about the lottery, “You’ve got to be in it to win it.” You can’t get selected if you don’t enter. Furthermore, entering more does help. It’s simple math, provided that you think this equation is simple:
Where X = your odds of winning at least once, and N = the number of entries. (There are, on average, five thousand entries per contest.) This chart will make it clearer, or at least marginally less wonky.
Incidentally, that five-hundredth contest will occur in 2015, and the thousandth in 2024. Even at that late date, your odds of winning a single contest have only increased to roughly twenty per cent, assuming you’ve entered all one thousand contests. And your odds don’t become even until the thirtyfour- hundred-and-sixty-fifth contest, in 2071, provided you have remained incredibly persistent, and, of course, alive. By the way, contrary to conventional wisdom, your odds will also be better if you’re a woman. While some sociological research, using college students as subjects, showed that men were marginally better at generating funny captions than women, our contest swings in the other direction. Yes, guys do enter more frequently; eighty-four per cent of all entrants are men. But only seventy-seven per cent of the winners are. For women, the figures are sixteen and twenty-three per cent. While entering more often should help, as it would in an actual lottery, this is actually not a lottery in which everyone has an equal chance based just on entering—in the contest, all the captions are not equally funny. In fact, most of them are not funny at all. Here’s a random sample of ten, from Contest #281:
1. This definitely isn’t the quickest way from A to B.
2. Do you have the keys?
3. These Super WalMarts are getting to become a bit ridiculous.
4. Next time, just pay the three bucks to the valet.
5. I told you we didn’t park here.
6. Think we’re “F-ing” lost?
7. I told you—we were in A for “Amusing.”
8. Do we even own a car?
9. That word I’m thinking of starts with “F” and ends with “you.”
10. So, Mr. Time Traveller, it looks like the future isn’t what it used to be.
Nos. 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and 10 are just plain bad— what we affectionately call “craptions” around the office. No. 7 is self-referential, so also no good. No. 4 is O.K., but was submitted by hundreds of entrants, so therefore gets downgraded. Nos. 6 and 9 expressed the same basic idea that the winning captions sdid, but didn’t express it as well.
Interestingly, the late Roger Ebert, the film critic, submitted the winning caption for this contest. He’s the only celebrity ever to have won the contest. Is that because he was funnier than Maureen Dowd, Zach Galifianakis, or Jonathan Ames? Probably not—he was just more persistent. While Maureen Dowd claimed, in that Wall Street Journal article, to have entered practically every week, our database indicates that she has entered only three times. JonathanAmes? Also just three. And Galifianakis? A measly two. provided you have some talent for that something, the better you get at it. In 2009, the creativity researcher Keith Sawyer interviewed a number of winners, and found that not only did they enter a lot of contests but that winners usually generated lots of captions for each contest, from which they selected the best. Quantity doesn’t necessarily result in quality, but it does more often than paucity. It’s the Malcolm Gladwell ten-thousand- hours thing—although if you’ve spent ten thousand hours on our caption contest you might want to reëvaluate your priorities. The Caption Contest that Ebert won attracted a lot of attention, including the attention of Peter McGraw, a consumer psychologist who teaches at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Phil Fernbach, a Brown University cognitive scientist who set out to crack the code underlying our Caption Contest by analyzing all five thousand nine hundred and seventy-one submissions to Caption Contest #281. They concluded that we favor captions that are short, that are novel, that don’t re-state what is already in the image, and that don’t use too much punctuation, especially exclamation points. I agree that long-winded, hackneyed, redundant, over-punctuated captions have little appeal, and that shouting a joke doesn’t make it any funnier, except to someone hard of hearing. Still, these are reasonable guidelines that will help you avoid terrible captions like this: “When we reached ‘D’ and we ran out of gas you said, ‘Don’t worry.’ When we reached ‘E,’ you said, ‘Don’t worry.’ What do have to say for yourself at ‘F’? And keep it clean!” One thing I will grant that caption is that it is novel. But, as I’ve said before, novelty in humor is overrated. The humor we like best hits the sweet spot between familiarity and originality, gratifying us because when we hear the punch line, we say, “Why didn’t I think of that?” like in contest #147:
Here is the setup, followed by blanks representing the three-word punch line.“Objection, Your Honor! _______ _____ ______.”
Can you guess it? Right there on the tip of your tongue, isn’t it: “Alleged killer whale.” Why didn’t you think of that? Actually, many basically did, but they were variants, such as: “Objection, your honor! The prosecution must refer to my client as the alleged killer whale!” “Objection, Your Honor—the prosecuting attorney should refer to my client as an ‘alleged killer whale.’ ” “Objection, Your Honor. My client is an ‘alleged’ killer whale.”
The winner, on the other hand, used just the right amount of words to make the joke, and not one word more. Also, for this contest, the exclamation point by the attorney is also completely apt. Satisfied now that you can go win this thing? I doubt it. All I’ve told you, while valid enough as far as it goes, doesn’t go far enough. With these rules, you’re in the ballpark, but nowhere near home plate. They’re more about what not to do than what to do—so here, at last, is my to-do list.
1. Verbalize. Quality of captions emerges from quantity of captions. Look at the picture and say or write down all the words or phrases that pop into your mind, without censoring them, and then free-associate with those words and phrases. Here’s my stream of consciousness on this: duck, goose, honk, duck, Donald Duck, the Donald, duck soup, avoid, evade, chicken, coward, Chicken Little, Chicken Big, eggs, chicken and egg, free-range chicken, chicken crosses road, chicks, pets, petting, sex, children, marriage, mixed marriage, birds, birdbrain, birds of a feather, feather in your cap, bird flu, bird flew, cock-a-doodle-do, cock-a-doodle-don’t, cock crow, morning, migrate, migraine. From these associations it will be fairly easy to come up with some captions. “Whoa, Chicken Little, all grown up.” “I liked you better when you weren’t freerange.” “I bet you say that to all the chicks.” “I bet you think you’re going to crow about this in the morning.” “But how will we raise the children?” “Who you callin’ chicken?” “O.K., now get the hell back across the road.”“Not tonight, I have a migrate headache.”“For the last time, we are not birds of a feather.” “Just so you know, my safe word is ‘quackk.’ ” “I didn’t say ‘quick,’ I said ‘quack.’ ” “Quack means quack.” “Look, I told you I don’t care about the sky falling, as long as the earth moves.” “What if the Donald finds out?”
2. Conceptualize. Take a break from the wordplay to play with ideas, generating alternate scenarios to explain the image or what the conflict is. For the image, a pretty obvious one would be that these are not, in fact, a duck and a chicken but people in duck and chicken costumes. That idea could lead to these captions: “This is fun, but we’re going to be late for the Halloween party.” “This isn’t working for me. I’ll get my hen costume.” “Wouldn’t it be easier to have sex if we got out of these costumes?” For the conflict, it could be sexual orientation: “It’s not you—I’m gay.” Or religion: “Wait, are you kosher?” Or politics: “Yes! I don’t care what the Republicans think.” This technique is harder to do than verbalization, but it has the advantage of avoiding the most obvious captions, and also of waking Marc up.
3. Topicalize. If possible, we like to pick at least one finalist whose caption relates to something in the news. When this contest came out, in June, 2006, the deadly avian-flu virus, also known as bird flu, was very much in the news, and also in our contest entries. “Not so fast. What kind of protection do you have against the bird flu?” “Wait. We really should use protection. You know the dangers of bird flu.” “Please wear a condom. I don’t want to get the bird flu.” “Wait, before we go any further: You have been inoculated for bird flu, haven’t you?” I wanted to pick something from this group, and if they were funnier I would have.
4. Socialize. Try your captions out on your friends and see which get the best reaction. If you’ve got funny friends, this will help. Also, accept their help if they make suggestions that improve the captions. This is not cheating—it’s competing.
5. Fantasize. Imagine you have won the contest. Also, the lottery, and a MacArthur genius grant. It won’t make any of these more likely to happen, but after all the hard work you’d have put in, you deserve it.